Enwrapped in Love
Adamowicz, Susan C
FOR THE PAST SEVERAL YEARS, I’ve awaited the approach of spring with a certain amount of dread. No, it’s not allergies or an aversion to daylight, rather it’s the birds. Each spring, grackles-those gregarious, starling-like birds-return to the white pines and oaks outside my window. Their early morning ruckus masks the sweeter sounding chickadees and cardinals and is unwelcomed. But more trying is the time when their chicks hatch.
Inevitably, once the chicks hatch, a severe storm will knock them and sometimes their entire nests out of the trees. In the morning I walk to my car with apprehension and mortification at finding small, featherless bodies dead on the lawn. Or worse yet, when fledglings are tossed from their nests, I face an ethical dilemma: Do I assist them in any way? I, who value nature highly, have the opportunity and knowledge to increase the grackles’ chance of survival. But by doing so, I jeopardize other, more sensitive bird species that the grackles displace. My personal and professional preference is for fewer grackles and more songsters.
But why so many grackles? Why do so many chicks face untimely death? Why does God permit such a seemingly wasteful process? Here we are not talking of human predicaments created out of free will. And even if the boom in the grackle population is a result of suburbanization of primeval eastern forests, there are enough examples in nature to provoke the same question: How can a loving Creator tolerate or permit so much seemingly needless and painful death?
This is, essentially, Darwin’s question-the one that stymied him upon the death of his young daughter. This is the question that, once asked, brought only more signs of struggle and death. And, I believe, the pain and despair caused by such thoughts were part of Darwin’s reason for delaying the publication of his theory on evolution. For years Darwin searched for incontrovertible evidence, knowing that only such facts could withstand the spiritual and emotional upheaval that his theory would engender.
The problem, I think, was that the people of Darwin’s era had put God in a box. When Darwin’s observations did not conform to generally accepted concepts of a loving God, they shook the very foundations of many people’s faith. Is it possible, nearly one hundred years later, to ask the question again and allow God a little more room? This is a particular issue for me, being both a practicing Roman Catholic and a scientist. In my brief days, I have encountered so much criticism and prejudice of each group for the other, that until recently, I was daunted by what some had said: that it was impossible to accomplish anything of scientific merit while holding religious beliefs or that it was impossible to progress spiritually while having the mind of a scientist.
Since this apparent dichotomy resounds in our culture, let me approach the dilemma from both traditions.
Teddy Bears Aren’t Natural
A quick trip to almost any gift shop, especially a religious one, will reveal a view of nature that is full of fluffy teddy bears and brightly colored butterflies. This image is frequently reinforced by some of our top spiritual authors:
…that the notes of the wild birds beyond our garden may come to us fully charged with wonder and freshness. …their inheritance is a world of morning-glory; where every titmouse is a celestial messenger, and every thrusting bud is charged with the full significance of life.1
Not that I object to finding wonder in nature, on the contrary.2 But such wonder should be informed by reality, not some saccharinecoated picture that will dissolve at the first hint of darkening skies.
A Brief Reality Check
The natural world can be brutal. Take, for example, the revered image of the lion. When a male lion usurps another and takes over a pride, frequently he will kill his predecessor’s cubs. Or in another example, consider a caterpillar in a cocoon. During this “resting phase,” as some scientists call it,3 the caterpillar undergoes a tremendous transformation. Groups of cells, imaginai disks, consume energy stored in the fattened caterpillar, and these are the ones that grow into the butterfly. It is as if these cells were alien or parasitic, “waiting,” if you will, for the caterpillar to get fat enough so they can begin their tumultuous metamorphosis. And so the “birth” of a butterfly is not predicated on a “resting phase” but rather on the ignominy of caterpillar consumption.
Annie Dillard, in another case involving caterpillars, brilliantly describes perhaps the most revolting relationship in nature: the need for ichneumon flies to lay their eggs in living caterpillars.4 The slow growth of the eggs and the lingering death of the host caterpillars have been a fulcrum for many scientists in their quest to reconcile seeming incompatibilities between the natural world and their conception of God.
