Some Theological Implications of Science: Revisiting the Ant
By Mario A. Russo
There are sugar ants on my kitchen counter. They’ve been there for a several weeks. I’m not really sure how to get rid of them. However, if I were to be really honest, I would probably tell you that I don’t really want to get rid of them.
The scientist in me wants to use them for impromptu experimentation. I figure I can set out several dishes, each one full of a different kind of sugar, and then see if there is a type of sugar that the ants prefer. Yet, the husband and father in me wants to exterminate them. After all, exercising dominion includes protecting my kids’ food supply from invading forces, no matter how great or small. And still, the pastor in me wants to use them as a way to communicate spiritual truth to God’s people. For our purposes here, I will set my husband and fatherly instincts aside.
In Proverbs 6:6-9, the author connects a spiritual truth to a biological phenomenon. He writes, “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. How long will you lie there, O sluggard? When will you arise from your sleep?” Since at least 970 B.C.E humans have been considering the natural world, and drawing important spiritual lessons from it. In this particular case, the author invites his reader to consider the ant.
The author’s original intent is to call the lazy person (described as a “sluggard”) to consider how hard the ant works, and draw inspiration and motivation to strengthen his own work ethic. There are two important points for us to consider from this text.
Investigating the Natural World Can Reveal Spiritual Truth
In calling readers to consider the ant, the author is making the assumption that spiritual truth can be discovered through investigation into the natural world. It almost goes without saying because it is so obvious, and yet it is so obvious that we can overlook it. If the author did not think that there would be some spiritual benefit gained by considering the ant he would not have called his reader’s attention to it. The ant is a part of the natural world. Deeper investigation into the ant, and therefore the natural world, can produce spiritual truth.
One of the other clear examples in the Bible of this relationship between the natural world and spiritual truth is seen in 1 Corinthians 12:12-14. Paul makes an astonishing analogy. He equates the Church with a human body, a biological ecosystem. He states:
“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many.”
The important thing about this passage is the strength of the correlation that Paul draws between the physical human body, and the spiritual body of Christ. He even includes the concept of “honorable” and “dishonorable” parts, or what we would sometimes refer to as “private parts.” For Paul, the analogy is simple, yet strong and true, a human body is made up of many members working together not for the good of one member, but for the good of the whole body. By analogous extension, the Church, likewise, is made up of many members working together not for the good of one member, but for the good of the whole body. In order to communicate the weight of this spiritual truth, Paul has to use an illustration from the natural world.
If the natural world is full of such correlations of spiritual truth, it behooves the pastor as well as the scientist to investigate the natural world. Not every pastor needs to be a scientist. Not every believing scientist needs to be a pastor. However, just like every believing scientist needs to be a student of God’s word, so too, every pastor ought to be a student of God’s natural world.
Proverbs is not the only place in the Bible that we see spiritual lessons being drawn from the natural world, and ants are not the only species to be used. As I discussed in a previous BioLogos article, God uses many fields of the natural sciences to drawn spiritual lessons for Job. Moreover, Jesus uses the natural world to draw spiritual lessons for his disciples. He uses birds, flowers, bushes, seeds, sheep, goats, and wolves to help his followers understand the nature of the kingdom of God.
Investigating the Natural World Can Reveal Spiritual Disciplines
The second aspect of Proverbs 6 that I want to address is the result of following the imperative to actually consider the ant’s ways. In considering the ant there are many valuable spiritual lessons we can find. Verses 7-8 says, “Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest.” In other words, the implication of the ant-life is that there is no one outside of their colony to tell them when the seasons are changing. There is no one giving orders or looking out for their best interest. There is no one holding their hand and walking them through it. Ants are responsible for their own welfare. They have to work hard in order to survive. Ants have to work together to prepare and gather food in order to preserve the thriving of the colony. In short, the survival of the ant population is predicated on their work ethic.
As scientists continue to investigate the world of ants they are making some amazing discoveries. In Brazil, scientists discovered an underground leafcutter ant colony that rivals any modern-day human civil engineering. It was 500sq ft. and extended to 26 ft. underground. The network of tunnels had good ventilation, and was designed to provide the shortest transport routes.1 One article described the “ways of the ants” thus:
“The community of ants – described as a ‘superorganism’ because of the way they coordinated themselves – carried out a Herculean task building their giant home. Each insect would have repeatedly carried loads of earth, weighing more times more than the worker, a distance of what would be just over half a mile in human terms… It features scores of highways connecting the main chambers – and, off the main routes, are side roads. From there, paths branch out and lead to the many rubbish pits and fungus gardens, which are grown from the vegetation collected by the workers.”2
The cooperative efforts of the ants provided the colony with a state of the art underground city. In fact, leafcutter ants are known to form the second most complex societies on Earth after human beings.3 What we learn from the ants is that a strong work ethic from collective individuals benefits the whole society. In other words, we are not individuals who simply work
in a larger society. We are a collective of individuals who work for the good of a larger society.
In the opening chapters of Genesis we learn that humans were created to work. We were charged with the task of exercising dominion (care) over all creation. In his book, “Every Good Endeavor,” Tim Keller writes, “A biblical understanding of work energizes our desire to create value from the resources available to us. Recognizing the God who supplies our resources, and who gives us the privilege of joining in as cocultivators, helps us enter into our work with a relentless spirit of creativity.”4 In short, understanding that work is not simply a necessary evil or a boring chore, but that it has meaning and is connected to a larger narrative provides motivation for ongoing participation.
To neglect the study of God’s natural world is to be the “sluggard” of Proverbs six. To fail to consider the ways of the ant is to lazily ignore the wonders of spiritual truth available to us, as well as the example of spiritual disciplines in God’s natural world. The command from the author of Proverbs to consider the ways of the ant is meant for every Christian from every walk of life, for the scientist as well as the pastor, for the entomologist, as well as the average person. May it not be said of us that we are sluggards, but that we are as diligent as an ant in considering the natural world in order to find spiritual truth and lessons in spiritual discipline.
1 Julian Gavaghan, “The bug society: Scientists excavate underground ant city that ‘rivals the great wall of China’ with a labyrinth of highways.” Daily Mail, February 2, 2012.
4 Timothy Keller, Every good endeavor: Connecting your work to God's work. (New York: Penguin, 2012), 49.
Mario Anthony Russo is a pastor and theological writer. He received his Bachelor of Science degree (Biology and Psychology) from the University of South Carolina, a Master of Arts in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Ministry from Erskine College and Seminary. His interests include science and faith, missiology, and pastoring. He and his wife Virginia currently live in Greenville, South Carolina with their two children.