2017-07-12
My wife and I stayed once in a bed-and-breakfast in rural Tasmania, the rugged island off the southern coast of Australia. A sheep rancher had built a guest cottage in the middle of his fields, and for an extra fee lodgers could take a meal in the ranch house. Aware that we would probably never eat fresher lamb, we signed on.

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.

C. S. Lewis conjectured, "There may be Natures piled upon Natures, each supernatural to the one beneath it." Do we stand in relation to God as sheep stand in relation to us? The Bible suggests that in some ways we do. "It is [God] who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture," wrote the psalmist. Note the possessives: his people, his pasture. According to this point of view, we live out our days in a world owned by another. We may insist on autonomy--"All we like sheep have gone astray"--but in the end that autonomy is no more impressive, or effective, than the autonomy of a Tasmanian ewe.

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.

The process of reducing has, ironically, made the world more complex, not less. The DNA molecule inside each cell contains a three-billion-letter software code capable of overseeing and regulating all our anatomy. Increasingly, we are learning to read the code. But who wrote it? And why? Can anyone guide us in reading not only the micro-code inside each cell but the macro-code governing the entire planet, the universe?

Rumors of another world seep into art as well. Poets, painters, novelists, and playwrights--those who know a little about creating a universe--feel stirrings even when they cannot detect their source. Virginia Woolf described "moments of being" that hit her with the force of an electric shock:

Perhaps this is the strongest pleasure known to me. It is the rapture I get when in writing I seem to be discovering what belongs to what: making a scene come right, making a character come together.... At any rate, it is a constant idea of mine that behind the cotton wall is hidden a pattern, that we--I mean all human beings--are connected with this, that the whole world is a work of art, that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet, or a Beethoven quartet, is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven. Certainly and emphatically, there is no God. We are the words. We are the music. We are the thing itself. And I see this when I have a shock.

To an artist, the world presents itself as a creation, akin to Beethoven's quartets and Shakespeare's "Hamlet." What if Woolf is wrong and there is a God? If we are in fact God's music and God's words, what tune should we be playing, what words reciting? Milton's question echoes across time: "What if earth be but the shadow of heaven...?"

Sometimes the shock hits not one person but a community, a whole nation even, a shock so great that, unlike Virginia Woolf's, it does turn thoughts to God. That happened to the United States on September 11, 2001. As a side effect, an act of monstrous evil exposed the shallowness of an entire society. Professional sports ground to a halt, television comedians went off the air, as did all commercials. In a flash we saw the comparative meaninglessness of much of our lives. That three thousand people could go to work as part of their daily routine and never come home made us all aware of our fragile mortality. Married couples canceled divorce plans; mothers and fathers trimmed work hours to spend more time with their children. We found a new kind of hero: firefighters and police officers who, contra the principles of sociobiology, gave their lives for people they never knew.

Over the next months, The New York Times ran a separate article commemorating every single person who died, not just the famous or the newsworthy, as if every person killed on that day had a life of value and meaning, a life that mattered. And for a time attendance at churches swelled. The shock conveyed good and evil, death and life, meaning and absurdity in such stark terms that we turned for answers to the people--pastors, priests, rabbis--who have always warned us not to build our houses, let alone our skyscrapers, on shifting sand.

What Americans learned on that day, and are learning still, is that sophisticated moderns have not renounced transcendence but rather replaced it with weak substitutes. Unlike past generations, many are unsure about God and an invisible world. Even so, we feel the longings for something more.

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