The Wisdom of Sea Creatures
A JJB Commentary*
Much of the world's beauty is underneath the ocean, produced by our cousins in the sea. Biologists tell us that the first living beings to dwell on the land emerged from the sea. If this is true, then our own human creativity had its origins in oceanic depths.
Some people speculate that we arrived on land from heavenly shores, and then imagine "heaven" as a distant place in the sky. Perhaps these speculations have their origins in a memory, buried deep within our psyches and genes, of origins in the deep, blue sea. Perhaps heaven was under water. Others speculate that our own hopes for wholeness have their origins in the memory of a time when we ourselves were swimming in the comforting fluidity of our mother's wombs. Perhaps these speculations bespeak an aquatic history that precedes our time in the womb. Perhaps there's something in us that wants to come home, to swim underwater, to be embraced by the depths. We do not want to drown, but we wouldn't mind floating.
In any case, if evolutionary biologists are right, then our own capacities for knowing the worlds around us, for swimming through life as best we can, for displaying our colors to friend and foe, for shining our lights in rhythmic patterns, for enjoying contrasts between light and dark, for developing rituals of courtship and play -- have aquatic beginnings. Perhaps this is why we somehow feel a peace in the presence of water and fish. Of course we also feel amazement and surprise. Sometimes even a little fear. There's a kind of religious feeling that emerges when we encounter life in the depths, a sense of mystery.
Of course there's a lot of mystery we haven't seen yet. Seventy five percent of the earth's surface is covered by water, and we have explored only about three percent of it. Already we have found the world's highest mountains, deepest valleys, and largest lakes. And already we have seen some of the most creative creatures on earth. This what we learn from Dave Gallo in the video above. He is "a pioneer in ocean exploration, an enthusiastic ambassador between the sea and those of us on dry land." (GO).
In the video Gallo takes us on a voyage to the deep sea, where we see a world of blinking lights, of biolumenescence. He explains that the animals are shining their lights in order to avoid prey or find food, but then adds that, from an artistic point of view, it is "positively amazing." And of course he is right. The productions of these animals -- in their behaviors and manners of presenting themselves -- are beautiful to our eyes, and that is because we have artistic points of view.
But the question emerges: Do these animals have artistic points of view? Much depends on what we mean by artistic. Certainly the animals sense patterns of light and shadow with their eyes and other senses, finding some patterns preferable to others. In the language of Whitehead, they are sensing contrasts between some objects and other objects, and the contrasts are important to them.
But why are they important to them? Perhaps this is where the philosophy of Whitehead has something to say. Whitehead proposes that all living beings -- on land and in the waters -- have three aims in life: to live, to live well, and then to live better. And as they experience these aims, they develop sensitivity to contrasts, where some objects of experience become foreground and others background, relative to the needs at hand. There are many kinds of contrasts: sound and movement, light and shade, memory and anticipation, attraction and repulsion, comfort and concern. They are felt by the creatures at issue as forms of beauty, and they are also means for surviving with satisfaction relative to the situations at hand. In short, they are practical and aesthetic. All living beings are guided by awareness of, and delight in, contrasts; and this delight is part of their very act of living.
Process theology adds that the very breathing of God dwells within each animal as his or her lure to live with satisfaction, and thus as the lure to satisfying contrasts. The Bible speaks of this spirit as the breath of life which animates all creatures. The lure of God is that animal's own desire to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand. It is, to use the language of process theologians, the "initial phase" of the animal's "subjective aim."
Indeed we can even imagine that the sea creatures have their own theology and that, if they were to write a creation story, they might say that all children of the sea are made in the image of the divine Sea Creature. Certainly they have their religious rituals: that is, the dances and rhythms by which, in their ways, they embody their faith in life. Of course their theologies need not be conscious. We ourselves often find God, not so much in concept of rarefied reflection, but in our awareness of beauty in patterns of color and sound and motion.
Nevertheless we must be honest. The daily life of an octopus is very different from the ordinary life of a human or, for that matter, any other land mammal. What is ordinary for one creatures is strange and unfamiliar, perhaps even frightening, for another. In seeing some animals beneath the sea, we feel a combination of fascination and terror: the very qualities which Rudolph Otto takes to be combined in an experience of the holy.
This is why videos such as those seen above are so important. They take us into the world of wildness, where can again experience the holy even if our landed life has become overly tame. And we are de-centered, because they are alive like us, but they as so different.
We are reminded of Job's recognition in the Bible, where God shows him a mythical sea creature -- the Leviathon -- and reminds him that this sea creature is part of the divine ecology of life, even if unfamiliar to Job. Job gets perspective. He realizes that he is small but included in a web of life that is loved by something - no Someone -- who is deep and mysterious. I am speaking of the Sea Creature in whose image even we are made.
* This JJB commentary is inspired by the work of William Brown's The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder (Oxford University Press, 2011). Readers interested in a more complete, biblically-nourished development of the topics above are encouraged to learn from his work.