Sunday, July 30, 2023

The Life Aquatic

These were the closing years of the eighteenth century, and the young poet – troubled, addicted, and renting a cottage in Somerset – put pen to page. And so, drawing on memories of his tutor who'd sailed with the explorer James Cook, Samuel Taylor Coleridge began to tell the tale of an old sailor, whose cruelty to animals leads to a vengeful curse that chases his ship to an uncharted, windless sea. And there “the very deep did rot,” he says. For the creatures beneath him, he finds nothing but distaste and contempt, that “slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea.” As he watches his comrades claimed by death, relief from his burdensome curse only begins when he gazes into the sea with eyes of appreciation for what God had made. “Beyond the shadow of the ship, I watched the water snakes: they moved in tracks of shining white, and when they reared, the elfish light fell off in hoary flakes. Within the shadow of the ship, I watched their rich attire: blue, glossy green, and velvet black, they coiled and swam; and every track was a flash of golden fire. O happy living things! No tongue their beauty might declare: a spring of love gushed from my heart, and I blessed them unaware!”1

As Genesis unfolds the arrangement of God's creation, now here – at the fifth day – we're introduced to these “happy living things.” Beneath the starry heavens, as the waters under the firmament have been gathered into the seas, God declares: “Let the waters swarm with swarmers of living souls!” (Genesis 1:20). God has a vision and a purpose for the waters of the world, and it's for them to teem with life aquatic. “So God created the great sea monsters, and every living soul that glides, with which the waters abounded, according to their kinds,” we read (Genesis 1:21). From big to little, not a thing that lives in the water is left out of this picture, as simple and short on words as it might be. This is the first time Genesis introduces anything that moves of its own accord – because not everything in the sea does, but plenty of it chooses to move. “Now, for the first time,” said one old bishop, “an animal was created which possessed life and sensation.”2 They're living souls – they've got appetite and desire, sensation and animation. They live and move and have their being in the God who made them, who put them in the waters and told them to teem and swarm and move every which way, according to their kind!

And what incredible things God put there, in all their rich attire.3 His creative work began at the tiniest level, with zooplankton, the tiniest little water creatures like foraminifera and copepods. Foraminifera aren't exactly animals, even by modern terms. They're tiny amoebas that secrete hard shells inside their own protoplasm. No bigger than a grain of sand, they reach out their gooey arms beyond their walls to snag dinner – tinier critters like diatoms, or dead phytoplankton. And when we reached the Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in all the ocean, at pressures beyond our imagining, we found foraminifera waiting for us. Then, over thirteen thousand species of copepods – little crustaceans, so small their whole bodies are see-through. But when God told them to “increase and multiply” (Genesis 1:22), they took it to heart – or would have, but they're too tiny to need hearts. Feeding on bacteria and algae, there are more copepods than any other multi-celled critter in the sea.

God kicked things up a notch when he made coral – over two thousand species' worth alive today. These tiny creatures are polyps, tiny cylinders with mouths and tentacles reaching up and out to prey on copepods by night. Of course, since their mouths aim up, they have to exude little layers of slime to catch unwanted particles and just slough it off. But in many kinds of coral, each polyp also secretes an exoskeleton of calcium carbonate at its base; and since they live in colonies of identical polyps, these merge together to form elaborate structures. In some places, over thousands and thousands of years, coral exoskeletons have built layer upon layer unto huge reefs – massive ecosystems, bastions of life. Near Australia, the Great Barrier Reef, stretching fourteen hundred miles, can be seen from outer space. These reefs provide habitats for a quarter of all ocean life.

God also made coral's cousin, the jellyfish. In them, the polyps take on a mature stage called a medusa, which mostly floats and swims freely despite its soft body. Without a hard shell, they rely on their flexible skeletons of jelly-like mesoglea sandwiched between inner and outer skin layers. On their undersides, they've got plenty tentacles covered in cells called nematocytes – coral polyps have those, too. These are exploding cells with little tubes inside that, in less than a thousandth of a millisecond, can strike with a paralyzing toxin. It's how they hunt and defend themselves. God gave them this incredible way to live as they float with all their colorful otherworldliness through the sea. Steer clear, though, of the Australian box jelly and its dozens of tentacles nine feet long. Usually they won't do too much to you, but if it gets a really good hold on you, make your peace with God, because your heart will stop in a couple minutes, and from its touch like burning oil, you'll be ready to go.

