The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilized. —G. K. Chesterton
Ooparts are out-of-place-artifacts. It’s an unusual term coined by cryptozoologist, Ivan T. Sanderson. They are pieces of civilization, often of a very advanced civilization, that show up in odd, seemingly impossible, places. Some would say X-Files stuff. For instance:
In 1836 workers excavating a hill outside Baghdad turned up what looked like an odd little vase. It held a copper cylinder, which in turn enclosed a corroded iron rod. The rod projected up out of the vase through an asphalt plug. (The corrosion on the iron provided an important clue.) In 1940, GE engineer Willard Grey built a replica of this “vase” and filled the cylinder with a copper sulfide solution. The result was an electrical current—weak, but just about right for electroplating jewelry. This little electronic gadget came from the Parthian Empire which occupied what is now North East Iran from roughly 250 BC to 224 AD.
In 1900, sponge divers discovered a shipwreck near the Greek island of Antikythera. From the shipwreck they recovered the remains of a geared mechanism that was once used to compute the motion of the sun and moon and the planets. The wrecked ship had sailed the Mediterranean in the first century before Christ.
Today in the city of Baalbek, some 50 miles northeast of Beirut, lie three of the largest stones ever used in an engineering project. All are limestone. They are part of an ancient foundation and weigh over 1.2 million pounds each. A fourth still lies in its quarry three-quarters of a mile away. This one weighs over two million pounds! No one knows who shaped these stones or how the three were moved and raised into place.
What do “ooparts” have to do with progress or even social theory? Quite a bit, actually. But first, some background.
Among its other functions, social theory is supposed to explain change within history, the factors that produce or inhibit that change, and the results that flow out of it. Social theory tries to predict the future based on what we know of the past and present. Social theory, like covenant theology, concerns itself with the ontological underpinnings of a society, its authority structure, the laws that define its social bond, the sanctions that the society enforces to maintain that bond, and the society’s view of time and progress. The last concern necessarily hinges on the previous four. Answers to the questions, “What is real?” and “Who is God?” will determine what we think of time and whether or not we can believe in progress.
The Idea of Progress in Western Thought
Progress has not been a given in the history of Western thought. And even though some Greek and Roman writers allowed for the possibility of progress, classical culture as a whole was committed to a cyclical view of history. For these thinkers, history was born out of chaos and always devolved back into chaos.
Ancient Judaism was very different. The Jewish Scriptures recognized a beginning for history, the ethical Fall of man within history, and the day-by-day, year-by-year movement of history toward the coming of Messiah and the restoration of all things ( Isa. 11; 60; 65). The Jewish people celebrated this historical linearity each week as they counted off six days and rested on the seventh, a sabbath that foreshadowed the coming kingdom of Messiah ( Micah 4:1-4; Isa. 66:22-23).
Christianity built on this eschatology of victory. Jesus was the Christ who had conquered death and who now reigned at the Father’s right hand, subduing His enemies. One day He would return to vanquish the final enemy, Death, in the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-28). History for Christianity was a clear linear march which would culminate in victory.
St. Augustine expanded on this view of history in his magnificent The City of God. Following Scripture, Augustine argued that history had a beginning, a developing plot, and a conclusion. The obvious parallel of history to story is important, because for Augustine, (as in Scripture), history is the unfolding of a comprehensive plan born in the mind of the infinite but personal God. In other words, history has a point, a God-ordained goal beyond itself. That goal is “the glorious city of God.”
In The City of God Augustine argues for the personal providence of God over against the pagan conceptions of Chance and Fate. God accomplishes His decrees, yet His people must walk by faith or they will find themselves within the confines of the earthly city, the City of Man. As St. Paul insisted, and Calvin and Luther would later argue, divine sovereignty called for human responsibility. Human action matters, both in history and for all eternity. A single human act can drastically alter the flow of history, either towards the coming of God’s City or that of Man’s. The idea of progress then, both social and technological was foundational to Augustine’s idea of history.
