animal reflections

1. original blessing
I present you today, with problems. My friends, we got trouble. Right here in Baltimore City … County. With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “B” which comes after “A” which stands for animals. We got problems. We got sticky theological problems … which we’ll get to shortly.

We begin, however, with original blessing. We’re at day six in creation. “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:24-25).

Two ideas we’ve mentioned before: first, that God called the creativity of earth into being (let the earth bring forth living creatures ….)—that, from the beginning, God co-created—God partnered with creation in creating; and, second, that creation was blessed—was named good—and, more specifically, today, animals were blessed—named good, before we were around—around to take advantage of them—around to use them. Cows were deemed good by Creator God before there was steak or leather. It’s a completely non-utilitarian, pre-human-benefitting blessing.

It may even be more than that. Consider the phrasing: God created, and God saw that it was good. It’s an interesting phrasing. If we were talking about an artist—let’s say a sculptor, and that sculptor created a sculpture and looked and saw that it was good, it implies, don’t you think (that phrasing) a level of independent goodness? The artist recognizing this piece is good in and of itself—not just because she made it, but because it is. Doesn’t mean the sculptor didn’t create it. It just means its goodness isn’t about that.

If I were, some Sunday, to preach a good sermon (!), it wouldn’t be good simply because I wrote it and preached it … right? There would need to be something about it (independent of me) that constituted goodness. God saw that it was good. I am sometimes accused of reading too much into scripture (and then at other times simply rejecting it, so pick your poison!), but original blessing may not just be pre-human (in its goodness independent of humans), but also post-God (in its goodness independent of God)! Let’s just call that a rabbit we chased a little. We have rabbits now, after all. It’s the sixth day. Why not celebrate one running by!

Rabbit or no, there we are: original blessing—however that’s understood. The animals were good. That’s where we start. Now, having thus started, we got trouble.

2. the trouble with carnivores
As soon as we start thinking about animals, a question that’s been simmering, begins to come into focus—a question already present with the sea-life and the birds—even with some of the plants—now comes to the fore. It’s the question explicitly raised by the presence of carnivores.

You see the problem? Most of you have probably seen those discovery channel shows, planet earth specials. You’ve seen the lions chasing down the zebra. There’s a level of deadly initiative that hasn’t been in play before. I mean we’ve been talking about the sky and the waters and the land. Then we had plants, but they’re kind of mystical zen yogic beings who take their sustenance from the natural cycles of sun and the rain and emit oxygen. I mean how much more harmonious can you get? And yes, I know there are carniverous plants, but they’re not what we tend to think of thinking about plants! Not like we think about killer carnivores.

The presence of carnivores—with their sharp teeth and their claws—their speed and power—their aggression—their initiative to kill—the presence of carnivores raises a question—a question explicitly deepened by the interdependent nature of the relationship between predator and prey—both created and blessed by God—symbiotically maintaining their eco-system—dependent on each other for food and for population control—for the survival of the fittest.

And the theologians I read this past week (Jay B. McDaniel, Andrew Linzey) carefully noted we cannot ascribe a moral dimension to the laws of the jungle, to the killing the carnivores do. But then they just kind of left that to spend their time—their books—dealing with the way human beings treat animals. Not that that’s not important, but it seems like a big disconnect to me. How do we condemn human predation if it’s the natural thing? If we’re the top of the food chain? I mean I guess you could say that there is a moral dimension that applies to our behavior while it doesn’t to the rest of nature, but … well, that seems a bit fuzzy.

Certainly one can raise moral questions about the conditions in which we allow animals raised for our eating to live—if you can call it that, the callous way in which animals are sometimes used in our testing and experimenting, the way we do not factor any of nature’s balances into our wants until we have to, but I’m taking all that for granted in light of what seems to me to be the most basic of problems: how difficult it is to reconcile the laws of the jungle (the way of nature) with the law of God—how difficult it is to reconcile the survival of the fittest with what we find throughout Scripture: God’s special concern for the weak, the elderly, and the infirm. What do we do when God’s way seems to be so absolutely unnatural?

There are those who suggest this trouble—this problem—this irreconcilable difference between the way of the world and the way of God is all the result of the fall—God’s curse on all creation for what human beings did—for Adam and Eve’s disobedience. Before sin, Eden defined a different kind of natural—one without killing and bloodshed—a natural that became unnatural as the aftermath of sin and judgment.

That solves the problem. And according to the story written and told, “God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:29-30). There does seem to have been in Eden an original and universal vegetarian state of being.

3. hope
So then scriptural words of hope constitute the promise of the restoration of paradise lost. Whether that’s Paul’s words in Romans about the whole of creation (including animals) groaning in labor pains waiting to be set free … longing eagerly for the revealing of the children of God—for rebirth … (Romans 8:19-23), or whether that’s Isaiah’s vision (more specific to animals) of the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah 11:1-9) with its images of predator and prey lying down right next to each other.