But many people, scientists among them-when confronted with such seeming atrocities-have invoked a dichotomy, a split, between science and religion, and even between religion and nature. Stephen J. Gould, the renowned Harvard scientist and author, addressed this issue of “natural theology”-the attempt to draw moral lessons from nature. Gould correctly recognized that many animal behaviors are not suitable for human society. He concluded that nature is nonmoral and suggested that religion and science can be compatible, but only “through lack of contact.”5 Understandably, this does no good toward resolving my quandry.
A Breakdown in Communications
Stephen Hawking, in his very popular book A Brief History of Time, offered an explanation for the split between science and religion saying that scientific progress had become “too technical and too mathematical for philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists” to understand.6 So then the gap promoted by Gould widens because no one is able to act as interpreter between the two disciplines. Hawking then continued:
Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analysis of language.” What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!7
Perhaps Hawking was justified in his remark, but on the following page, he offered himself as that absent philosopher:
However, if we do discover a complete theory [on the creation of the universe], it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason-for then we would know the mind of God.8
I will not bother to focus on the arrogance of Hawking’s closing line, but let me indicate that it offers problems both philosophically and theologically. “Knowing the mind of God” is tantamount to setting boundaries on God and has resulted in such things as Galileo’s mistreatment and the continuing trauma felt by some regarding evolution. If Hawking had but endeavored a little industry into theology, he would have discovered such long held statements as the following:
“For of all the other creatures and their works,” says the author of The Cloud of Unknowing, “yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have full-head of knowing, and well he can think of them; but of God Himself can no man think.”9
For as Dionysus teaches, “if anyone saw God and understood what he saw, then it was not God that he saw, but something that belongs to Him.”10
Hawking’s posture, which unfortunately is not unique to him, is not helpful to the process of understanding either creation or our relationship to it or to the Creator. The complete dissociation between science and religion is not only imaginary; it is false. Science is merely a way of knowing, of finding out. But as we are multifaceted creatures, we are informed from a diversity of sources-music, visual arts, and our natural and cultural settings:
So near is man to the creative pageant, so much a part is he of the endless and incredible experiment, that any glimpse he may have will be but the revelation of a moment, a solitary note heard in a symphony thundering through debatable existences of time. Poetry is as necessary to comprehension as science.11
In order for us to come to as complete a comprehension of life as possible, science must continue to inform religion, as did the work of Copernicus and Mendel. Similarly, religion must inform science on issues as diverse as medical ethics, endangered species preservation, and environmental policy.
Another Reality Check
It is time again to look at nature in its fullness and at its Creator. I agree with Henry Beston who said that “we need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals.”12 In his classic book, The Outermost House, Beston continues:
For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, fitted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.13
Beston, who lived for a year as a solitary on the beaches of Cape Cod, was a keen observer of shore birds. When asked to summarize lessons gained during his months on the dunes, he considered the issue of nature’s brutality:
As for “red in tooth and fang,” whenever I hear the phrase or its intellectual echoes I know that some passer-by has been getting life from books. It is true that there are grim arrangements. Beware of judging them by whatever human values are in style. As well expect nature to answer to your human values as to come into your house and sit in a chair. The economy of nature, its checks and balances, its measurement of competing life-all this is its great marvel and has an ethic of its own. Live in Nature, and you will soon see that for all its non-human rhythm, it is no cave of pain. As I write I think of my beloved birds of the great beach, and of their beauty and zest of living. And if there are fears, know also that Nature has its unexpected and unappreciated mercies.14
Mind the Gap
How does that excerpt resolve my dilemma with the grackle chicks, with the ichneumons? It doesn’t completely, except to highlight a gap in understanding: the gap between what I observe through scientific means and what my own faith reveals of God. And as I struggle to find a means of binding the breach, I recall Gabriel Marcel, the French philosopher: “Life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived.” As I view the breach, it is akin to the space between sparking, frayed ends of an electrical cord, one part held in each hand. On the one side, Darwin states:
I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton. Let each man hope and believe what he can.15
And on the other side is something both known and experienced:
Everything, says Julian [of Norwich] in effect, whether gracious, terrible or malignant, is enwrapped in love: and is part of a world produced, not by mechanical necessity, but by passionate desire. Therefore nothing can really be mean, nothing despicable; nothing, however perverted, irredeemable.16
Two sparking ends: Darwin and Julian. But let’s be fair to Darwin. It’s not he who caused the breach between science and religion, although many people point to him as the start of the modern atheistic era. In truth, Darwin merely drew our attention to valid observations of nature. What lies in one hand is not Darwin, but Creation and through it, the Creator. Furthermore, as Julian is also reflecting upon God, my two ends become united in one. For weeks this image lingered and still did not bring peace. Then I was reminded that the paradox, the mystery, is not to be held in timorous, shaking hands, but rather patiently and gently in love. And it suddenly became clear that there was only one such place where that could be possible-on the Cross.
