In what she later called “the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm,” Isak Dinesen went flying across the unspoiled plains of Africa with her friend Denys Finch-Hatton. In the film version of Out of Africa, the character playing Denys first invited her by saying, “I want to show you the world as God sees it.” Indeed, the next few minutes of cinematography come close to presenting exactly that. As the frail Moth airplane soars beyond the escarpment that marks the beginning of the Rift Valley in Kenya, the ground falls abruptly away and the zoom lens captures a glimpse of Eden in the grasslands just below.
Great herds of zebras scatter at the sound of the motor, each group wheeling in unison, as if a single mind controlled the bits of modern art dashing across the plain. Huge giraffes—they seemed so gangly and awkward when standing still—gallop away with exquisite gracefulness. Bounding gazelles, outrunning the larger animals, fill in the edges of the scene.
The world as God sees it—does that phrase merely express some foamy romantic notion, or does it contain truth? The Bible gives intriguing hints. Proverbs tells of the act of Creation when Wisdom “was the craftsman at his [God’s] side … filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world.” The seraphs in Isaiah’s vision who declared “the whole earth is full of his glory” could hardly have been referring to human beings—not if the rest of the Book of Isaiah is to be believed. At least God had the glory of Nature then, during that very dark time when Israel faced extinction and Judah slid toward idolatry.
God makes plain how he feels about the animal kingdom in his longest single speech, a magnificent address found at the end of Job. Look closely and you will notice a common thread in the specimens he holds up for Job’s edification:
- A lioness hunting her prey.
- A mountain goat giving birth in the wilds.
- A rogue donkey roaming the salt flats.
- An ostrich flapping her useless wings with joy.
- A stallion leaping high to paw the air.
- A hawk, an eagle, and a raven building their nests on the rocky crags.
That’s a mere warmup—Zoology 101 in Job’s education. From there God advances to the behemoth, a hippo-like creature no one can tame, and the mighty, dragonish leviathan. “Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?” God asks with a touch of scorn. “The mere sight of him is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me?”
Wildness is God’s underlying message to Job, the one trait his menagerie all hold in common. God is celebrating those members of his created world that will never be domesticated by human beings. Wild animals bring us down a notch, reminding us of something we’d prefer to forget: our creatureliness. And they also announce to our senses the splendor of an invisible, untameable God.
Several times a week I run among such wild animals, unmolested, for I run through the Lincoln Park Zoo near downtown Chicago. I have gotten to know them well, as charming neighbors, but I always try mentally to project the animals into their natural states.
Three rock-hopper penguins neurotically pace back and forth on a piece of concrete that has been sprayed to look like ice. I envision them free, hopping from ice floe to ice floe in Antarctica among thousands of their comic-faced cousins.
An ancient elephant stands against a wall, keeping time three ways: his body sways from side to side to one beat, his tail marks a different rhythm entirely, and his trunk moves up and down to yet a third. I struggle to imagine this sluggish giant inspiring terror in an African forest.
And the paunchy cheetah lounging on a rock shelf—could this animal belong to the species that can, on a short course, out-accelerate a Porsche?
It requires a huge mental leap for me to place the penguin, the elephant, and the cheetah all back where they belong, in “the world as God sees it.” Somehow, God’s lesson on wildness evaporates among the moats and bars and plastic educational placards of the zoo.
Yet, I am fortunate to live near the zoo. Otherwise, Chicago would offer up only squirrels, pigeons, cockroaches, rats, and a stray songbird. Is this what God meant when he granted Adam dominion?
It is hard to avoid a sermonic tone when writing about wild animals, for our sins against them are great indeed. The elephant population alone decreased by 800,000 in the last two decades, mostly due to poachers and rambunctious soldiers with machine guns. And every year we destroy an area of rain forest—and all its animal residents—equal in size to the state of California.
Most wildlife writing focuses on the vanishing animals themselves, but I find myself wondering about the ultimate impact on us. What else, besides that innate appreciation for wildness, have we lost? Could distaste for authority, even a resistance to the concept of God as Lord, derive in part from this atrophied sense? God’s mere mention of the animals struck a chord of awe in Job; what about us, who grow up tossing peanuts across the moat to the behemoths and leviathans?
Naturalist John Muir, who never lost a vision for “the world as God sees it,” reluctantly concluded, “it is a great comfort … that vast multitudes of creatures, great and small and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God’s love before man was created.”
The heavens declare the glory of God; and so do breaching whales and bouncing springboks. Fortunately, in some corners of the world, vast multitudes of creatures can still live and have a good time in God’s love. The least we could do is make room for them—for our sakes as well as theirs.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- Learn more