Should it bother us then, that some of the oldest evidence of animal life we have suggests, “My what mighty big and sharp teeth, you have, Ms. Tyrannosaurus. I guess you like your lettuce shredded?” Should it bother us that there’s no evidence in creation of this peaceable ideal? That the only image we have (in a full page spread in National Geographic, let’s say) of lions lying down right next to zebras is an image following, turn back to the preceding page, another image of those same lions bloodily tearing into a zebra, and then, and only then, lying there by the water hole absolutely too stuffed to move?

So some look back to a reality we know not of and then ahead to some restoration of that reality. Others just look ahead, right? To a time of promise—a new reality of peaceful co-existence—a redefining of natural. And somehow, we, as the children of God, are to be about this. That’s the implication of the Romans passage, don’t you think? Creation eagerly awaits the revealing of the children of God which should disturb us—that, according to creation, the children of God haven’t yet been revealed! At some point though, we’ll get it (theoretically) and we’ll be a part of issuing in this new reality of peaceful co-existence.

Some of you may remember, others of you may have read on my blog, several Sundays ago now, how I reflected on having prayed for extermination in church. How it felt strange. In church. In worship. What with my theology stressing original blessing—an interconnectedness—an interdependence of creation—what with images of some kind of peaceful co-existence in my head.

It felt strange praying for the complete and total eradication of the particular bed bugs in my house—which was, and still is, in truth, my honest prayer for the comfort, the safety and security of my family.

And I noted I was working very hard not to think of the peaceable kingdom where the baby lies down with the bed bug, and the child with the lice, and the children with the rodents and the fleas. I didn’t think that poster would sell very well, by the way. But surely it’s not fair just to imagine the attractive and impressive animals together in God’s vision of communion!

And so we have to acknoweldge a hierarchy. It’s fairly easy to acknowledge that there is a distinction to be made between human beings and the rest of creation … though not as much of one as we human beings tend to assume—certainly not as much of one as we act on …. But there is obviously a difference in significance and importance between human beings and animals. There’s also a difference we justify in significance and importance between animals. Bed bugs are really low on my list these days! Insects in general, actually. But insects are vital to the maintenance of the eco-system. If there were no insects, if we were to eradicate them, we’d be in trouble. Nevertheless, they’re low on hierarchy!

But does God love differently? Are there levels to a limitless, unqualified love? If there’s a biblical word of hope and promise for creation, is it not for all—each and every one?

So we’re back to our problem. On the one hand this idea that God loves all of creation, and on the other hand, the reality of all of creation, as it is—with killing and death such an integral part of the whole. And creation (including bed bugs) awaits the revealing of the children of God.

4. is it a question of balance?
So where does that leave us? What does that leave us with? We, as the children of God, are going to eventually come to our senses and lead the way back to a vegetarian state of being? We’re going to be the ones to model a way of living not dependent on killing? There are some who honestly feel that’s our calling. I hate to cast dispersions upon their beliefs, but I must say, I doubt they’ve had bed bugs!

We could—I think we have the technology—manufacture something (a pill, a paste, a liquid) that would meet all our nutritional needs—that would eliminate not just our need to kill animals, but also to destroy plant life. Don’t astronauts get something like that? Isn’t that what hospitals can provide?

Here’s the thing. Honestly, I have to tell you, there’s nothing quite like the sheer sensuality of a steak sizzling on the grill!

Now do we eat too much red meat? Sure. Do we feed the cows we’re going to eat too much of the grain people need to eat? Yes. Are we totally disrespectful of the balances of creation? Absolutely. We want certain kinds of fish, we’ll fish that fish virtually out of existence before we think to establish limits. We are unquestionably guilty of consistently throwing creation out of balance. We do not show respect for creation. We save our respect for what makes life comfortable and convenient for us.

So is that it? Some kind of native american/aboriginal sounding truth? It’s okay to hunt and kill, but only respectfully? Only as part of the great balance? As part of the circle of life? And so there wasn’t some primal vegetarian state of being and, in fact, Scripture also images God providing the young lions with their prey (Psalm 104:21) and the eaglets sucking up the blood of the slain (Job 39:27-30), and the lions will still kill the lambs in heaven … because, oh look, another rabbit! Because I want to go on record saying I believe that all animals go to heaven. Not just all dogs, but all animals. All creation, in fact. The whole of creation awaits rebirth. Scripture images a new creation. And if God’s vision of this creation included the vast variety of life we know, why on earth would God be satisfied with a new creation with just us?

So do the lions kill the lambs in heaven? Will there be steak in heaven? Just because God blessed the cow before there was steak doesn’t mean steak isn’t itself a blessing, right? These are not facetious questions—not meant to be, anyway. I mean who knows if there’s even eating in heaven though I would sure miss it if there’s not! I’m not actually sure I can picture perfect fulfillment without food! And food in all its glorious diversity. Just like creation.

