“So do you think they should have risked the life of the child rather than shoot the gorilla?” asks the comment from someone who read my last two blogs and is referring to the widely reported incident where a child tumbled into the Gorilla compound in a zoo, and was being pulled along by a large male gorilla who was then shot dead. The zoo staff explained that a tranquilising dart would have taken too long to work.
There is certainly a widespread assumption that any human life and certainly the life of a child is worth more than the life of any animal. This assumption is supported by classic Christian teaching, but I do not share it.
In fact I answered that, given the perception that the gorilla was a danger to the child, the action taken seemed reasonable to me. My local crows have just half-killed a seagull that was threatening their chicks. The creatures of an ecosystem are in my view equally valuable because of the role they play in its common life, but co- existence includes predation and defence. Although the gorilla may have thought it was defending the child from the hysterical screaming adults, it appeared to be aggressive and suffered the consequence.
In other circumstances it may be just as reasonable to kill human beings who are being aggressive to gorillas. Some human beings are active and many others complicit in the wholesale destruction of the habitat of gorillas, and others again have hunted them for fun. In some administrations those who have the job of protecting gorillas in the wild are authorised to kill illegal hunters. As a disciple of Jesus I am committed to non-violence, but I can see why those who are trying to preserve a whole species of animal might think that a swift cull of marauding humans is well justified. It is of course as a result of human carelessness and savagery that individuals of threatened species end up in zoos.
I think our discussion of these issues would be improved by taking a systemic view. Ecosystems include predation; and therefore human predation, that is, the killing of animals for food or in defence of life or territory, is in principle not morally different from that of any other species. The problems are that a) human predation has become so efficient that it is able to exterminate whole species of prey; b) for some thousands of years human hunting has been replaced by farming, some forms of which are more savage and destructive of ecosystems than hunting; and c) hunting for sport, which should really be called “killing for fun”, is widely popular and damaging to animals.
These problems stem from human arrogance: from the refusal to recognise that like other animals we are dependent on an ecosystem,the destruction of which will also be the destruction of our own species. The superior intelligence which allows us to be so successful also prompts the arrogance that may destroy our fellow creatures and our world. The biblical fable of the “the tree of the knowledge of everything” (that’s the right translation of “good and evil”) already suggested that the unrestricted drive for the knowledge to “live as gods”, which has been the engine of human development, could also be the drive to death.
The truth asserted by systemic thinking, that human beings are dependent on an ecosystem, has almost been lost in cultures where food comes from the supermarket and water from plastic bottles, and knowledge of the countless bacteria that help our bodies to work, is unknown even to otherwise well-informed adults. Some people believe that however much damage we do to our environment we can always fix it. Hell, we can just about survive on Mars! I suppose it’s possible that we do have a future as a species of planetary vandal moving from one wasted ecosystem to another, but it’s not one that I want to embrace. In order to gain the kind of life I desire, a life that is modest, just, beautiful and intricate I have to look beyond our technological arrogance to an understanding of the ecosystem in which we live.
Ezra Pound, the American poet, lived through the Second World War in Italy from which he made broadcasts in favour of fascism. He was captured by allied troops and held prisoner in Pisa where he began to compose what are known as his Pisan Cantos. They reflect on human arrogance including his own:
“What thou lovest well remains,
the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
The ant’s a centaur in his dragon world.
Pull down thy vanity, it is not man
Made courage, or made order, or made grace,
Pull down thy vanity, I say pull down.
Learn of the green world what can be thy place
In scaled invention or true artistry,
Pull down thy vanity,
I say, pull down!”
He tended to use archaic forms of English when he wanted to be eloquent, but his message is timeless and contemporary. “Learn of the green world…” is a command we need to hear and obey. This turn to the nature which includes us, must not be touristic or Wordsworthian, but fully integrated with the science that reveals we are made of the self-same stuff as all things and all creatures, and are so integrated with them that we cannot for an instant stand outside them.
