Whatever Passes Along the Paths of the Sea: The Oil Spill and Psalm 8

I first posted this reflection on Psalm 8 (the Psalm from Trinity Sunday) on the website Day1.org, a site on which I am a “key voices” blogger. If it sounds more academic than my normal writing, it is because this piece began it’s life as a seminary paper. I promise it sounds way more academic in it’s original version.

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source: huffingtonpost.com

Seen from aerial photographs, the oil spill looks like any old gasoline rainbow you might see on the pavement outside a gas station after a drizzle. Then you realize the picture is taken from a few thousand feet and the patch of oil is hundreds of square miles in area and the spill is growing because it’s not a leak, it’s a geyser. Such thoughts send the mind reeling. How could we be so bold, so cocky, so derelict in our duty to God to be stewards of this creation that we pump toxic liquids out of the ground without so much as even a sketch of a plan to deal with the consequences of our own fallibility?

With these thoughts on my mind (and, I must confess, I am safely ensconced on a different coast far from the poisonous ooze), I glance at the readings for Trinity Sunday and the words of Psalm 8 hit me hard upside the head.

1. O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2.  Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3.  When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4.  what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?
5.  Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
6.  You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7.  all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
8.  the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9.  O LORD, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

With uncanny prescience, the psalmist speaks to our modern world about humanity’s role in creation, one based on the proper comprehension of humanity’s status as God’s subjects and therefore as servants of God’s creation. The second verse, which introduces the theme of dependence, seems out of place in the overarching language praising God for creation and humankind’s place in it. Of course, it’s always the verses that seem out of place that hold the most interpretive weight. By introducing the idea of dependence, the psalmist directs the audience to reflect on the necessity of human humility in regards to humanity’s relationship with God, especially concerning the dominion over creation.

At first glance verse 2 stands in contrast to the rest of the psalm since it concerns itself with enemies that are not mentioned again; further, verses 1 and 3 flow together nicely, with the thought of heaven connecting the two verses. But instead of mentally removing verse 2 so that the psalm flows smoothly, the reader must dwell on the second to come to the subtler and deeper orientation that the psalmist attempts to reach. The psalmist praises God for founding a “bulwark” (or strength, stronghold) against enemies “out of the mouths of babes and infants.” For those reading the psalms in order, this is the first time infants are mentioned in the entire Book of Psalms; indeed, the image of the babe is a fresh idea. A prevalent mental association made with infants is their dependency on their parents. The psalmist makes this association explicit by using not only the word for child, but also the word for “nursing infant,” The nursing infant truly is dependent on his or her mother in a way to which no other relationship quite compares. And it is out of the mouths of the utterly dependent that God achieves God’s plan — in this case beating back the foes, which scholar J. Clinton McCann deems “the chaotic forces that God conquered and ordered in the sovereign act of creation.”

With the interpretive key of dependence planted firmly in our minds, we can turn to the rest of the psalm. Verse 1 names God with the divine name and then follows with a title for God. The divine name automatically engenders feelings of obedience, but the addition of a title of “sovereign” serves as a further reminder that God is in charge. Because God exercises complete sovereignty, humans are as completely dependent on God as nursing infants are on their mothers.

Moving to verses 3-5, the psalmist looks up to the night sky and is walloped with a feeling of insignificance. And why not? In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams unwittingly offers an explanation of verse 3: “Space…is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

Scholar Peter Craigie points out that the psalmist drives home the point of humankind’s insignificance by saying that God establishes this mindbogglingly big thing with God’s fingers. This awareness of humanity’s smallness in the grand scheme could reduce us to apathetic movement through life because nothing we do would seem to matter. The psalmist nearly slips into this dangerous mode of thinking in v. 4; indeed, the hymn of praise could become a psalm lament at this point. But in the words “mortals that you care for them,” the reader recalls verse 2 and remembers that we are in a dependent relationship with God, who is our sovereign. Verse 5 continues this recollection by adding “yet you have made them (a little lower than God).” By reading verses 3-5 in light of verse 2, the faith that God made us and cares for us outweighs any feelings of insignificance that the night sky may provoke.

