CONSIDER THE BIRDS: HOW GOD'S GLORY SHINES IN OUR CONNECTEDNESS TO NATURE
Liz Charlotte Grant
'The Offering' (oil on canvas), by Olga Bakhtina
In elementary school, I bent toward the bottom of a cardboard box, where a herd of fluffy chicks squeaked a raucous chorus—a representation of Easter to my Christian school teacher. During middle school, I took to heart the story of the ugly duckling, as I personally reckoned with my braces, boney elbows and knees, and pudge around the waist. Vs of geese honked overhead during field hockey games, and I threw French fries at seagulls at the beach. Birds were around, all the time.
But in Sunday school, I began to understand that birds were not merely nuisances or ornamental. The Scriptures describe how God created each species of winged creature (Gen. 1:20) and how God safeguards each bird attentively (Matt. 10:29). Likewise, as created beings tasked with attending to God’s creation, humankind’s continuity with birds—such as in their unique form of consciousness and their interconnectedness to human lives—illuminates our calling to care for birds, both in our backyards and in our world.
Birds appear throughout the Bible. In the story of the Flood, God directed Noah to bring two of every kind of the bird onto the Ark (Gen. 6:20)—the first animal class to be included—and then Noah sent out two birds—a raven and a dove—to find dry land (Gen. 8:6–12). The Israelites ate quail during their desert wandering, and ravens brought food to the prophet Elijah at God’s prompting (1 Kings 17:2–6). And in the Gospels, a dove represented the Holy Spirit’s presence at the baptism of Christ (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10; Luke 3:22; John 1:32).
Every culture has developed symbolism and made myths around birds.
Take Aesop’s fables, for example. The study of birds began early in humanity’s history, with the first recorded observations coming from Aristotle and later Pliny. Both ancients wrote comprehensive natural histories, and their study marks the beginnings of ornithology.
Yet while many bird behaviors were easy enough to decipher upon close inspection—Aristotle, for instance, correctly chronicled the food birds ate, the way they reproduced, their habitats, and their specific calls—their migration remained a mystery. Aristotle concluded that swallows hibernated in winter, leading him to believe that all birds hid in dens during winter, while he ignored evidence from travellers who had spotted Grecian cranes who had migrated to Egypt for the winter months. In fact, as hobby birder Chris Petrak puts it, “Try not to laugh. [Aristotle’s] conclusion was accepted wisdom for over 2,000 years.”
Pioneers in science and theology, such as 17th-century naturalist John Ray, had a different take on the migratory patterns of birds. In his work, Wisdom of God, he says:
"The migration of Birds from an hotter to a colder Country, or a colder to an hotter, according to the Seasons of the Year, as their Nature is, I know not how to give an account of, it is so strange and admirable. What moves them to shift their Quarters? …Think we that the Quails for Instance, could see quite cross the Mediterrownean Sea? And yet, it’s clear, they fly out of Italy into Africk... That they should thus shift Places, is very convenient for them, and accordingly we see they do it; which seems to be impossible they should, unless themselves were endu’d with Reason, or directed and acted by a superior intelligent Cause." [sic]
To Ray, the origin of these yearly flights made no sense unless birds possessed a mind, or, in lieu of individual consciousness, a higher consciousness (God) that compelled the birds to travel. Ray, like many scientists before and after him, studied the natural world to identify the hand of God within it, so his conclusion makes sense—though to 21st-century evangelicals, it can seem trite.
The “God of the gaps” theory uses God to explain what humans cannot by scientific observation, and Ray adopts the theory here. The problem with “God of the gaps,” however, is that God appears weaker or even irrelevant if humans discover an observable cause later on.
Yet Ray’s assertion of birds possessing “Reason” that he could not explain could be interpreted as wiser than he knew; today’s scientists have discovered that birds do have a form of consciousness.
Take the crow. Recent studies have confirmed that crows can recognize human faces. In fact, the crow and its cousin, the raven, appear to hold grudges, remembering which experimenting scientists fed or snubbed them.
Crow researcher Kevin McGowan says of his subjects, “The crows around here, they know my face. … They know my car, they know my walk, they know me [even] 10 miles away from where they’ve ever encountered me before.”
Crows possess brains the size of a chimpanzee’s. New Caledonian crows use tools like sticks, twigs, and dry leaf stems to retrieve bugs. A crow in captivity even bent a piece of straight wire to hook food.
Yet crows and ravens are not the only impressive “bird brains”: Magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror, a classic animal cognition test that proves animals understand both how mirrors work and also that they are viewing themselves in the glass. (This test has also been passed by mammals such as bottlenose dolphins, and Asian elephants, and chimpanzees among other apes; it’s one often failed by human babies until they’re 18 months old.)
Western scrub jays that stole collected food from other jays’ hiding places showed that they could remember which jays might have observed their hiding spot, and then hid their food again after the observer had left. They could anticipate theft from another bird (because of their own thievery!) and prepare for it, showing future thinking and the ability to anticipate another’s behavior.
Cockatoos can make music and keep a beat. Grackles can solve puzzles for food. And one African grey parrot trained by researcher Irene Pepperberg mastered speaking 100 English words in context, along with the abstract concepts of “same and different” and zero. (Another of Pepperberg’s parrots can identify shapes and colors.)