5. the mystery of becoming
May I suggest it’s a mystery? That we don’t and can’t know. I know, could be a cop-out. But if creation is not so much what God did, as what God is doing …. if creation is really more creating … a continuing process, and if God is working with … calling being into partnership—into co-creation …, then creation is redemption … is redeeming. And if God is, in fact, pulling creation toward its becoming—into its fulfillment—if God is creating forward (again, working with), then we, along with creation, are being called along.

And what we have, with regards to animals, is the original blessing of them as they are. And so we need a greater respect for animals as they are—for the balance to which they naturally contribute (which we seem to equally naturally disrupt). We are more responsible for creation than we have chosen to be, and so all creation still awaits the revealing that hasn’t happened yet.

Here’s a fun question: did God create what God intended? Not that God wanted one thing and accidentally created something else! But that God intended more than that which was the beginning. That as God shaped out of chaos—as God worked with creation and continues that work, that our becoming into God’s forward unfolding work is still part of God’s intending and God’s creating.

And we get the image, in animals blessed as they are, but also with another reality envisioned—an alternate vision that challenges the “natural order.” And isn’t that true for us as well? For we too, were named good, but that doesn’t mean we can’t grow into more than we have been. God always accepts us and loves us as we are, but God consistently expects more of us.

As God continues creating, if resurrection is any clue, we can’t begin to envision the mystery and the joy that lies ahead. There is wonder upon wonder we cannot know to expect.

6. the symbolism of animals
Okay, here goes our third and last rabbit. Over the course of the last three Sundays, we’ve talked about the sky and the waters and the land often in terms of their symbolism—what they might teach us about God—whether that’s the vastness of the sky that bestows perspective, or the chaos of the waters that gives us the idea of God’s ongoing creative work, or the sense of place and the longing for home with which land gifts us.

So what about animals? Do they have something to teach us about God? Are they, too, created in the image of God? Is there something of God in the animals? We certainly picture God in the image of animals. Scripture uses lots of animal imagery for God: God as mother bear, eagle, mother hen. Images of strength, majesty, and care.

Grace is essential to who God is and grace is a leopard in motion … or a whale … a porpoise … a goldfish, for that matter. Doesn’t the amazing diversity of life have something to teach us about God? Something about the children of God needing to value and appreciate diversity? Are there not, throughout the animal world, so many faces only a mother could love … or a God like ours? And isn’t that a lesson? About a love of life … of life in all its abundance and variety. About creativity.

Elephants mourn. Elephants even stop to acknowledge the death of elephants they don’t know. Animals that mate for life offer a better model of commitment than the human institution of marriage. There is harsh cruelty within the animal world, but there is graceful beauty, and are we actually any different?

Finally, let me suggest, in terms of tenacity, the hound of heaven doesn’t come close to the bed bug of heaven!

7. conclusion
So why does this matter? Why is it important? What justifies our aching heads? Why make us work so hard on a day of rest?

Because it’s the story we claim and believe and believe claims us, and it’s the world in which we live. And when our story—our faith story—when our fundamental story and our world run into each other—when they don’t match up, it’s so very terribly important.

Because if we’re going to say there was a time or there will be a time when everything was or will be other than it is, we need to back that up. And not with other parts of the story—other parts of the story that clash with the world as we know it, but with us—with our own living that clashes with the world as we know it. “Look at us,” we need to be able to proclaim, “Look at the way we live—look at the choices we make—look at the way we relate to each other and to our world.”

Because we do believe in the dream of a reality other than the one in which we live, we pray toward—we work toward—we dream toward and we live into—we live into—the possibility of a peaceful co-existence. It may never have been—may not ever be—it may not ever be—the lion and the lamb, but in my own living—in your own living—to which I can point, it might be the Christian and the Moslem, the citizen of these United States and the Arab, the Democrat and the Republican, the person of color and the caucasian, the rich and the poor.

All choosing an unnatural way of being because of a priority deemed higher than any of the “natural” ones. Because we can decide to live other than we have—other than most do.

And it’s not about practicality, rationality, advisability, feasibility. It’s about that story—clashing so basically with our world. It’s about that image—of a lion and a lamb—that leads us to a way of living that might—that might—change our world.

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One thought on “animal reflections

  1. A 4th rabbit led me over to Talk With a Preacher blog entry Rethinking the Bible: Day 14, a loose association perhaps but rabbits are like that I think. In this blog entry Amy Butler mentions the novel Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (now on my to read list) and writes “… read the Bible with eyes and ears open, to hear the ancient text in fresh and new ways, to allow our old ways of looking at the world to be shaped by new things we learn about God.” That’s the challenge I’ve heard from your creation sermons. (and speaking of animal imagery, what about the dinosaurs?)

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