Love and the Ocean

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.

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5 Responses to Love and the Ocean

  1. sallyhawksworth says:

    I think most of us can identify with the sorts of feelings you describe here. And indeed the ascribing of a sort of volition and even personality to objects or forces which nowadays at least we know perfectly well are not actually animate or conscious must surely be a universal human characteristic (and very likely one shared by many animals too). It probably has its origins deep in our evolutionary past. Nine times out of ten that rustle in the leaves might turn out to have been merely a breeze, but the tenth time it could have been a predator stalking you, or a prey animal you could have caught, if you’d reacted fast enough. Better nine false alarms than one missed opportunity or, still worse, warning of danger ignored. Animals and primitive humans instinctively primed to react instantaneously to any sound or sight that might POSSIBLY be caused by some threat were animals and humans much more likely to live long enough to leave descendants than their less fearful, more complacent fellows. And natural enough that those descendants would feel that the evident dangerous destructive power of volcanoes, earthquakes, thunderstorms and rough seas must be directed by conscious entities, whose hostile attention one must avoid attracting, but which might possibly be propitiated if treated with enough respect. Herein, IMO, the origin of religions.
    But I think that it is misleading to use the word “worship” to describe the sort of anthropomorphism you relate in the first passage, when you say you felt the waves were like a dog’s tail waving in friendship. After all, if it was a real dog greeting you, and you responded, you would not be worshipping the dog, would you? In common with most of humanity, I am inclined, when I get frustrated with tools and machines that don’t perform as I wish, to talk to them as though they were consciously out to thwart me, not just the ones that appear to talk to ME, like Satnavs or pcs, but jar lids and keys. But it would hardly be appropriate to describe this as “worship”, would it?

  2. dgilmanjm says:

    I also used to identify myself as an agnostic and also marveled at the majesty and immense complexity and beauty of nature. It was that quality of nature that prevented be from becoming atheist. (The atheists I tell that to keep insisting that agnostics are also atheists.)

    I did not actually worship nature, but my great attraction to it and the emotional reaction if engendered in me came very close to worship.

    • sallyhawksworth says:

      Well, definitions vary from person to person. I identify as a Humanist nowadays, and the byline on my local Humanist group’s banner reads “Atheists and agnostics for a better world”. But I know people who call themselves Christian Humanists, as indeed Erasmus and Thomas More did, and a lovely lady whose Humanist funeral I recently attended called herself a non-religious Buddhist Humanist. I think it’s reasonable for me to call myself an atheist, on the basis that I am not a theist. I don’t believe that any deity exists. But I could also call myself an agnostic, in that I don’t think it’s possible for us humans to know absolutely whether or not any creative power intentionally brought our universe into existence. I just don’t think it was necessary or the most likely explanation, but I can’t rule it out.

      As a teenager I was a Christian. I marvelled at the beauty and complexity of nature. That impelled me to watch tv programmes on natural history, and read books about it. And learning more about nature, and about human history, and, I have to say, reading the Old Testament, all made me more and more doubtful that the universe, and the course of life on earth, was directed by a benevolent deity, or that a benevolent deity would have behaved as God is described as behaving in the bible. But I never lost my sense of wonder at nature, and the immensity of the universe, and nor, evidently, have the scientists and presenters whose tv programmes and books I have enjoyed and learnt from, most of whom have also lost any belief in a deity, or never had it.

      Yes, the sea is indifferent to us, and so is nature and the rest of the universe. But we are a part of it. We exist within it. So how can we be indifferent to it? Why shouldn’t we celebrate it and seek to understand it better, and try to preserve the diversity and beauty of other living things on earth for subsequent generations of humans, and for themselves? Even if there was no purpose, no intention behind the origin of the universe or life or humanity, there is purpose in the universe now. WE can imbue our lives with purpose and meaning.

  3. I probably misused the word “worship” in my post, since both Sally and Dennis have pointed this out. Not sure what the right word is, but would love to hear suggestions.

  4. I grew up by the sea and was introduced to the mountains by my dad. However, my own experiences served merely to reinforce that nature is a beautiful, but wholly (not holy) indifferent mother. Nature has been, at times, perhaps “enlightening” in that regard. And I’ve always enjoyed, marveled at, and respected nature. “Worship”… just, no. And I don’t make any claim to knowledge of what’s behind its workings.

    “…non-religious Buddhist Humanist…” I can go with that.

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