Friday, June 16, 2017

Theological Bestiary, Part 6: Raven

The raven is a common sight in my home area of the northeastern US--ravens, together with their smaller cousins, crows, are among the most frequently spotted birds here, sitting in regnal authority on their overlooks high in the tops of trees. While there are other, larger birds around as well--bald eagles, ospreys, hawks, and owls--it does not seem to disturb the ravens' supreme self-confidence in their own intelligent abilities to act as master of the northern woods. The common raven is indeed one of the most intelligent, adaptable, and widespread of all birds, and can be found throughout most of North America, Europe, and Asia. In the biblical and Christian tradition, the raven holds a unique spot of prominence: associated in art and imagination with death, but acting in the pages of Scripture as a keen and obedient servant of God. But before we get to its theological associations, here are a few interesting facts about ravens:

- Along with dolphins and a few other select species, ravens are standout examples of animal intelligence. Under laboratory conditions, they have successfully solved logic puzzles which require a sequential, step-by-step analysis of a problem, and they appear to have solved these puzzles by reasoning the process out, not by simply using trial-and-error. They have been observed in the wild as being able to communicate about objects or events that are significantly separated from themselves by either distance or time (an extraordinary mental skill known as displacement). They have also been noted for their abilities to cooperate with one another (in sharing information regarding food caches) and to deceive one another (for example, by pretending to cache food somewhere, knowing that another raven was watching and would try to steal from the cache). They can cooperate with other species, too; regularly calling wolves to a carrion-find that they can't open up as efficiently as the wolves can. They have been known to make toys out of sticks, and to play elaborate games with one another (chase games, looping flights, and cooperative tricks like locking talons while in flight), as well as games with other species (playing chase games with otters, foxes, and wolves). Other groups of corvids (the family comprised of ravens, crows, magpies, and jays) have also demonstrated keen intelligence--Clark's Nutcrackers, for example, have demonstrated a capacity for spatial memory far beyond what humans are capable of (remembering the exact placement of thousands of food-caches over a vast landscape); and magpies have been seen playing mean-spirited practical jokes on other species (favorite targets appear to be domestic dogs and cats) as well as apparently holding "funerals" for fallen members of their species. 

- Among the most famous birds in the world are a group of six ravens who inhabit the Tower of London. These semi-tame ravens, carefully watched over by Tower staff and beloved by visitors, are part of an old monarchical legend: it is said that the royal monarchy will remain in England as long as the ravens live at the Tower. While the birds are beloved, on rare occasions a Tower raven can be sacked from his post for "conduct unbecoming a Tower resident."

- One of the reasons that ravens are so widespread and adaptable is that they are able to find food from a remarkable variety of sources: live prey, carrion, garbage, eggs, animal waste, fruit, seeds, nuts, and cereal grains.
In the Bible, ravens appear as one of the most-often cited species of birds.  In Job, the Psalms, and the Gospel of Luke, ravens are given as examples of the way God faithfully provides food for his creatures. In one famous story, the ravens are actually used by God as providers of food: in 1 Kings 17, the prophet Elijah, living in the wilderness at the outset of a great drought, is fed by ravens, who are directed by God to bring him bread and meat every morning and evening. Ravens are indeed a wise choice for this task, since they are just about the best procurers of food in the whole family of birds. 

There is one more story about ravens in the Bible, which, in intervening tradition, has come to be interpreted in light of ravens' negative associations with darkness and death: in Genesis 8, as the floodwaters are beginning to recede from the earth, Noah sends out a raven to see if any dry land has appeared. The Bible says that "it kept flying back and forth until the water had dried up from the earth." There is nothing inherently negative in this portrayal; it may simply speak to the raven's diligent and perseverant implementation of its task. However, later interpreters noted that the raven does not return to Noah, whereas the dove, which Noah sends out next, does return. The raven thus came to be taken as an allegorical representation of Satan, holding a position of persistent rebellion and disobedience from God. Likewise, later interpreters in the artistic tradition came to view ravens as an omen of evil, associated with darkness because of their plumage, and, most of all, with death, because of their practice of feeding on carrion.

The raven's double meaning in Christian symbolism--both in a negative aspect (the darkness of death, disobedience, etc.) and in a positive aspect (a faithful servant of God and an example of God's faithfulness)--reminds us of the double meaning of death itself. In Christian theology, death is both a tragedy and a mercy. It is a tragedy because it is a consequence of man's rebellion against God, of his disobedience against divine authority. In its power to take away human life, it disrupts our intended destiny as beings made for everlasting relationship with an eternal God. Because of this, Paul goes so far as to describe death as an "enemy" (1 Cor. 15:26). But strangely, death is also a mercy. In the story of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, one of the explanations given is that they must be barred from eating of the fruit of the tree of life. Why? Because "[man] must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever" (Gen. 3:22). According to the early church fathers, the logic behind this prohibition is as follows: since we humans were now corrupted by sin, we needed the purification of death (and specifically, our mystical association with the death of Christ) to liberate us from the deformity of our sin-warped nature. If we had been allowed to become eternal beings in our sinful state, then our sin--and the torment, brokenness, and sorrow that went with it--would likewise become eternal. God allowed us to remain in a state subject to death in order to provide a way to free us of the cancer of sin. Death, then, becomes--ironically!--our way to eternal life. Because we share in the death of Christ on our behalf, death becomes no longer merely an enemy or a tragedy, but a mercy administered to our broken condition. This is why Christians can talk of death not as a hateful thing, not as an ending or a hopeless sorrow, but rather as a passage to a great and glorious future of everlasting life. 

So when you see the raven, remember that we serve a God so great that he can take even so dark a thing as death, and remake it to be a faithful servant of his great plan of redemption and re-creation. 

(Images - Top: "Elijah Fed by the Ravens," by Paolo Fiammingo, c.1585; Upper inset left: "Raven," illustration from A History of British Birds, by Rev. F. O. Morris, 1862; Upper inset right: "Jubilee and Munin, Ravens of the Tower of London," photo by Colin, shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license; Lower inset left: "Elijah Fed by the Raven," by Girolamo Savoldo, c.1510; Lower inset right: Illustration #14 for Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven," drawn by Gustave Dore, 1884)