God of love, Creator of the food chain

by Josie Smith.

I observed my cat one recent morning ruining a newly-planted flower bed in the course of pursuing a frog near the adjacent pond in my garden.    This is the nature of cats, I realise, but seeing her doing this raised questions in my mind, not for the first time.   She often suggests questions to me which are also both simple and profound.

(We have had a few simple yet profound Monday morning questions of late in Theology Everywhere, where the only possible answer was ‘both / and’.)

Can anyone tell me how to reconcile the concept ‘loving God’ with the predatory hierarchy, AKA food chain which appears to be a necessary part of the design of the created order?   

I know about that rather charming word picture about lions lying down with lambs, but lions and lambs have different digestive arrangements and neither could be sustained by the other’s diet.    The whole of nature, it seems, is designed so that the stronger, faster, cleverer or more toxic beasts live by killing and eating those lower down the food chain.  (Though there are enlightened cultures in which hunters will apologise to the animal they have just speared to death and ask its forgiveness, showing respect to their prey before consuming its strength to maintain and enhance their own.)  

How do we differ?  Genetically we, lions and lambs, cats and humans alike, are all made of the same stuff of life.

Are we in fact different from the rest of the natural world?    My football team has to be capable of beating yours, our child needs to have better exam marks than yours, and so on.    In international relations it would seem that the food-chain principle has always applied.   A diplomat would put it more delicately perhaps, and a dictator in other terms, but recent world events have furnished many examples – one could express it as ‘My tribe is stronger and better than yours so I propose to gobble up your land if I have to kill your population in the process.’

My generation was taught to believe that the human race (then known as ‘Man’) differed from all other created beings in having a soul, and more words have been written on this theme than ever angels have danced on pinheads.    But we now know that trees can communicate with other trees, that all sorts of creatures have recognisable language, and only recently someone with very sensitive recording equipment has picked up sound communication from a living mushroom. 

The more we learn about other living things – the close family relationships of elephants, communication systems of bees, design and construction skills of ants, birds and beavers, navigational skills of butterflies – the more we respect and marvel.    I am a cat person, but dog lovers will tell you of the devotion a dog will give its owner.    (Cats don’t have owners – it is cats who have humans, but they too are capable of a genuine relationship with another species, often us.)   And   crows, for example, are very good at problem solving.    As are some squirrels.

What is the soul, and why do we think we are alone in having it?

We have faith in a creator God, otherwise why are we reading – even writing for – Theology Everywhere?    And our mythical ancestor whom we call Eve was born with a silver question mark in her mouth, thus giving rise to the sciences which grew alongside theology.     Wondering ‘What if?’ leads to experiment, which may lead anywhere and sometimes in unexpected directions.

So I worship God, and (not ‘but!’) I also ask a lot of questions.

I am not able to answer – or find answers to – many of the questions I meet every day.    The best questions don’t have answers, but lead to deeper questions.   A Catholic priest I used to know turned questions aside by using the word ‘mystery’, but I prefer to understand life by the both/and principle.     My theology is not ‘systematic’, but proceeds by flashes of insight and by niggling doubts.  

And perhaps especially by walking with those who have also encountered the God whose name and nature is Love.

12 thoughts on “God of love, Creator of the food chain”

  1. God made our world as a dynamic renewing and evolving natural world where life and death are a natural process. Imagine what would happen in our world if there was reproduction but nothing ever died?

    Most living creatures hunt to live. Humanity is probably unique in its needless exploitation – killing when we don’t have to, allowing waste and even doing so for sport. We have not only plundered the natural world – we have messed with it. Watch programmes like Supervet and you see the dire consequences. Some dog breeds are no damaged that good health is nigh impossible. Other media will enlighten us to the environmental consequences of our modern way of life.

    So perhaps our reflection should be more on our relationship with the natural world around us as well as our relationship with other human beings. When I eat roast lamb, I am thankful for the lamb that lived and died and for those who cared for it. I come from a generation who bought meat in butcher shops, with carcasses hanging from huge metal hooks. The floor was covered in sawdust to absorb the inevitable drips of blood. We understood from an early age where our meat came from.


