Guest Post: The Creator of the Seas and all that is in them

If Whales Could Fly by Christopher Michel – Flickr – License: Creative Commons 2.0
If Whales Could Fly by Christopher Michel – Flickr – License: Creative Commons 2.0

It is easy to forget that we human beings are not the be all and end all of God’s magnificent creation. From one perspective we are simply creatures in it. From another perspective we are unique in his creation in being made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27). However, both the beauty and abundance of marine life and the biblical passages concerned with the sea show that the oceans and the life in them are of intrinsic value to the creator. Perhaps the best passage illustrating this is from Psalm 104.

There is the sea, vast and spacious,
teeming with creatures beyond number – living things both large and small.

There the ships go to and fro,
and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.

All creatures look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.

When you give it to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things.

When you hide your face, they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.

When you send your Spirit,
they are created,
and you renew the face of the ground.

By joakanty-Pixabay-CC0 Public Domain
By joakanty-Pixabay-CC0 Public Domain

This psalm illuminates the idea of the diversity and wise creation of God’s own creatures by reference to the sea, which teems with innumerable and varied life, ‘living things both small and great’.

The Bible contains traditions that present Leviathan, a great sea creature or ‘dragon’, as the enemy of God’s people and as inimical to God’s wise order in creation. This psalm then presents an extraordinarily divergent perspective. Far from being threatening to the created order, Leviathan has deliberately been placed in the sea as part of that order, in accordance with God’s wise plan.

From God’s perspective, Leviathan is not a terrifying beast, but an innocent playful creature, made to enjoy the great, wide sea. Various English terms are used to translate the word given here in the NIV as ‘frolic’, but the important element is the idea of playfulness, celebration and enjoyment.

In Proverbs 8:30-31, wisdom is said to ‘delight’ in God’s creation, but here the frolicking Leviathan is doing the same thing. The storm-waves that highlight human vulnerability in the vast alien environment of the sea are a perfect playground for great sea creatures such as Leviathan, at home in the habitat they were created to enjoy.

By Unsplash- Pixabay -CC0 Public Domain
By Unsplash- Pixabay –CC0 Public Domain

Too often people have seen themselves as the pinnacle of God’s creation. The creatures of the sea remind us that God takes delight in his creation irrespective of the presence of humans in it. For most of human history we have at best “dabbled our toes” in the great waters of the ocean, but have remained largely unaware of the beauty and complexity of the life in the ocean, which has nevertheless been a delight to its creator.

God takes pride and pleasure in aspects of creation that we may not even be aware of. As Shakespeare so eloquently put (through Hamlet’s words to Horatio): “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Our human understanding and knowledge are limited and it is good to remember that!

Blue dragon-glaucus atlanticus  By Sylke Rohrlach from Sydney [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Blue dragon-glaucus atlanticus  By Sylke Rohrlach from Sydney [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Stepping back from our own immediate concerns, we see that God as creator is much more profligate in his creating, as the abundance of life in the sea shows, and has concerns with his creation and plans for it that transcend what we can imagine. Even creatures that appear ugly or horrifying still have their place, along with other life that we can recognise as exquisitely beautiful. This puts us in our place and reminds us that our whole experience of and perspective on life may be too human-centred, too centred on terrestrial life, thus missing the grandeur of who God is and what he has created.

Weedy Seadragon by Chris Smith – Flickr – License: Creative Commons 2.0
Weedy Seadragon by Chris Smith – Flickr – License: Creative Commons 2.0

“The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1), including the oceans and sea creatures, and is not ours to do with as we wish. If people claim to love God, then a degree of humility is called for in how we live on the planet we share with the rest of his creatures, from microscopic life through to blue whales. The challenge is to become aware of the richness of God’s creation, and aware that it is important to him and was not solely created for human beings to exploit.

RebeccaWatsonDr Rebecca Watson is a Research Associate at the Faraday Institute, working on ‘The sea in Scripture’, conducting a study of the biblical material on the oceans in order to develop a biblical theology of the sea. The aim is to apply this to how Christians should treat the ocean, the creatures living in it and the resources it contains. Her theological studies began with a BA from Oxford University, and an MA in Theological Research from Durham, before she returned to Oxford to complete a DPhil examining putative occurrences of the theme of ‘chaos’ in the Psalter. Her first post was as a Lecturer in Biblical Studies at what is now the University of Cumbria and Senior Tutor for a ministerial training course for the north west. This was followed (after a career break) with three years working within the Cambridge Theological Federation as a Lecturer and Director of Studies for the Eastern Region Ministry Course (ERMC). She is also an affiliated lecturer of the University of Cambridge.

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Creator of the Seas and all that is in them

  1. thebookofworks November 12, 2015 / 1:11 pm

    A very well written post. I am a bit concerned though about the emphasis on “Too often people have seen themselves as the pinnacle of God’s creation.” That is actually how I do see humanity, and I think that is both a scripturally and scientifically valid point of view.

    I agree that we need to exercise care and stewardship of God;s planet and all life in it, but as stewards, not as equals with all other creatures. I know this is not a very popular current view, and that what I call the Theory of Human Mediocrity has become widely accepted (both within and especially outside the Church), but I believe this needs to be resisted.

