Pioneer magazine

NASTY HABITS, NASTY GOD?

Blister beetles, and things that go bump in the night, may have you asking why God created things to be nasty. But did he? Do we too easily blame him for life’s suffering and evil? Worse still, do we doubt his existence because of them, asks Tom Cahill SVD

Blister beetles have nasty habits. When threatened, they release blood laced with cantharidin. A highly irritant chemical, it causes acute pain from severe blistering on skin; hence the beetle’s name. But that’s nothing compared to what newly hatched ones do. Clustering together, they fake the form of, and emit the scent of, a female bee. Luring a male to a close encounter of the wrong kind they strike out, latching on to him with their pincer-like limbs. Later, during mating attempts with real female bees, he deposits the larvae on them. The female brings the larvae into a nest that they then wreck by devouring its pollen, nectar and bee eggs. The female ichneumon wasp is no better. She stings caterpillars to paralyze but not to kill them. Having paralyzed one she lays eggs in it. When the larvae hatch they eat their host alive. Ugh!

An orca, a10-tonne killer whale, will surf in on a large wave, career up a beach populated with seals, snatch a pup and shuffle back to sea with it. It hurls the seal into the air. When it plummets back with a flat splash the whale wallops the unfortunate pup with its mighty tail. Up it shoots; back it splashes; only to be belted ferociously again into the air. The ‘sport’ continues for some time. Naturalists don’t know why orcas do this, but suspect that the pounding loosens the baby  seal’s skin and breaks its bones for easier eating.

Instincts and habits like those make some people ask why if God is benevolent did he make creatures to be like that. Could he not have made them less brutal? Even more so when natural disasters kill hundreds of thousands of unfortunate people, they ask could he not have made a safer world? What kind of a God is he? And there’s no shortage of ghastly examples of mindless mayhem, genocidal bloodletting, ruthless pogroms, vicious crimes and sheer evil throughout history right up to our present day. Some may question the existence of a good God in the light of the abominations we subject each other to – even question the very notion of there being a God at all.

Cruelty, predation and its inevitable pain and suffering seem embedded in life. Why? Asking ‘why’ is hoping for a head-answer to a heart-question. It’s bound to be unsatisfactory. It won’t and can’t explain away the hurt. So where to look for some sort of rationale?

Science and Scripture

Science? It hasn’t come up with a satisfactory answer yet. Even accepting a survival-of-the-fittest theory the question still remains of where the survival-drive comes from. Could there not have been a milder method of ensuring species continuation than the triumph of brute force, as has been the case so often? Scripture? Well that’s a mixed bag. Passages like 1Sam 15.18 don’t help much, “The Lord sent you on a mission, and said, ‘Go, utterly destroy the sinners, the Amalekites, and fight against them until they are exterminated.’” However, Scripture does tell us that things weren’t like that in the beginning – not even God! Eden’s God is not an exterminator. That said, there’s not a shred of evidence that there ever was a Garden of Eden. Indeed, what evidence could there be? But then Genesis’ creation narrative is storytelling. It’s not scientific, historical, or biographical writing. It tells us both what happened and what didn’t. Perhaps initially, fresh from the hand of God, the first humans did for a time experience life idyllically as though in a splendid garden – as Genesis imaginatively portrays. But it’s telling us also what yet could be were we to acknowledge God and live in harmony with him: the transformation of our world into a Garden of Eden. Therefore, not only is the creation story historical-based it’s also future-focused.

Perhaps prophetic storytelling best describes it. Prophetic storytelling deals with reality. Otherwise it’s mere fantasy – entertaining, but of no consequence. The creation narrative deals with the reality of human beings and their relationship with God in the beginning. Let science discover when, where and how that beginning was, if it can. For our part, as people of faith, we take seriously science’s discoveries and situate our beliefs in the historical context of what actually happened. Otherwise faith is divorced from reality. Holders of such faith may be fearful of reflecting on it in the light of on-going scientific discoveries, or fall victim to the arrogance that unquestioning and unquestionable certainty can bring.

