First, the news: There’s a new baby giraffe at the San Diego Zoo. The birth was a public event, so a large crowd got to watch it happen. There may have been a few permanently traumatized children among them, as a giraffe delivers standing up. That means the baby (mostly a tangle of spindly legs) drops a full six feet to the ground.
But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the human urge to discover/assign meaning to things. Let’s start with Natural Theology.
In the eighteenth century, it became the fashion for respectable people to try to ferret out the secrets of chemistry, geology, astronomy, and the like. In time, the results of their work, particularly in the realm of geology, would be seen as eroding the very foundations of revealed religion. Perhaps it’s surprising, then, to know that many of these early pioneers were pious ministers of God. Obviously, these good folks had no desire to upset organized religion. Quite the opposite. Having an infallible guide and history text in the Bible, they fully expected to have the Biblical version of earth’s Creation, the Flood, and all the rest confirmed by the facts on the ground.
Well, that’s not exactly what how it went. The contradictions between scripture and the latest science shocked a lot of good Christians. Among those not so affected were the Natural Theologians. Far from being disturbed by the fresh data, they were avid fans of all the new research. Our understanding of scripture was often fallible. But since the world is the will of God made manifest, the best way to understand the nature of God is to study Nature itself. Hence, for them, each new discovery exposed some new facet not only of God’s world, but of God himself. (He was, of course, male.)
The modern movement began in 1802, when William Paley published Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature. In it, Paley introduced what is easily the most common metaphor of modern Creationism: the Divine Watchmaker.
Suppose, said Paley, that one day, while taking a walk, you found a beautiful watch upon the ground. Knowing nothing necessarily of its function, its history, or its reason for being, from its coordinated parts and systematic movements, you would inevitably be led to conclude that its existence was no matter of chance. Simple logic would lead you to conclude that it was a piece of design and that somewhere there was a watchmaker who had fabricated it.
Using the same logic, contemplation of any insect, or plant, or animal, with all its infinitely complicated and interdependent parts would lead logic to conclude that there was a Divine Watchmaker somewhere who had shaped the world to His ends. To understand the essential goodness of God, one has only to contemplate Nature.
Considering that nature can be pretty “raw in tooth and claw,” followers of this idea were sometimes led to some rhetorical gymnastics in order to detect the essential goodness of God. My favorite is the case of parasitoid wasps, which lay their eggs in paralyzed prey so their young will have something to eat when they hatch. For most of us, the thought of being paralyzed and waiting to be eaten from the inside out is the stuff of horror films. So it’s a bit dizzy-making to read the Natural Theologians rhapsodising about how the tender care and prudence with which the mother wasp prepares for her young shows God’s care for living beings. Somehow the plight of the poor paralyzed incubator/lunch doesn’t count.
Creationists and believers in Intelligent Design are still looking to fathom the character of God by seeing it manifest in Nature. They are not alone. It seems to be part of our makeup to try to understand, to feel things are in control, and to try to find meaning. This leads some of us toward science, while others prefer theology.
For those who follow science, the focus has narrowed a bit. Rather than seeing all of nature reflecting a benign goodness, today’s professionals are less romantic. Asked what could be inferred about the nature of God from His works, scientist J.B.S. Haldane is supposed to have replied that God seemed to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”
But although we’ve replaced romance with ecology, that doesn’t mean we still don’t harbor a certain awe and a desire to find meaning. We’re just a bit more selective. It takes a pretty pure cynic to look at things like the miracle of birth without feeling there is something wonderful about the nature of life, this world and, who knows, about God.
But that may be solipcism.
I suspect if you went up to that baby giraffe, stuck a microphone in his face and asked him what he thought about God and this new world he found himself in, his answer would be simple: