One of the assumptions underlying this worship project is that the sovereign God provides pointers or signposts to Himself in the natural world. These are not so much “proofs” of his existence or agency in creation, but images and symbols that remind us of the elements of His character that we know also from the Scriptures. Indeed, sometimes such symbols help us understand the biblical witness better, in a more nuanced, complicated and beautiful way. Like the lilies commended by Jesus, they are given as invitations for consideration, not arguments. Such natural symbols may even be regarded as part of God’s common grace, for they do not require knowledge of creeds or theology to draw our attention, but are available to all.
Along the same lines, the practice of natural science blesses the human community through the discovery of such natural symbols, though they may be unrecognized at first. The careful consideration of the natural world does not make God’s presence irrefutable, but it does continually give us new conceptual tools we can use to understand our relationship to Him and to each other. The careful, thorough, and even unromantic investigation of the created world is not an act of hubris, then, but a sometimes-unwitting answer to God’s call to seek Him in all our ways.
One such natural symbol capturing the imagination of people across the age and faith spectra wasn’t a discovery in the sense of being uncovered by scientific skill, but was an accident dredged up in a fisherman’s net off the coast of South Africa in 1938. Previously known from Devonian to Cretaceous-era fossils and assumed to have been extinct, a fresh-caught coelacanth was quickly recognized as something unusual, and later identified by museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer. Further searching and more accidental finds have established that there are several populations of this ancient fish living around the Indian Ocean, and numerous books, magazine articles, and displays of preserved specimens have fueled fascination with the fish among many budding naturalists, myself and my own sons included.
Part of the coelacanth’s charm is that it gives us a look at physical features (its maneuverable lobed fins, especially) that paleontologists posit were important steps in life’s colonization of the land from the sea. Other, more recent fossil finds have done more to “fill in the blanks” of that story, but when divers swimming with the fish describe its distinctive and unique “cross-step” swimming style as being like the alternating left-right gate of terrestrial, four-footed creatures, one gets a sense of seeing theory and very ancient biological history come to life.1
But what is remarkable about the coelacanth and can be a parable for our faith is not its gift-from-a-time-machine novelty, but its sheer longevity and persistence. When the coelacanth is called a “living fossil,” there is often a barely-suppressed implication that it should have died out long ago, superseded as it has been by more advanced creatures. It seems to upset expectations that nature’s arrow flies in one direction, mercilessly weeding out the old in favor of the new. It is “primitive” after all, surpassed by all the myriad creatures that now roam both the sea and the land, and that seem to us so much more efficient and fitted to their environmental niches, or (as with the shark, or the Asian carp, or the rat) for seemingly all of the niches they can reach. Yet at least one branch of this once-widespread order lives on: slowly, methodically, usually out of sight, but never actually driven to extinction despite what must have been the best efforts of the fearsome creatures that roamed the seas in the time we thought was its own.
If the study of the development of life on earth has taught us anything, it is that the natural world is resilient and creative, but in important ways also conservative. The creation does not stand still and is constantly in a state of becoming, but it does not move inexorably in a “forward” direction or determine that what it has done in the past is inferior or obsolete simply on account of having been stepping stones to further developments later. In this, a careful understanding of the natural world is consistent with a genuinely Christian ethic. For while we moderns tend to think in terms of obsolescence and progress, of winners and losers, Christians worship a God who has told us and shown us that He cares for the “losers” every bit as much as he cares for the “winners.” His values are not defined by progress but by fulfillment, and that done via His presence rather than natural processes.
The coelacanth gives us an image of a kind of natural faithfulness, then— something to remind us of the perseverance of our faith and of the church in an age that has declared religion obsolete or dangerous. The fish we see in the waters of the Indian Ocean are not, in fact, exactly the same fish we find in the fossils, and each population is distinctive and adapted to its particular home; yet it is unmistakably in continuity with its primordial kin. And though we marvel at its ancestors’ place as a precursor of so many other now-dissimilar creatures, we can also have a deep respect for the way its answers to life’s central problems are still elegant and effective. Like the coelacanth, faith in the biblical God has been buried at one time or another, declared extinct (or at least on its way there), and frequently cited as (at best) a primitive forbear of all the improved ideas that have come after; but faith, too, is not only a persistent part of the human experience, but also an elegant, true one, as well.
The coelacanth is an imperfect and partial symbol, for sure. It is even claimed that the coelacanth is a different kind of marker of God, that its existence in the present disproves the old age of the earth and casts serious doubt on the fossil record itself. But as an icon of sorts, the coelacanth is neither as rich nor as beautiful if it’s only a few thousand years old and taken to be evidence against the long span of geologic and biological time. Its prehistoric lineage reminds us that what is ancient may also be present and timeless; it is the very fact of its “long obedience in the same direction” (with apologies to Eugene Peterson) that makes it a symbol, a parable, a guidepost for its fellow creatures.
With our more robust brains we may understand “obedience” to be much more than simply living—being who we were created to be. But perhaps the coelacanth can remind us that obedience is never less than that, either. Perhaps it can remind us that the essence of our creatureliness is neither our progressive advancement on one hand, nor a determination to resist all change on the other hand, but the essential fact that we were crafted by the Lord’s hand and remain there by His grace, His mercy and His love.
The fired porcelain coelacanth pictured above was made in 2007 by Mark’s son Callaway Sprinkle when he was 10 years old and thoroughly entranced with the fish and its story. While the visible side was inspired by the coloration of the Comoran Island population, the reverse features the brown colors of the Indonesian coelacanths.
1. Carolyn Butler, “Ancient Swimmers.” National Geographic 219:3 (March 2011), p. 93.