I was trawling through my Facebook news feed last night and came across this extraordinary picture posted by one of my friends in Virginia who has a love for the natural world, having served for several years on the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. My first reaction was that it must have been a photoshop production, but then I read on and found the story that the picture was trying to tell. It happened a good seven years back but its influence remains fresh:
‘Recent headline of the San Francisco Chronicle: Female humpback whale who had become entangled in a spiderweb of crab traps and line weighted down by hundreds of pounds of traps that caused her to struggle to stay afloat. She also had hundreds of yards of line rope wrapped around her body, tail, torso and a line tugging in her mouth.
A fisherman spotted her just east of the Farallon Islands and radioed an environmental group for help. Within a few hours, the rescue team arrived and determined that she was so bad off, the only way to save her was to dive in and untangle her. They worked for hours and eventually freed her.
When she was free, the divers say she swam in what seemed like joyous circles. She then came back to each and every diver, one at a time, and nudged them, pushed them gently around as she was thanking them.Some said it was the most incredibly beautiful experience of their lives. The guy who cut the rope out of her mouth said her eyes were following him the whole time, and he will never be the same.’
What should we make of a story like that? From an animal behaviorist perspective, that humpback whales are intelligent creatures is a consensus view. A 2006 study published in The Anatomical Record compared a humpback whale brain with brains from several other cetacean species and found the presence of a certain type of neuron cell that is also found in humans. Might, though, the intelligence of cetacean species like the humpback include empathy?
The degree to which non-human animal life is capable of empathy and the larger range of emotional intelligence has been a matter of scientific debate for a good couple of decades. However, what might we say about this story and the wider question of our relationship to creation from a theological perspective?
How might we move our awareness as a species toward the experience that those divers had in the San Francisco Bay, communing with a creature many, many times their size? To see nature in such a way is to undergo a change as the diver who freed the humpback’s mouth attests to. At its heart, the Christian life is about such change. It is about an old self dying so that a new one might be raised up. Paul’s letters in particular speak again and again of our need to see God’s new creation in the world around us, most especially in the panoply of human diversity. Galatians 3:28 puts it like this, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’
What, though, if we were to go on, ‘there is no longer homo sapien and cetacean, no longer human and animal’. What if the new creation, all of which is redeemed in Christ, were to offer us a new identity that saw our belonging and its communion extend into the natural world? What if we all were able to cast a figurative gaze into the eyes of a humpback whale, or a lowland gorilla, or a snow leopard? I imagine that in the end, should such a degree of emotional intelligence ever sink in underneath our own craniums, we might end up even more human, even more true to our own identities. Indeed, the time for such a learning curve to be traveled is not on our side. To rework Jeremiah, ‘Seek the shalom of the city’ and of the sea, for in its welfare we shall all find our own.