The Song of the Bird
Colin Gibson draws on two very evocative images from non Christian traditions - an old Chinese saying The bird does not sing because it knows an answer. It sings because it has a song. And the second, an amusing but profound Muslim Sufi story featuring a Gnat and an Elephant. And not surprisingly, there's a lesson for us all.
Only a short time ago my wife and I attended a celebration in the Dunedin Early Settlers Museum of the Chinese New Year. We watched young dancers perform elaborate dance-rituals and we were served Chinese food. Each of us was given one or two Chinese cookies to eat; they were the real thing, and when you broke them open there was the usual small strip of printed paper inside carrying the usual kind of message. But my cookie was different.
What I read on the strip of paper was the text for what I’m going to say: The bird does not sing because it knows an answer. It sings because it has a song.
Not your average Chinese cookie text!
Now of course we know (or think we know) the real answer to the question, why do birds sing? The scientists tell us birds use their songs to communicate different messages to one another. Usually it’s the male who sings. Early in spring he sings to say that he has picked out a piece of property. He sings to attract a female of the same kind as himself. Together they will raise a family in his territory. He sings to tell all other birds to ‘Keep out or I’ll chase you out! This is my property!’ There are warning calls (there’s a cat about), and conversational calls telling their neighbors, their mates, and anyone else who is listening that they are still there.
It turns out that bird calls are really a bit ho-hum; nothing very extraordinary there at all. Certainly nothing to suggest that the tui or the bellbird pouring their heart out in song somewhere deep in the bush are singing just because they have a song. Singing because that’s their nature.
But ask a scientist, and that’s sometimes what you get. A factual answer that is somehow disappointing and incomplete. Why even the scientists say that’s the answer we have now, but there’s more research to be done yet.
Asking questions and finding or making answers is something we are all very good at. In fact we rather specialise in the business. You could call us the Why-people. If you’ve had any dealing with little children you’ll know that ‘why’ is the second most common word in their language (after ‘no’), and most of us die still asking ‘why’. Why do we exist, why do we die, why do things happen as they do, why does God intervene, or not intervene.
We pride ourselves on our ability to ask questions and pursue answers. After all, haven’t we managed by asking ‘why?’ to learn how to clone sheep (or human beings), and fly to the moon, and count all the genes in our bodies, and cure diseases (some of them anyway), and extend our life span, and catch all the fish in the sea and suck up all the oil and blow up our entire planet—or just bits of it and each other at a time!
Hey, we’re just the greatest! Or are we? You see there’s another question which challenges all such human pride: ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him? (Psalms 8). Who do we think we really are? How much do our questions or their answers matter?
I’d like to put that question another way, in the form of a Sufi story (yes, Muslims think about these things, too). Here is the story of Namouss the Perceptive Gnat.
Once upon a time there was a gnat. His name was Namouss, and he was known, because of his sensitivity, as Namouss the Perceptive one. Namouss decided, after reflection upon his state, and for good and sufficient reasons, to move house. The place which he chose as eminently suitable was the ear of a certain elephant. All that remained to do was to make the move, and quite soon Namouss had installed himself in the large and highly attractive quarters. Time passed. The gnat reared several families of gnatlets, and he sent them out into the world. As the years rolled past, he knew the usual moments of tension and relaxation, the feelings of joy and sorrow, of questing and achievement which are the lot of the gnat wherever he may be found. The elephant's ear was his home; and, as is always the case, he felt (and the feeling persisted until it became quite permanent) that there was a close connection between his life, his history, his very being and this place. The ear was so warm, so welcoming, so vast, the scene of so many experiences.
Naturally Namouss had not moved into the house without due ceremony and a regard for the proper observances. On the very first day, just before moving in, he had cried, at the top of his tiny voice, his decision. '0 Elephant!' he had shouted, 'Know that none other than I, Namouss the Gnat, known as e Namouss the Perceptive One, propose to make this place my abode. As it is your ear, I am giving you the customary notice of my intention.' The elephant had raised no objection. But Namouss did not know that the elephant had not heard him at all. Neither, for that matter, had his host felt the entry (or even the presence and absence) of the gnat and his various families.
