The Theology of Birds
Something that cannot be said in words . . . Something sweet and unknown . . . The wind . . . the brook . . . Something that comes to a trembling fuller tone Like a waterfall . . . That little brown creature is singing A music of water, a music of worlds; He will fly away south, But his song stays in the heart Once it is heard. —The Hermit Thrush by American Poet Hilda Conkling (1910–1986)
As a biological being, I have a rich inner life that is undeniably real and that only I can access. There are some things that it is like to me that only I know about. I assume it is true for you as well. This also holds for the myriad beings around me, including the little Dark-eyed Juncos flitting around in the cold outside my window.
All lived experience exceeds our ability to describe it. This is true whether we use language, scientific diagrams, mathematical equations, computer simulations, or a tinker toy model of the universe—any descriptive means. However, the visual arts, poetry, music, and other aesthetic means of expression come closer to capturing and conveying to others the richness of our subjective experience. We wander in a world full of tastes, sights, sounds, smells, emotions, and the feeling of electrostatic vector fields when we walk in thick socks across a new carpet. Likewise, we feel the natural world’s effect on us in ways that exceed descriptive articulation.
Having a body gives us an indescribable but felt encounter with a world. We can describe aspects of our field of perception—for example, "There on my right is a crocus creeping up through the soil, its green floral base emerging into my garden." But these words trying to capture this enchanting moment are a mere cartoon of what it was like for me. Much is left out.
Being embodied means that my perception of that growing flower is combined with memories of past nature encounters. My experience is not uniquely constructed just from what my senses perceive. It involves my evolutionary history as a body emerging from Earthly processes, including joys or sorrows, reminders of other flowers I might have encountered, and my emotional state from whatever else has happened this day. It is complex, multifaceted, and embedded in both physical and historical realities. This encounter is also unique and will be like no other that has ever existed in the history of the universe—my watching reflected green light rays that are not of use to the plant; the sun at that angle; me tired from having a late night of study the day before; that ant crawling over its surface perhaps looking for small springtails, a common soil insect; the bark of a neighbor’s dog, seasoned with the sound of finches, Townsend Solitaires, American Robins, and common House Sparrows calling from nearby bushes; the wind from a southerly direction cooling me until I draw my hoodie more tightly round me as I listen to the breeze sounding in the branches of my berry-full juniper standing nearby. But the inner experience cannot be partitioned into these separate, sensed encounters with objects and processes constructing the inadequately described aspects of this experience. The experience is given whole, given at once in a feeling of being. It feels like something. Its components are immeasurable and ineffable. Is it not best described as an enchantment?
I am with my twelve-year-old grandson, Asher, in a nearby canyon. He holds a parabolic-dish mic attached to a recording device. He is aiming it at a singing Lazuli Bunting in a cottonwood tree. Using techniques I taught him, he moves the disk up and down and from side to side to maximize its sound capture. His eyes are wide, and he is smiling despite the much-too-large earphones sliding around on his head that he holds with one hand to keep in position. We both agree the singing is beautiful. We are experiencing the sound of that bird, and its aesthetic sense of its music leaves me in awe. It is a sublime encounter for me and my grandson.
I don’t know what the bird is experiencing. Philosopher Thomas Nagel asks famously, "What is it like to be a bat?" in a philosophy paper of the same title. It explores the deep epistemological divide between experiencing things whose worldviews are conditioned on completely other sensing apparatuses evolved for purposes other than ours. This is often used as a precursor to philosophical hands being raised in surrender at our inability to know with even rudimentary certainty what the lives of other creatures are like. But let's not be hasty. I just claimed, “I don’t know what the bird is experiencing.” Is that accurate?
True enough as far as that goes, but it is also true that I don't know what my grandson is experiencing. And yet, if taken too far, it would be wildly inaccurate to claim that I know nothing of his inner life. We do share a common evolved neurology. We have nearly identical sensing apparatuses: eyes geared for the same distances and focus and color sensing. We share cultural assumptions about what birds are and what they mean as objects. I remember what it was like to get to listen to birds when I was twelve. So it would be arrogantly reductionistic and inaccurate to claim I have no idea what he is experiencing. Not precisely, of course. I don't know what it is like to be him with his memories and the context in which he engages the world. Yet. I can guess. And I suspect I will not be as far off with him as I would be if I were describing bats.
