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Spiritual sea: A clear call that may not be denied

14 February 2020

Ed Newell explores changing attitudes to the sea through time


SIR ALISTER HARDY was one of the leading marine biologists of the 20th century. Shortly before his death, he gave a personal insight into what had motivated him since his youth.

“Just occasionally,” he recalled, “I became so overcome by the beauty of the natural scene that for a moment or two I fell to my knees in prayer.” This led Hardy not only to a career in biology, but to pledge that, at some point, he would turn his mind to studying religious experi­ence.

After retiring as Professor of Zo­­ology at the University of Oxford, Hardy fulfilled a lifelong ambition by founding the Religious Experi­ence Research Unit at Manchester College, Oxford, in 1969.

It was here that he embarked on a project for which he received the Templeton Prize for progress in religion, just days before his death in 1985. In his acceptance speech, which he was too unwell to deliver in person, Hardy made public what lay behind his lifelong fascination with the natural world and religious experience.


MY INTEREST in Hardy’s work began when I started to write a theological book about the sea. I was intrigued why many people — me included — find being on or by the sea deeply spiritual, and yet the sea is so often portrayed negat­ively in the Bible.

How might these two attitudes be explained and reconciled? I knew that Hardy had obtained thousands of accounts of religious or spiritual experiences in a national survey, ask­­­ing the question: “Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?” I won­dered whether any of these involved the sea.

What I discovered in Hardy’s database (now housed at the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Re­­search Centre, University of Wales Trinity St David) were 80 or so accounts that fall into two clear and distinct categories.

A number are from people who, when facing danger at sea, report having an overwhelming sense of peace, or of being protected by some­­­­thing beyond themselves. The majority, however, are from people reporting that, while being alone by the sea, on a beach or a cliff, they experienced not only feelings of awe and wonder, but a profound sense of connection with creation and the presence of a creator or creative force.

These two categories accord with examples used by William James in his pioneering work in this field, The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Armed with this evidence, I turned to the Bible. The passage that puzzled me most occurs in St John’s apocalyptic vision of the recreation of the cosmos in the book of Revela­tion, when “the sea was no more” (21.1). For sea-lovers such as myself, its absence in a perfected creation is not an attractive proposition; so I wanted to understand what might be behind this imagery.

I found a clue in T-O maps. These ancient representations of the world are as much theological as geo­graphic. They show the earth as a disc, with Jerusalem at its centre, and the three known land masses of Europe, Asia, and Africa separated by the Mediterranean and the rivers Nile and Don in the shape of a T. Surrounding all of this is ocean.

T-O maps fuse together what Europeans knew of the earth geo­graphically with the account of its creation in the book of Genesis: a pro­­cess by which God brought order out of a primordial state of chaos, involving the separation of the cha­otic waters of “the deep” to create the seas (and presumably lakes and rivers as well) and dry land. Drawing on this word-view, T-O maps show the ocean surrounding earth as the remnant of the chaotic primordial waters that existed before creation.

This distinction between sea and ocean is understandable from the perspective of people living in the Middle East several thousand years ago. They would have been aware of the contrast between the relatively calm and tideless waters of the Mediterranean, and the wild, tidal Atlantic that lay beyond. And so, in their mind, the Iberian Peninsula was — literally — the end of the world. What lay beyond was danger­ous and “other”.


NOW that I had my bearings, the next task was to explore how Chris­tian thinking about the sea had changed over two millennia. What I discovered were very different fac­tors at play at different times. The earliest appears to be the influence of Platonism on Christianity. A power­ful Platonic idea was the connection of humanity with “the source and origins of all things”, often symbol­ised as rivers flowing, and being absorbed, into the sea. As Chris­tianity spread around the Mediter­ranean, some early Christian theo­logians engaged with Greek philo­sophy, and were attracted by, and Christianised, the idea of “absorp­tion” and its sea imagery.

Not surprisingly, the most signi­ficant change in attitude occurred during the so-called Age of Discov­ery. While it had long been known that the earth was spherical, the dom­­­inant Western view of the world was still that of the T-O map. In­­deed, when Columbus first crossed the Atlantic and arrived in the Ba­­hamas in 1492, he believed that he had reached Asia, and had no idea that he had instead arrived in North America.

This, and subsequent transatlantic voyages, had a dramatic effect on attitudes towards the ocean. What had previously been regarded as terrifying, involving venturing fear­fully into the unknown, rapidly came to be seen in terms of God’s provid­ence. The Atlantic, and soon the Indian and other oceans, became the means of reaching wealth and resources — and people in need of hearing the Christian gospel. The era of European colonialism and mis­sion had begun.


A FURTHER shift in thinking took place in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The blossoming of sci­entific knowledge in this period, through the work of such figures as Isaac Newton and Robert Boyle, also saw the growth of natural theology. Many of the leading sci­entists of this period regarded their work as an expression of their faith, and their dis­coveries of elegant, regulated systems as evidence of God “by design”.

One of the systems that came to be understood at this time was the hydrologic cycle. Previously, it had been widely thought that water cir­­cu­­­lated through a subterranean pas­sage. The first person to correctly describe it in terms of the evapora­tion of water from oceans and seas, that then fall as rains which flow into rivers and aquafers, was the math­ematician and astronomer John Kiell.

The theological significance of this discovery is apparent in John Wesley’s A Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation (1763), in which he asks, rhetorically: “Who has in­­structed the rivers to run in so many winding streams through vast tracts of land in order to water them so plentifully? Then to disembogue themselves into the ocean, so mak­ing it the common centre for com­merce: and thence to return through the earth and air, to their fountain heads, in one perpetual circulation?”

The once fearful oceans were now known to be essential for producing the clouds and rain that provide fresh­­water, and seen as part of God’s providence.

When Wesley was writing, the Ro­­­­­­mantic movement was also stir­ring, bringing with it a new appreci­ation of wild landscapes and sea­scapes as being “sublime”. Seaside tourism, too, was beginning to be­­come popular, driven initially by what were regarded as the health advantages of bathing in sea-water and breathing seaside air.

The popular effect of all this is evid­­ent in the hymns written in the 19th century. From “Eternal Father, strong to save” to “Does your anchor hold in the storms of life?”, sea imagery was prevalent, and put to use to speak of God and the tribulations of trying to lead a Christian life.

Here, then, was the evidence that I was seeking. In a span of 2000 years, increased geographic knowledge, the influence of Greek philosophy, the experience of monasticism, a grow­ing aesthetic appreciation for nature, and, perhaps most of all, the oppor­tunities afforded by travel, caused a fundamental shift in attitudes to the sea.

By the time that James and Hardy were collecting accounts of religious experience, we had become con­ditioned to view seas and oceans through the lens of faith in very dif­ferent ways to our forebears.


Canon Ed Newell is the Principal of Cumberland Lodge, an education charity based in Windsor. The Sacramental Sea: A spiritual voyage through Christian History is pub­lished by Darton, Longman & Todd at £14.99 (CT Bookshop £13.50).

He will be talking about the book at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, on 21 February at Bloxham School, Oxford­shire. To buy tickets, see bloxhamfaithandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk.

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