Original Sin
So can anyone say why our beautiful planet and its highest life form can be so treacherous at times? The Church tries to by her teaching on Original Sin. But as far as human beings are concerned, since the ‘small detail’ of whether we began monogenetically or polygenetically is still contentious the teaching can’t be situated in real time, or real history. So it’s not entirely satisfactory. If Original Sin is transmitted by propagation as the Church teaches – Catechism of the Catholic Church #419: “We therefore hold, with the Council of Trent, that original sin is transmitted with human nature, ‘by propagation, not by imitation’ and that it is . . . ‘proper to each’” (Paul VI, CPG § 16) – it would seem that monogenesis is the more likely candidate for facilitating that process.

Viewed simply, polygenesis offers two possibilities: many couples simultaneously appearing in one or more locales; or many appearing independently in different locales. For these early ones to qualify for human status they would need free will. Could theology be so sure of itself that it could declare quite categorically that all the Adams and Eves – whether they sashayed on cue seamlessly from chimp-like creatures to homo sapiens, or made a staggered entry on to the evolutionary stage – sinned before God? Were it so, then one might be forgiven for regarding them as programmed puppets instead of free beings made in their Creator’s image and likeness.

The Church also teaches (CCC #404) that the transmission of original sin is a mystery we cannot fully understand. Fair enough, but if we can’t explain sufficiently the ‘how’ of what happens it weakens our case for the ‘what’ that we claim does happen. So how certain is the Church about this, and what’s that certainty based on? The Catechism further confounds matters by stating that original sin is called ‘sin’ only in an analogical sense as it’s contracted not committed. Some might think that life’s pain and suffering is a heavy price to pay for an analogy.

Acts of Freedom
With regard to the pain and suffering visited by some human beings on others we can attribute its horror in part to freedom misused, love betrayed, nobility debased and selfishness unchecked. The possibility, almost the inevitability, that some people will perpetrate the grossest forms of evil on others is the inevitable price of freedom. And, bedevilling though the thought be, were we not free to be irredeemably evil we would not be human. We’d be machines.

Furthermore, according to CCC #1615 referring to Christian marriage: “By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God.” The Catechism tells us that sin disturbed the original order of creation. Does that mean that were it not for Adam and Eve’s disobedience there would be no such things as, for example, tectonic plate shifts that cause earthquakes and tsunamis? Do these plates move only as a punishment for Adam’s sin? That’s quite a plateful for any thinking person!

Regardless, there’s something unsettling about the image of God, sitting at his desk, so to speak, planning and designing such cruelty. Scripture tells us above all else that God is love. (1Jn 4.16) Well, if he is, he has a strange way of showing it if indeed he did create some things to be as nasty as they are. But did he? Only one answer is possible in faith: a resounding no! God would never, could never, be cruel towards any creature or being. Otherwise, how could he be a God of love? And this is the bottom line. If our perception, or partial understanding, of anything distorts our image of God as he who is unreservedly benign then it’s our perception and understanding that must change, not our image of God. Just because nasty things happen that we can’t justify doesn’t mean that God is to blame. We see as in a glass darkly, according to Paul (1Cor 13.12). Only the light after death will change that for us. Let’s be big enough in humility to accept that many things will remain beyond our comprehension, always seem contradictory and even totally at odds with there being a good God.

Head and Heart
Clearly, head answers are unsatisfactory. Let the heart have sway. It may alleviate the hurt. People are often incredibly heroic, generous and self-sacrificing in dire situations. Nothing, neither famine, pestilence, war, earthquakes or tsunamis can crush the human spirit and destroy the goodness that’s embedded there. These never have and never will. Faith enables us to see that made as we are in the image and likeness of a good God we would expect nothing less from our brothers and sisters. Why are there tectonic plates that shift, blister beetles, stinging wasps, killer whales and things that go bump in the night? God only knows!