Not to labour the point unduly, he had no idea that gnats were there at all. And when the time came when Namouss the Perceptive decided, for what were to him compelling and important reasons, that he would move house again, he reflected that he must do so in accordance with established and hallowed custom. He prepared himself for the formal declaration of his abandonment of the elephant's ear. Thus it was that, the decision finally and irrevocably taken and his words sufficiently rehearsed, Namouss shouted once more into the elephant's ear. He shouted once, and no answer came. He shouted again, and the elephant was still silent. The third time, gathering the whole strength of his voice in his determination to register his urgent yet eloquent words, he cried: '0 Elephant! Know that I, the Namouss the Perceptive Gnat, propose to leave my hearth and home, to quit my residence in this ear of yours where I have dwelt for so very long. And this is for a sufficient and significant reason which I am prepared to explain to you.'
Now finally the words of the gnat came to the hearing of the elephant, and the gnat-cry penetrated. As the elephant pondered the words, Namouss shouted: 'What have you to say in answer to my news? What are your feelings about my departure?' The elephant raised his great head and trumpeted a little. And this trumpeting contained the sense: 'Go in peace—for in truth your going is of as much interest and significance to me as was your coming.'
Which brings me to religion and religious people. Like all of us, they also ask ‘why’—and for a long time the Christian Church (and all the other faiths) has toiled mightily, spent energy on a huge intellectual effort to find answers; but not just answers, the right answers.
The results are the creeds, the catechisms, the dogmas, the doctrines, the theological debates and propositions: all the apparatus of certain truth—revealed or discovered—which believers are to believe. In the history of the Christian Church (and all the other faiths), fundamentalists have constantly insisted that they alone know the true answers to all those questions and we must accept what they hold as the absolute truth itself—or woe betide us. The heretic’s fire, the sword, the Inquisition, hell and damnation await us if we doubt or challenge their answers.
But the bird sings not because it knows the answers. The bird sings because it has a song.
Fortunately, Christianity (and all the other faiths) has always had those who neither question nor pronounce on the truth, people who claim no authority, people who simply find in God a mystery too deep for thought and so profound that they are happy to lose themselves in it. They are called by various names: ‘mystics’ is one of them. They are the early hermits, the Hildegards, the Julians of Norwich, the Saint Teresas, the contemplative orders of monks and nuns, the Teillard de Chardins, the Joy Cowleys of our day. Methodists have never been too comfortable with them: we much prefer certainty and singing and social service to silence and meditation and deep thought and reflection.
But I detect that this strain of more mystical spiritual may be a life-renewing way ahead for our church. Why wasn’t that the heading of Bill Wallace’s front-page article in the November issue of Touchstone? Did you bother to read it and reflect on its contents? There Bill argued that modern science has reaffirmed the interconnectedness of all things, and that there must be room for a spirituality which seeks to reconnect in the same way, to experience and become at one with God, rather than pursuing the question and answer approach to the mystery of God.
I return to the Chinese proverb which started this chain of thought. The bird does not sing because it knows an answer. It sings because it has a song. It occurs to me that faith is like that. And faith does not sing, it has never sung because it knows all the answers. It sings simply because that is its nature.
Why do you or I believe? What do we believe? What caused us to believe? Why do you or I go on believing? I’m no longer much interested in the answer to such questions. Do we matter ultimately? Do we and our questions matter?
Why do birds sing? Because they are fighting for territory, looking for mates, talking to the neighbours, warning off rivals?…or is it—as the wise Chinese say—that they sing simply to express their whole being in song; they sing for the sheer joy of singing?
By all means discuss argue, explore, rationalize, examine, define, describe your faith. But whatever you do, go on singing the song, your instinctive song, from your branch of the tree out into our amazing world, out into mystery of God.
I acknowledge as my source for the story of Namouss, Idreis Shah’s wonderful anthology of Sufi stories, Tales of the Dervishes: Teaching Stories from the Sufi Masters over the past thousand Years. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1970.