Lutherans in Minnesota

Ocean: Is God out there?

Who can wander an ocean beach and not feel the presence of God? That question may be a significant undercurrent at Gustavus Adolphus College’s annual Nobel Conference October 2-3.

Blake Couhey teaches religion at Gustavus in St. Peter, Minnesota. “For me,” he says, “the ocean is the closest thing to infinity that I can experience.”

Anyone who has battled wind and waves, on the ocean or on a modest Minnesota lake or river, will understand what Old Testament scholar Couhey offers next: In Genesis 1, the primordial sea is “an abyss,” says Couhey, “that God is contending with — in the process of creation.”

Deborah Goodwin, who also teaches religion at Gustavus, finds another relevant point regarding God and the sea. “The oceans certainly are a religious issue,” she says, “if by that we mean religious people ought to feel a clear ethic of care and responsibility for the health of all creation.”

Whales exhaling

Each year, Gustavus hosts prominent international scholars to speak on a particular theme at the ELCA-affiliated school’s Nobel Conference. This time, it’s about the global ocean. As is almost always the case, religion counts. Speakers will address pollution, hurricanes, climate change — and spirituality. More information is at www.gustavus.edu/nobel.

“For me, the ocean is the closest thing to infinity that I can experience.”

Kathleen Moore, a philosopher at Oregon State University, is a keynoter. She emails: “I am writing at my cabin at the edge of a cove in southeast Alaska. Twice a day, the seas flood up into my path and flow away again, revealing an intertidal bed of yellow rock-weed. At my desk, I hear whales exhale. I smell hemlocks and kelp in the sun.

“At the edge of the ocean, it’s as clear as the morning that all things are one beautiful, wonder-filled, unfathomable thing.”

Oceans, adds Moore, “are the fullest expression of the creative power of the universe. How, then, can we imagine using them as a dump?”

Iffy relationship

Seas are everywhere in the Bible. Yet God’s people have an iffy relationship with them. The Red Sea is a barrier to the Israelites fleeing Egypt. Then, miraculously, it parts, and the same body of water becomes an Israelite ally, drowning the pursuing Egyptians.

Bible people knew the seas, of course — the sea of Galilee, the Red Sea to the south, the Mediterranean, and beyond. Israel’s neighbor, the Phoenicians, whence came Queen Jezebel, were accomplished sailors and colonizers who ventured beyond the Rock of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean and even circumnavigated Africa.

In New Testament times, the Mediterranean Sea was a Roman highway. Apostle Paul’s stormy experience (Acts 27) reminds us of Jonah.

In the Bible, from the time of creation, seas bookmark the holy. God separates the waters in Genesis 1, bringing order out of chaos. Jesus does it again by calming the wind and the waves and even walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4 and 6).

Galilee is just a big lake by Minnesota standards. You can see across it. But when waves wash over the gunwales and you’re in danger of drowning, sea is sea.

Then there’s the mysterious Leviathan, an embodiment of the power and terror of the sea. Moreover, the book of Jonah reflects our fear of the unknown. The worldwide ocean is vast, fearsome. Overwhelming.

Even so, we still seek the sea — its beaches, its waves, its wind. Why?

Old Testament scholar Couhey notes that at the end of the book of Job, God talks about the creation — including Leviathan, including oceans. “God’s proud of it,” says Couhey. “The ocean is frightening and intimidating, but the Bible affirms that it’s a valuable part of God’s creation that should instill in us a sense of wonder.”

Yet Goodwin points to the “terrifying questions” God put to Job in Job 38: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding … Whereupon were the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the cornerstone thereof?”

Foundations? Good question. Ever been knocked over by an ocean wave? Ever had a camera drenched and wrecked because a wave whacked you and it up against a sea wall?

So it gets personal. The power of the sea is overwhelming. Is this one way God reminds us of our place? “It may be scary to us as humans,” suggests Gustavus’ Couhey, “but we’re not the center of the universe.”

Tickets for “Oceans” start at $60, with discounts for student groups. The event will be streamed live online, and lectures will be archived for later viewing.

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