Thought for the Week: Beauty and the predator

Derek Guiton reflects a question posed by William Blake

What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Whatever answer William Blake might have given to this question (he doesn’t actually provide one), posed in the last verse of his poem ‘The Tyger’, the answer many would give today is natural selection. In Meeting for Worship recently someone ministered on the subject of house martins: how wonderful the symmetry, beauty and energy of their flight!

The message was not that the house martin is a terrifying, natural born killer, snapping up with speed and efficiency the exquisitely organised life-forms we call insects, but that its beauty is uplifting in a way that somehow excludes this disturbing thought. We see the bird as we might see the herb-eating gazelle: graceful, delicate and as evidence of ‘something beyond us’ – a beauty in nature that lifts us out of the everyday world because, perhaps, it is meant to.

Was this side-stepping of natural selection a kind of naive self-indulgence, as inadmissible in its way as the idea of ‘intelligent design’ so beloved of American fundamentalists? I can’t think that it was. We humans are planetary matter that has constructed a form by which the blind, unfeeling universe can see, know and understand itself. We are the product of a long process of change in the universe that goes back to the Big Bang theory. We cannot be certain that we are ‘meant’ to be here, but these are astonishing processes.

If the Big Bang really is how things got started (leaving aside string theory and the multiverse), our very humanity, including our need for love, beauty and transcendence, is predicated in that tiny particle, smaller than an atom, impossible to define, from which, the scientists tell us, our present universe exfoliated in the first instant of time. Perhaps, through us and through the rest of the evolved animal world, the universe itself is moving towards new forms of transcendence that may ultimately reconcile the ‘fearful symmetry’ of the tiger with the ‘graceful symmetry’ of the gazelle.

A little whimsical, you may think, and not quite answering William Blake’s question, but enough, at least, to accept the offering of a Friend who ministered movingly on the aerial acrobatics of a transcendently beautiful and perfectly designed predator.

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