  2. Hi Josie.

    I’m interested in the importance of asking questions, and why some Christian’s are shy of it.

    In the sermon yesterday I referred to two different images of the Ascension. One of them, Dali’s paintings of the Ascension, and even more Christ of St John of the Cross open up the asking of questions – from “what on earth is that?” to “in what sense does the cross have a placed in the exalted Christ?”. The other image is the chapel of the Ascension in the Anglican Shrine at Walsingham. (2 plaster feet complete with sandals sticking out of a plaster cloud in the ceiling.) Dali it seems to me opens up lots of questions; the Walsingham image closes them down. I know which way I’m happier with.


  3. Death itself isn’t the problem! I’m not vegetarian, and I’d prefer to die quickly than to linger for years as so many sufferers have to do, but that was not the point of my questions. I was attempting (among several other things) to tease out the essential difference -it there is one – between humans and other animals. What is the soul, and why do we think we are alone in having it?

    I am reminded rather naughtily of Flanders’ and Swann’s comment in a pacifist song ‘If the ju-ju had meant us not to eat people / he wouldn’t have made us of meat!’


    1. If we don’t accept the Genesis version of creation with humans created separately, but prefer the evolutionary approach, this complicates the issue. If humans developed from other creatures, at what point did they acquire a soul? Or did they always have a soul of some kind, which became more sophisticated as the capacity for thought and reasoning developed?
      People like to think of pets, domestic animals and primates as possibly having a soul and continued existence. But what about worms, mosquitos or viruses?


  4. An interesting (and brave) article, Josie!
    Do animals have a soul? They are certainly capable of love, and if our soul is the spirit of love in us which lives on after death, why wouldn’t they have one? It’s a well-known fact that some people can connect with animals in a way that they can’t seem to do with humans. It’s a reason why films such as ‘Lassie Come Home’ and ‘Kes’ have been so popular. I remember as a small child being moved to tears while listening to Jim Reeves singing ‘Old Tighe’ and it still has the same effect today!
    Personally, I think animals do have a soul but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t eat them. After all, human beings have souls and we are part of the food chain. A hungry lion or bear would have no problem eating us.
    As for cannibalism, which you refer to in your ‘naughty’ comment, do other animals eat their own species? Do lions eat lions for example, or do bears eat bears? In civilised society, cannibalism is repulsive and abhorrent but we know it has happened in the past (and apparently still does, but I really don’t want to go there!)
    When Jesus said ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day’ he caused a stir, and many of his followers turned away. He asked his chosen ones ‘Will you also leave me?’ This is the question we must all ask ourselves when faced with the difficult and often unpalatable aspects of our faith


  5. I was brought up on a pig farm and when the piglets were taken from the sow my brother and I befriended them. We gave them names and fed them. Sometimes one of them disappeared and dad would tell us they had gone to heaven. Strangely this corresponded with the time we had roast pork dinner and some lovely sausages! Looking back I am sure the pigs went to heaven. I still love sausages. Here is a poem I wrote about them.


    I like sausages. Piggy bits with bread and herbs that taste of heaven.
    I like sausages with beef, chicken, onions, even beetroot: But always hot, very hot, on a cushion of mashed potato or wrapped in a bun.
    I even like sausages disguised as pies in crusty pastry.
    Sausages fill my soul and my belly.
    Sausages help me dig the garden, run a marathon, plough a field, write poems, compose symphonies, paint works of art.
    Sausages excite the senses, taste of a bliss I can hear, and smell, and touch.
    Sausages make the sun shine and blow up the black days.
    I like sausages, big sausages, not pretend sausages stuck on cocktail sticks:
    Sausages that look fat and contain fat, glorious roundnesses that gleam from the grill.
    I like sausages with mustard or in a bun, or chopped in a stew – that’s fun.
    I like sausages with a pint of Guinness, and I save a bit for when I have finished.
    I like sausages with attitude, that explode into my life and change everything.
    I guess I like sausages.