Verses 6-8 shift the focus from humankind’s dependence on God and humanity’s misplaced feelings of insignificance to the role God has ordained for humankind on earth. These verses recall the vocation God gives humanity on the sixth day of creation. While the word “dominion” in verse 6 is different than “dominion” in Genesis 1:26, the parallels with Genesis 1 are unmistakable. The language of largeness and smallness remains in these verses, which continues the theme of significance/insignificance seen in the previous three verses. God gives humankind dominion over small sheep, birds, and fish, and also large oxen, beasts, and “whatever passes along the paths of the seas” (the Leviathan which God “has made for the sport of it,” perhaps? (Psalm 104)). Humankind is given charge over great and small creatures; as the psalmist says, “you have put all things under their feet.” However, the psalm does not end with humanity’s dominion. In an inclusive bookend with verse 1, the psalmist reiterates the sovereignty of God over all things. This reprise recalls once again the dependence that humanity has on the LORD, who is their Lord.

What does this discussion offer the modern audience? We live in a global society hell-bent on destroying itself. We clear-cut forests, remove mountaintops, and pump toxic levels of Carbon Dioxide into the air. We do not share the bounty of the land, thus pushing others to burn rainforests and oases for farmland. We live under the delusion that we can develop “safe” oil rigs. We refuse to believe that our actions are slowly turning our world, a piece of God’s creation, into a planetary rubbish bin, fit only for storing the waste we accumulate.

Psalm 8 is a wakeup call, the An Inconvenient Truth of the Bible. To put it simply, the world today has forgotten the truth, which Psalm 8 espouses — that we are dependent on God even though (or more appropriately, especially because) we exercise dominion over the earth. We miss the all-important message that God has given us dominion: we do not intrinsically have it. We properly receive this gift only when we recognize our relationship with God is one of total dependence. Scholar James Mays puts it this way: Psalm 8’s “vision of the royal office of the human race is completely theocentric, but humanity in its career has performed the office in an anthropocentric mode. Dominion has become domination; rule has become ruin; subordination in the divine purpose has become subjection to human sinfulness.”

In the end, the problem is the oldest problem in the book — human self-aggrandizement destroys the purpose that God originally conceived for humanity. Misplaced delusions of grandeur unravel humanity’s proper relationship with God. Scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Human persons are to rule, but they are not to receive the ultimate loyalty of creation. Such loyalty must be directed only to God.” Psalm 8 calls us back to the correct relationship with God concerning creation. We are utterly dependent on God, we are significant in the realm of creation, but we are not the source or the beginning (though we may very well be the end). In Psalm 8, the psalmist reclaims our primal orientation as dependent subjects on God who has been given us the gift of caring for creation. When we recover this proper relationship, we can take steps to retrieve creation from its slow decline, so that we can once again see the “majesty of God’s name in all the earth.”

The Inlet

(I wrote the following piece in the Spring of 2008, and happened upon it when I was reorganizing some folders on my computer. Some of the temporal language is now dated, but I left the piece as is to preserve its integrity.)

Theologian Sallie McFague identifies the earth as “the new poor.”* The planet, once bursting with bounty and hiding secrets in great swaths of unexplored terrain, now groans under the weight of post-industrial consumption and post-common sense insatiability. The earth has become poor (and a victim of exploitation, rape, and mutilation) in much the same way people become poor: the rich deny access to resources and opportunities. The sense of entitlement over the earth’s riches has grown over the last several hundred years (along with our gluttonous appetites). The Western Christian view of the earth—which, during the medieval period, was full of awe, respect, and fear—has morphed into one of utility, ambition, and domination. We have made the earth poor because we see it simply as an object, argues McFague.

There is another way. Rather than objectifying the earth, rather than possessing the earth as a thing to be used, abused, and discarded, McFague pleads with us to see the world as we see our loved ones—as subjects. Seeing the earth as another subject just as we ourselves are subjects gives us the opportunity to enter into mutual, sustainable relationships with the earth based on love and respect. McFague calls this model “the loving eye.”