Beyond these cnidarians, God created the mollusks – over eighty-five thousand species of them. And to some kinds, he gave the ability to make shells of calcium carbonate from their mantles, in two halves tied together at a hinge. Think clams, mussels, oysters, scallops. And take the oyster, for example. It's got a muscle and gills and a little heart, all working despite the total lack of a brain. And as they switch between male and female depending on the heat and saltiness of the water, they filter water through their gills and use little threads to grab any tiny food particles they'd like to eat. Some of these have a quirk: the insides of their shells are made of a strong, shiny material called nacre; and if something irritating gets inside, the feathered oyster rubs nacre all over it to isolate it from itself. Over time, rubbing off nacre in layers and layers, it builds beauty: a pearl. Think of it: God gave them the power to turn their irritation and frustration into something that shines!

Speaking of things with shells, there are other crustaceans beyond the copepods. God seems to love making things that look and act like crabs, with their thick chitin exoskeletons and their big claws at the ends of two of their ten legs. The pea crab's barely bigger than a copepod, but the Japanese spider crab can grow its leg span to more than twice your height. And while those are both dubbed 'true crabs,' they're related to families like the king crabs, the hermit crabs, and the yeti crabs. Those yeti crabs live beside deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which release sulfur-rich water at temperatures that could get up to several times boiling. Since no light gets down there amongst the tubeworms, God gave these blind yeti crabs filaments full of bacteria that feed off of the toxic hydrogen sulfide that's all around and use it and oxygen to chemosynthesize carbohydrates and water.

More than crabs, God made shrimp – love me some shrimp – including hundreds of species of mantis shrimp, some of which dig burrows and others live in cracks in rocks. And one is the peacock mantis shrimp, a real marvel. Up to seven inches long, God painted it with the whole rainbow – green bodies, orange legs, blue faces, and spots. They have maybe the best eyes on the planet, and not just because they shine like precious jewels. All the colors we can see, we pick up because we've got three kinds of light-receiving cone cell in our eyes. Some animals, like dogs, have just two kinds. Others, like many fish and birds, have four kinds. And these mantis shrimp? Sixteen kinds! Constantly looking around, they see the world in ways God suffers no creature to see but them. And it's a hunter, and a mighty one. It has smashing clubs on spring-loaded claws that punch faster than any animal, the same speed as some bullets. It uses them to bash through the protective shells of crabs and oysters, but it'll break out of aquariums. God put the power behind that punch!

Back to mollusks, God didn't give them all shells. He made hundreds of species of cephalopods like squids and octopus, with all their many muscular arms covered in suckers, which they can grow back if they lose 'em, and they use 'em to pull food to their beaks. God blessed them, too, with amazing camouflage skin, some able to change not just colors but patterns and textures, thanks to pigment sacs they stretch and squeeze, and a powerful nervous system to run it all. God taught them to suck in water and use it for jet propulsion – some squid can launch themselves out of the water for almost half a football field! And who could forget the power to squirt ink as a screen or even a decoy so they can flee danger? In the low-oxygen waters, God put the vampire squid, with its dark body, glowing eyes, webbed arms, and lines to reel in fish. Then there's the colossal squid that can weigh over a thousand pounds, and the giant squid that can get over forty feet long, maybe sixty.

And then God made fish, over thirty-three thousand living species of fish, with fins and tails and maybe scales, with gills and hearts and stomachs and livers, with mouths and eyes, and so many different wonderful colors! Even our everyday goldfish, a kind of carp selectively bred in China over centuries to get this way, just brings out the tiny possibilities God gave it. God made herrings and anchovies, perch and bass and bluefish, angelfish and tilapia, cod and haddock, salmon and trout, pick and pickerel, tuna and mackerel. He made anglerfish, these deep-sea swimmers of wrinkles and spikes and massive jaws full of dreadful fangs, and from its head it dangles a bulb full of bacteria that use a special enzyme to give off light, which it uses to wait for unsuspecting prey to let their curiosity get the better of them. There are Arctic cod, into whose blood God put glycoproteins that act as a natural antifreeze. For sheer beauty, God made the mandarinfish, a bright blue swirled with vivid orange. And God made eels and sharks – we can't get enough of the 350 species of sharks, so we gave 'em a whole week. The great white shark is an incredible predator, though it rarely attacks us.