    1. I like sausages too, Robert, but I don’t like cooking them. They hiss and spit and splash my hand with boiling fat. Sometimes they look cooked on the outside but are still pink in the middle, or their skins burst open and the insides spill out. Very problematic! Much better if my husband does the cooking. I like mine with fried onions but then I have indigestion all night.
      I much prefer mince. I love mince (beef or lamb) in all its forms, shepherds pie and cottage pie, lasagne and moussaka, spaghetti bolognese and chilli con carne, burgers and meatballs, or just plain mince and tatties.
      I can’t say I’ve ever been inspired to write a poem about it though, I just revel in the mouth-watering smell and delicious taste of this versatile, nourishing, comfort food. Heaven on a plate!


  6. Reflecting about pigs and sausages does not answer Josie’s question, so I am going to try. The relationship between different species is generally competitive, predatory and hierarchical, although some creatures cooperate – to their mutual advantage. Human societies are generally based on principles of justice and fairness: We feel we ought to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, and socially we value cooperation over competition. The trouble is that in practice some aspects of society require an hierarchy and competition to operate effectively and then the powerful people at the “top of the food chain” tend to guard their position jealously and forget the ethical demand implicit in being human. So human societies are also based on competition and cooperation, and the question we should ask, at all times, is, are we behaving ethically? Theologically, do our actions and attitudes reflect the unconditional love of God.


    1. Well some would say we are not behaving ethically when we eat sausages and mince!
      Maybe we need to get our own house in order before lecturing others?


  7. I wonder if a response (as you say ‘answers’ are not really appropriate or even possible) to your question is to ask, ‘why ask the question?’ or may be ‘why does the question arise?’ What I mean is what is about ‘predatory hierarchy’ that clashes with the concept of a ‘loving God’? There are at least two aspects to this (although they over lap). ‘Where does any sense of ethics originate -that makes us think predation is unloving?’ and ‘does the existence of life like ours actually require (what we have learned to think of as) ‘harmful’ aspects?’ These are questions that could be metaphysical or scientific, but surely theology has something useful to say too.

    To take the second first. One can go far deeper than predation in the animal kingdom. It is probably the case that life as we know it would not be possible without the likes of earthquakes and volcanos and that the possibility of extreme weather may well be necessary too. [Human activity effecting these things adds another level to the discussion!] Others have pointed out the need for death.
    It seems to me (given that we think of many of these things as bad) any literal sense of an all loving, all powerful creator is problematic. (The, ‘it seems to me’ in the previous sentence, I hope conveys that the problem is mine and that I am not making a judgement on anyone else’s beliefs.) However, an incarnational God as creator may offer useful insight.

    As a scientific question, ‘where do ethics arise?’ is fascinating, but well beyond my understanding. As a theological question (actually probably even further beyond my understand!) again, I would have to say, any literal giving of arbitrary law by an Almighty Creator is problematic. Though again does an incarnational God (particularly existing in relation -the trinity) have something to offer?

    Post Script: What does all this say about ‘the soul’ and who/what has one? Is it helpful to consider the concept of a soul as a metaphor (as with all theological language) and that if giving it too much literal meaning pushes to unhelpful places might we pull away from the literal rather than tie ourselves in knots?


    1. You said it, Tim. Why tie ourselves in knots over questions that don’t have answers, only varying responses?
      Life’s too short! Anyway, it was nice to see the lighter side of Robert while it lasted 😉
      I don’t have a problem with hierarchy. I enjoyed the Trooping the Colour this morning, along with millions of others at home and around the globe. And I raised a glass to her Majesty. Happy Birthday, Ma’am and Happy Platinum Anniversary. Congratulations, well done and thank you. I am blessed to have lived during your reign. God save the Queen!


  8. Tim. You ask where does ethics arise. I am sure I read in Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and elsewhere that God’s law is written on our hearts: The law or demand that we should care for each other, particularly the widow and the orphan. Jesus of course said the same thing. But the clincher for me is that we see this ethical demand, written on our hearts, in everyday human kindliness; the love within which we live, move and have our being. So I would say that ethics arises because of this demand written on our hearts. Also I want to say that I was impressed by your thoughtful comments on Josie’s question.


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