This post is excerpted from The Dark Side: How Evangelical Teachings Corrupt Love and Truth, by Valerie Tarico, www.lulu.com/tarico
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. —Isaiah 11:6–7
HUMBLED AND ENTHRALLED, THE WRITER OF PSALMS MARVELED AT THE GLORIES of God displayed before mortal men in nature’s grand design. His poems of worship pay tribute to God’s awesome handiwork. Not only is God the maker of heaven and earth, he is involved in the tiniest details of the natural world. “Every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine” (Psa. 50:10–11). A later psalmist, St. Francis of Assisi, wrote: “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing, Alleluia, Alleluia. Thou burning sun with golden beam, thou silver moon with softer gleam! Oh, praise Him.”
Worshipers through the ages have followed suit. They still do today. In hymns, sermons, poetry, and individual testimony, Christians express delight in the intricacies of the natural world and voice their praise of the creator. Many aspects of nature: beauty, complexity, balance, majesty, the sustenance provided for humans, the tender caretaking that can be seen between animals, and not least, the terrifying power of forces such as wind, water, lightning, and earthquakes—all are assumed to reflect the character of nature’s God.
On this point, Evangelicals are in alignment with other Christians and non-Christian theists. Virtually all agree that the natural world reveals the character of the creator or the creative force. Even agnostics and atheists assume, for the most part, that a design ought to reflect the forces that designed it.
But the more we understand the principles guiding nature’s intricate design, the more we have to wonder about the kind of creator that is suggested. For those who argue that nature reflects an omniscient, omnipotent, and loving God, two issues in particular, predation and animal suffering, pose complicated challenges. On these two, the psalmist and those who have followed in his footsteps are strangely silent.
What Predation Tells Us About the Design of Nature
In modern fiction and science writing, predators are finally getting their due. After centuries of stories in which wolves, leopards, lions, and bears have given name and form to human darkness, modern fiction, with a note of thanks to modern ecology, has brought them out into the light. A recent novel by Barbara Kingsolver practically lectures readers on the point: predators are precious, each poised at the pinnacle of a food chain. Kill a predator and you risk destroying a precarious balance that sustains hundreds, maybe thousands of other forms of life. Predators, from an ecological standpoint, are essential. Without them, the whole system breaks down.
Biologists teach us that the bodies of predators are optimized for predation: teeth that tear into muscle or crunch bone rather than grinding vegetation into paste, jaws that unhinge to accommodate large, infrequent prey, claws that cling, muscles that spring, padded feet for silent stalking, digestive systems that separate meat and blood from useless bits of fur and bone, poisons that can paralyze, kill, or even dissolve the innards of a hapless victim. The words of the prophet about lions and lambs are beautiful to me, as beautiful as the notion of beating swords into plowshares (Isa. 2:4). But a lion that eats straw isn’t a lion.
In Thailand I once visited a monastery where Buddhist monks cared for tigers that had been orphaned by hunters. Years were spent in taming them, and it was said to be possible to walk up to an uncaged tiger and stroke its back—a childhood dream. A slight man in a saffron robe led my group of visitors into the enclosure of the sanctuary. We passed deer grazing, and a herd of wild pigs shuffled and snorted by.
Peaceful tigers that could live with deer and wild pigs? Amazing! Then we saw the first of the tigers, young ones panting in the shade. They were chained. A monk trainer stood next to each. One had superficial scars running up and down his dark calves. “Wait,” a translator cautioned us, “always approach them from behind, and only when they are lying down.” As she spoke, a tiger playfully leaped up and chomped onto a trainer’s arm, like our housecats go for the feather toys that we dance on the ends of sticks. No harm done.
I asked how long the training takes. “Years,” was the answer. “Most of them are never trained.” The translator pointed to a long row of cages, each housing an individual adult. Only a handful could be taken out, and only under very controlled circumstances.
One by one, we were allowed to approach and touch an uncaged adult in a stark, bad-lands ravine that effectively trapped the animal on three sides: always approaching from behind, always with the animal lying down, always with two monks standing watch. A family brought their two children into the mouth of the ravine, into the tiger’s line of sight. “No children!” shouted the monks, waving vigorously. “No children!” It was Thailand. I can assure you their concern wasn’t the cost of liability insurance; tigers are tigers.
I have never heard a description of paradise on Earth that included predators acting like predators. Nor, in all of the hymns and poetry that celebrate God’s glory as revealed in nature, have I heard any that celebrate the extraordinary design of these creatures: those amazing reptilian jaws that drop down and forward, little lights that wiggle in the depths of the sea and lure fish close, rows of sharp teeth waiting to replace any that might fall out, the smooth coils of the constrictor.