God even put some mammals like us in the water, cetaceans like dolphins and whales, breathers of air with lungs and not gills. Think of the humpbacks and blue whales, and the size God gave them – some get nearly a hundred feet long and weigh two hundred tons – but also the music God taught them. Between using their baleen bristles to filter krill out of the water to eat, they sing to each other. We don't know quite how they do it, but it can be hauntingly beautiful. And then the dolphins might be the smartest creatures God put in the sea. We've observed shockingly clever and creative behavior from them, even the use of natural tools; we've also seen them come to rescue other species, like beached whales – or even us, as some drowning swimmers learned.

All these countless creatures God made are as the psalmist says: “Here is the sea, great and wide, which teems with creatures beyond number” (Psalm 104:25). About 78% of the total animal biomass on earth is marine life. The first Christians could be fascinated by how differently adapted each kind of sea creature was, that “their peculiar names and different food and form and size and qualities of flesh all differ with the greatest variations from each other,” so that “to mention all these accurately is like... trying to measure the water of the sea in the hollow of the hand.”4 And when we look to the seas and rivers and lakes, and get close with the creatures that swim or jet or rest there, we begin to see how inventive God is in them all. Job insisted “the fish of the sea will declare to you... that the hand of the LORD has done this” (Job 12:8-9). And was he wrong? The blobfish is no less God's creature than the bottlenose dolphin – but in their different ways, each of them is a testimony to God's handiwork. And this same God watches over all their food chains he set them in. “If God has not put the sea urchin outside of his watchful care, does he not have regard for your affairs?”5

So many of these creatures, God made in part for our sake. “Fish are given to man for his use,” as they used to say.6 “Fishing is one of the oldest professions,” with roots deep into the Stone Age – there's scarcely been a day when humans haven't fished for food.7 God also made these creatures for our inspiration and instruction, as recordings of his inventiveness for us to learn from. We based the blades of our wind turbines on the pectoral fins of whales. From fish gliding through the water, we see how to build cars more streamlined and impact-resistant. From shark skin, we invent new fabrics. We're examining sea urchin spines to inspire tools that won't get dull, and the natural glue that mussels use to repair themselves is inspiring new underwater adhesives. Not to mention that mantis shrimp eyes have shown doctors new ways to see cancer cells in their earliest stages.

God invented all these creatures for our livelihood and for our inspiration! But more than that, sea life exists to spread life itself, to propagate itself so that there's no lifeless nook or cranny within the aquatic domain. “Be fruitful,” God told them, “and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas” (Genesis 1:22). Some parts are filled more densely than others – a thriving coral reef is more packed with living souls than the Challenger Deep – but nonetheless, the waters and all that's in them has been obeying God's word, down to our day. More than that, sea life exists for God's glory. “While some things were created for our use, others had this purpose: that the power of their Creator might be proclaimed.”8 “Praise the LORD from the earth, you great sea creatures and all deeps!” (Psalm 148:7). Just by being well what they are, just by obeying in living by the instincts he shaped in them, they worship with their very lives, giving God glory, though it's up to us to put their praises into words.

From the days when God's people were oppressed in Egypt, they lived off of fish (Numbers 11:5). Passing through the sea, they built God a temple not far from Jerusalem's Fish Gate, but saw it fall victim to empires that overfished the world: “You made mankind like the fish of the sea,” one prophet complained, but Babylon “brings all of them up with a hook” (Habakkuk 1:14-15). And we know too well that Death itself treats us all “like fish that are taken in an evil net” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). Even after returning from exile, things weren't going swimmingly – because Death was still fishing with its evil net. Yet prophets looked for a day when even the deadest waters would teem with “fish of very many kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea” (Ezekiel 47:10).

And so God sent forth Jesus Christ, who commanded fish to bring him things (Matthew 17:27), who bade fish swim into Peter's nets (Luke 5:6), who multiplied fish for crowds who came to hear him teach (Mark 6:41-43). Jesus surfaced a gospel more priceless than the rarest of pearls any oyster ever made (Matthew 13:45-46). And he looked at the world as a grand sea full of fish who ought be caught, not by death, but by good news. “The kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind” (Matthew 13:47), so “follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17).

