…or, “The secret of the ooze”
By Chester Wolf (Rated G)
Of all the things people take for granted today, at least in the developed world, I submit that these three are the most unappreciated:
I recently remembered a conversation I had in high school, on a long, meandering walk with a dear friend, now long gone. A moment, suspended in memory, like a droplet of water floating in space.
My friend was railing against the world for taking water for granted.
“You go to Taco Bell, and if you don’t want a Coke, you want ‘just water.’ Just water? Just water?! It’s the whole reason you’re alive, but it’s free, so you treat it like it’s nothing!”
He was on to something.
We all know that we need water to live; that we can’t go much longer than 3 days without it; that water is about 70% of Earth and about 60% of our bodies. We “know” these things, but only as lifeless facts, bits of trivia we learned as children.
Water is colorless, tasteless, and odorless. It is cohesive—attracted to itself; and adhesive—attracted to other substances.
In space, a drop of water, unbound by gravity, becomes a perfect sphere. That’s thanks to cohesion.
On earth, when you dip a paper towel in water, it appears to “climb” up, defiant of gravity. That’s called capillary action, a result of adhesion; and without it, plant life as we know it could not exist.
Another consequence of cohesion is surface tension: that which makes things float—again, in defiance of gravity. This is because the water molecules at the surface, well…they cohere.
We can, and should, drink water all day. Fortunately for us, even though water is capable of dissolving more substances than any other liquid, this property works in our favor.
A good thing, too, that water can dissolve salt, pulling it apart molecule by molecule—because nothing else can.
In the origin story of materialism, life as we know it arises from a chance chemical reaction in a muddy pond. The primordial ooze. Everything written about this poor man’s Genesis tends to focus on the improbability of the emergence of life from the pond.
But the pond itself is at least as strange.
The image of Jesus walking on water has always fascinated me, long before I bothered to look into who he is, and I could never quite articulate why.
To think of it now—for him to walk, gracefully, casually across the Sea of Galilee, just as the Spirit of God, in Genesis, moved across the face of the waters—seems exactly right.
Recall that, for all the praises I’ve sung of water, it was only the third thing on the list of things we take for granted.
The first two were Existence and Love.
These are greater mysteries still, however much or little we care to think of them. Of all the inert matter in creation, never did God make anything as mysterious or perfect as water. But existence and love are greater.
So it seems to me fitting indeed that the enfleshed embodiment of that power that created water—that power which alone is existence, and which alone is love—should have walked across its surface.
Not to show he could do it, like some divine magic trick.
But because he was—and is, and ever shall be—the only One who had any right.
We both knew—as though it were written on our hearts—that was right to get worked up over how carelessly we treat water.
But why? For the water’s sake? New age pseudoscience notwithstanding, I don’t think the water cares.
And yet the feeling persisted that this negligence was an offense.
In insulting the brackish water that birthed life, we really do commit original sin, in that we sin against our origins. An insult is truly leveled, a debt is truly owed. But to whom?
The ancient Greeks had the good sense and basic decency to realize that if Poseidon did not exist—and I’m sure most of them knew that he didn’t, not really—it was necessary to invent him.
That same sense and decency drove them to invent Helios, and a thousand other gods—vessels for gratitude, because gratitude is just and good.
It is scandalous to bask in the sunshine without having the common courtesy to say “thank you” to the sun. And the sun, qua sun, is mute to our praise.
Carl Sagan once asked: Why is Jupiter alive as a god, but as a giant, spinning ball of gas, he must be silent?
Brilliant as he was, he failed to realize that he had answered his own question.
The Problem of Gratitude
This problem of gratitude is as practical as any other problem in civilization. Maybe more so. As of this writing, PubMed turns up nearly 1,700 studies looking into the psychology and neurobiology of gratitude.
How often have we read in pop science headlines and self-help books that we need to have gratitude, that counting our blessings will make us happier? How many times have atheist scientists, after banishing all magic from the universe with their right hand, consoled us with hollow paeans with their left, toothless odes to Our Father the Ooze and Our Lady of Perpetual Dice Throws?
Wasn’t the whole point of this exercise to get around this absurd business of talking to nonexistent entities? Is it really better to thank inanimate ones?
At least when we talk to God, we really do perceive ourselves to be talking to someone who can really receive our gratitude. It seems sillier to talk to something that we know for certain cannot. The Universe does not acquire personhood by virtue of being very, very big. A mountain is no more sentient than a pebble.
A Fish Without a Bicycle
A final thought: the motto of the American Humanist Association is “Good Without A God,” and their logo a stylized human reaching for the sky.
“Good Without A God.”
A restaurant wouldn’t advertise “Home Cooking Without A Home.” That would be depressing. Even less would they want to advertise “Home Cooking Without Shard of Broken Glass.”
If God is so terrible (while also not existing), why must they keep him so close? In the very act of pushing him away, they cling to him for life?
Why not “Good Without A Werewolf,” since believing in werewolves is no less benighted and pointless as believing in God?
The answer is clear enough to me. But it’s one of those truths that’s better left invisible, so that only those interested in truth will seek, and find it.