Why not? Most of us don’t like predators when they’re doing their thing. We like our tigers tame; we want our lions to lie down with lambs; most of us don’t enjoy feeding a live mouse to a snake. When the cat next door eviscerated a squirrel in our yard, my daughters, then seven and five, cried and screamed about that horrible cat which deserved to die a horrible death. The five year old, who could barely write, joined her sister in penciling a letter to the neighbors asking them to keep the cat indoors. (At least that’s what she said it said if you asked for a translation.) I tried to console them. “She’s not a bad cat,” I said. “That’s just what cats do.”
It is what cats do. A predator is a fine-tuned hunting and eating machine, which has, depending on its level of complexity and its ecological niche, a few other functions as well. We don’t like to think of them this way, because we have an uncomfortable ability to see things from the point of view of the prey. That mouse in the snake cage wanted to live. So did the squirrel in my yard. So did the gazelle on a National Geographic special, the one that raised its head to watch a lion tearing out its intestines. This is the quandary. Prey animals want to live. Predator animals want to eat them. And the predators aren’t bad. The whole system is built to require them. The way of the world may not be dog eat dog but it is lion eat gazelle and snake eat mouse.
How Does Pain Fit In? Could It Be the Result of Sin?
Not only do prey animals want to live, they experience fear and pain when attacked. And the whole system is built to require this as well. An animal that is being stalked can’t afford to base its survival on the mere thrill of living: Gosh it’s nice to be alive, filling my belly, living in the sun, sleeping in the shade. The comfort, the reveling, need to disappear fast when that good living is threatened. And they need to be replaced by a discomfort that increases with the intensity of the threat, a discomfort that becomes so acute that it can’t be ignored. Something inside the animal— and it can’t be conscious thought—has to convey the awfulness of potential damage and destruction before it’s too late. That pretty much defines pain, and fear, which anticipates pain.
Even for humans, reasoning alone, understanding cause and effect, isn’t enough to keep us alive. What jerks your hand back after you bump the inside of a hot oven? It’s out before you even have time to realize what just happened, let alone to think: Gosh it’s nice to have a left hand. What gets you out of the street when you see a car careening toward you? It’s only afterward, after your heart rate slows and your muscles stop shaking that you notice the prickly sweat on your face and under your arms and think: That could have killed me! If you had reacted after you thought, it would have been too late. The reaction needs to be systemic, instantaneous, and unpleasant. It needs to start before your body is damaged and it needs to get worse when the damage starts and continue to get worse until there’s no chance of your doing anything to protect yourself. That is both the beauty and the horror of pain.
The disease of leprosy illustrates for us the importance of pain sensation in day-to-day living. Leprosy is a bacterial infection that often attacks peripheral nerves in the hands and feet of the person infected. When this happens, victims lose sensation in the damaged areas. They can’t tell when a toe is pinched, a blister has been rubbed raw, a finger is cut, or a foot is literally cooking because it’s been too close to the fire for too long. As a consequence, they suffer repeated injuries and secondary bacterial infections. These, in turn can cause scarring and even the loss of fingers and toes. This is in spite of the fact than a human can know what the risks are and can watch for dangers. Now think about an animal with impaired pain sensitivity. Inability to feel discomfort is a death sentence.
Some Evangelical apologists have tried to argue that the natural world minimizes pain, that really, only a very few species experience pain similar to what we feel, and no other living being has to fear or remember suffering the way that humans do. The natural order is naturally merciful. But this argument fails to acknowledge the very nature of pain and its function. Pain needs to be as powerful and compelling as possible in order to motivate animals, humans included, to take care of themselves. This means that the more able an animal is to experience anything and the more it is able to make choices, the more functional pain becomes.
An amoeba doesn’t need to feel pain. If it’s going to die, it’s going to die, and there’s not a thing it can do about it. A snail, some of whom have fewer than a hundred cells in their brain, doesn’t get much value out of experiencing pain either. It can go forward slowly, turn to the left, turn to the right, or pull into its shell. It does make sense, however, that a snail can experience hunger and that a hungry snail might be a miserable snail.
A monkey, by way of contrast, has thousands of behavioral options. And sure enough, monkeys seem to be capable of tremendous suffering. Their distress can be caused not only by physical injury but by more abstract threats like solitude, confinement, or the loss of a parent. The ability of animals to suffer corresponds closely to their ability to experience themselves in any way at all and to act willfully. In other words, it corresponds to consciousness. More awareness means more pain.
Why Predation and Animal Suffering Are Problematic from an Evangelical Perspective
Evangelical Christians acknowledge in all kinds of ways that pain matters. People pray to have it taken away—some even pray about the suffering of their pets. Missionaries frequently promise that conversion will ease suffering, replacing it with peace, happiness, and joy. Heaven is full of these three. Hell is not. Hell is pain perpetual. Pain is bad.
Few of the justifications given for human suffering apply to animals. These justifications are addressed in the next chapter; suffice it to say they include trial-by-fire, personal growth, and strengthening faith. The suffering of animals has no such redemptive value, for Christianity excludes animals from the afterlife. They have no souls, that is what makes humans so special. When you’re an animal, what you get here on Earth is what you get.
