Saturday, July 2, 2011

God and Flamingoes

A little decorative flamingo sits on my desk right in front of me while I work. I grew up in Florida, where flamingos are not strangers: almost every tourist attraction in the pre-Disney days sported at least a few flamingos and several, such as Busch Gardens in Tampa had whole sections of these beautiful birds. Florida and the rest of humanity though, took this wondrous bird and turned it into kitsch, a 'cheap thing', a plastic lawn ornament, or a campy college joke in the dorms. Flamingos in the minds of many became and have stayed, campy kitsch. They are the 'bad taste' lawn ornament and desktop decoration, along with lawn jockeys, and little statues of old women bending over tending their gardens and the like.

I hold without objection, that the flamingo is not only not the symbol of cheap bad taste, but is one of the most exquisite evidences of God in the World.

One has to first look for the first time authentically at the flamingo. The graceful s-shaped smooth feathered neck, is crowned with a perfectly elliptical head with a beauteous beak often sporting several colors, but certainly a deep saturated golden yellow and shiny black. The feathers of the body are plump and luscious, and gracefully fold in small waves across the sides, held up by the crane like legs and webbed feet. Most exquisite is the coloring of flamingos: it is a blushed rose pink with a slight orange, so peculiar to the bird that we call a certain color 'flamingo pink'. Its tuft is a soft white blending into the rose orange.
If the bird were only another animal, a product of some random design, one would not expect its grace and agility of movement to match the delicate but vivid coloring. One might expect function: since adaptation to the environment would certainly come forefront, but one would hardly expect a blithe creature of intense hue that looks as though it walked out of Eden: what would be the purpose? The coloring alone would immediately call the bird to attention from predators: the rich hues would place the bird at risk from its enemies: in what some call millions of years of adaptation, the effervescent, airy aesthetic of the thing would hardly have lasted, if the species lasted at all.

Evolution has no criteria of beauty. And yet the exquisite design of the flamingo, suggests among the finest art or rendering of design one can see. The flamingo speaks of creation by an artist, who has an intrinsic concept of design, color and the understanding, that there would be other creatures, other creations, which could attend to and appreciate, even drink in wonder. The flamingo is not for food, the flamingo does not add greatly to the workings of any eco-system anymore than any bird, but the flamingo creates in the observer a sense of astonishment and satiation of splendid aesthetics. One almost drinks it in. Beauty for beauty's sake: there to admire and satisfy a need for the beautiful and wonderful.

While the flamingo is not directly mentioned in the bible, there is little doubt at least a form of the modern flamingo was in the area: some consider its biblical mention to the that of an egret, or crane or ibis: it is from the web footed general 'duck' family, and bears a familial resemblance also to swans. Forms of egrets and cranes were used in Egyptian fishing boats to retrieve the catch, and certainly practices of that sort remained effective in the general region. The lack of an english word translation does not mean there was not a type nor kind, only that they are not as far as I can tell directly mentioned. Yet somewhere in the heart of artists portraying the Garden of Eden, one finds them often wandering around.

The heart of the issue, though, is creation. My son and I discussed the other day the wonder of a hard drive. He had a corrupt drive he decided to break open with a hammer to see the internal workings. Explaining the metal disk, the magnetizing of filaments, the miniscule 'needle' which translates our complex commands into a positive or negative charge was mind boggling that not only could it have been constructed, but that one would have ever conceived of the process at all. I looked at the confounded thing and thought of the utter genius of the contraption on which we place so much hope and trust, and on the utter fragility. I did not think, "Oh, I'll wager that came from a big bang somewhere, where all of a sudden the universe snapped and produced a biochemical event that came together and created modern information storage." To think that about a hard drive would require men in little white coats and transportation in a van. And yet we so glibly consider when gazing on the wondrous flamingo, defying natural selection in many regards, that it might not have had a creator.

Perhaps the flamingo is merely a random product which only delights the mind and eye out of some random consequence or some subjective solipsistic concept of beauty: the logic does not pan out, for all share that concept, and though we may say 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder' there is a certain degree of 'beauty' which we all desire and admire, having never met one another nor discussed the philosophy of beauty. Somehow the maligned flamingo fits the bill.

It is not only the flamingo though that bears this distinction. Consider some birds directly mentioned in the Bible

1Ki 10:22 For the king had at sea a navy of Tharshish with the navy of Hiram: once in three years came the navy of Tharshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.
2Ch 9:21 For the king's ships went to Tarshish with the servants of Huram: every three years once came the ships of Tarshish bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks.
Job 39:13 [Gavest thou] the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?

God challenges Job with his sovereignty asking him if he gave 'goodly wings unto the peacocks?' Does the peacock fit the bill (pardon) of a wondrous creation so unique it defies random adaptation?

Or the Ostrich:

The 'hoopoe' or the kingfisher, or the halcyon floats in a nest on the sea---the dove is perfectly sculpted and used as a metaphor for the Holy Spirit---the flora and fauna of the Song of Songs or the rest of the Bible are so exquisite, so beyond imagination, so intricately MADE that even one species by random chance on a general principle might be seen as a statistical improbability, but the thousands of variations speak to an unfathomable possibility that the whole of creation would occur by random events. Creation speaks to a creator. There is no other logical possibility. Some creatures show adaptive qualities, perhaps all, but they also show qualities which defy 'function' and utilitarianism. Some features may attract a mate, and engender the furtherance of the species, but at the same time make the fellow more noticeable and thus endangered. The magnificence of creation excludes random self-creation. That indeed requires not only a foolish 'faith' but a form of delicate idiocy.

With these thoughts, I propose the great elevation and promotion of the Flamingo (or hoopoe, ostrich, peacock or even an occasional giraffe) to an emblem (not idol) of God's sovereign design in Creation. Never let a flamingo be taken as a simple thing.

E. K. Best more next time.

One could name a hundred more.

1 Bodenheimer, S.F. Animal and Man in Bible Lands.