Saturday, 6 June 2015

Cats, Compassion and Comprehension

Last week, we were staying with my parents-in-law up in Scotland, which was mostly extremely pleasant.  However, they have a new cat, a very handsome ginger kitten by the name of Rory, who, halfway through dinner one evening came through the cat flap carrying a bird.  The bird did not approve of this situation because, you see, the bird was still very much alive.  Not that it would have approved of the situation any more if it were dead of course, in fact it might have thought it even worse, but nonetheless this was not a position in which the bird wished to find itself.

Dinner was therefore briefly abandoned while were attempted to corner Rory, and persuade him to release his innocent victim, which he was greatly enjoying letting go before instantly recapturing it, batting it around and generally going about the kind of things that the CIA and MI6 get into trouble for doing abroad.  Eventually we succeeded, via the expedient of wrapping him in a towel and dangling him upside down, a situation that he appreciated even less than the bird, and he made his disapprobation known via the medium of his claws.

We then caught the bird, which was fluttering around on the floor, and released it out into the garden, where it promptly hid behind a plant.  Rory sulked, and wouldn’t talk to us for several hours for spoiling his fun.  Good deed deeded.

However, later that day, I was pondering this, and I wondered whether either animal had any idea of what we were doing or why.  After all, cats hunt birds.  If Rory were wild, or even feral, that’s how he would survive.  Birds gets hunted.  If Rory were wild, or even feral, that’s how many of them would go, not to mention sparrow hawks, other cats, peregrines etc.

Did Rory understand that we were rescuing the bird because we wanted to preserve a life that didn’t need to be taken?  Did the bird feel any sort of gratitude, or did it think that it had merely escaped from a second predator that had seized it from the first?  If the bird had no conception that it had been deliberately rescued, and I see no reason to believe that it did, then why would it feel gratitude at all?  Such a thing as compassionate altruism towards a random member of another species is totally beyond the idea of a cat or bird (or, I suspect, the vast majority of animals) to comprehend.  They might form an emotional attachment to another creature (although only really in artificial circumstances such as pethood), but to rescue a strange bird from a cat would be totally outside their experience or understanding.

So here comes the inevitable theological comparison; a lot of people seem to believe that humans are capable of understanding their universe in totum, and that we should want to.  The latter I leave to the philosophers, but I’ll try and deal with the former.  Obviously there are things that we don’t know, and we know we don’t know them, but hold out hopes of understanding them given sufficient study.  But then there are the things that we don’t know that we don’t know.  (I actually tried to think of an example of this, before realising that I was being very stupid).

Some of these we will gradually become aware of, and they will come into the category of things that we merely don’t know yet, but others are completely beyond our ability to comprehend, things for which we have no point of reference, that we are not mentally or physically capable of experiencing or processing, and, of course, the greatest of these is God.

It has often been said that it is impossible to speak of God without instantly committing heresy, because there is no way to do so without reducing God into something that humans are capable of understanding, even if we don’t actually claim to understand Him.   There was a news story recently regarding using gendered language to refer to God as He and Him, but even referring to God as a ‘being’ is to make of God something less than He is.  Indeed, the only true thing that can be said about God is what He said to Moses.  “I am that which is”.  God is incomprehensible, and a great many (if not all) questions that we ask can only be met with an honest “we don’t know”, or the “God works in mysterious ways” which so many atheists find so frustrating, because they think that we ought to be able to know.  (And, to be fair, far too often it is used as an intellectually lazy cop-out.)

It might be asked then, why we bother with theology at all, but I believe that God wishes us to understand Him as much as it is possible for us to do so, and this was surely in part what the Incarnation was about.  “He became like us, that we might become like Him”.  I said in a previous post that I would consider any theology simple enough for me to understand (without wishing to do down my own intelligence; I’ll let others do that) far too simplistic to be anywhere near the truth, and I hold to that.  I do not support wilful ignorance, and I will not stop my own pondering on the nature of God, but I will never assume that because so many things are now unclear, that therefore they are false.  To adapt an archaeological maxim, an absence of understanding does not equate to an understanding of absence.

I leave a great many avenues of thought here unblogged, not least is the fact that although I saved the bird from Rory out of compassion and a desire not to see a creature die needlessly, I quite happily eat meat that I don't technically need to in order to survive.  Thoughts for another day perhaps...

No comments:

Post a Comment