Monday, May 10, 2010

Paradise Lost: The Oil Spill and the Modern Soul

Water has always been a powerful symbol in human civilization. Other than the air we breathe, there is nothing more essential to our everyday existence. It should not be surprising, then, that pretty much all cultures since the dawn of human history have ascribed great meaning and import to this life-sustaining substance.

Water has also wrought incredible havoc upon the human race through the millennia either by its absence or its overabundance. Incessant droughts lead to famines and widespread starvation. Floods can devastate a region. Just ask any resident of New Orleans about Hurricane Katrina. Thousands of vessels and their crews and passengers have been lost at sea due to inclement weather or have drowned while fighting martial conflicts with their fellow man.

The ancient Greeks captured both the peril and potential of the sea through the whim and caprice of Poseidon who might one moment bless you and the next curse you. Judeo-Christian civilization also ascribes similar properties to water. Juxtapose the catastrophe of the Flood story in Genesis with the implications of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and the same symbolism of life and death quickly becomes transparent.

For a more recent literary point of view, consider Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Each of these novels addresses the rich spiritual dimensions of the sea. Each challenges us to meditate upon the human condition and the complexities of meaning and survival in the contemporary world. Each gives a little and takes a little away, too. In other words, the stories themselves, like the seas and oceans they describe, offer insights about the meaning of life, but they also serve as admonitions about the risks of human choice and the indifference of nature to human anxiety and despair.

Well, that is an awfully long prelude to the main focus of this essay—the oil spill in the Gulf. As I drove into work this morning, I began to wonder if the oil spill, within the context of traditional symbolism associated with the ocean, might shed some light upon the trajectory of twenty-first century spirituality. You must forgive my penchant for allegorical interpretations of historical events. It’s one of those pesky, annoying habits that we Christians tend to possess. We cannot help but see the hand of God in everything for better and for worse.

Now, I am no fundamentalist. I adamantly reject the notion that God caused the oil spill to teach us a lesson (or any other such events), as some Bible-thumping fruit loops like to claim; we saw the crazies come out of the woodwork with such claims when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. I abhor people who assert such ludicrous claims; they give Christians a bad name and compromise our ethos in debates in the public square with nonbelievers. The presumption that some individuals might have a gnostic insider’s knowledge to the mind and will of God is not only shockingly and patently false, but deeply sacrilegious as well.

With all this being said, I still think we can learn some valuable lessons about the spiritual life from natural or man-made disasters. God may not cause these events directly to guide the affairs of men, but He does permit them, so it isn’t too much of a stretch to think we might be able to glean some spiritual lessons from these environmental tragedies. So, what can we gain from the oil spill?

The seepage of oil from the bowels of the earth into the rest of the Gulf of Mexico, oddly enough, reminds me of another major literary work, John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In that epic poem, the ranks of fallen angels rally around Satan to fight God. They construct a glittering palace out of the raw materials of Hell. They build elaborate machines and engines to carve out a place for themselves. No, I am not equating Big Oil with the demonic hordes of the netherworld. I simply see a convergence of imagery and symbolism.

There is a kind of wild entrepreneurial energy in the diabolical exploitation and consumption of minerals to serve the demons’ selfish interest (I do see important distinctions between legitimate self-interest and selfish interest, but that is an essay for another time). The oil rigs do have an uncannily similar mechanized approach to the ravaging of the earth. If you dig deeply enough into the underbelly of the world, you can’t really be surprised if some nasty realities occasionally surface as well. I think that is what has happened with the oil spill disaster.

Again, let me be clear. The comparison with Paradise Lost is not an attempt to demonize an entire industry and the many hardworking men of integrity in that field. My own father is one such man. He has worked for ExxonMobil for over thirty years. It was Big Oil that put food on my family’s table year after year. It was Big Oil that gave me a scholarship to attend a pricey liberal arts university for my undergraduate education, so it would be quite hypocritical for me to attack an industry that has done so much for me and mine. If I am partial at all, it is that I am biased in favor of Big Oil, not against it. I think this a key admission to make so that my highlighting of convergences between the work of oil rigs and Satan’s forces is not perceived as some personal eco-vendetta or left wing distrust of corporations in general. I just happen to think the imagery and symbolism is too freakishly similar not to take notice of it.

The mechanized ravaging of the earth can and does have real consequences as the recent spill has illustrated quite poignantly. It does not mean that we should refuse the material advantages of the natural resources available to us, but we must be more responsible in our stewardship of the environment in the future. That much is obvious.

Returning to the oil seepage, though, I find it an apt metaphor for contemporary spirituality. Like Satan and his minions, we have become so hyper-consumerist and so selfish in our solipsistic pursuit of relativist notions of happiness that we have lost track of our responsibility to God, our fellow man, and even nature. Our spirituality and our very souls have been become so polluted that they now resemble the very oil slicks we see covering thousands of square miles of the Gulf.

Sin, like the oil slick, spreads insidiously and uncontrollably in the soul for all to see. Its symptoms are quite noticeable and conspicuous, but you cannot get rid of the problem by merely burning or dispersing the oil on the surface because its point of origin is much deeper and much more difficult to seal up. The fragile ecosystem of the soul, the pristine beaches of the mind, and the fisherman’s heart are all covered in tar-black grime that is nearly impossible to scrub off. The effects will linger for years to come.

The most recent effort to plug up the oil spill may or may not succeed, but symbolically it is beside the point. You can fix the source of the oil leaking to the surface, but that will not remedy the real issue—a philosophical approach to life that fails to acknowledge the meaning of the sea within the larger story of creation and our duty to love it and treasure it. The sea and its bounty are gifts from God. All the transgressions against nature are really transgressions against God, and thus ourselves, who are made in His image and likeness.

Drill, baby, drill may make pragmatic sense for our national dependence on black gold, but as a spiritual principle it is a recipe for perdition. The tragic irony is that symbolically our undiminished quest for prosperity and insatiable appetite for material goods does not serve our self-interest but breeds selfish interest when it denies the intrinsic relationship between the material and spiritual orders. Paradise was lost precisely because Adam and Eve acquiesced to the temptation to divorce the material and spiritual orders.

Let’s use the spiritual lessons of the oil spill in the Gulf to reclaim a proper perspective on the relationship between natural and divine orders. We must harness our entrepreneurial energies to maximize natural resources but with a conscientious attitude towards the environment. We must consume but we must also give back. We must treat not only the surface symptoms and not only the source of the spill, but our very souls which are tainted by the real pollutant, sin. We must see the face of God in nature, not merely our own reflections. Solipsism is Satan’s forte, let’s not make it ours, too.

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