Last autumn, I changed the route I take when I drive to church and discovered what she means by this loving eye. A left at the Belle Haven Golf Course sends me a Par Five’s distance down a residential street toward the George Washington Parkway, where I turn right and follow the Potomac River for about five minutes until I reach my parish. Sun-polished leaves of every green hue dance on the branches of trees, which arch toward one another above the parkway, making a dappled, living tunnel. On my left, the river peek-a-boos every now and again when the trees thin, and groves of white masts, rooted in anchored sailboats, mingle with the tree trunks. I sit up a little straighter in my seat. My eyes drift to the trees and the river beyond. And then, for the briefest of moments, I see my spot.

A small inlet in the river reaches to the road. The water tiptoes in and out of the little cove, treading softly around the three or four dead trunks that still stand in the shallows. On cloudless mornings, dawn gilds the somersaulting waves with new light, and the overhanging trees reflect swaying twins in the water. These deep green reflections merge with the morning light, mixing the color of sparkling possibility. All the energy of the dawn and the river and the swaying trees infuses me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such potent imagination. That is spring.

In winter, the water still treads lightly in and out of the cove, but, on certain January Sundays, ice reaches out from the bank, halting the tumbling waves. The dead trunks hide behind a low fog, which crawls along the surface of the water. When the cold sun penetrates the clouds, it shines through the winter scaffolding and silhouettes the bare trunks and branches. All the deliberateness of the ice and the fog and the sleeping branches deepens me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such quiet solemnity.

In autumn, the trees shed their uniformity. The water exults to mirror the new apparel in swirling reflections of amber and crimson. Dropping leaves spiral down, catching the morning light. They float on the water and cluster at the bases of the dead trunks. Dawn ignites the trees, making their leaves shimmer and blaze. The wind ruffles the surface of the water—no tiptoeing this time, only cartwheels. The light glances off each wave’s crest and each yellow leaf, doubling the morning’s fervent brightness. All the elation of the wind and the light and the flaming leaves elevates me as I pass by, and I silently thank the Creator for such riotous innovation.

I have never driven past my spot in the summer, but I imagine the inlet displaying a worn, comfortable version of the sparkling possibility of spring. Soon, I will no longer be driving that way on Sundays. At times, I have contemplated pulling my car over to snap a picture of the spot. But each time I travel down the living tunnel, I decide to keep driving by. Deep down, I discover that I have no desire to capture the image of that blessed spot. How can I hope to tell the story of such a place in a photograph? Capturing its image truly would be a confinement. I would preserve one instant of two-dimensional facsimile when the original has such light and movement and possibility. The depth of reflection would flatten. The waves would no longer tumble. The wind would disappear. If I took that picture, I would cease to remember that spot in my imagination. I would lose what I had sought to preserve. In a sense, I would take the life from a place that has infused my life with such energy, such ardent joy.

So I leave my camera at home. I prefer to keep the ever-changing image of that spot in my heart. It continues to kindle within me the spontaneous thanks of a creature for all the potent imagination, quiet solemnity, and riotous innovation with which the Creator has blessed creation.

The spot brings out McFague’s loving eye in me, and I find myself asking the water and wind and trees for forgiveness—for myself and for our entire post-common sense establishment. During the same lecture in which we discussed McFague’s work, my seminary theology professor reached back to the medieval era and borrowed the idea of Haecceitas from thinker Duns Scotus. He was not content to know a forest or a species of tree or flower. He wanted to know each particular white oak, each individual daffodil. And in so knowing, rejoice that God also knows those trees and flowers for God created them. And in so rejoicing, praise God for the craft, detail, and unsurpassed beauty seen in the particularity of creation. I pray for these Haecceitas eyes. I pray that soon we will all see the earth as a subject, a poor subject in need of enriching relationships. And I pray that the inlet remains in my heart, urging me to look with love on God’s creation.


* Sallie McFague, Super, Natural Christians