‘Sin came into the world by Man - which leaves Man in need of redemption.  Yet, long before man arrived, the world was (and remains) a violent place to live.  Big fish eat little fish.  Lions feast on weaker animals,  Crocodiles eat anything that comes along.  In the dinosaur age, violence was a way of life among reptiles. Why did God expect man to be any different?  Why did God create such a violent world?  Why is the Old Testament so filled with violence?’ Question posed by Gerry.

First of all, clarify the nature of the language that you’re using.  Is it ‘violent’ for a sheep to eat grass?  I think not.  For a lion to eat a sheep?  More tricky.  You might not like the physical tearing of limb from limb, but in principle, what the lion does is nourish itself from other items in the world, and this is no different from what the sheep does in relation to grass.  Animals differ and what animals have evolved to need differs.  If you have a world in which there is diversity, and Aquinas thinks that this diversity of created things is needed in order to give expression to divine goodness (‘there must be a lot of different things because no one created thing can be expressive of goodness’), then there will be a diversity of dependence built into the way things are.  A lion needs a certain diet, etc, and would not have the features of its nature without certain ways of sustaining itself.  I would worry about a vegetarian lion: it’s probably spent too much time reading The Guardian. So in itself, that animals feed off one another doesn’t seem to me to be problematic, and it is probably misleading to use the word ‘violent’ to describe this because this word has connotations relating to human malice not prompted by need, but by badness.

  Secondly, let’s not get caught in a biblical fundamentalism which is not the Catholic tradition.  The story in the book of Genesis is not recording history but speaking about what we can recognise as a fundamentally human way of behaving in relation to God and the limits of existence.  It is myth, but important myth.  There are two important sins in the Bible: the first is idolatry, and the second is the attempt to transgress the boundaries of nature.  Our imagined parents are said to want to know what cannot be known and to breach the boundaries of existence by wanting to be like, and to know like, God.  The same thing is also attributed to angelic beings who cause trouble on earth, having rebelled against God’s authority.  The biblical narrative tells us that this way of attaining fulfilment is futile, as are all the other ways in which ‘early humanity’ tries to attain fulfilment in the first 11 chapters of Genesis (Tower of Babel, etc.)  Christians need to recognise that the significant event in the book of Genesis is not the so-called ‘fall’ of Adam and Eve from a paradisal condition, but the call of Abraham to whom God promises that he will be the father of great nations bound in covenant with God. 

So, where are we?  How are we to situate ourselves in this world?  Intelligently, first of all.  The sensible thing is to accept that what modern scientists tell us about how the diversity of creatures in the world arises.  What Darwin identifies as the process of evolution seems to me to be correct.  In which case, human beings are fully in continuity with all other forms of life on the earth, and we all probably come from those first elements caused by the Big Bang at the beginning of reality.  Human beings then share genetic, physical, socio-biological features with other animals, with apparently the one difference that our nature has a strange capacity to transcend the boundaries of our constitution through thought, imagination, reflection, critical self-awareness, freedom.  No other animal seems to have the scale of self-possession that humans do; they are much more locked into the determining features of their nature than we are.  I would worry about a Guardian reading ant, because the capacity to read liberal political prose is not given to ants whose behaviour is tightly determined by their nature. 

Two things come from this: first of all, a vertiginous sense on the part of human beings that we are capable, in ways that no other animal is capable, of consciously orienting our identity towards love and goodness.  An ant, by being an ant, exists and therefore shares in the goodness of existence, and by being a good ant, ‘inclines’ towards the goodness that is God – not consciously in any way, but simply by being itself.  An ant will not be religious, subject to impulses of love and movement towards God, but we, on the other hand, are subject to an orientation that is, literally, boundless because it is towards God.  This capacity carries with it, because it touches on freedom, an ability to pervert this boundless movement and effect self-ruination.  If we are free to love without limit and constraint – and that is what holiness is ­– we are, at the same time, capable of great destruction of our identity, the identity of others, the goodness of other creatures and the whole cosmic order of nature.  This capacity of moral freedom is the source of human violence, and that takes us back to the original question. 

The second point, though, is no less important: if we are in continuity with other creatures, then there is in us a shared legacy of dependence on other creatures that has a predatory quality.  The basic instinct in human beings is not sexuality but self-preservation and this primal ‘will’ or instinct is deeply rooted in the bodily, genetic core of the human person.  Think, if you like, of a tension between the freedom of an angel and the instinctive drive of an animal: we might picture ourselves between these extremes, and caught with contradictory impulses that are, on the one hand, shared with angels (contemplation, focused attentiveness, unity of identity) and shared with animals (an instinct to do violent, aggressive things). 

I doubt that the violence that seems to be grounded in human nature can be removed without altering us in unrecognisable ways.  A condition of peace is to be aimed for, and reconciliation attempted and lived, but it will not become the condition of everything before the consummation of all things when God will be all in all.  But we have to move towards that point, and the condition of one who does that is probably of being an innocent sufferer at the hands of violent people, living out the charity of the Suffering Servant who is Christ, of not returning evil for evil.  In a world in which moral evil seems to be pervasive because of its double origin in perverted freedom and in a common genetic inheritance with animals which have to feed off each other, there will be no resolution of this conflicted condition until it all ends.  But we have a way of living in the present age, and that is by being a disciple of Christ with all that this involves. 

You might read Is God to Blame? By Gerard J. Hughes SJ