What of the little bunting? Can I know what it is experiencing? Is it making music? Can I make any claims about the conscious experience of that avian relative? My grandson is two generations away from me—around 50 years. According to data from molecular clocks, the bird and I shared a grandmother about 319 million years ago. Much further away than Nagel's bats, whose common grandmother lived only 94 million years ago. What possible claims about sharing experiences can I make?
Now perhaps this is a bit intellectually reckless, but stay with me. I suspect that this bird, this Lazuli Bunting, shares an aesthetic sense of the world and experiences joy. We are kin, albeit distant. Even so, kinship has its privileged claims. But first, a pause—a brief interlude with a Japanese form called haibun: text interspersed with haiku.
Jakob Johann von Uexküll proclaimed the umwelt—a term coined to capture the notion that all animals perceive the world from an individual perspectival topology, shaping how they encounter their habitat according to their needs. Each organism evolves a set of perceptual apparatuses that structure how and what they sense. We know sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and apperception. A host of animals add electric and magnetic senses. Some, like migrating songbirds, perceive the quantum flux in the northern lights.
I am in a shady spot writing an eco-philosophy paper on embodiment. I’m lying on my back under an apple tree, thinking about Uexküll's work, when serendipitously, a hummingbird flies up and down the trunk of the tree and then rests just above me.
A hummingbird sits still on an apple twig— looking left then right
I watch as it floats again toward the trunk. Looking for what? These iridescent-feathered birds will occasionally eat small insects and, I suspect, especially sugar-exuding aphids.
How does it sense the world? Its eyes see more colors than I can. Humans are trichromic, with our primary colors mixtures of green, blue, and red. That gives us a few million shades we can distinguish. This hummingbird has another primary color in the ultraviolet. It sees four primary colors and their glorious combinations, giving them hundreds of millions more shades they can discriminate.
Eyes look down as it hovers above me— my skin countless hues
What does a hummingbird body know? What is it like to have a heart that beats multiple times while I give a single blink? To feel the world's air currents in the vibrations of its feathers, or to sample nectar on the wing and taste the foundation of its sustenance on its sharp tongue? I watch this one, and it seems curious about the area above where I rest. What is it looking for? Or looking out for—but I laugh. What predator could catch a hummingbird?
I see no flowers it can sup, and the fall migration is about to start. Is it saying farewell or looking for someone with whom to travel? Is it just waiting for the night so it can follow the star patterns south?
Small feet grip a branch bouncing rhythms in a breeze— the bird looks straight on
It makes one more circle around my hammock, and as I move my head for a better look, it flies confidently away, then turns behind another apple tree, and I lose sight of it. The sound of its wings still lingers in my ears, but floating over the neighbor's fence, it susurrates out of sight.
The hummingbird flees at the motion of my head— Summer wanes apace
I am working on a theology of birds. Which is—what? This little experiment argues that part of being an embodied organism is experiential engagement with the world. It includes the idea of being a singular being among other beings. I speculate that novelty and art enter the world through evolution and through depths that we do not understand nor can we understand scientifically. This is not a religious argument per se, but it does not exclude such, as I will speak of souls and hidden depths of the universe. These constitute a dimension that can easily be called spiritual. I reject reductionism, the idea that the whole can be described as the sum of its parts. I do acknowledge its usefulness for answering specific scientific questions about the physical universe, and even grant that much of the world can be characterized as machine-like and deterministic (for example, when NASA uses Newtonian physics to land a rover on Mars). But the world is far stranger than we imagine, and reductionism gives short shrift to much of the beauty and power of aesthetic dimensions of the world.
