Very often, late at night, looking out at the faint outline of trees, the vast dark skies and eerie moonlight floating above, I think of nature, and God’s wisdom displayed therein. You know the “beasts of earth” and “birds of air” type stuff- and how man was given dominion over them. Too unfortunately, some Christians interpret this as a harsh dominion. Protestant Christian philosophy seems to harbor innate hostility towards nature, a “take and kill what you want” attitude which allows devastation of natural resources. “What use is fussing about the temporary world?” they say “God’s going to destroy it all anyway.”
Now, Catholic philosophy has long said “Let all that lives and breathes bless the Lord.” Some of our great saints, such as Francis of Assisi, Kateri Tekakwitha and Hubert, the patron of hunters, walked amongst nature and saw God’s hand at work in it. We see, on Christmas day, the newborn Jesus adored by lowly ox and ass. We tell stories of mules bowing before the Eucharist and doves landing on popes. To the Catholic Christian, natural things convey supernatural realities. After all, we’re those weirdoes who believe that bread and wine actually becomes the body and blood of Christ. And I fancy only a Catholic would stop and ponder the deeper, theological meaning of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book.
Though the character of Mowgli, considered neither man nor wolf, strikes me as a sort of savior-figure, who masters the animals and destroys their chief enemy, there is something perhaps more subtle that catches my eye. It is the jungle’s creation-story, in the second installment which foretells when every animal will fall under one law. During a severe draught, a truce is declared for sake of survival. At the water hole, where animals drink, none of them may kill or hunt another. Here, Mowgli learns that Shere-Khan, the tiger, killed a man, asks why and then hears the jungle creation-story.
It begins with a creator-god…or elephant; who makes all the jungle creatures, all the land, water and food. All animals only eat plants and fruit- they are innocent. It is the Tiger who brings sin into the world. He gets banished and fear takes flesh in the form of hairless, cunning human beings. The tiger returns, admits his crime but then slays the human out of pride. He says: “I killed fear” but because he did so, man, that fearsome creature, learns to kill and deal death. Here we see the motif of creation, paradise and original sin. Interestingly, the Tiger is given one night yearly to venture forth and lawfully kill a man.
Blood begets blood. From first-kill comes first-predator. Man is fearsome, a most-wise enemy of nature who, forgetting his primordial home, builds villages and fires. He holds dominion over the animals, trapping and killing as he pleases. His tools are deadlier than any tooth or claw. Hurt by that first sin, he sets himself against nature. Likewise, Adam and Eve battled animals and forces of nature after expulsion from paradise. In Eden, they never needed fire. Yet, out in the desert, they needed not only fire, but nets, spears and knives. Against the emergent onslaught of sin and death, man devised many tools and deadly strategies. However, his enemy was- and always will be the Tiger, the agent of that first sin. A cunning predator, the Devil has allowance into our homes, a work-permit towards our destruction. Scripture compares this enemy to “a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.” Pride breeds pride. In a vicious cycle, man and Devil ever threaten the world around them.
Here, the story ceases to give further insight. The rest could be guessed. I believe that henceforth, man is given a choice. He can fashion nets to save animals- or to slay them. Whether he kills for food or for pleasure makes the difference. The way he kills speaks volumes about his soul. For if God made man in His own image, ruling over the beasts, his humanness and mercy betray God. When merciless and cruel, he betrays another. By no mistake, we regard a man who loves animals as sensitive and kind but think a man who hates them as heartless and frightening. An animal-lover mirrors God who condescends to lesser beings. Like God, he feeds, tends, looks after the weak and gives shelter. He is fatherly, like a husband. The man who beats, tortures or starves animals echoes the Devil who only undermines and destroys. We would never trust him with our children!
Now, I’m not saying the perfect Christian is a tree-hugging hippie- no, I’m saying that Christian faith obliges us to care for what is beneath us. We act in God’s image whenever we feed a stray dog, scare a possum off the road or knock a bird’s egg back into the nest. A stewardship has been placed in our hands. How should we use it? We’ve all heard the saying: “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” But how, tell me, shall be man? Isn’t he more than tooth or claw? Has he not received a rational mind, ruling over the earth, wielding bow and trowel, both hunter and gardener, modeled in the loving image of God?
Nature red in tooth and claw,
man beheld natural law.
Creation laden death and glory,
forests ring with man, his story.
I twas a gatherer for God first gathered
the starry sky.
I twas gardener for God first planted
the greenest byre.
I twas fisherman for God first schooled
flocks of the sea
And I twas archer for God first plucked
Lo, but after fall,
I gazed upon nature all.
Man the killer, not under law,
held fin, leaf and feather
beneath red claw.
Then I twas ever to bleed,
keep from bleeding
and to make bleed.
Once, no thing slew,
now we all slay