The Sea and the Soul


Published July 7, 2022

The Institute for Human Ecology

One of the first things a child learns in encountering the ocean is that it is much bigger than she. As a child, when first confronted by a wave higher than my head, I panicked and got slapped off my feet. Water flooded my nose and my face turned red and raw. I quickly learned that there are two better options: jump and ride the surface of the wave, or dive under the turmoil of it to find the stillness below. There is a sort of respect the sea demands, and our respect of it leads to greater harmony with it, and fewer humiliating injuries for ourselves.

What I experienced as a child inchoately is the same thing that any wise sailor or surfer will recognize as a first principle of the sea. Most will speak with a sort of intimacy of knowledge of the nature of the sea, and a clear recognition of our inability to control it. Arrogance will not do. Surfers speak of the way a wave can consume you, spit you out, and slam you against a jagged reef. A smart sailor or ship captain knows that the ocean has patterns and cycles. There are elements to consider and seasons to anticipate. This discipline of knowledge and reverence form a foundation for harmonious and exhilarating engagement with the sea.

While even non-surfers and sailors can grasp this sort of reverence for the nature of the sea easily, decades of social engineering have led to blind spots when it comes to applying this sort of reverence and respect to our human nature. Somehow, we forget that our bodies are a part of that very nature, with clues to how we ought to live and hints at the contours and content of our humanity and happiness.

Progressivism holds that human nature is not a given but instead a sort of putty to be shaped in accord with their utopian vision. The reengineering campaign of the sexual revolution is a prime example. While such disregard for human nature harms everyone, it is most immediately a manipulation of the female body and denial of its meaning. This manipulation comes in various forms–from the cycle manipulation of birth control to the emotional manipulation that tells women that the casual sex that feels like exploitation is instead a part of their liberation. And finally, the violent manipulation of abortion is the last backstop maintaining the edifice of this revolution. A baby is a big glaring manifestation of meaning belying the promise of meaningless sex. You can somewhat conceal the emotional and psychological toll of casual sex, but you cannot really conceal a baby unless you get rid of it. 

True docility to nature requires an uncompromising yet supple resolve. A sailor must always be course correcting in pursuit of his destination while also attuned to the changes of the wind and the movement of the water, shifting his sail nimbly as he responds to the elements. To think we can ignore the authority of these factors would be akin to casting ourselves into the sea and screaming that we are gods as we drown in the waves. We are simply not made for that life, and to admit that is not to limit ourselves, but to know ourselves — recognizing what sort of creatures we are.

The attempt to liberate ourselves from human nature is to both deify and diminish what a human being is. But the cultural course correction need not be a negative, pedantic lesson. When considering the sea’s magnificence, we are not consumed by how that magnificence limits us. At the sight of a surfer gliding in and over and through her swells, we do not ruminate ruefully over the years of discipline and many momentary self-denials that went into his mastery. Rather, we are enraptured by the freedom and exhilaration on display and inspired to somehow grasp a bit of that experience ourselves.

A life lived truly in knowledge, reverence, and harmony with who we are as created and embodied beings, is not one laden by constraint but rather an exhilarating invitation into the deep. For all her majesty, the sea cannot compare to the deep ocean of worth and eternal destination of one human soul.

Noelle Mering is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center where she co-directs EPPC’s Theology of Home Project. She is the author of the upcoming book, Awake, Not Woke: A Christian Response to the Cult of Progressive Ideology (TAN Books, May 2021).

Image: Kiril Dobrev on Unsplash


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