Friday, April 04, 2014

I Am a Platypus

I've posted on this theme before (see this post on ice cream) but I found myself reflecting again this week.

In 1799 the naturalist George Shaw, Keeper of the Department of Natural History at the British Museum, received a truly bizarre animal specimen from Captain John Hunter in Australia. It appeared to be the bill of a duck attached to the skin of a mole. Shaw dutifully examined the specimen and wrote up a description of it in a scientific journal known as the Naturalist's Miscellany, but he couldn't help confessing that it was "impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal, and to surmise that there might have been practiced some arts of deception in its structure."

Despite Shaw's doubts about the reality of the animal, he gave it a name: Platypus anatinus, or flatfoot duck. The scientific name was later changed to Ornithorhynchus anatinus, but it popularly remained known as the Duckbilled Platypus.

Other naturalists were equally suspicious that the creature was just a hoax. The surgeon Robert Knox later explained that because the specimens arrived in England via the Indian Ocean, naturalists suspected that Chinese sailors, who were well known for their skill at stitching together hybrid creatures, might have been playing some kind of joke upon them. "Aware of the monstrous impostures which the artful Chinese had so frequently practiced on European adventurers," Knox noted, "the scientific felt inclined to class this rare production of nature with eastern mermaids and other works of art."
It was only when more platypus specimens arrived in England that naturalists finally, grudgingly, granted that the creature was real. This made the platypus one of the more famous instances of a hoax that proved not to be a hoax after all.

(taken from the website Museum of Hoaxes)

George Shaw did not want to believe the Platypus was real, even when presented with the evidence in front of him. His belief system of what a mammal should be, combined with his scepticism born of fear of falling for a hoax made him unable to see the evidence before him. I could imagine him saying "They don't fit my paradigm of what an animal should look like, therefore I refuse to believe they exist."

The Christianity of my youth was very narrow and rigid. I had a tightly controlled set of beliefs and practices and if you didn't fit into them you weren't a 'true christian'...which to be honest was a coded way of saying you weren't a christian at all.

I remember the first time I encountered a practicing catholic - Mike. Up until that point Catholics had existed in my life only as a category - a group of people who (in my thinking at the time) belonged to the false church as mentioned in the Book of Revelation. Mike didn't fit in my box labeled 'Catholic'. He had a thick Brummie accent (in my mind all Catholics were Irish or foreign), and an obvious deep abiding spiritual life. He and I were touring in a musical together, he played Jesus and I played St. John the Divine. So here I was onstage most nights having to act like he was part of the Godhead while wrestling with having been taught that Catholics were only one step up from satanists.

My interaction with Mike caused me to throw out my definitions of Catholic.

Mike was a platypus.

The way we react to someone whose theology is different to ours is crucial. One denomination ordains women, another asks them to worship in silent submission....and both are doing so because they believe it is biblical. Calvinists, Arminianists, Creationists, Theistic Evolutionists. Those who affirm gay relationships, those who oppose - Everyone believes their way is biblical...and someone exists who believes being biblical means believing the opposite.

We are all a platypus to someone else.

(As a side note I find it strangely hilarious that their is no consensus on the plural form of Platypus. Options include Platypus, Platypuses and Platypodes. Apparently the only incorrect one is the one that is most common Platypi.

We all need to learn to respond to the platypuses we encounter with grace.

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