Over dinner I innocently asked about the odd coloring--orange, red, blue, and green blotches--we had seen on the rumps of his sheep. "Ah, that's how we tell when the ewes mated," he explained with a chuckle. "I hang a container of colored chalk in a rather strategic place on my ram. He leaves his mark when he does his duty, and that way I know that all the ewes with orange rumps, say, were serviced on the 21st. When the due date rolls around--sheep are almost always fertile, you see, and they deliver right on schedule--I can herd the orange ewes into the barn and give them special care."
In the next few minutes I learned much more about the reproductive habits of sheep. Each ewe has only a six-hour window of receptivity to mating. This poses no problem to the ram, who can infallibly sense which ewe might welcome him at any given moment. The rancher relied on ten rams to "service" 4000 female sheep, which meant that the rams worked themselves to exhaustion over several weeks, losing much of their body weight in the process. All work, no romance. When I saw a scrawny, bedraggled ram, his chores done, his strength dissipated, good for nothing but the slaughterhouse and even then unfit for human consumption, I breathed a prayer of thanks for human sexual arrangements. (Zoologists note that very few species--humans, dolphins, some primates, and the large cats--engage in sex as a form of pleasure.)
The next morning as I went jogging through the fields, taking care where I stepped, I tried to imagine life from the sheep's point of view. Ninety percent of waking hours they spend wandering around, heads down, looking for lush green grass. Every so often a pesky dog barks and nips at their heels, and to humor him and shut him up they move in the direction he wants. Lo, better grass often awaits them there. As weather changes, they learn to huddle together against the rain and wind.
Once a year, a rambunctious cousin appears among them and dashes from sheep to sheep, leaving the ewes marked with strange colors on their rumps. Bellies swell, lambs emerge, and attention turns to weaning these small, frisky creatures and watching them gambol through the grass. Brothers and sisters may disappear, sometimes attacked by a Tasmanian devil--these carnivorous marsupials, nastier than any cartoon stereotype, really do exist!--and sometimes ushered away by the two-legged one. The same upright creature periodically drives them into a barn where he shaves off their coats, leaving them cold and embarrassed (sheepish) for a time.
As I jogged, it occurred to me that sheep, to the degree they think at all, may well presume they order their own destiny. They chew cud, roam the fields, make choices, and live out their destiny with only a few rude interruptions from dogs, devils, rams, and humans. Little do they know that the entire scenario, from birth to death and every stage in between, is being orchestrated according to a rational plan by the humans who live in the ranch house.
If God exists, and if our planet represents God's work of art, we will never grasp why we are here without taking that reality into account.
Rumors of another world sneak in even among those who restrict their view to the world of matter. Scientists who dare not mention God or a Designer speak instead of an "anthropic principle" evident in creation. Nature is exquisitely tuned for the possibility of life on planet Earth: Adjust the laws of gravity up or down by one percent, and the universe would not form; a tiny change in electromagnetic force, and organic molecules will not adhere. It appears that, in physicist Freeman Dyson's words, "The universe knew we were coming." To those who know it best, the universe does not seem like a random crapshoot. It seems downright purposeful--but what purpose, and whose?
I find more of a spirit of reverence among secular science writers than in some theologians. The wisest among them admit that all our widening knowledge merely exposes our more-widening pool of ignorance. Things that used to seem clear and rational, such as Newtonian physics, have given way to gigantic puzzles. In my lifetime, astronomers have "discovered" 70 billion more galaxies, admitted they may have overlooked 96 percent of the makeup of the universe ("dark energy" and "dark matter"), and pushed back the time of the Big Bang by five billion years. Biologists who gaze through microscopes rather than telescopes have discovered unfathomable complexity in the simplest cells.