Dr Eero Huovinen, Bishop Emeritus. Divine Service, Conferment of Doctoral Degrees, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Helsinki. Cathedral of Helsinki 5 June 2015
Dear faculty celebrants, dear doctors, dear sisters and brothers in Christ
When we read the creation narrative in Genesis, we notice that animals were created before humans. Does this detail of the ancient narrative convey something to us as we celebrate these festivities of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine?
Amidst this highly learned audience, I need not specifically mention that the Biblical Genesis narrative is not a scientific study, not a scientific detailed protocol, not an academic analysis of the genesis and evolution of nature. Yet, it can still be read for the purpose of understanding life.
It has often been claimed that humans are the apex of creation. On this day of academic celebration, where the fruits of high-level scientific research are being harvested, it is most habitual to think that the development of nature is truly in human hands. If we are intelligent, innovative and smart people, we will reach the top and science will go forward. Homo sapiens stands at the zenith of creation.
And yet we human beings exist only as part of this immense creation. In its own poetic manner, the Biblical creation narrative brings us back to reality. There is something very persuasive, almost amusing, regarding the order of creation. First came light, then the sky, the solid ground, the sea, the vegetation, the sun, the moon and the stars. It was only after all these that the animals came and they, too, in an interesting order, first the fish and the birds, then the livestock, small animals and the wild beasts. After the various animals had been enumerated, the creation narrative, in an almost Darwinian spirit, states that all were created “according to their kinds”. I wonder if there is, after all, not such a great distinction between The Origin of Species and God’s creative work as has sometimes been claimed.
Only after all the animals came human beings. Someone might joke that the best comes last. We may, however, think of it the other way around. Human life was only possible after all creation gave people a livable environment and the prerequisites for life. In the great drama of creation, the lot in life of humankind only became meaningful after that of the animals. We are not here celebrating the Veterinary Faculty in vain.
The bond between the animals and humankind is a familiar idea to the festive audience before me. Even though the title of the faculty, according to the Finnish wording, mentions only animals, its mission is broad and evokes respect: “The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine safeguards the health and wellbeing of animals and people.”
When people who are uninitiated in the mission of the faculty read this mission statement, they may well misunderstand it. If they are simply content with their first impressions, they might be puzzled as to why a faculty with a name ordinarily restricted simply to animals would desire to bear responsibility for people as well. Should the faculty herself not be satisfied with what her name refers to?
Those who know the curricula of the department better can, for example, remind that the research on food hygiene immediately touches on human wellbeing. Animals and human beings cannot be isolated from each other.
The connectedness of animals and human beings is particularly emphasized when health is pursued. In the faculty this holistic view is highlighted in the concept of One Health. Just as the globe is one and indivisible, so also health affects all creation. Animals, the environment and human beings are all interdependent. Our health is shared.
The mission of the faculty is not only ambitious but also humble. The goal is set high as the faculty desires to be responsible for both animal and human health and wellbeing. And the faculty is also realistic and aware of its own “territory”. Its mission is carried out in accordance with the central areas of its field.
Underlying the faculty mission is also the classical notion of the university as a whole, a consortium of disciplines. On the one hand, each discipline has its particular role, yet, on the other hand, all join together as one entirety. The university is universitas scientiarum.
The biblical creation narrative is not simply the description of all genesis in the vernacular of the time. What is more essential in the narrative is that the quality and value of all created reality is assessed. The following words are constantly repeated: “God saw that it was good.” At issue is not only that the Creator Himself is good but that creation was created to be good, that it bears with it goodness.
The goodness given forth by God is also repeated in the portion of the creation narrative which is part of the faculty’s expertise. Good were the fish of the water, the birds of the air, the livestock, the small animals, even the wild beasts. “And God saw that it was good.”
To us human beings, the goodness of creation is both a gift and a mission, in the same way that health is a joy and a responsibility. This is also realised in the concept of One Health. The good that we have received is by no means always the result of our own achievements, but it is something we have been given. We are to work for health, yet we must remember that health is a gift, something that we simply receive. Good nature and our good Creator distribute good things.
Once upon a time there was a rooster who possessed enormous self-confidence. Each morning he woke up early when it was still dark, stepped outside and started his gorgeous crowing. The sun came up and the rooster was exceedingly proud of his role. But one day the rooster fell ill and lost his singing voice. All he could muster was a miserable wheezing. His throat was sore, but what was even worse was that he grew desperate and depressed. How could his important daily vocation be carried out the following morning?
The rooster lay awake all night. When it was still dark, he stepped outside and tried to straighten his neck. But he could produce no sound. The rooster’s comb drooped, and so did his spirits. But then he was startled: the sun did come up! It was stunning: the sun came up even when he did not crow. The new day was not dependent on his crowing! Things simply fell into place without his singing.
A scientist is not, in all respects, like a rooster, but even all doctors have jobs to carry out. They must get up early, write, study, and, even at times sing, with the best skills they can muster. And yet doctoral candidates are to remember that there are many things in life that do not solely depend on them. There are things for others to do, for creation and for nature to carry out, and things that are dependent on God.
Not everything is in human hands. This is where we can learn from the animals. The words of Jesus guide us to the proper framework of a carefree spirit and also to the right faith and trust:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air, they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26 NIV)
Dear conferees: While you and while we all as human beings are more valuable than animals, we still share a great deal with animals. We also have a lot to learn from them. We belong to the same creation, to that good reality which we have received as a gift.
Today we have a great many reasons to feel free like the birds of the air, and sing boldly like roosters, tonight probably a bit more boldly than now. Above all, we have every reason to trust that the sun shines on the wicked as well as on the righteous. Our good God is good to all. Let us therefore be happy, thankful and joyous.