As I write from my backyard, I hear a house finch calling from the neighbor's yard. Why is it carrying on so amid the chatter of sparrows in conversation? With the theology of birds, I'm trying to sort out the possibilities that resonate with my experience with the divine to see if I can articulate something sensible. Something meaningful in my daily walk. I think birds will be necessary. I believe many other things will be important. Like evolution. Like science. These will provide the bones of my theological exploration, but like the bones of birds, they need to be hollow so flights beyond the mere mechanical world can lift off. By hollow, I mean they must be light enough not to weigh down the other things that will be important for getting above the earthly mundane. But science will be important. It is inadequate for many tasks, and its values and concerns cannot be bootstrapped from its aims and methods; yet it is still the best thing we have for sorting out the realities structuring the cosmos’ framing. So let us agree that science will be essential for our theology of birds. This theology will hold to notions articulated about frequency, dependencies, processes and particles, fields and probabilities, matter and energy, and will embrace both chaos and stasis. But this is only the beginning. We must not succumb to the temptation of thinking science will give all there is to teach us about the universe. Scientism, the idea that all knowledge is discoverable by science, and its shallow materialism must be dismissed as inadequate. Experience is essential to the theology of birds.
If we lived in a deterministic universe, experience would be superfluous. Presumably, a self-driving car has no experiences. But it does not need experience to function. It can do all kinds of things without it. So what does experience add to the click-clack of embodied interaction with the world? Why would it have evolved if the rudiments of survival could hum and whir through existence without this added feature of so many creatures’ embodiment?
This consciousness, this seeming non-necessity found in certain animals, led some philosophers to posit that the experience of being consciously aware was an epiphenomenon, something that floats like root beer foam at the top of existence as a carryover from more essential things brains do. However, Philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith has carefully explored the evolution of experience and found that it emerges independently in numerous animal (metazoan) lineages, among them mammals, birds, insects, spiders, and mollusks (including octopuses). We know the brain-correlates of lived experiences for embodied beings—neurology of a particular type; sensual apparatuses that capture “maps” of the objects and processes of the world using sight, hearing, and smell, etc.; and often motility, the ability to move.
Birds provide an example of how experience allows a richer world than seems necessary to interact bodily with that world. Our and their experience exceeds its evolutionary demands. And we two vertebrate lineages have some strangely similar ways of acting in the world. For example, birds sing. Some, it is true, are just running a genetic algorithm when they sing, and their songs do not vary from the genetic program beyond a certain point. But some birds sing as we do! They practice for hours. They improvise. They play with themes and melodies. They try things out on other birds and then readjust their song according to their compatriots’ reactions. They play. They perform.
Process theologian Charles Hartshorne was so intrigued by the theological potential of birdsong that he developed a whole theory of beauty based on birds, as he realized that birds have a genuine sense of the beautiful. Daniel A. Dombrowski, looking at Hartshorne's theological aesthetics, elaborates on this:
We are not being overly generous . . . in seeing the bird’s task as strongly analogous to our own: The goal is to lead interesting, beautiful lives both for our own sakes and for the sakes of those (including God) whom we influence. An evolutionary account of birdsong should both predict certain behaviors as well as point out the limitations in its ability to predict (p. 68).
Or, as I put it above, the aesthetic aspects of birdsong exceed what science can describe or thoroughly examine. Unexpectedly, this avian aesthetic means something important theologically—that joy, play, awe, and the experience of beauty are part of this universe.
In her book Is Bird Song Music? violinist and bird researcher Taylor Hollis, who spent years researching and playing music with Butcher Birds in Australia, concludes that birds are doing much of the same thing humans do when creating music:
Pied butcherbirds’ artful combinatorics are on the same page: their songs exceed a rigid set of instructions. Such substantial scope for individual variation in this singing tradition, where repertoire can be pulled out of memory and performed in different circumstances and presumably under different motivational conditions and in different seasons, points to a capacity to manipulate to musical effect (p. 277).
