This summer I have been meditating on God’s creation as a way to praise God and work on making my prayer life a bit more concrete. King Solomon admonishes us to “go to the ant and consider her ways” (Prov. 6:6), and the Internet, as always, provided a plethora of information in order to help me along the way.
Ants are “eusocial,” according to the modern empirical natural philosophers. Eusociality means that they have a division of labor for provision, they have overlapping generations within the same colony, and they share the rearing of their young. In other words, eusociality means ants act a lot like us, right down to the ability to communicate with one another and pass knowledge down from one generation to another.
Yes, ants sure are a lot like us. Or is it the other way round? Maybe we are a lot like ants. Without faith in something transcendent, without anything else being revealed to us, on a merely immanent plane, what is the difference between an ant colony and a human city? Remember, it takes faith even to name something good or bad, so the moral axis is cut out of this thought experiment. (If you have ever been in an airplane, those highways and streets sure look a lot like ant trails, don’t they?)
Why would Solomon bid us to consider an “unclean” animal? The late anthropologist Mary Douglas points out, in her work Leviticus as Literature that animals that swarm are not unclean, per se, but untouchable, and untouchable not because they are dirty or bad, but because they are especially associated with the Lord. They are his special creatures, so they are off limits. Ants are animals that swarm. They are bursting forth with an almost over-abundance of life — much like their LORD, who is Life itself and who sometimes sends swarms of locust as his own personal army.
God loves everything God has made. God loves the ant.
When I consider the ant, I feel a bit humbled, and I don’t just mean as an individual. I mean as a species. We are a little self-important aren’t we? Our wise king says that the ant “having no guide, overseer or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest” (Prov. 6:7-8). I love the Authorized translation here. I imagine “her” to be the queen ant, of course. How does she gather? — through her minions, of course. The single unit of God’s ants in the world is not the little creature we flick off of us when we discover we have been stung. The single unit of God’s ants is the colony as a whole. Again, we are a lot like ants. We waste much of our days laboring under our individualistic delusions but mostly we act as whole corporate bodies — either as a pagan urbs or, by grace, as the Civitas Dei.
We seem pretty sure that, unlike the ant, we do have guides, overseers and rulers. But do we? How important is all this business of words and ideas, arguing and voting? Consider the ant: provide your meat in the summer, and gather your food in the harvest. Then die. Is that not the sum of most of our lives, in the final analysis? That is, if we ask that question still within the constraints of our “immanent plane” thought-experiment?
But then there is faith. We have one guide, one overseer, one ruler (or, at least, only one in truth), who for us ants and for our salvation came all the way down from heaven and became an ant. I speak metaphorically, of course, but not hyperbolically. When we say it like that, it does kind of put some perspective on things, doesn’t it?
Consider the ant: we are inescapably social, so let us, together, give thanks for our simple lives, our meat and our food, given at the hands of our only mediator and advocate, even Jesus Christ, our Lord.
The featured image shows Thai weaver ants making a nest (2011). It was uploaded to Flickr by Troup Dresser, and is licensed under Creative Commons.