The cuckoo is a pretty bird, she sings as she flies,
she bringeth good tidings, she telleth no lies,
she sucketh white flowers for to keep her voice clear,
and when I hear the cuckoo I know the summer draweth near.
It had been a few years since I last heard the cuckoo call, and then a few weeks ago I was standing on platform 1 of Whitlock’s End station, on the Warwickshire / Worcestershire border on a fine sunny evening, waiting for a train into Birmingham to attend a performance of the Verdi Requiem, when I clearly heard the cuckoo calling. It’s such an evocative sound, the music of which meant almost as much as the quite wonderful singing I was to hear later on in the Symphony Hall.
The other day I heard the cuckoo calling again. A different bird, though it’s interesting that habitually we do generally speak of the cuckoo, as though there were only one of them. This cuckoo was calling from somewhere on the flood plain of the River Vyrnwy, between Four Crosses and Llanymynech, and he’d been calling for the greater part of four hours by the time I left, by which time I could almost have cheerfully throttled the bird, thus demonstrating that even the most beautiful music can become tiring if repeated for too long. I later learned that this bird in fact went on calling till nearly ten in the evening, which was quite a feat of endurance, I think.
I happened to mention the Whitlock’s End cuckoo on my Facebook page, and got quite a few “likes” from friends for whom the cuckoo’s song is as special as it is to me. But on the other hand, a friend who I think would describe himself as an atheist commented that for him the cuckoo was a conclusive proof of the non-existence of God.
Clearly I couldn’t let that go unchallenged, so I asked him why. “It’s the lifestyle of the cuckoo,” he replied. “It’s revolting! Every cuckoo you hear calling is only there because it destroyed a nestful of baby dunnocks or reed warblers or meadow pipits, and now its offspring are going to do the very same thing. How could a God who created the world and looked upon it and saw that it was good have created something so horrible?”
Well, creation isn’t just fluffy things and sweet songs, and I suppose one of the issues in life for the believer is how we cope with the seamy side of things, the nasty stuff, of which cuckoos are just one example and, frankly, by no means the worst. Genesis very simply argues that everything was fine until the Fall, but once Adam and Eve had disobeyed God the whole of creation was thrown out of kilter and that’s how the bad stuff got in. I might not want to see it in quite those terms, and in any case what about the serpent who starts that whole story off, and who was one of God’s creatures?
Or perhaps I can just close my eyes to the seamy stuff and pretend that all of creation is all lovely, like the lions and zebras and giraffes in my little grand-daughter’s picture book, who all seem to get on together just fine. In reality lions eat zebras, given half a chance; when scenes of that happening turn up in David Attenborough’s films, my mother switches off. “I’d rather not watch that sort of thing,” she says.
But it happens. That’s how it works. And of course, of itself it’s all morally neutral. Lions don’t have a choice between being carnivores and perhaps (like me) going vegetarian. They are what they are. Nor are baby cuckoos being evil when they throw the eggs or the young chicks of the host bird out of the nest, so as to usurp their place. They don’t have any choice, but to act on instinct.
I tried to explain this to my friend, who came back with the example of the fox that killed all his sister’s chickens, when surely it only needed one, so the rest it presumably killed just for fun. But no, that too is all to do with instinct. Normally the fox would kill what it needed to kill, say one out of a flock, and by that time the rest would have scattered and found safe places to be, and the “kill” instinct would have gone. But chickens trapped in a coop that the fox has somehow entered can’t get away, and they’re flying about in terror, and the “kill” instinct doesn’t get switched off, but constantly restarted.
Even so, those who would want to argue the existence of a loving creator God from a perspective of “isn’t nature wonderful” can find themselves coming a bit unstuck when brought face to face with the “red in tooth and claw” side of things. The Christian writer Bill Vanstone many years ago tackled this dilemma in one of his books, and he compared the action of God in creation to the work of an artist painting a picture. At the outset, the artist will already have an image in his mind, or what it is he wants to express, of what the picture will be. And yet the finished picture is dependant not only on that image in the mind of its creator, but on the materials he chooses to use: water colours, oils, acrylic; paper, canvas or board. Creation is a co-operative venture - the mind of God engaging with the materials he has chosen to use.
It’s not an exact image, but it helps me to understand. In fact, the beauty of nature is no proof of God, and the perceived cruelties of nature are no disproof. And God wouldn’t have it any other way. He has made a world in which we are free - uniquely among his creatures we are free to choose, to make moral and ethical decisions, and to consider what we do or do not believe.
He has not made a world in which his signature is so obvious that we can’t help but believe, for such a world would have no room for love. Love demands freedom, and cannot exist without it. I could make, or at least I could imagine someone making an automaton, a robot, that could serve my every need, and say “I love you” whenever I needed it to. But it wouldn’t actually love me, for love is something you choose to do.
My friend and I never really concluded our conversation about the cuckoo. Maybe next time we meet we shall. His thesis is that I foolishly let my head get turned by the song, while ignoring the reality of the cuckoo’s life cycle and (I suppose) life style, which should lead me in quite an opposite direction. Against that, I’d want to argue that both the song of the cuckoo and the lifestyle of the cuckoo actually nudge me in the direction of belief; and they do so not because of what they are in themselves, but because of how I perceive them and respond to them.
I find myself encouraged to believe in God not because bird song is beautiful and flowers are pretty, but because of my ability to perceive them in that way. Bird song does a job: a cuckoo calls to warn off other males and to attract females, not to brighten my day or encourage me to think of summer. Flowers do a job: their colours and scents are there to attract pollinators and so produce the fruit and seed that will perpetuate the species. And yet we are able to delight in both of them, and great composers have been inspired by bird song, and great artists have been inspired by flowers. It is the fact that I can perceive beauty that encourages me to believe in God.
The call of the cuckoo lifts my heart despite my fears for the dunnocks and other small birds whose nests it may predate. I like the cuckoo’s call despite the seamier aspects of its lifestyle - but I am by no means blind to them.
And as I’ve already said, what a cuckoo does it does by instinct. It doesn’t choose to be nasty to other small birds. It hasn’t made a moral decision right or wrong because it has no notion of right or wrong. Nor has it any way of choosing. That, incidentally, is why the endless round of animal sacrifices in the temple in Jerusalem could never atone for the sins of the people. The sheep and goats and pigeons slaughtered there were without sin, but only because they could not sin, there was no possibility of sin in their lives. Jesus is the one true, pure and sufficient sacrifice because he could have sinned but chose not to sin (and of course he is the one true and perfect High Priest for exactly the same reason). Only in him are our sins forgiven, and what he does he does once, and he does for all.
But to return to the lifestyle of the cuckoo, and the instinct that leads the cuckoo to do as he or she does. I am not encouraged to disbelieve in God by the bad behaviour of the cuckoo, but quite the reverse: I am encourage to believe in God by the fact that I can perceive what the cuckoo does as cruel and unfair and unjust. For I discover in myself an awareness of right and wrong, of good and bad, and an ability to sympathise with those who get dealt a bad hand in life.
So I have an awareness of beauty that encourages in me the desire to create; and I have an awareness of good and bad that encourages in me the desire to reach out and to care. Isn’t this, don’t you think, what is meant when we are told we are “made in the image of God”? I am delighted by beauty; I am angered by injustice and by needless pain; and as I reflect on these two remarkable things I find myself moved into faith. And as I stumble along that road I find my poor and feeble attempts at love to be met by a persistent sense of the way in which I am loved, and by the inclusiveness of that love, the love shown to the world, revealed among us, in Jesus.