Now, one might try to argue that predation and animal suffering, however brutal, somehow benefit us humans. But think about this: the word justify has to do with justice. It has to do with finding an explanation that makes things fair. The Christian God is said to be absolutely just and loving. All animals are his creatures. How then, do we “justify” the suffering of some, however lowly, for the benefit of others?
Some theologians sidestep this question by saying that pain, along with death, illness, aging, and, in fact, everything we consider bad with a capital B, is not God’s fault. As a child, I was taught that pain and death came into the world by way of sin, the very first sin, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. We did it to ourselves and to all those animals too. However, according to the book of Genesis and to modern creationists, God had created the animals well before that first act of disobedience, every species that now exists, including, one must assume, those predators with all of their specialized equipment. What was he thinking?
The explanation that pain came into the world with sin simply doesn’t work. To stay alive, most species need something intense, immediate, and averse to let them know when their existence is threatened. Furthermore, ecosystems, with all their herbivores, are set up to include predators. To stay in balance without them, all the other creatures would have to have different bodies and reproductive cycles, both of which are optimized to take into account predation. Talk about a world with no pain or death, and we’re talking again about an entirely different set of critters: no lions, no lambs.
No humans, either. Our bodies, too, are intricately, precisely tailored to the world we live in. As omnivores, we have digestive systems tailored for processing meat as well as plants. Our instincts are optimized for avoiding predators. Our reproductive physiology is tuned to compensate for the premature death of embryos, fetuses, and live offspring.
If death and pain came into the world via human behavior, then the original humans had bodies radically different from our own, and they lived in a world of plants and animals radically different from the ones we know, so radically different as to be unrecognizable. One would have to argue that after that first sin, God re-created the world; He not only reconfigured the species, but reworked the whole design from the ground up. It seems like an odd response to human defiance. Either way, it means that God designed the system in which we now live.
We are told that a creation reflects its creator. Many arguments for the existence of God are built on this notion. A clock must have a clockmaker. The grandeur of nature reflects the glory of God; “the firmament showeth his handiwork” (Psalms 19:1). As hymn writer, Isaac Watts put it,
Nature with open volume stands,
To spread her Maker’s praise abroad;
And every labor of His hands
Shows something worthy of a God.
So, what does the natural world tell us about its designer? By all appearances, on this planet, predation (and, by implication, death) is an integral part of the whole. It maintains the balance of nature. Pain, also necessary, has a different function. It works in the service of survival, and it does that job beautifully. But here is what these remarkable systems don’t do. They don’t systematically or predictably comply with the attributes for which we pay tribute to God: mercy, peace, compassion, tenderness, kindness, fairness, and love. Quite the opposite, in fact. Not that the natural world lacks these attributes. They too appear in nature. The problem is not that they are absent but that they are not the underlying principles guiding the system.
To view the natural order as primarily peaceful and benign means either you are viewing through a distorted lens or you need a magnifying glass. Who gets injured, who gets eaten, who starves in the winter, whose offspring flourish, whose don’t, all of these are decided by nature in ways that are indifferent to morality and goodness as we humans normally define them. Our values and the values we like to attribute to God are, for the most part, irrelevant. So is our wishful thinking about lions and lambs. If God is the God of nature, then he is the God of all nature. We can’t look at it selectively, pick the parts that give us a sense of awe or delight or mystery, and then say that those reflect the nature of God, while ignoring the parts that inspire fear, sorrow, or revulsion.
Nature may be indifferent to morality and goodness, but we are not. Part of the bittersweet beauty of being human is that we dream of something better: a world in which survival is not competitive but collaborative, a world in which compassion, mercy, love, and mutuality are the fundamental operating principles, a world so fair that ill intent turns back on itself, a world where life does not require death. Our visions of the afterlife give form to this world.
So do our fantasies and stories. It is something we struggle to create, however imperfectly, in our families, our friendships and our societies. A few political or economic philosophies such as libertarianism and free market fundamentalism, reflect a belief that natural selection (survival of the fittest) is the best we can do. But most of us strive for something different, a world that is gentle toward the lowly and weak and that rewards goodness over strength.
Whether these yearnings come from some power external to us or from within the human spirit, they are transcendent. They imbue us with a vision that transcends individuality and survival, and they enable us, at least in part, to attain that vision. Ironically, orthodoxy and dogma often have the opposite effect. They seek to address our longing for goodness by providing concrete answers, often in the form of social scripts from the past and a hope of the world to come.
In doing so, they end up obstructing the very processes that work here on earth to create what the Shakers called The Peaceable Kingdom. This need not be the case. By unpacking the answers, by moving beyond them to the underlying questions, we have the power to help create real-world societies that reflect our desire for goodness.