Tigers

Rev. John Smith is thinking about a conversation he had with Sarah Thomson, a young mother with learning difficulties caused by birth trauma. She had told John that she was managing well during the lockdown, and that she was not fearful. “I think people are afraid of the virus because they can’t see it. They might deal better with a pandemic of tigers.” He now was struck by the wisdom of this observation. Tigers and humans go back a long way. Perhaps when hominids first descended from trees and lived on the plains, they had to deal with tigers – and of course, other large predators. They didn’t waste time asking why God had made tigers; they watched tigers and learned how to avoid them, mostly. Later, they developed weapons to defend themselves, and later still weapons with which to hunt them, almost to extinction. As soon as we rid ourselves of the childish idea that God had to create a world perfectly adapted to humans, he thought, we can leave behind us a lot of miserable whining against the creator of ecosystems whose members must learn how to live with each other; indeed they are members because they are learning to live with each other.

So we’ve learned how to live with tigers – as long as we can kill them- but not with viruses. The modern habit of living in close proximity to one another in cities, obtaining our food in cramped supermarkets, travelling in crowded vehicles is really an offer to be sitting ducks for a virus that wants to move from host to host. If we had been as inept at dealing with tigers we would have been extinct long ago. Moreover if we took viruses seriously we’d have created a health service with stand-by resources which could be speedily called into service in an epidemic. And when we talk, as I have done, John thought, about the human suffering caused by the pandemic let’s remember that for most of us that has consisted of restraints on our work, our leisure and our pleasure, which bears no comparison with the holocaust we impose daily on millions of chickens.

Maybe, he thinks, the key to thinking about the pandemic is ridding ourselves of the notion that the world is made for us. The bible (Genesis 1) in fact says the opposite: we, human beings, are made for the world, to look after it and keep it in order. And another bible story ( Genesis 3) tells us that the ecosystem is made tough for us, to keep us from becoming too dominant. So, yes, before we blame God for making viruses, let’s recognise that God is not responsible for our ignorance of them and our ineptness in living with them. And while we sympathise with those who have suffered illness and bereavement, and show gratitude to those who have risked their lives to provide essential services, let’s not exaggerate the problems we have encountered. Above all, let’s remember that we are part of a web of life which has no overriding concern for our welfare. When in the Bible, God looks at creation and sees that it is very good, he does not mean that it is very good for human beings only. But also for viruses. And tigers.

He suddenly finds himself saying the words of a poem he learned at school:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 
In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire? 
And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 
What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 
When the stars threw down their spears 
And water’d heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 
Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

William Blake was tempting his readers to see that in the ecosystem of the universe God plays both the roles of Tiger and Lamb, and that limiting God to the single role of lamb is a distortion of divine reality. In disarming the rebel angels, the “stars,” God needs to be tiger as well as lamb. A lambish tiger or tigerish lamb.This truth is celebrated by Bach in the St. John Passion, where the dying of Jesus on the cross is immediately followed by the triumphal chorus, “The Lion of Judah fought the fight and has prevailed!” He says Lion, but it could just as well be Tiger, or Virus. Of course, this is poetry, in which animals are symbols of the action of God in the universe, but they remind John Smith that the Creator is just as honoured by her creature the virus as by her creature the tiger or her creature the human being.

Indeed, he knows that if God is real, she is the God of the entire process of evolution, with its marvellous developments and its terrible extinctions, its rabbits and its dinosaurs. Either this imperfectly known process is the process of creation, this is what Genesis is talking about, or God can be safely relegated to the realm of folklore. When he judges that the new atheists are not talking about his God, he means they are talking about the God of folklore rather than the God of evolution.

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