And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place …” (Genesis 1: 9)
As land-dwelling creatures, it’s easy to forget that the Earth is primarily a marine habitat. It’s something of a challenge, living here so close to Lake Superior, to personally connect with what’s taking place downstream where the crystal clear waters we cherish mix with the effluence of the industries and the agriculture that support our lifestyle.
And so, in our own generation, we’ve watched silently as the oceans have changed in ways that may prove to be irreversible.
Sylvia Earle, who was chief scientist of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration back in the 1990s, reminds us of our connection to water. She writes: "The living ocean drives planetary chemistry, governs climate and weather, and otherwise provides the cornerstone of the life-support system for all creatures on our planet; from deep-sea starfish to desert sagebrush. That’s why the ocean matters. If the sea is sick, we’ll feel it. If it dies, we’ll die with it. Our future and the state of the oceans are one."
Because of our desire to always have more of everything at the lowest immediate cost to ourselves, we continue to compromise the ability of the oceans to sustain a healthy planet. We overfish them. We dump incalculable amounts of household, industrial and even nuclear waste into them.
We allow pesticides and herbicides to run off the land, sucking the oxygen out of them. When whales die and wash up on shore, in some locations, they are so riddled with toxins that their bodies are classified as toxic waste.
And yet the chemicals they’ve absorbed are often not the actual cause of death. What’s killing them is the sheer volume of plastic they ingest.
So, why do we continue to look the other way when it comes to the willful degradation of the Earth’s oceans? The answer, I think, is that this is partly a biblical thing and partly a cultural thing.
To ancient people, the sea was viewed as the source of chaos and disorder. In order to create an orderly world, God had to first subdue the primeval oceans. Go stand down on the breakwater when the waves are roaring from the east and you can sense why. It’s a power beyond what we can control.
And so Genesis describes creation as that which separates us from this terrifying and uncontrollable force of nature.
But we’re not ancient people. God has blessed us with scientific knowledge, and God expects us to now use it for the good of humankind. We understand that the sea is much more than a source of chaos threatening to overwhelm us. It’s also a living organism. It can no longer be treated as God’s adversary to be feared, subdued and destroyed.
And so we are called to embrace a theology that envisions the oceans as being part of God’s good creation, rather than being separate from it.
This journey to restoration and renewal requires us to reimagine our place in creation. It calls us to repentance of our own disregard for the Earth’s waters. It invites us to transform the way we live so that our footprint on the Earth is diminished. It compels us to be courageous enough to speak openly of what our neglect is doing to the Earth.
Repentance of our brokenness, a transformation of how we understand our role in God’s creation, and the courage to speak difficult truths; these are the keys to living in a way that honors God and future generations.
This is a theological movement that can’t wait. The time to reimagine the Church is now — not off in the future when our great-grandchildren only know that whales once inhabited the depths through picture books, not when the coral reefs are lifeless, not when remote islands that have been inhabited for thousands of years are underwater.
"On Faith" is a weekly column in the News-Chronicle written by area religious leaders.