THEN A FISH JUMPED …. AND OTHER TROUBLING THOUGHTS
I was alone, totally alone and from all the evidence available to me, I was the only person in the cosmos. I was on a solo kayak expedition in the Sea of Cortez, something I do periodically. My campsite was on a solitary beach in a small rocky cove on Espíritu Santo Island, the kind of place seen on postcards, in National Geographic, in ads for expensive hotels or in the escapist dreams of over-stressed executives. In front of me was a quiet sea mirroring the magnificent sunrise. Around me were old granite boulders and cliffs dyed gold by the light from the rising sun. Above me were a billion light years of nothing. Tranquility, serenity, quiet. Glorious peace. Silent solitude. I didn’t want it to end. Romans 1:20 came to mind, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” In my surroundings I could sense the peace of God, see the beauty of his creation, and feel his love. It was a magical moment as I experienced God in this gloriously peaceful part of his creation.
Then a fish jumped. ——————– Why? To celebrate the joy of life with me? Or because it was being chased by something bigger that wanted to rip it apart into swallowable chunks and eat it? Later a vulture glided by above me effortlessly, relaxed. It was a desperate relaxation to conserve energy between scarce and unpredictable meals of rotting corpses in order to keep itself from becoming a rotting corpse meal for something else. At my feet, upon closer inspection, I could see tiny copepods and other creatures scurrying about either killing or trying to keep from being killed. Another fish jumped, then a school of them, each of them in private, absolute terror from the threat of imminent painful death or in attempt to cause an imminent painful death for some other creature whose turn for dismemberment had come.
Even boulders around me were a testimony to violence. Some were sedimentary, indicating they had been built underwater during a prior much higher preAlGoreian sea level. Some were volcanic in nature, indicating their origin as a molten drop far below the earth’s surface before freezing to hardness when they were birthed in a cooler place. Other rocks had thousands of embedded sea shells in them, a permanent record of death and suffering. Regardless of the origin of the rock, they all gave testimony to a tumultuous, violent past. Even the sand at my feet was the result of violence as each grain used to be part of a larger whole, now broken up. Much of the sand at my feet started its career as elegant and delicate coral till it was bitten off by large parrot fish and turned into the nice white poop we think of as a beautiful tropical white sand beach.
The twinkling stars above me, disappearing as the sun brightened, had no need of the poetic phrase “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are.” We know what they are. They are burning, exploding, deteriorating balls of gas inexorably consuming themselves towards annihilation.
“God’s invisible qualities…..” – All this violence in God’s creation —Wow! I’m not sure I like that verse any more. It troubles me. It scares me a bit. All of a sudden our creator God doesn’t seem so benign, so gentle, so safe. God’s purpose in existing might no longer be to make me happy. I may have lost my control over him because he is no longer confined to my selected, self-serving understanding of him. “God’s invisible qualities . . .”: the simple, memorized answers from my childhood have failed me–no longer adequate, their expiration inversely linked to my increasing understanding of nature. Were I an atheist, which I am not, I would simply place my faith in the omnipotence of time, believing that given enough of it, nature would create itself out of nothing, the void becoming a palpable something, the great eternally pre-existent nothing unilaterally mandating itself into measurable organization. If you believe in divine creation, which I do, we may tempted to flee to the easy, but sometimes overly simplistic answers found in relegating all unpleasant unknowns to humanity’s fall into sin and to Noah’s flood, using them as the all-encompassing catch-all explanations for all things we don’t understand about Earth and may not want to know. Is it possible that the God to whom we sing happy, loving worship songs on Sunday could be responsible for designing something so violent, so bloodletting, so consuming? Or are we guilty of using ourselves as the template for creating a God we desire, a God of our convenience? The unmeasurable immensity of the violence in nature requires preplanning and intentionality because each act of natural violence fulfills a necessary and utilitarian function contributing to God’s grand ongoing design. Might we have focused only on the parts of creation and the Bible we like and used them as the guide from which we manufactured a customized God of our liking?
If we are Jesus followers we use the Bible as our ultimate authority and source of truth. However, let’s be honest: the Bible is a book filled with violence: or have you not read the minor prophets or Revelation, or have you not read between the lines the account of the flood? Have you not read Exodus and the other books of history in the Bible? A couple of years ago my wife asked what she should do as an object lesson to teach her kindergarten Sunday school class about Noah’s flood. I suggested she drown a puppy in a bucket of water. Noah’s flood is about judgment, death and devastation every bit as much as it is about love and rescue; and that rescue was only made necessary because of the greatest act of intentional and premeditated violence ever recorded. What does all the violence in the Bible tell us about God’s character? . . . Um, next question please. What we discover might not fit what we have selected to believe.
The bottom line? We probably don’t understand violence the way God does. We interpret violence and death in light of our imperceptibly short 80 years or so on the planet, believing that violence poses a terminating threat to our existence. We have no choice but to perceive and interpret time as beginning and ending with us; that is all we can do. We fail to understand, because we cannot truly conceive it in our limited minds, that God sees the entirety of the cosmos from a timeless point of view. God’s violence is ultimately a tool for good. It is purposeful and not random, or titillating, or for entertainment. God’s violence is a shaping tool, a tool to shape people, and mountains, and oceans, and culture. Sometimes the violence God uses is for the purpose of judgement, after he gives fair and ample warning to people to stop doing the harmful things they are doing. God is far bigger, grander, more complex and more mysterious than we can possibly know. We must not let our theologians, even our good ones, systematize the Almighty, restricting him to the safe theological Petri dishes into which they have placed him for observation so they can argue among themselves about him later. Nor can we let the charlatans of the prosperity gospel convince us that the Almighty is nothing but our butler or our cash cow in the sky. God is not our cool, cloud-dwelling pal, the man upstairs, the old guy with the white beard. He is God, and he is fearsome. We must be grateful that in spite of the awesome violence that is part of God’s character he also gently loves us. We must be eternally grateful that God’s immeasurable violence appears to be exceeded by his limitless love, a love so great that he exercised great violence against himself in order to spare us the eternal, ultimate violence we deserve.
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis writes, in a discussion taking place among the animals and children, about Aslan, the lion, the king, “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” C.S Lewis got it right. God is not safe, but he is good–very, very good.