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    • rsw42 November 13, 2015 / 11:10 am

      Thank you, that’s a very good point. What I wanted to resist was the idea that humanity is somehow the goal of creation. If we talk of Adam being created first, and then the garden being built around this human creature as if for its benefit, then I think we are on very difficult ground. Likewise, the ideas of ‘dominion’ and ‘subjugation’ can all too easily be brought into the service of an instrumental view of creation, and of human beings as somehow detached from the rest of the created world. One thing the current environmental crisis has taught us is how dangerous this view is.

      Of course, Gen. 1 does talk about humanity being made in the image of God, and this identifies a distinctiveness about human beings that reflects reality. We do have an impact on the rest of the created order through our actions that is on an entirely different scale from that of other species. What we need to draw from this, I think, is an appreciation of our position in creation as a heavy responsibility. We are called to be in the image of God, but we manifestly fall far short of this ideal.

      Related to this, the Bible paints many pictures of human beings, of which that in Gen.1 is not actually very typical. As well as being made in the image of God, we are also formed from dust. This is even reflected in the name ‘adam’ (which translates as ‘human being’), which is understood in Genesis as a play on the Hebrew word adamah (‘earth, ground, soil’). We are earthlings, made of earth, and destined to return there. Elsewhere, our transience is compared to grass that withers and fades (Isa. 40). Part of us may be made to draw near to God, but we are also very limited.
      The other really important thing to note about the opening chapters of Genesis is that although Gen. 1 portrays the ‘very good’ world that God created, what follows shows how humanity continually turned away from God. The cycle of disobedience and punishment in Gen. 3-11 explains how things are not as they were or should be: how we came to eat meat instead of remaining in vegetarian harmony; how we are divided by linguistic barriers, and so on. This view of human sin and limitedness is a very important counterbalance to more exalted ideas of humanity, and it actually represents a stronger voice in the Bible.

      The other strand in the Bible that needs to be brought into this discussion is that represented especially by Job 38:39-41:34. We are not the centre of creation, we cannot understand God’s ways, and he places special value on creatures that are of no benefit to us, and which we may even find threatening.

      So I think we need to see the picture of humanity in the Bible as pulling two ways. The later books of the Law develop the idea that only through obedience to God shall there be shalom (wellbeing) in the land, with bounty and peace in creation, fructifying rains and plentiful growth. Disobedience, however, has a devastating impact, not just on the perpetrators, but on the rest of creation too. What we are learning is that our impact on creation is indeed god-like in its scale, for good or for ill. The need to try to conform to the image of God has never been more important, but we are a long way short of that.

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    • Mick Lumsden November 13, 2015 / 2:00 pm

      I do not think that it is a case of “Human Mediocrity”. When thinking of “pinnacles of creation” we do observe that people are good at using their hands and abstract thinking. But when it comes to other things, other creatures are far superior. So we are very bad at swimming, flying, and navigation, for example. Perhaps we are the best at causing extinction of other creatures – and murder of members of our own species.
      In trying to think this through I considered Wesley’s Quadrilateral:
      Scripture – Job chapters 38 to 41 are perhaps relevant
      Reason – As one species in millions it seems unlikely that we are the most important. And on top of that for the vast majority of time Humans did not exist. I cannot imagine God getting bored with the rest of creation when there were no humans (it was probably a lot more peaceful!)
      Tradition – Franciscan spirituality does not claim a special place for people – animals are fellow creatures (referred to as “brother”). The story of the Wolf of Gubbio is perhaps instructive.
      Experience – My dog is much more of a pinnacle of creation than I. this is well summed up in poem “God and Dog”. http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/prayables/2012/02/god-and-dog-wendy-francisco.html Key lines are at the end – “And in my human frailty, I can’t match their love for me”

      Of course the point about Stewardship is important. But it seems to me that on a practical level this is about minimising the harm we do.

      Dr Watson has suggested that humility is important – and I agree. Thinking of our species as the pinnacle of creation does not help me in the constant struggle against pride.

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  2. derekjwhite November 12, 2015 / 6:03 pm

    He who planted the ear, does he not hear? He who formed the eye, does he not see?

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  3. thebookofworks November 16, 2015 / 4:58 pm

    RSW

    Thanks for your thoughtful and informative reply to my provocative comment. What you say makes sense, and does have the ring of scriptural truth. The point of view that I do find repugnant in every sense, theologically, scientifically and personally is ably expressed by Mick Lumsden. This is exactly the fairly popular view (the Theory of Human Evil) which, as he says, goes much further than human mediocrity. I am not sure of the origin of this anti human ideology, (while some new atheists are proponents, it predates them), but I think its roots are in 1960s, anti technology, back to nature ideas. They are fundamentally (at least to me) anti Christian, anti progressive, and animistic ideologies that have somehow permeated modern progressive, including environmentalist, thought.

    I agree with everything you (RSW) have said about the need to careful stewardship of the environment, and I consider myself (a former Professor of Environmental Health) to be an environmentalist. But the idea that this a world where dogs are the pinnacle of creation, is not only silly, but simply wrong. And the fact that this even needs to be said, I find quite disturbing.