The Crackles Again
Someday I will move and leave the grackles behind. The winds will continue to blow and the grackles to fall. For the time being, the grackles and humans have reached a compromise-the neighbors and I now place fallen birds into small baskets and re-suspend them in the trees. We do this to keep the birds from cruel boys and curious dogs and to give the birds a modestly better chance at survival. It is a stopgap measure, for the winds will continue long after I am gone.
No, it is not easy to look at creation for what it is, rather than what we wish it to be. But we need to accept reality before we can genuinely glimpse the Real. If we don’t, we are liable to construct a convenient framework, not only for our selected observations but for God as well. And it will be a contrivance that by its very design will shatter it and ourselves when the next Copernicus, Darwin, or Mendel merely shows us what is so about our neck of the woods.
If a Sparrow Should Fall
In the last few months as I’ve struggled with a conclusion for this essay, certain words have repeatedly echoed in my mind: “Being is predicated on Love.” Science, in its spare view, tells what kinds of matter and creation are out there. For me, science leads through discovery to wonder, even of the ichneumons. And ultimately, I am caught up in a long and loving look at the Real,17 even if all I can recall is, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Is 55:8).18 So informed by science and enlightened by God, I travel steadily on toward the Resurrection, journeying with my companions in Creation, knowing, though not fully understanding, that God’s eye is on the sparrow-and on the grackles in my yard.
1. Evelyn Underbill, Practical Mysticism (Guildford, Surrey: Eagle, 1991), p. 13.
2. Susan C. Adamowicz, “On the Healing of Nature” Spiritual Life 1997, pp. 3-7.
3. Helena Curtis and N. Sue Barnes, Invitation to Biology (New York: Worth Publishers, Inc., 1972, renewed 1977, 1981, 1985), p. 298.
4. Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Toronto, New York, and London: Bantam Books, Inc., 1974), pp. 173-174.
5. Stephen Jay Gould, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1983), p. 44.
6. Stephen W. Hawking, A Brief History of Time: from the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam Books, 1988), p. 174.
8. Ibid., p. 175.
9. Underbill, Practical Mysticism, p. 72.
10. Ibid., p. 88.
11. Henry Beston, The Outermost House: A year in the life on the great beach of Cape Cod (New York: Ballantine Books, 1928, renewed 1956), pp. 173.
12. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
14. Ibid., pp. 173-174.
15. Gould, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, p. 44.
16. Underbill, Practical Mysticism, p. 70.
17. William McNamara, OCD, The Human Adventure: Contemplation for Everyman (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1976), p. 31.
18. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, New Revised Standard Version (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 943.
Susan C. Adamowicz, PhD
Susan C. Adamowicz, PhD, is an oceanographer specializing in salt marsh restoration. Salt marshes support a wide variety of life and are similar to other wetlands that occur on the boundary between land and water-so interesting things are bound to pop up. Dr. Adamowicz currently resides in northern New England.
Copyright Spiritual Life Spring 2005
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