Musician David Rothenberg, who likewise has accompanied singing birds with human musical instruments, reinforces this notion in his book Why Birds Sing. He adds to Hollis’ perspective by imagining a singing male bird:
First listen as a bird might. You’re interested in only the sound of your own species, perhaps, and others come across as mere noise. We can never know, we cannot get inside the bird . . . Or else, imagine a bird enthralled with sound itself. His songs are beautiful, complex, clearly more than what is necessary to get the message across. There must be exuberance, there may be joy. The bird is endowed as a virtuoso and loves to show off, explore, and cry out (pp. 9–10).
Writing about Blue Manakins in his book The Evolution of Beauty, ornithologist Richard Prum talks about the work, play, and improvisation in this species in which three or four males form a dance troupe, led by an alpha male, that practices together for years to get the dance and song just right to impress a female:
Considerable skill and coordination are involved in putting on these performances. Because the females are extremely discerning, their preferences select for males who have been in male-male social relationships that have lasted long enough to have allowed them plenty of time to practice diligently and iron out any kinks in their performances. Apparently, it can take years of practice to achieve vocal coordination between males that is good enough to attract mates (p. 210).
In her book Living as a Bird, the French philosopher of science Vinchiane Despret convincingly points to territorial displays as an aspect of bird performance. She talks about how these displays, which take on a ritualistic form of aggression, subvert actual aggression and becomes a way to perform aggression without engaging in it:
Because, if territory can indeed be defined as a spectacular display ground, aggressivity can no longer be the motive, in the psychological sense, or indeed the cause of territorial activity. It becomes instead the motive in an aesthetic or musical sense, conferring on the territory its style, its particular form, its energy, its choreography and its gestures so that aggression becomes a kind of simulacrum. There is a shift from an ‘aggressive’ function to a different function. An expressive one (p. 49).
I live with four parakeets. One of them is molting and can't fly, and when I open the cage to let them roam the house, the other three don’t fly at all so they can stay close to their grounded compatriot. They are in constant communication, chattering, kissing, responding to each other and the world, and trying out their voices (they love Sufjan Stevens and sing with him with more enthusiasm than any other human artist). Unlike the behaviorists enamored with neurological determinism that grant experience only to humans, I cannot even imagine my bird kin not experiencing things in a rich inner life.
The theology of birds describes our kinship with Earth’s creatures who have evolved on this planet with us. We, the birds, and even our divine parents are all part of a material unfolding universe in which embodiment allows us to exuberantly engage with a universe that has evolved toward joy as one of its emergent potentials.
I feel blessed to live in a universe where galaxies, giant gas planets, black holes, moons, and quarks can be combined such that beauty, music, and art emerge—and where at least two wildly divergent lineages of life have evolved in embodied ways that allow both us and birds to experience its aesthetic dimensions.
Steven L. Peck is an Associate Professor of Biology at Brigham Young University and the author of A Short Stay in Hell and Heike’s Void.
Art by John J. Audubon
Restore starts this Thursday with a free Evensong performance at 6:30PM at the Mountain America Expo Center. Wayfare will have a table with Issues 1 & 2 available for purchase and a preview of the Issue 3 cover. Come by and say hello!
Irreantum, the literary journal of the Association for Mormon Letters, is now accepting submissions for “folklore written specifically to resonate with the Mormon experience. This doesn’t have to be a retelling, it can be an all-new fairy tale or myth, or a piece exploring the legends and myths of Mormonism.” Entries should be submitted by February 1st, be attached as an email, under 6,000 words, and contain no identifying information,
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The 59th Annual Mormon History Association conference will take place on June 13–16th, 2024 in Kirtland, Ohio. The theme, "Conversions, Aversion, and Reversion: Mormon Identity from Ohio to Utah," invites scholars to think about the ways Restorationists constructed their identity in their interaction with people, ideas, time, and space. The deadline for proposals is October 30, 2023. Notifications for acceptance and rejections will be sent January 15, 2024.
In case you missed it, be sure to check out Richard Bushman’s candid interview with The Deseret News regarding his life, the interplay of faith and scholarship, and his recent book on Joseph Smith’s golden plates.