Over the summer, it was announced that Israel’s first lunar lander, the Beresheet, crashed on the Moon’s surface. Unbeknownst to many at the time, thousands of tardigrades were on board that craft and were now, quite possibly, spilled across the lunar surface.
What is a tardigrade you ask? A singularly fascinating microscopic animal. Virtually indestructible, they can dehydrate into a sort of glass husk and remain in suspended animation for decades, perhaps indefinitely. Upon exposure to water, they resuscitate. Their ability to survive the most unliveable conditions, from radiation to the vacuum of space, earns them in spades the title of extremophile.
And while scientists worried about the consequences of these clawed “water bears” possibly surviving the lander’s crash, some of us who’d never heard of such a creature were delighted to make its acquaintance. Others, to whom we eagerly showed images of these microscopic wonders, were understandably less thrilled. Even more so upon learning these tiny animals are found everywhere, quite possibly in their own rain gutters. Reactions ran the gamut, but often hovered somewhere between disgust, fear and horror at their mere existence. The reason for their very creation was called into question. Why would God make something like that?
This reminded me, in some sense, of those times when I taught World Religions. There was a common, yet peculiar notion shared across many faiths. Namely, that some creatures came from the hand of dangerous and evil beings. Perhaps they were tricksome gods, perhaps demons. But all those annoying beasties – the mosquito, the fly, the venomous snakes, the things that caused you to cringe or made you miserable – those were all from some malevolent maker.
Not so with Catholicism. Our God, as plainly evident within Scripture, created absolutely everything there is. Visible and invisible. Huggable and repulsive. Benign and dangerous. Without exception, it all comes from His hand.
That tarantula hawk? Which (like any decent spider wasp) knows with precision where to sting and paralyze its victim, dragging it off to become a long-living, slow-dying host for its larvae? That comes from God!
That 60-foot-long pyrosome, eerily drifting and undulating its way through the ocean waters? A creature straight out of a sci-fi film, which manages to not only be gelatinous but composed of thousands of individual clones all moving, devouring and luminescing as one ‘fire body’? This too comes from God! Even when penguins and other large animals are found trapped inside its empty tubular body.
And what of the castrator barnacle? Now here is a parasitic barnacle that takes over more than just a crab’s body. It takes control of its very mind, turning it into a zombie that will do whatever the barnacle wishes. What is the goal of all that, you say? Namely, that the crab will brood over and actually “birth” the barnacles’ young instead of its own. And the barnacle manages to effect this with such brutal totalities that male crabs are not merely rendered infertile, but hormones are induced, which cause them to grow female organs. Well, what about such an animal? Is it not abominable? But even here, one finds a creature that belongs to the Lord God.
This is, of course, passing over untold legions of even more baffling life forms such as viruses and fungi – all waiting, it seems, to find an opportunity to kill us off. And bacteria! Despite pop culture and trendy marketing campaigns dividing them neatly into “good” and “bad” camps, there is no such distinction. The same “good” bacterium you may want in your gut will cause sepsis and even death if it enters your bloodstream. Who can grasp why? But they all fit into the mysterious design of God.
And through it all, Catholicism has held firm that the Lord not only made all things but made them good.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t occasional resurrections of old pagan ideas, peeking their heads through here and there. Vestiges remaining in superstitious beliefs that certain days and seasons are unholy, or that the veil between this world and the other grows thin in ‘the witching hour’ and demons run amok. As if they’re not prowling the world seeking the ruin of souls on other days as well.
Mainly, though, this notion that certain creatures or natural phenomena are the result of malevolent spirits, and can’t possibly originate from God, crops up when the new or the unexplainable happens. One example: a number of Catholics have been heard heatedly discussing alleged extraterrestrial phenomena. And in doing so have put the intellectual courage and theological stability of Aquinas in such matters firmly out the window. Instead, God is rendered small.
They say: Surely, this is demonic in origin! The very idea is horrendous! Their abilities appear impossible! The whole matter seems. . .well, unseemly. Why would a good God make creatures like that?
Well, I don’t know. Just as I can’t begin to understand why the scarlet jellyfish is able to revert to a juvenile polyp and restart its lifecycle dozens of times. Or why there are cordyceps that use mind control to march animals off to their demise. Or how it is that arctic squirrels freeze over but resuscitate the next year.
The issue is less why God would make things that seem frightening, formidable or even without purpose. None of those are reasons themselves to attribute a creature (even an alleged one) to an evil origin. The question that really concerns me is why Catholics should now limit God’s creative power and sovereignty only to those things that seem safe, benign and (to our eyes) beautiful. It is as though we have become blind to the wild and fierce life bursting out of every corner of His creation. Made for His purpose. And His delight.
As He said to Job:
Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down its tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through its nose
or pierce its jaw with a hook?
Will it keep begging you for mercy?
Will it speak to you with gentle words? . . .
It looks down on all that are haughty;
it is king over all that are proud.
So did He make extraterrestrials? I don’t know. But Christ is Lord and King of the entire unfathomable universe. Let us solemnly pause before we rashly credit any of its creation to evil.
*Photo of a tardigrade by Eye of Science/Getty