What does such consciousness in birds tell us about the Creator? Such similarity between humankind and birds suggests the worth of each creature made by God, each being imbued with characteristics of their Creator. Just because the Scriptures emphasize the way that humankind images God uniquely does not mean other creatures oppose the image of God; rather, they reflect God differently than humankind does.
According to a 2016 study, every winged creature means 18,000 unique species of birds that currently exist on our planet, with nearly 200 to 400 billion individual birds within those species. (We humans are outnumbered.)
Yet we humans may be tempted to consider the “worth” of birds as tangential to our own—such as in recent legislation passed by the Trump administration that has limited protections of migratory birds from the effects of big business (among other EPA rollbacks the administration has sponsored).
In part, such ambivalence toward nature can be found in theologians’ work in the early 20th century, including Karl Barth, who believed that the transcendence of God necessarily devalued the material world. (Barth’s views and theologians’ responses to those view are summarized aptly by religious studies scholar Willis Jenkins).
Walter Brueggemann’s take on Barth, according to Jenkins, showed in his work a lack of theological inquiry into the importance of the “land” in the Scriptures. In contrast, Brueggemann emphasizes the importance of land to biblical peoples as integral to their relationship with Yahweh. He also calls pastors to recognize that “we are designated as God’s partners in the maintenance and care of creation.”
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann went further in his collection of lectures God in Creation:
“… if we see [God] in a trinitarian sense as the unity of the Father, the Son and the Spirit, [then] we can no longer, either, conceive his relationship to the world he has created as a one-sided relationship of dominion. We are bound to understand it as an intricate relationship of community—many-layered, many-faceted and at many levels.”
In the material world, we can observe the ways that our lives intersect with the lives of birds. Like the Trinitarian unity in diversity, our life on this earth is similarly interdependent. As pastor Tim Keller says of the Trinity in his book Reason for God, “Each of the divine personas centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them.” Such attention to the other—the Father to the Son to the Spirit—mirrors a selfless interconnectivity.
While birds cannot purposely choose interdependence with us, they still serve us, echoing the Trinitarian dance. Birds’ existence furthers life on our planet—including human life. As ornithologist and Houghton College professor Eli Knapp points out:
“‘When one tugs at a single thing in nature,’ John Muir once wrote, ‘he finds it attached to the rest of the world.’ Ecosystems are intricate tapestries. They’re interwoven with myriad species in many ways we do understand and some we still don’t. The way I see it, humans have but one job regarding the Earth: to serve it and keep it. … Birds are a manifestation of God’s glory. This makes protecting them a natural outgrowth of Christian worship.”
We have a tendency to value creation for its utility to humans, and there’s good reason for that. As Knapp, said: “Where would we be without the chicken? I, for one, gasp at the thought [of] a life with no omelets. … Our utilitarian uses of birds [is seen also by] anybody who has fended off a chilly January day with a down jacket. …”
In addition, birds act as a natural pesticide for farmers, protecting crops from insect infestations. Birds spread the seeds of plants. Birds act as harbingers, often signaling natural disasters. They help speed the decomposition of other dead creatures and act as both predator and food source. Their flights have provided many engineering lessons for scientists (even inspiring human flight!). Add to all that the beauty birds provide. (Knapp described certain species as “visual candy,” a reason alone to take up bird-watching.)
Certainly, birds provide general utility to humans. But the Scriptures also say that God gives attention to these creatures individually. In Matthew 10:29, Jesus says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.” The same God who created such a multitude of winged creatures also manages to keep watch on each created individual from its birth to its death. We bear the image of God in recognizing how the reconciling work of Jesus and the unity of the Trinity bear on the rest of creation. If we take the Scriptures seriously, we can be assured that God sees and knows each bird that perished in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. God sees and knows the birds whose habitats have been destroyed in wildfires across my home state of Colorado. And God sees and knows each endangered bird, such as eagles, Canadian geese, and vultures, that have become vulnerable to death by oil and gas companies.
God’s specific attention toward his creatures teaches humans that God also views us with specific care. Yet God’s stated attention toward birds challenges the view that humankind matters more to God than the rest of creation. In fact, all of Creation is seen by God, and all of it is declared “good.” Ultimately, humans image God in our care of creation as much as in our distinctiveness from it.
As ecotheologian David Clough concludes in On Animals, Volume II:
“The lives and deaths we inflict on other animals very clearly fail to regard them as fellow creatures who glorify God in their flourishing, who are reconciled with all things in heaven and earth in the work of Jesus Christ, and who are heirs with us to the new creation where there will be peace between all creatures.”
Our independence is an illusion. Like the rest of creation, humankind is dependent on God and dependent on other created things for our next breath, an interdependence that mirrors the Trinity. As we humans nurture creation, we usher in the shalom of the lion and lamb, an intricate community at peace with God and each other.
Liz Charlotte Grant is an award-winning essayist whose work has been published by theHuffington Post, the Christian Century, Christianity Today, Dappled Things and many more outlets. Her newsletter, the Empathy List, was nominated for a Webby Award in 2022, and her first book, a creative midrash on Genesis, will be released in 2024 from Eerdmans. Find her on Instagram and Facebook @LizCharlotteGrant.
This article first appeared on ChristianityToday.com on June 3rd 2020. Used by permission of the author and Christianity Today, Carol Stream, IL 60188
Cover image (The Offering, oil on canvas) used by permission of the artist, Olga Bakhtina. For more information about the artist and her work, please visit https://olgabakhtina.com/