When you learn to ride a horse, you become painfully aware of two things. The first is that the reins in front of you are just an illusion of control. The second is that, no matter how strong your thighs are, if that horse decides you belong on the ground, there’s a good likelihood you’ll end up there pretty soon. A relationship with a horse is risky. There’s no way you can completely control an animal that weighs half a ton. Yet, as you might know from experience, a relationship with a horse is a privilege. It’s an honor to move with a beautiful creature that is so much more powerful than you.
When Christians talk about nature, we usually talk about creation stewardship. We care for the earth because in the beginning God called the earth good, and in the New Testament we see that God desires to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. Yet even creation care can sometimes focus too much on controlling or ruling nature rather than learning from it. Are we to interact with nature simply because we were told to take care of it, or does it exist to teach us something? Rightly regarding nature helps us understand human power correctly, and it can give us insight into our relationship with the earth and God.
In Melville’s Moby Dick, we see that when man practices bad stewardship, he develops an unrealistic understanding of his power that leads to man’s destruction. Captain Ahab is driven to fight nature because his perspective of the world is anthropocentric—he assumes that he has the inherent right to conquer the whale and misunderstands who he is in relation to the natural world. Ahab’s missing leg and his “gashed soul” are, Melville tells us, the direct result of the attack of the great white whale. Despite this, Ahab is unable to accept his powerlessness in the face of nature, embodied by the whale, and he becomes obsessed with regaining power: “All…demonisms…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were…made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, nature is the sole source of all human pain and destruction. Ahab completely relinquishes his roles as a husband and father and leads his entire crew into a dangerous oblivion, which ultimately claims the life of almost every crewmember.
The fate of Captain Ahab and his crew could have been changed if Ahab saw fault not in the whale but in himself. In his pride, Ahab fails to see nature for what it truly is, and he fails to see himself for what he truly is. In Ahab’s world, there is only domination. Either Ahab will dominate the whale, or the whale will dominate him. He will be either a slayer of the earth or a slave to it. But there is a middle way that Ahab has forgotten: man’s primary role as caretaker and lover of the earth.
Melville contrasts Captain Ahab with Ishmael. The only crewmember to survive the wreck of the Pequod, Ishmael does not claim control over the leviathan, and he includes many facts about the whale throughout his account of his journey, proving he is more interested in trying to know this unknowable thing than conquering it. He contemplates the foolishness of man in thinking that we can control nature at all: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill…yet for ever and for every, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he can make…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”
Oughtn’t we come to terms with the fact that nature could, at any moment, “insult and murder” us, as Ishmael so bluntly tells us it could? It is a harsh truth that the earth is more powerful than we are, but this truth does not have to destroy us like it does Captain Ahab, who is wrong in assuming that the harshness of nature means nature is against us. Nature can be frighteningly untamable, but that which is untamable is not necessarily evil. Instead of losing his sanity because he cannot control the earth, Ishmael humbly accepts who he is in relation to the earth. He hungers for knowledge of it but is not obsessed with overpowering any part of it, including Moby Dick. He recognizes that he cannot hate the untamable parts of the earth because they reflect something human. Contained within the earth there is an image of something with which he identifies. Ishmael ponders, “Consider both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”
The mysteries of the earth and endless depths of the sea remind us of all we do not know about this world and even about ourselves. Our souls are mysterious. Our bodies are mysterious. We gather facts like Ishmael, but the same questions God spoke to Job still hover over every created thing: where were we when all of this was created? How were the vast mountains and our tiny nerves fashioned? By reminding us of all we do not know and all we cannot know or control, nature humbles us. We, like Ishmael, should approach the earth not with the desire for control but instead with respect and a willingness to experience wonder. We are the creatures whom God made in His image, yet we have been given a world we cannot (and should not) fully tame, and that reminds us both of how finite human power is and how glorious our God is.