The Human and the Ant — What is inspiring in us and them? [continuation of series]


A friend had a vivid dream recently that unpacked the concept of the future for him (his eschatology). He saw a massive number of ants walking throughout the ages in lines extending seemingly forever and coming from places unknown. In his dream, he was one of those ants, and he was in the midst of other ants gouging and beating each other and trying to control their ‘world’ oblivious of their smallness in the grand scheme of things. reports the real problem of ant wars as a threat to human existence.

The trouble in the ant world comes through a small handful of invasive ant species whereas the majority of the more than 12,000 ant species are native. Native ants, in contrast to invasive ants, are beneficial to the environment. They till their soil and sow their seeds. My aim here is not to go into the social economy of ants and the potential consequences for the world but to take up a discussion that attempts to contrast a natural way of life to a spiritual one. I wish to draw out what it is that differentiates the human from the animals, and to highlight both a natural purpose in the example of the ant’s efficient natural functionality, and to use this idea to examine what makes the human functional and not dysfunctional.

Native Ants, we know, are the opposite of dysfunctional – they spend their entire lives busy with some task serving their natural goals. That said, the reasons for the imbalances in the ant world are not yet clear and form part of some research in the science of myrmecology.

As a forethought to what follows, picture if you will, God, creator of the heavens and the earth, who considers and examines the life choices humans make that defy the divine idea of the creation created for kindness, for hope, for good things, and for an eternal future in unity-across-diversity for the sake of joy, happiness, and abounding blessings.

The ants, in their single-minded functionality, offer in this sense, a question to us: what is the human’s purpose on earth? Although ants are almost physically blind (they communicate through chemical smell and stridulation), they do not even swerve one millimeter from the paths set out by their scouts to fulfill their purpose to the fullest degree. Rightly, Solomon warns us that we should take a lesson from them (I imagine here, Solomon considers only their positive ‘native’ aspects)

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” Proverbs 6:6-8

The scientific records abundantly document ant behavior. Ants use their differing skills, communication, and intelligence to build and protect their colonies or to acquire that of others. The estimate is they comprise 15-25% of the biomass of earth’s terrestrial animals (i.e., the ants make up to 25% of the total weight of all animal and insect life). They occupy every landmass on earth except Antarctica; Greenland; Iceland, and a few deserted islands. This ‘occupation’ is an outstanding feat of community building, largely the result of operating as associated entities.

La Fontaine’s fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper [La Cigale et la Fourmi], may be less about a discouraged grasshopper standing before a self-righteousness ant that sits cross-armed in front of its locked and loaded storeroom door, than about a fantastic ‘ant’ strategy, that of staying focused on its community’s building purposes. “Que faisiez-vous au temps chaud?” the ant asks [What were you doing when the weather was warm?]. To which the grasshopper replies, “Nuit et jour à tout venant je chantais, ne vous déplaise” [Night and day to all comers I sang, do not displease yourself] (Fables de la Fontaine, 2011, 4). The fable ends with the ant’s sarcastic remark to the grasshopper that its life had better be more than its singing.

However, the human species has one sole crucial advantage over the ants, or more broadly, over the animals – the ability to understand spiritual things. Humans can imagine what they have never experienced. They can creatively implement the results into their present or future action. The animals, such as the ant, have intelligence; social order, and even astounding physical abilities, but they cannot rise cognitively and creatively to alter their natural drive. However, also, though this spiritual-creativity seemingly separates humans and animals, their similarity lays in the idea of the desire to act to extend life that is ‘like it’. 

So, we might then ask: what is the human’s further purpose? If I were to take up the idea of a spiritual-imaginative ‘relational possibility’ (analogia relationis—Moltmann) further, a transcendent attribute emerges. To think on a spiritual-creative plane opens to the human the idea that life’s drive to unity-in-community (as in the ants, or in an Aristotelian sense, as a life of ‘like’ drawn to what is ‘like’ it) is only one half of a whole. I am proposing here that it takes the ‘altitude’ of a spiritual-creative view to show that the human must imagine a ‘tensioned’ future of unity-across-diversity and take up the charge of this ‘tension’ of unity in difference and to administrate it in the world. I am speaking here of a charge and purpose for the human that is a latent possibility. This ‘potential’ is not innate or inheres; it is a gift via the imago Dei of the possibility of a spiritual relationship with God (an analogia relationis through the imago Dei, or ‘image of God’). If we deny this charge and purpose, we hinder our spiritual creative-imaginative purpose to join our analogia relationis to the myriad of natural gifts of the animals and plants in our world. No doubt the plants and animals would continue in their cycles without us; building in interactive ‘mutualisms’ (Slater) (or destroying) in their drive for survival. But we are here, and we have a creative-imaginative wisdom—a spiritual wisdom as it were. We have something that sees and knows and hopes and understands the purpose of being meaningful and responsible. Because of this spiritual ‘possibility’ in every human, the misuse of the human’s ‘added’ spiritual gift is such that it can threaten the existence of all other natural gifts on the earth.