The discovery that the nicotinides used by farmers to kill pests might kill the bees on which the fertility of crops depended, is a case in point. Most farmers were utterly unaware of the importance of bees. We live within a vulnerable ecosystem which we do not understand, and permit our children not to understand because we want their education to help them compete with other human beings for status and wealth. We need to learn of the green world and we need to make sure our children learn of it along with their alphabet.
Due to human overuse of fossil fuels, the time available for learning from the green world may not be as long as we would wish, so we should not waste time in fruitless debates with those who fear change because they benefit from the status quo. Governments which do not put the survival of our ecosystem at the top of their agenda are not doing their job, nor do faith communities justify their claims to relevance if they ignore this issue in their theology and practice.
My own Church of Scotland has attended to this issue by emphasising our human responsibility for respecting God’s creation and God’s creatures, ignoring the fact that the way in which Christians have interpreted the unique status of human beings under God, is part of the problem. This is not a problem with the book of Genesis as is often said. It was written out of a profound journey of discovery by ancient Israelites who began to see that if their tribal God was real, he must also be the God of all people and all creatures, the creator of the universe; and that they themselves were part of God’s most troublesome creation, a humanity which recognised no limits to its power. That’s the overarching story of Genesis, which is a relevant now as when it was written. The problem in the Christian tradition is its doctrines of Creation and Fall, particularly as found in the reformed theologies. These tell a story of human sin as the effective loss of God’s likeness, and of the inability of the human will to seek any good. Only those who have been born anew in Jesus and and the spirit can be “saved”, which means rescued from a doomed world into eternal life. This story does not offer much to human beings facing ecological crisis.
Some creative theologians have attempted to tell a more useful story of God by including God within the ecosystem or universal process. For them, God is in everything and evolving with all creatures. Indeed for some, God IS the sacredness of creatures, present to human beings in themselves and all other creatures. It seems to me that this throws away most of what I think valuable in the idea of God, namely that God is not the universe nor anything in the universe, but is beyond all universes as their source.
But how can this traditional view of God be related to the theory of evolution and the sciences of ecology and quantum physics?
I can only answer that question by following my own conviction that theology should arise out of discipleship of Jesus.
Jesus knew that God has placed his human children within a sustaining ecosystem. Of course he did not use that language but spoke of how we live amongst birds that find sufficient food and wild flowers that are lovely enough to attract insects. He understood that the impartial mercy of God gave sunshine and rain to good and bad alike. He appreciated the process of growth from seed time to harvest and used it is a model for spiritual growth. He trusted that not one sparrow could fall to the ground without the father’s care. Like his rural companions he could predict the next day’s weather from the appearance of the sky. He spoke of how animals and birds had homes while the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. And he realised that there were pure accidents, like the Temple tower falling on people, and pure wickedness, like Pilate killing people who were making sacrifice to God.
We could sum up this by saying that Jesus had a profound trust in the earthly processes by which God had provided for the needs of his creatures and wanted his disciples to live by the same trust. He also knew that these same processes included the occurrence of harmful accident and the deliberate doing of evil. He did not disguise from them the fact that living by trust in God was risky and would make them well -acquainted with grief. Yet he urged them not be be anxious or live defensively but to pour themselves out in joy and sorrow because their trust in God’s goodness was not misplaced and would lead to eternal life, meaning life not subject to death. Jesus envisaged the father as the source of the ecosystem -“in the beginning God made them male and female” and as its destination – “God is not the God of the dead but the living!” And he also knew of a presence of God in the midst of the ecosystem, which had to be demonstrated by human beings: “if by the finger of God I cast out evil spirits, then the Rule of God has come upon you.” This is a delicate and precise description. The mighty arm of the Lord is not revealed, but merely his pinkie, and what is more, the action is carried out by a human being, yet it is enough to show that God’s goodness is at hand.
Discipleship of Jesus obliges a person to live modestly, passionately and generously within the web of living creatures in the risky faith that the web itself is encompassed by God, from whom it issues, to whom it returns and by whom it is companioned.
I want to explore at greater length the notion of God’s companioning goodness, but I will end this blog here as it is already much too long.