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.