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Sunday, September 1, 2013

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Seeing the hand of God in creation is not difficult. One has only to look at the magnificence of a sunset, or the splendour of a rainbow after a shower of life-giving rain, or the intricate beauty of a butterfly’s wings. At least, that was what someone once reassured me. My answer was that if he accepted these things as part of that creation, then he must also accept that the spirochetes which form syphilis, the rogue cells of cancer, and the bot fly are also part of that same scheme of things.

The eyes of a leopard. We tend to think of such predators as being at the top of the food chain, but titanic struggles between predators and prey are constantly taking place at the microscopic level as well.
The bot fly (I explained to him) injects its larvae into the nestlings of [1]birds. The huge growing larvae, crawling their way through living flesh, eat the baby birds from the inside out, causing slow and excruciating death before they [2]burst through the flesh to continue their own life cycle. He thought for some time about this, then carefully responded that those sorts of creations cannot be God’s, but must instead be the work of the Devil. He seemed not to be aware that, in ascribing equal creative powers to the Devil as he gave to God, he was committing what from an orthodox standpoint was an extreme heresy.

An electron microscope image of the bacteria Vibrio vulnificus. This exclusively carnivorous and highly-predatory water-dwelling bacteria eats flesh – any flesh, including that of humans. Wounds on the victims resemble the massive and ragged-edged bites of a shark attack.
Perceiving the mechanisms of the natural world as a blind force with no supernatural agency involved removes this gnarly moral problem at a stroke. It is only with the introduction of supernatural creation that seemingly-insurmountable moral ambivalence is introduced into the mix. If God created everything, then he also consciously created some very nasty stuff as well as those butterfly wings: things which were deliberately created to make other things suffer, which makes God’s own moral stance anything but ‘loving’. But if you accept that God created rainbows, but don’t accept that he created everything, well… then you’re a dangerous heretic by default. Ah, the dilemma!

The magnified scales on a butterfly’s wing. The colours are not formed from pigment, but from minute prisms which refract the light. Much that we perceive as beautiful is not even visible to the naked eye.
And what a strange creation it is. It exists by consuming itself, with a large percentage of all the organisms sustaining themselves by eating other organisms, from big cats on the Savannah right down to predatory microbial life – and often-enough with processes involving considerable pain, stress and suffering to the consumed. It has been the unenviable task of religious belief to iron out this paradox, which becomes a moral paradox as soon as it is linked to a consciously intelligent creator. The person with whom I was in conversation had opted, quite unknowingly, for a scheme of things which was proposed in distant centuries by the Gnostics.

A common dandelion head festooned with dew and spider silk on an overcast morning. The human mind perceives the beauty while the natural world remains indifferent. The delicate lace of a spider’s web is an efficient trap spun by a predator for ensnaring prey, which it then paralyzes and keeps alive to consume.
What the Gnostics believed was that the ultimate godhead is unknowable, unfathomable, and defying any attempt at description by mere humans. The first emanation from this Mystery is [3]Sophia – Wisdom – the feminine creative force. Sophia, rashly experimenting with her own creative powers, begets a monster known as the Demiurge – the ‘Craftsman’ – who is sometimes depicted as a serpent with a lion’s head. The Demiurge in his turn also rashly forgets that his powers are not his own, but are loaned from Sophia. In his hubris the Demiurge then creates the world, and all the creatures in it.

The veined traceries of fallen leaves in Autumn. The human mind’s ability to create patterns of its own seems to make it hard-wired to assume intelligence behind naturally-occurring patterns in the wild. Since such an assumed intelligence would by definition have to be a supernatural one, it lies forever beyond proof in the realm of personal belief.
It is this [4]Demiurge who resembles the creator god of scripture – a god who creates the world and its creatures. We consider the scriptural God as supreme, just as the Demiurge, in forgetting the higher powers above him, also thought that he was the supreme creative force. Knowing this ‘back story’ readily explains why the world is flawed, violent and ambivalent, why it survives by consuming itself in ways that are often savage and the cause of suffering to its denizens. This makes sense if the creator god is a lesser god who acted out of arrogance. But attributing the world and its creation to a god who is loving and all-powerful immediately gives rise to disturbing moral issues. If God is all-powerful, why does he allow such suffering to exist? And if he is loving, why did he consciously and willfully create the natural mechanisms which cause such suffering in the first place? You cannot cite sin as a reason, because the [5]natural world is not subject to sin.

A Dutch winter landscape, photographed not far from where I live. Our senses respond to the snowy white silence and purity of nature in winter, but for the animals which live in it, it can mean a time of hardship, starvation, and even death. 
In a recent earthquake that occurred in Peru a church collapsed, tragically killing many of the congregation who were at worship inside. What are we to think of this incident, if we consider the presence of an omnipotent god? Weren’t they praying hard enough? Such speculation hardly comforts the bereaved, and leaves us floundering in a moral morass.

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

So go the words of the well-known Sunday school hymn. But this squeaky-clean version of the creation only tells half the story. And Gnostic beliefs might have been vilified by the Church for centuries, but at least Gnostics managed to come up with a more feasible explanation for why things are the way they are.

[1] Potentially any warm-blooded animal, including humans, can become a host. But with nestlings I’m using the example which I have seen.

[2] Yes, I know what you’re thinking, and yes, such earthly parasitic life-forms were indeed the inspiration for the alien’s life cycle in Ridley Scott’s film.

[3] Hence the term ‘philosophy’: ‘love of Sophia (Wisdom)’.

[4] Although a unique entity, the Demiurge tends to be confused in Christian thought with the Devil, which is why the Christian claim that the Gnostics believed that Satan created the world is a misunderstanding.

Tyrannosaurus rex, the superlative-defying predator at the top of the Cretaceous food chain - and of the dinosaur popularity stakes in the human imagination - flourished at the very end of the age of the dinosaurs for a comparatively brief two million years.
[5] Even your familiar four-legged household friend lacks the enzymes necessary for the digestion of a vegetable diet, so please spare me the Christian fundamentalist claim that animals only became carnivorous after the Fall. Such a line of thinking leads inexorably to the idiocies of creationism, and creationist claims that Tyrannosaurus rex (above), whose bite force has been calculated at a staggering 2,900 pounds per side of the jaw (the most powerful of any animal known), was on board Noah’s Ark and ate coconuts. You think I’m making this stuff up? I wish that I was, but Kenneth Ham, the founder and CEO of the Creationist Museum in Kentucky, is on record as saying this. But then again, how do creationists know what dinosaurs looked like?

Sources are untraced for the leopard, the Vibro vulnificus bacteria, and the butterfly wing scales. All other photography and T. rex skull drawing by Hawkwood for the David Bergen Studio © All Rights Reserved. 

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