Last week I was standing at the ocean’s edge on a beach in eastern Long Island, and I remembered that at an earlier point in my life, while still an agnostic, I used to (in a way) worship the ocean. Whenever I would get to a seashore, on whatever continent, whether a sandy beach or a rocky coast, I would think “Here I am, sea, once again, back to be with you.” I would watch the waves and think in some way that they were expressions of friendship, much like the wagging of dog’s tail, or the wave of a human.
This kind of pantheistic nature worship is not at all uncommon among atheists or agnostics with some degree of spiritual connection. Even some theists, including Christians, will occasionally succumb to the marvelous beauty of God’s creation and lean toward worshiping the creation instead of the Creator. As Denis Alexander says in his book Is there Purpose in Biology?, quoting theologian Aubrey Moore:
“For the Christian theologian, the facts of nature are the acts of God.”
Alexander goes on to demolish the extreme forms of “natural theology” that hold nature to be an entity worthy of worship. He discusses the brilliant Christian pioneer of chemistry, Robert Boyle, who demythologized “the idea of nature as a quasi-independent entity.”
I had a rude awakening regarding the imagined friendship between myself and the sea. Those who read my post “How I spent my Summer Vacation” last year might recall my telling of an incident with a pair of dolphins off the coast of Maine that I interpreted as a positive spiritual experience with God’s creatures. But a few years before that event, I was in the same boat off the same coast and had an altogether more sobering and in fact life-threatening encounter with the reality of the ocean.
A rare hurricane was threatening the coast where we were spending our vacation, and I had to move the boat into a safe place. I decided to bring it back to the launch ramp where I could easily put it back on its trailer. This entailed going from where the boat was moored near our house to a small inlet a few miles along the coast. I started out with no problems, even though the outer bands of the hurricane were already hitting us. There was a heavy rain and the water near the mooring was choppier than usual. But we were on the leeward (protected) side of an island, and when I passed under the bridge that connected the island to the mainland, I immediately entered a different world, one that I was unfamiliar with.
The sea was rough, rougher than I had ever seen it, with swells 4 to 6 feet high and coming rapidly. After 10 minutes, I realized I could make no progress against the wind and current, and that I had to give up my plan and turn around. My 12-foot boat was barely under the control of the 20-hp outboard engine, and it was all I could do to keep the bow pointed into the wind and waves. I realized to my horror that turning around would be almost impossible, since as soon as the boat was broadside to the waves it would capsize.
At that point I called out in desperation, “Stop!” Of course, it didn’t, and I thought “the ocean doesn’t care about you at all.” I had no options— there were no other boats around, no people on the shore or the bridge. There was nothing I could do. Finally, I took a deep breath, gunned the engine to top speed, and turned the boat. Sure enough, one wave hit just as I was 90 degrees to the wind, and I almost went over, but the momentum of the turn brought me around. In another three minutes the waves propelled the boat back under the bridge, and I was safe. Exhausted, terrified, soaking wet, and a bit wiser, I dragged the boat up onto the dock of a neighbor.
So I no longer talk to the sea. I still love it, but I no longer think of it as anything other than what it is, a marvelous part of this splendid planet, in turn, created as a small part of this universe by God. The shock of understanding that nature doesn’t really care about us humans has long worn off. What counts is that God does care for us, and even more, that we care about each other, and that’s all we need.
Last week, as I watched the waves crash onto the shore and looked out at the vast ocean, I was not thinking about any relationship I once imagined I had with the world- wide seas, but instead I focused my attention on the distant figure of a swimmer as she (my beautiful wife) moved in the water, and felt the real wonder of true love.