One of the defining features of the debate about science and faith is the stark difference in the way evolutionary processes are perceived. While many scientists find the intricate web of internal mechanisms and external influences to be not only fascinating but beautiful, those who have not spent years studying biology and ecology are just as likely to see natural systems as depicted by science as no more than “red in tooth and claw,” an affront to the Biblical affirmation that God created a good earth, though now marred by sin. How do we begin to sort out these issues of conflicting images of evolution? A starting place may be comparing two perspectives on another highly ambivalent natural system and symbol—a fairly common “garden variety” spider and its web.
In April of this year, poet Suzanne Rhodes gave a presentation at the University of Virginia—Wise likening the craft of poetry to the way the family of spiders known as “orb weavers” spin their webs. One of the three largest families of spiders, the Aranedae makes what might be considered the archetypical form of web, with circular bands of sticky prey-catching silk organized around and supported by a structure of radial strands. But just as interesting (and instructive) to Rhodes as the basic form of the web was the process by which it was made and—at the end of the day—unmade.
An orb weaver begins her work by casting a multi-stranded line of silk far into the air, letting the wind carry it an often-considerable distance before it hits an upright object like a tree, a tall stalk of grass, or even a building. From this initial thread the spider begins to build the scaffolding for the rest of the web. For Rhodes, this first arachnid ‘act of faith’ is very much like the way a poet must begin a work by allowing her thoughts and sensibilities to focus on whatever happens to be out there in the natural and cultural world at the moment—essentially, of waiting on the Spirit to take the lead by carrying the silk of her attention to where it needs to be attached. This is neither an unguided nor unconstrained sense of “inspiration,” but one that recognizes the importance of waiting (rather than an immediate act of will) to creative acts like poetry—something not far from the kind of patience and observation practiced by scientists in order to discern a specific approach to solving a problem in their fields, or even to recognize a problem in the first place.
The unmaking of the orb-weaver’s web was also an important metaphor in Rhodes’ description of the creative process, as it is also integral to the completion of the working web, while also allowing for the next web to built. The first few strands an orb weaver establishes after the first launched line are typically not artfully laid out in the eventual radial pattern. Rather, they are somewhat haphazard temporary supports connected to whatever other objects are nearby and at sufficient height, and linked together by a hub. Little by little, subsequent lines begin to conform to the eventual pattern and the first become unnecessary to the stability of the web. Indeed, once the spider has laid out the sticky circles of the working part of the web she eats these first helper lines, reabsorbing their material into herself to become part of the now much-more coherent and organized final structure.
Rhodes suggests that this is very much like the necessity of editing and revision in the craft of poetry, as early lines and images get a poem started and may even be quite beautiful in themselves, but often must be sacrificed as the eventual order and aim of the whole becomes more clear to the poet. This creative scaffolding is not “bad,” by any means, and early working versions are actually indispensable to the development of the eventual poem, but they must also be set aside and reabsorbed if the final work is to be completed and serve its purpose of revealing and describing a truth. This sense of sacrificing the means to the ends is given another twist when the poet asks us to consider that many species of orb weavers deconstruct their entire webs each day, eating them, recycling them, and beginning the whole process anew, depending on a new breath of air to show her the way.
As with the first part of the process, the orb weaver’s habitual setting aside of its previous hard work in order to be about the ever-renewing business of being a spider can be a useful analogy for the way the scientific endeavor rightly pursued requires that scientists not be over-fond of their own constructs, but be willing to have them taken apart and rebuilt for the larger purpose of seeking a true understanding of the material world. And likewise, it can suggest the way we must also be open to the constant renewing of our minds (not to mention hearts and wills) under the leadership of Christ, even when that means setting aside cherished thoughts and ways that turn out to be less than central to the life of following and proclaiming Jesus.
Clearly, the orb weaver is a powerful symbol of both spiritual and creative truth for Suzanne Rhodes—something wonderful and beautiful. But my own experience with orb weavers was somewhat less poetic, and can serve as a counterpoint, of sorts, on our way to thinking about reconciliation.
