I have been thinking more (I already wrote a blog) about butterflies. I remember reading The Marvelous World of Bugs, in which it described the debate about whether butterflies–indeed all instincts–have a unified stream of consciousness. The idea is that the insect eye receives its information to see from all around it at the same time, and so there is a mystery if the bug experienced it as a unified stream or if it “sees” all kinds of things at once without their coalescing into one image (the way what we see does). We do not know when a butterfly floats away from a person or a bird, on what level it is “conscious” that it is doing so. We do not know what it is like to “see” the way bugs do, even to the degree we can picture being a chimp, a dog, or a cat.
That said, I believe that God works his way through the butterfly. To love the butterfly is to love a small bit of God. All animals reflect the will of God, even the nasty ones like tarantulas and piranhas. “Natural Theology” (arguments from Nature to prove there is a God) is obviously defunct in philosophy; but there is a kernel of truth within them that deserves to be recognized. We can appreciate God’s awesomeness by looking at the great mountains or the tiny hummingbirds. The most insightful people in every religious tradition refer to Nature, whether Jesus in the New Testament says to “look to the flowers” and “look to the birds” while Francis of Assisi is said to have spoken to “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon,” while befriending such creatures as a Wolf who was stealing sheep from human pastures. As for the Jewish tradition, perhaps Isaiah,
But as the heavens are high above the earth
So are My ways high above your ways
And My plans above your plans.
For as the rain or snow drops from heaven
And return not there
But soaks the earth
And makes it bring forth vegetation,
Yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is the word that issues from My mouth:
It does not come back to Me unfulfilled ,
But performs what I purpose,
Achieves what I sent it to do.
Yeah, you shall leave in joy and be led home secure.
Before you, mount and hill shall shout aloud,
And all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the nettle, a myrtle shall rise.
These shall stand as a testimony to the LORD,
As an everlasting sign that shall not perish.
This is evidence in favor of God’s working through Nature, as are the droughts and earthquakes in the Bible being referred to as if they are “God’s Will.” Although this raises a key problem in Jewish theodicy–why would a good God act out such cruelty towards his people?–it does create an intimacy often overlooked between humankind and Nature. Despite the occasional harshness of God, he gave the Israelites “a Land of Milk and Honey.” In the stories in the Bible, one recalls the pagan prophet Balaam rebuked for beating his ass by the animal himself, and there are other portions of the Bible which teach,
A righteous man knows the needs of his beast
But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty.
However, in the teaching of Maimonides and in the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the need to be kind to animals is pressed further. And though Spinoza both was regarded as a “heretic” by the Jews of his age, and failed to see his teaching’s implications towards animals (because while he believed Nature was God but claimed it was of little interest to humans whether “beasts feel”), the belief that God exists in Nature–which I believe is influenced but not identical with Spinoza’s God–creates the idea that each element of Nature possesses “God-consciousness.”
Despite the theological problems of seeing God in Nature–why do certain animals eat meat, including humans?–I believe that it can help us save the earth for humans and animals both. Why? Because then the violation of the earth by using carbon fuel will become a violation of God and not merely an impediment to self-preservation. Despite what people believe too often today, I believe that if a person believes there is a moral imperative and not just a practical imperative to do something, it is more likely to get done. Don’t get me wrong–there is a limitation to building an ethical system on “shoulds”–but I believe that humankind is more than a creature guided by more than necessity. Just as animals are recently being discovered to have a certain amount of altruism, so the human animal if it lacks this altruism becomes lonely and afraid. By seeing our kinship with other animals is not just physical but spiritual, I believe that humankind will be motivated to do the right thing.
That is why today’s young people should learn to love animals, and work against the powers that would allow them to go extinct. Of course, people should work to find environmentally friendly energies in cars and other machines that use carbon emitting fuels. Yet if a person does not love the other animals, a necessary component of saving the earth will not get done: saving the lions, the elephants, the rhinos, the zebras.
And of course, to save the larger animals takes the salvation of insect and plant life. Birds eat butterflies, and butterflies take certain plants to live. A person can plant Native Plants (in my area swamp weed, butterfly weed and milkweed) for the Native butterflies. That will be “saving a world” for humanity. All it takes is a backyard.
That leads back to my little friends who visit in the backyard: the butterflies. Whether monarchs or swallowtails, they remind a person of the delicacy and beauty of life. We can only hope that today’s kids recognize the value and the beauty of these tiny creatures.