If The City of God made progress a possibility for the West, the Reformation looked on it as a necessity, at least in matters of faith and worship. For these writers, reform meant that mediaeval society was not the final manifestation of Christendom. Maybe the best was yet to come. The Puritans took it as a certainty. For them, beyond the defeat of Anti-Christ lay the Millennium, the latter-day glory of Christ’s Church. History was moving forward, and the future would be glorious. (It was this historical optimism that the Enlightenment co-opted and secularized.) It was also this same optimism that the Church in America quickly abandoned.
An Early Tale of Two Cities
The early chapters of Genesis record the development of two civilizations. The first had its original, perhaps its only, altar at the gate of the Garden of Eden. Its people believed in the Creator God and were content to let their culture grow out of their faith and worship. The second civilization was born out of self-righteousness and fratricide: Cain killed his brother, was banished from Eden, and built the first city… somewhere “east of Eden.” (Yes, that’s where Steinbeck got his title.) That first city was called Enoch.
Genesis says only a little about the civilization of Eden. Its people worshipped in terms of written revelation (Gen. 5:1). They valued family and life (4:14). They understood the division of labor. Their economy and lifestyle were agrarian, at least initially (4:2). Their society experienced religious revival (4:26). There is no record, however, of rapid technological advance.
Enoch, on the other hand, experienced rapid technological growth (4:19-22). Within seven generations, its leaders were pioneering and developing animal husbandry, music, and metallurgy (iron and brass). One of those leaders also thought polygamy made good sense (4:19). He reinvented marriage as Cain had reinvented religion.
The Sociology of Stewardship
At the beginning of Scripture we find the Dominion Mandate. A better translation for modern readers would be Stewardship Mandate. God told mankind to act as stewards of His world, to guard and develop it according to His set of rules. Why, then, were those who should have taken this command most seriously the slowest to develop stewardship-oriented technology? Why did technological progress explode at Enoch rather than Eden?
The answer lies in the motives and methods of the two civilizations. The City of God and the City of Man have different priorities and very different standards. Here’s how some of these standards or “rules” affect the speed of progress:
The godly, according to scripture, are told to stop their particular work of stewardship once a week to rest and worship. Their view of the Sabbath should shape their business, industry, and technological development. The godly are told to value relationships over possessions. They should value patience; they should practice delayed self-gratification. They are told not expect the civil government to solve all their problems or guarantee their happiness. They are told to be careful and prayerful as they approach the future. Slow and steady portrays Biblical progress over time.
The Bible portrays the ungodly, on the other hand, as restless, self-serving, and present-oriented. They turn to political tyranny as a matter of course. They raid and plunder other civilizations because they have to have progress in the moment. They practice chattel slavery. They ignore God’s Sabbath rest. They ignore church and family ties. They pollute and defile the land in their eagerness to make progress. They lie, kill and steal, and call it good business. They make progress, but always at a devastating social cost. Sometimes these folks sit in the front pews in church. Sometimes they mock the church as being nothing more than hypocrites. But one thing is certain: The City of Man always consumes its future.
Ooparts… All Over Again
By its seventh generation, the antediluvian world developed a technology roughly on a par with that of Greece and Rome. Hundreds of years remained before judgment fell. Did that world continue to make headway technologically, even as they charged headlong towards destruction? Ooparts suggest they did. Remember the foundation monoliths at Baalbeck? The Romans built a temple to Jupiter on them. But the Romans didn’t make the stones… they didn’t know how, any more than we do. As advanced as the classical world was, once upon a time there was a civilization that surpassed it. That civilization is gone, lost in the Flood. The City of God flickers historically like a candle in the wind, but progresses forward… slow, steady and according to the kind intentions of His will.
For further reading see:
Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory (Tyler, TX: Institute for Christian Economics, 1990).
James Jordan, “The Case Against Western Civilization,” in Open Book, Views & Reviews (December, 2007) at https://www.biblicalhorizons.com/open-book/the-case-against-western-civilization-parts-1-7/.
William Corliss, Ancient Man: A Handbook of Puzzling Facts (Glen Arm, MD: The Source Book Project, 1978).