By Dane Neufeld
Bears are not a pressing theological problem for most people, but they are frequently on my mind this time of year in Northern Alberta. In the winter, walks are comforting because of the near-complete assurance that bears everywhere are fast asleep, or at least not out roaming. But when the spring comes and the boreal forest floor thickens with rose bushes, dogwoods, and post-wildfire poplar stalks, one never knows just how close a bear may be. The forest is full of burnt stumps, black charred spruce, and aspen trunks, all of which look a whole lot like a black bear out of the corner of my eye. On my routine forest walks, the leaping and hammering of my heart intensifies and can quickly interrupt any sense of communing with nature.
For all the dangers that await the average person in the Canadian Wilderness, the bear holds the symbolic center. While many other things could go wrong in the woods, an encounter with a bear is never far from anyone’s mind. Like many of our fears, such an encounter is something the average hiker craves and dreads. Witnessing a bear in the wild from a safe but natural distance — not on a tour bus or at the landfill — is a rarefied experience, like observing a solitary mystery, something analogous to the beautiful but distant heart of nature. Of course, there is a hierarchy of bears (black, grizzly, polar) wherein the danger and wonder increase accordingly.
Bears often show a casual indifference or mild curiosity toward their human observers; sometimes they startle and vanish deeper into their solitude. On occasion they are provoked for predictable and unpredictable reasons. Bears compel us and draw us near just as they frighten us and remind us of the alienation between man and beast. Even the most spectacular attempts by humans to draw near to the enigma of the bear seem to end in tragedy or failure. (Watch the National Film Board documentary Project Grizzly for a humorous, unusual, compelling story of such an attempt.)
Spiritual traditions about the bear are long and complex, and I am hardly an expert. In North American indigenous cultures the bear was a creature worthy of great honor as the protector and heart of the animal kingdom, whose spirit was invoked for the hunt. The bear was feared because its silence could easily be provoked into ferocity, and yet it was personified as a creature not entirely unlike people. For some, the bear was a distant and solitary brother, the nearest bridge to the world of unspeaking creatures, a fellow inhabitant of the Creator’s world.
A similar tension between hostility, reverence, and kinship exists in Scripture. The bear is the enemy of the sheep (1 Sam. 17:34). The bear is a metaphor of dangerous and voracious political power, as Daniel writes of Kingdom of the Medes: “Arise, devour much meat! (Dan. 7:5). The bear is a symbol of righteous and indignant anger (2 Sam. 17:8) or a menacing and veiled threat that lies in wait (Lam. 3:10). Even the human perception of the bear’s anguish and loneliness is invoked in Isaiah: “We all growl like bears. … We look for justice, but find none; for deliverance, but it is far away” (59:11).
The bear often appears in apposition to the lion and stands as figure of judgement. Elsewhere the bear stands alone in this sense, most often as a mother provoked by the trespasses of those who threaten her children. This is most evident in the rather harrowing story of Elisha and the young mockers who meet a horrifying end, torn to shreds by the female bears who rush upon them from out of the woods (2 Kgs. 2:24). The prophet is creation’s child in this case and ultimately acknowledged as God’s own. In Hosea, God becomes the mother bear, reluctantly violent in the act of judgment (Hos. 13:8).
Ultimately, an eschatological image is most moving: “The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together” (Isa. 11:7), a prophetic sign that will bring comfort to the ranchers of southern Alberta. The image does not refer to a domesticated or defeated bear — a circus animal or a rug in the den — but to a time when all creatures will be restored and renewed in their God-given relations. We cannot imagine what this might possibly mean, in part because it is the bear’s dangerous otherness, its unknown and threatening power, that compels and draws us. There is something of this tension in all final imaginings of the new heaven and the new earth, and indeed in the very presence of God, whom we know now in a “mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). It is difficult to imagine immediacy of any kind without some sense of disappointment or loss.
Aslan’s invitation in The Last Battle is still one of the best images that I know for the world to come: “Come further up! Come further in!” As the newcomers venture deeper into this new world, Aslan’s presence and majesty do not appear clipped or curtailed, but much like all of new Narnia, the fullness of God fills all things — the earth, the elements, and the creatures — with the wonder and fullness of eternity.
Most of my bear encounters, graciously, have been fairly uneventful, but they have never failed to make me think of God. Even brief glimpses of these amazing creatures have filled me with fear, wonder, and gratitude, for like all of God’s creation, in its myriad ways, a bear’s simple existence speaks of something powerful and profound far beyond our little lives. It speaks of the Creator.
Though I have entertained fantastic notions of communing and engaging with these great beasts, like St. Francis and the wolf, or St. Columbanus and the bear, I am mostly content to wait for another age. For now I keep my eyes open, my bear spray ready, and my noisy children close at hand.