Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

Red in Tooth and Claw (pt 1)

“It’s like the garden of Eden.”

That’s how a friend of mine described the Chobe National Park, near the Okavango Delta.

I first went to Africa in the early 2000s. But it was not until a later trip that I saw Chobe. It is one of the few places left where one finds lions, leopards, hippos, crocodiles, impala, and myriad other species in their natural environments.

I took some students there in 2010.

Eden and elephants
Me, with friend and former student, Eden T.

At one point, our African guide drove the Land Rover alongside a herd of giraffes, and the creatures took flight around us. “Flight” is the best way to describe it—for whatever it was, it wasn’t running. Their spindly legs moved in slow motion though they were more than pacing our speeding vehicle.

giraffes
Before the stampede.

Later, we sat in a pontoon boat while a massive herd of elephants swam around us, moving from one side of the river to an island in the middle. Their trunks bobbed like fleshy periscopes. At the bank, we pulled close by the herd—too close in fact—and a mother elephant expressed displeasure with a false charge, a shaking of her head, and a trumpet blast of warning. Eden-like.

false charge
Elephant, telling us to “Back away!”

Or was it?

Now for a second Africa story:

On an earlier trip, in the lake region of Zambia, I sat in a wobbly canoe (much smaller than the pontoon boat) as a local fisherman shoved us away from shore. Then the realization hit me: There are probably crocodiles in here.

There were, in fact, (the villagers had told frightening stories of attacks; and I had seen a child scarred across his legs). One father even told of racing into the water to try to pull his son out of the crocodile’s mouth. The canoe had been a gift from my father-in-law, to help the fishermen build a business that did not depend (quite literally) upon the hand-hewn boats that were more vulnerable to local wildlife.

dinosaur
Picture I took of a crocodile/dinosaur, snacking on some hippo meat.

THE GRANDEUR AND THE GROANING

I bring up those two African experiences (Okavango and the “Croc canoe”) to make a point about the animal realm.

It is both blessed and bloody. There is grandeur and there is groaning. It may seem “like the garden of Eden” in Okavango, but it is fueled by a carnage of almost unimaginable proportions. It can even seem, says theologian David Bentley Hart, “as if the entire cosmos were somehow predatory.”

“We know,” says the apostle Paul, “that the whole creation has been groaning … until now” (Rom 8:22, ESV).

Speaking of crocodiles, Ronald Osborn, a former missionary kid from Africa, highlights the possibility that the “Behemoth” of Job 40 may actually be a crocodile, described in one translation as “chief of God’s works” even as he “devours cattle as if they are grass” and “crunches all wild beasts” in his jaws (NEB, vss. 15–34).

Then Osborn goes on to ask how Job’s endorsement of this crocodilic carnage matches up with his own experience.

“I have seen crocodiles on the riverbanks of Masai Mara in Kenya, near the end of the wildebeest migrations, their bellies distended from feasting. It is said they continue to kill even after they are engorged, without any interest in eating their prey.”

In the face of this seemingly wasteful bloodshed, Osborn concludes with frankness:

“These are the realities we must add our ‘Amen’ to if we grant the God of the whirlwind who glories in the Behemoth and the Leviathan the final word” (Osborn, Death Before the Fall, 157).

In the famous words of Tennyson: “Nature [is] red in tooth and claw.” So while we trust that “God is love indeed,” the violence of the natural realm can seem to “shriek against his creed” (“In Memoriam A.H.H.”).

And this bloody reality contributed to Charles Darwin’s loss of faith.

DARWIN’S DILEMMA

One of Darwin’s haunting questions pertained to what he called “the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time.”

On the one hand, Darwin seemed open to the idea that human suffering might serve the good of “moral improvement” within God’s sovereign plan. But the number of humans seemed like nothing “compared with that of all the other sentient beings” (animals) that “often suffer greatly without any moral improvement” (Darwin, Autobiography, 90).

Darwin’s question was straightforward: Why would an all-powerful, all-loving God permit so many “lower animals” to suffer and die in the countless centuries that he believed to have preceded human beings?

This inquiry led to his most (in)famous pronouncement on the subject:

“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature!” (Letter to Hooker, July 13, 1856)

For Darwin, this was not a minor issue. By his own account, the issue of animal suffering was one of the deciding factors that led him to away from orthodox Christianity and toward agnosticism.

“Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers … for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality” (Autobiography, 85).

But in time,

“the very old argument from the existence of [animal] suffering against the existence of an intelligent First Cause [was indeed] a strong one” (Autobiography, 90).

THE ROAD AHEAD

In the next few blog posts, I want to consider the problem of animal suffering in relation to the Christian belief in a loving, holy Creator.

My question is this: How do those two ideas fit together: the groaning and the grandeur; the beauty and the bloodshed?

Or was Richard Dawkins right to say that,

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites…

The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (River out of Eden, 132).

Stay tuned.


 

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Justice without mercy

Justice without mercy

“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”

That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).

“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.

A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.

Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”

“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.

Is there a lesson here from these three statements?

If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).

 


Interested in understanding the Big Story of the Bible? Check out my new book: “Long Story Short: the Bible in Six Simple Movements,” available with Video teachings to help church small groups.

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