Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Ask The Birds

“But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; and the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.” (Job 12:7 NASB) This unusual concept was a reply given by Job to his accuser, Zophar, who had proposed confidently that Job’s trials were punishment for his sins. Zophar and Job’s other “friends” had piously cited object lessons from the natural world to strengthen their case for condemning Job. Now Job is turning some of the same wisdom back on his accusers.

We may wonder what birds may teach us about the truths of life. He also cites the earth itself and fish of the sea. Job does not elaborate extensively. “Who among these does not know,” Job inquires, “that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” Are these verses and the remaining verses of chapter 12 merely poetic imagery? Or could humans learn lessons from the birds of the heavens? And what would those lessons be?

Outside my office we have installed an ornamental water fountain which doubles as an avian bird bath and drinking station during the summer. Currently our various neighborhood birds have completed their parenting duties for the year and the permanent winter residents now seem to have banded together for some high sprited fun in addition to satisfying their need for food and water. Groups of mixed bird species sometimes excitedly fly from tree to tree or branch to branch in what seems to be a mysterious, exuberant celebration. The bedlam often ceases as suddenly as it began, only to resume another time.

One recent day our fountain was the locus of action. Within ten minutes seven different bird species visited the fountain. Many were robins, but they were joined by a blue jay, slate colored junco, cedar waxwings, starling, red bellied woodpecker, and several cardinals. In my human wisdom I would not have been bathing in the 36˚F temperature. But the cardinals seemed to enjoy splashing in the cold water with their feathered audience looking on. Most birds merely seemed intent on taking turns quenching their thirst. One exception was provided by two robins 90˚ apart on one level. In addition to drinking they periodically faced each other, opening and closing their bills in unison. Several other robins chased each other around the yard at intervals. What unknown purpose was served by these behaviors?

The blue jay garnered the most respect. He drank alone, having assertively dispersed the other birds for a few moments. Many birds seemed to politely defer to each other. Rarely did more than one or two drink at once. In ten minutes I observed behavioral interactions which could be variously described as joy, excitement, cooperation, submission, caution, assertiveness, aggression, dominance, boldness, and fear. My research provided information on the desirability of helping birds during winter by keeping a water fountain liquid all winter with a submersible heater. Most over-wintering birds seem to manage well without the human provision of feeders. Perhaps providing water is more important. Most important may be the lessons provided for us by the behavior of “birds of the heavens.” Their innate wisdom teaches humans some valuable lessons.

We learn from wild creatures by systematically observing their activities. The familiar verse in Matthew reminds us that wild animals’ innate wisdom is supplied by God Himself: “Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” Evidence that our Father values us more highly is plentiful, including our intellectual capacity to provide for our own needs in ways animals cannot. The inherent wisdom of animals, however, provides humans with much food for thought. The exuberant autumn antics of our neighborhood birds are a gift of the provident Creator, both to the birds and to us.

In a broad sense, we may say that the tutorial provided by our feathered neighbors is a lesson from natural theology--a human lesson drawn from our “reason and ordinary experience” which points to the existence and actions of a divine Being. Science and natural theology are different pathways to realities of how the natural world works, including the scientific question of causes. Most professional scientists are willing to stop off at a naturalistic explanation for fascinating everyday phenomena we observe, consigning any hint of a theological implication to religionists. The problem of separation constructed between science and religion is known as the demarcation problem. It is hotly debated by scientists who wish to preserve the naturalistic purity of science unencumbered by any theological implication.

Multiple passages in scripture tilt us toward contemplation of the deeper theological significance of things we observe in the natural world. As I watched seven distinctly different bird species cavorting around my water fountain, I admired the unique beauty of each one along with their distinctive mannerisms. For me, explaining their physical beauty and behavior entirely by naturalistic reductionism amounts to an absurdity. I highly respect the methods of science which aid me in understanding beauty and behavior. In most instances science provides an entirely adequate account. Contemplating deeper theological significance, however, enhances our understanding and enjoyment of the reality of the Creator and His relationship with the created order.