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  4. rsw42 November 17, 2015 / 1:38 pm

    Thank you. I agree in many ways with you. Yet—if I might be provocative in my turn and seek to see things from the other point of view—we might perhaps say that other species more perfectly fulfill God’s intention for them. Each crab, each plankton, even each blue whale, perfectly epitomizes crab-ness, plankton-ness and whale-ness. In fact, the lower the level of consciousness of these animals, the more we can be sure that they are faithfully fulfilling their function in creation without deviation. We can be sure that more primitive creatures such as plankton cannot be attributed with a will or personality at all: they simply do as they do. There may conceivably be whales with unpleasant personalities, but there is a limit to how much this might affect their bearing on other creatures, and maybe any ‘unpleasantness’ may actually be a necessary feature of dominance or product of their environment. We would probably shirk from attributing culpability to a whale at all, and perhaps indeed to any other higher-order being.
    As human beings, barring injury or disability, we have consciousness and a capacity for moral reasoning and empathy, and an ability to calculate possibly very remote consequences and indirect impacts of our actions, rather than simply the immediate ones. Some of these abilities are, at a basic level, not unique to homo sapiens, but they are in degree, and in particular when the scale of our impact on other species is considered. Our lives are riven with paradox: we have a unique level of responsibility and capacity for good or ill in the world, but despite our potential, we all fall short of what we might be and do. Overall our impact on the planet has been pretty devastating.
    In a sense this brings us back to the dog. We may have unique capacities and a unique position in creation, but as a species we have also caused unique harm and have unique moral culpability. Could that–at least in this particular sense–make us both the ‘best’ and ‘worst’ of God’s creatures?

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    • thebookofworks November 19, 2015 / 5:14 am

      Yes, indeed, we are the best and worst of God’s creatures, but we do need to always keep in mind the question, according to whom? For whatever reason, (beyond any idea I can think of) dogs and dolphins seem to love us. I had a wonderful experience with a pair of dolphins who guided me back towards shore off the coast of Maine, because I was in fact much too far out for a small 16 foot boat.

      But I think when we speak of human goodness and human evil, it is really only we who define those terms. God judges us, and we judge ourselves. We brought evil and goodness into the world. I dont think that a killer whale is “worse” than a bunny rabbit. As you say, most of God’s creatures (probably all of them) perfectly fulfill God’s purposes for them. Only we need to struggle with that. We fail, probably most of the time. But when we dont, when there are those rare moments (and probably less rare than many think) when we hold out a helping hand to a person in need, or finish a beautiful painting, or find an elegant theorum, or work toward a cleaner, more natural environment, I believe that God smiles, and forgives us for all the rest. At least I hope so.

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  5. rsw42 November 30, 2015 / 11:05 am

    I agree with some of what you say–but am uneasy with other parts. As far as I can see, the more common pattern of relationship between humans and animals is, sadly, expressed in Gen. 9:2: ‘The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea’. This does not mean there cannot be very good relations between humans and animals in some instances, but this is hardly a norm. The ideal of the peaceable kingdom, apparently existing in Eden and expressed in the idea of the lion lying down with the lamb, is a wonderful one, and something to be eagerly anticipated, but it is far from being a present reality.

    I would count myself as an animal lover, and it is so easy to interpret dogs’ behaviour as love. However, I suspect this might be anthropomorphising. My family recently adopted two dogs whose owner was no longer able to look after them for health reasons. The first morning they were with us, they greeted us with great enthusiasm (as they have done every morning subsequently). Had we had them from puppyhood, we would probably have read this as ‘love’. But they hardly knew us, and if they loved, their hearts should have been primarily with their previous owner, who was distraught at letting them go. Perhaps this was more likely the sort of behaviour naturally expressed towards their ‘pack leader’: it might show dependence and goodwill, and pleasure at seeing us, even, but I’m not sure it was really what we would regard as love. This is not to say there aren’t some very well documented instances of dogs showing great loyalty to their owners, and even of them saving lives. But day-to-day ‘doggy’ behaviour is not necessarily what we think it is, or want to think it is.

    Dolphins are extraordinary animals, clearly highly intelligent and capable of some of the ‘higher order’ attributes, including developed social communication, which we sometimes associate as specifically human or as shared with very few other species. There are many similar accounts of dolphins helping people reach land. But to me, this is a positive reflection on dolphins, rather than an indication that there is something special about human beings which is somehow recognised by dolphins. We only need to think of how dolphins may be drowned in trawlers’ nets in order to be reminded how human greed sadly undermines the possibility of real reciprocality in that particular relationship.

    I’m sure God’s forgiveness is a reality, but again, I think we need to be careful. Forgiveness cannot remove the consequences of an action, or indeed of cumulative human actions. If you have hurt someone, your being forgiven by God does not remove their pain. If we have polluted and exploited the environment, this remains a reality that is not going to be dissolved or overcome by forgiveness. Maybe we need to work harder at cultivating a sense of guilt and responsibility (and indeed culpability) in respect of our actions, important as forgiveness also is.

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