Letting himself be caught by Death's evil net, he ripped a hole through it at last, and surfaced with new life and glory to share. And to prove his resurrection, he both ate fish and served fish (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:13). So, from the earliest times, Christians thought of the fish as a symbol of Jesus – after all, the Greek word for 'fish' was an acronym for the sentence 'Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior' (though that was convenient). And so, from the second century on, Christians drew the sign of the fish, and spoke of Jesus as their Great Fish, the One to whom all the life of the sea pointed. Christians, they said, were conformed to Christ the Fish when they were baptized: “We, being little fishes as Jesus Christ is our Great Fish, begin our life in the water.”9 Some of us are bigger, some of us are smaller; some of us range over great distances in life, others of us have more specialized ecosystems; some of us thrive in bright shallows, others of us plunge to darkest depths to shine our light – but none of this diversity among us Christian fish is any cause for shame; instead, it brings glory to God.

Camouflage in the sea warns us Christians to be vigilant in life: “We should be more aware of those who extend the tentacles of their deceit far and wide, or those who assume various shapes.”10 Predators in the deep show us how not to live, especially because predators are so frequently prey to a bigger fish – and isn't there always a bigger fish? Live by the gobbling up, die by the gobbling up – so don't play the game of greed.11 But over two thousand years of Christian history, the wisdom of the Holy Spirit has built up the Church like a Great Barrier Reef for souls, traditions and testimonies laid down generation after generation as a glorious habitat for all and sundry. Here we make our home, while we look for yet-happier seas on high, to swim on tracks of shining white.

Even when our sojourn brings irritation and sorrow, we're given grace enough to rub all over our vices like nacre till they're converted to pearls of the gospel, of great price indeed. And like the mantis shrimp, seeing more with eyes of faith than the world can possibly know, we're equipped with “weapons of righteousness for the right [claw] and for the left” (2 Corinthians 6:7), punching with “divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Corinthians 10:4) – so crack the devil a good one! For we strengthen ourselves off heavenly seafood, feed on the flesh of the Great Fish. As one early Christian put it: “Faith led in every place and provided food, an immense clean Fish from a spring, which a pure virgin had caught; and she offered this on every occasion for friends to eat.”12 Fed by the fish-food faith serves with bread and wine, may we be more wise than any octopus or dolphin, but teem ever so abundantly in love, singing our whalesong of gladsome praise. For, to quote Coleridge once more, “he prayeth best who loveth best all things both great and small: for the dear God, who loveth us, he made and loveth all.”13 Amen.

1  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), lines 123, 125-126, 275-288, in William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (James Humphreys, 1802), 1:18, 25-26.

2  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 7.1, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:106.

3  Many of the following facts about aquatic life are taken from sources like, e.g., Nancy Knowlton, Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life (National Geographic, 2010); Ellen Prager, Sex, Drugs, and Sea Slime: The Oceans' Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter (University of Chicago Press, 2011); Lisa-ann Gershwin, Jellyfish: A Natural History (University of Chicago Press, 2016); Joseph S. Nelson, et al., Fishes of the World, 5th ed. (Wiley, 2016); and Michael Vecchione, et al., The Deep Ocean: Life in the Abyss (Princeton University Press, 2023).

4  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 7.1-2, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:106, 108.

5  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 7.5, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:114.

6  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 5.5 §13, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 42:168.

7  Dietrich Sahrhage and Johannes Lundbeck, A History of Fishing (Springer-Verlag, 1992), 5.

8  John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis 7.12, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 74:98.

9  Tertullian of Carthage, On Baptism 1, in Ernest Evans, Tertullian's Homily on Baptism (SPCK, 1964), 5.

10  Ambrose of Milan, Hexaemeron 5.8 §21, in Fathers of the Church; A New Translation 42:177.

11  Basil of Caesarea, Hexaemeron 7.3, in Fathers of the Church: A New Translation 46:109.

12  Abercius of Hierapolis, Epitaph, lines 12-15, in Ken Tulley and Pamela D. Johnston, eds., The Hagiography of Saint Abercius: Introduction, Texts, and Translations (Routledge, 2023), 337.

13  Samuel Tayor Coleridge, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798), in William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems (James Humphreys, 1802), 1:44.

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