Some clarification of this natural-spiritual nexus might be useful through how we understand the pursuit of a ‘reward’. Might the failure to understand the difference between a natural and a spiritual reward cause confusion and fear in religious and secular actions? I am setting out here the idea of a ‘reward’ as having both a natural and spiritual meaning. Its natural meaning is the fruit of natural diligence, and responsibility; its spiritual meaning is in fruit given by the Spirit to journey with God. A reward in the second sense obviates the need to acquire, control, manage, administer, protect (these are not negative things but necessary if administered properly). A spiritual ‘reward’ references only an ability to give to and to prefer the other (this includes God and neighbor, and even enemy). Admittedly a discussion of the philosophy, psychology, and theology of ‘reward’ is beyond the purview of this short note. A ‘reward’ in the second sense, is the wisdom and wonder of learning to give to God and thus through God’s love and mercy to learn to live a life of service to the other/s. A ‘reward’ here is an entirely spiritual thing that touches on a greater (or further) human destiny that has significant effects and results and ‘fruit’ in the earth and among the creation. It is an error to think of this second spiritual ‘reward’ as reserved (some do think so) ‘for the afterlife’. However, it is also wrong to think that the first ‘reward’ can ever satisfy the human’s analogia relationis via the imago Dei—a God-given potentiality through the Spirit of Christ (available to all) to live in a spiritual and natural ‘harmony of contrasts’ (Otto).

The correct use of this ability (an ongoing tensioned unity-across-diversity in the natural-spiritual relation) fulfills a hope and a future of joy for the whole creation (see the example of Jesus — Hebrews 12:2 and the recorded accounts of his life in the gospels). We might say here also that the human is capable of being the agency that facilitates either reconciliation or annihilation. As spiritual-potentials, we can either acknowledge the spiritual quest for meaning (and its positive effect in the natural) which the Spirit of Christ works to awaken for the sake of God’s hope for all the creation or deny it all for the sake of some other purpose. A full discussion of this idea is beyond the scope of this short note.

For us to consider here, is the thin line between the humans and the animals. This line is not an entitlement because of superior intelligence and creativity. This line is not a preferred position. This line is not an ‘advantage’ that can sustain disadvantaging the others in humanity and creation. This line, if viewed with the wisdom of tensioned unity-across-diversity takes up the use of our creative energies for the benefit of even those who cannot return the favor. It is a responsibility of the wisdom of living life for the other/s—as a turn to the other/s that benefits all. This line is not a new ‘totalitarian’ solution, but an opening through the idea of Jesus Christ’s willingness to die on the cross for the sake of a love for the other/s. This love is the message the Spirit of Christ continues to show today. God, who is kind and merciful in all God does, waits for our response. This line is a spiritually creative-imaginative understanding of a different kind of relationship (an analogia relationis that gives meaning and a greater purpose to the relationship between multiple life forms in analogia entis). This line is a responsibility (or relational potential) that the imago Dei gives. This line is the capacity through the Spirit to see spiritually a world not doomed to the ultimate victor of one dominating hierarchy of unity (this is part of the ongoing work of the Spirit of Christ for all in ways that we recognize or are not aware). The fact (as current medical practices recognize also) that every human is more than biological, but has beliefs, values, and virtues, helps to support my claims here. We can see this ‘holistic’ aspect also as a ‘potential opportunity’ to be open to the plane that is above the merely natural. This ‘potential’ is about a possibility for relational openness to the spiritual plane that sees beyond the life that depends only on me and mine to the life made possible through the Spirit of Christ of a tensioned unity-across-diversity. This line sees a world of hope in both self and the other/s (thus a ‘tensioned hope’); one graced to exist into eternity through the work of the Spirit of Christ in a ‘tensioned’ unity-across-diversity. The ‘tension’ here no longer assumes a conflictive or totalistic Hegelian dialectic but creatively takes up the idea that ‘tension’ itself is not unending conflict or oppositional (as with Hegel and the ants) but is the very means for ongoing creativity (as with Kierkegaard and Berdyaev). This line fosters a place which understands that the world does not need to be apportioned or owned or controlled for the future to be safe; it encourages a place where there will no longer be a need for enemies.

In such a place no one ‘deserves God’. Since God loves all God creates—God said that it is good (Genesis 1:31), then no hindrance can keep humans from taking up their ‘possibility’ through the Spirit’s inspiration to live for a world of peace and justice for all. This kind of response to life does not need to be explained but merely inspired and encouraged in us and others.

Loys 180911

2011 © Victory Fields

(The beliefs, conclusions, or opinions expressed within this article are entirely those of the author of this article. It is not our intention to suggest either that the authors/writers quoted, in any way agree with what we have written, or that we are expressing their full view on any of the subjects covered)