Many weeks of my summers growing up were spent on my grandfather’s farm near Corpus Christi, Texas, fiddling in the shop or roaming about the homestead on a John Deere riding mower. In addition to driving on the “yard” part of the property, I typically drove the three black dirt paths that led from my grandfather’s farmhouse across the field to his parent’s old place, to the main road out front, or (the longest run) to the back of the farm at the next section road. These “roads” were really no more than 8’ to 10’ breaks in the row crops, typically cotton and milo, or grain sorghum. When mature, milo’s deep green, corn-like foliage is topped by seed-heads that vary from pale yellow through orange and reddish brown, standing a bit over four feet tall.
At nearly head-height for a boy abut 10 years old and sitting on a riding mower, the lines of those ruddy, golden seed heads converging in the distance seemed a magical pathway, made better by the fact that I was navigating it at the helm of a motorized vehicle, and going at a pretty good clip. Magical, that is, until I ran smack dab into the web of a large orb-weaver who'd strung her web all the way across the road, also precisely centered at boy-head-height. I remember feeling the whack of the spider, which seemed to be as big as a dinner plate—or at least my hand, which scale was probably a bit closer to the actual span of 3+ inches. That initial close encounter would have been bad enough, but was made much worse byt the fact that I now had very strong sticky web all wrapped around me, which felt an awful lot like more spiders. I let go of the wheel of the mini-tractor and plowed off into the rows while I tried to extract myself, hoping that the spider had bailed out soon after impact.
Eventually, I recovered my composure and got the mower back on the road and continued the drive—taking deep breaths to ward off the shudders I was still getting, not being too keen on creepy things with more than six legs, anyway, and still having little tendrils of silk tickling the back of my neck now and then. With my eye fixed on the horizon again I was able to start thinking about how impressive it was that a spider was able to cast its web all the way across the road, and that its colors blended so well with the backdrop of the milo that it had been all but invisible, even given its size, and even given the zig-zaging stabilimenta the Argiope spiders add to the basic structure of the web. And that's when I hit the second one.
Those encounters did not help my opinion of spiders, which wasn’t very high in the first place. Indeed, for years after that I felt something like (but not quite) disgust at them, and really, really didn’t like the idea of having them on or near my person. My reaction did not rise (or sink) to phobia, but it was very much not “friendly,” either. But in retrospect, I had also been given a glimpse of something quite marvelous about their abilities as natural engineers—something I could not help but recognize as worthwhile and true, even if I didn’t like it, or found the specific ramifications of being caught in the web myself unsettling.
The point of tying my personal narrative to the description of artistic and scientific process, then, is to carry one step further the idea advanced in last week’s post on oysters and pearls: that God opens unexpected spaces to demonstrate His agency and grace. For if God works in the dirty and grimy and unglamorous places, hiding pearls of beauty in their midst, He also works through means that do not have the obvious redemptive surprise of a gem hidden inside. Sometimes the Lord’s means remain resolutely resistant to our attempts to find them lovely rather than ugly. Sometimes God’s ways aren’t just mysterious, but seem to mock our sense of propriety and make us wince at they way they violate what we understand to be right and beautiful. Despite the victory of Christ’s resurrection, the cross remains an unmitigated image of suffering and shame.
So what do we do with such images, objects and processes that strike many of us as repulsive, yet also seem to be integral to the way God is working in the world? While the orb-weaver and evolutionary creation are drawn from the ways of nature, the conflict between expectation and fact is just as often felt in our interpersonal and social relationships as in our intellectual ones. In all areas, we are required to humbly depend on the Spirit to help us see the way forward, rather than retreating on our well-worn and well-loved paths.
We may never be fully comfortable with the people we are called to love, nor with the processes and agents through which the Lord works creation and redemption in our midst. But unity does not require unanimity. Rather, by the Spirit the Church can actually be what the Lord has called us to be: a community of people whose differences incline them towards argument and who would likely never choose to be associated with one with otherwise, but who join with one another on account of our common fellowship with Jesus. Though we may all one day come to appreciate strange beauties like those of the orb weaver, the greater lesson is learning to trust the Lord even in his most jarring ways, when we still find the spider’s web a reason to shudder, rather than rejoice.