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Water | Exploring Spiritual & Scientific Depths

Water is interesting both scientifically and biblically, so it’s only fitting that we explore it. And in this episode Jim Stump is joined by Kent Frens, Jenni Brandon, Sandra Postel, and Ben McFarland to do just that.


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Water is interesting both scientifically and biblically, so it’s only fitting that we explore it. And in this episode Jim Stump is joined by Kent Frens, Jenni Brandon, Sandra Postel, and Ben McFarland to do just that.

Description

Water is mysterious. It is cleansing, it is dangerous, and it is life-giving. In our everyday life we can tend to overlook just how fascinating and important water is. Water is interesting both scientifically and biblically, so it’s only fitting that we explore it. And in this episode we do just that.

Because this is a complex topic, we asked several experts to join us in this episode. You’ll hear from Kent Frens, Jenni Brandon, Sandra Postel, and Ben McFarland who each talk about water through their areas of expertise.

Before You Read

Dear reader,

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Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God, a podcast on Faith and science. I’m Jim Stump, and I’m usually your host, but today we bring you a different kind of episode which we’ve done a few times before. Instead of hearing from just one person, we’re going to weave together several voices telling a story about water.

Water is something that is hard to hold onto. And as we look to water to understand our world, both through the lens of science and in the biblical texts, we find it similarly fluid. It represents both chaos and peacefulness and has life giving qualities as well as dangerous, life taking ones. 

The word water comes up over 700 times in the bible, and it forms an inescapable part of our everyday lives. So we think it’s worth a bit of time to understand better and to reflect on the substance. In doing so we might find new life and new insights any time we encounter water.

Our producer Colin has the story.

Segment 1: Water from the Beginning

Various:

A river watering the garden flowed from Eden, from there it was separated into four headwaters…You make springs gush forth in the valleys, they flow between the hills giving drink to every wild animal, the wild donkeys quench their thirst…He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm…Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life…The engulfing water threatened me, the deep surrounded me; seaweed was wrapped around my head…by the streams, the birds of the air have their nests, they sing among the branches…he leads me beside quiet waters…just as jesus was coming up out of the water saw heaven being torn open…from your lofty abode you water the mountains…as clear as crystal flowing from the throne of God…for forty days the flood kept coming on the earth…for those who drink of the water that I give will never be thirsty…as soon as Jesus was baptized he went up out of the water…the water of life…the water…a spring of water…

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

Hoogerwerf:

This is an episode about water. And to start an episode about water, to start anything really, we need to find a beginning. And in this case, the beginning of all things is a good place to start. 

Frens:

Water’s straight away present in the creation story and what you would call the kind of that primordial abyss before God spoke creation into being there’s this chaos that is present and God speaks over and hovers over into that chaos and brings cosmos out of that.

Hoogerwerf:

We first meet God in the moments before any creative acts, alone with the waters. The Hebrews called this tehom, the great deep, the abyss. And to them these waters represented chaos and disorder. 

When I think of this moment of the spirit hovering over the waters, I come up with a very different image than those early readers or hearers of Genesis. My own memories of water bring me feelings of calm and awe. I grew up only a short distance from the shores of Lake Michigan and I could hear the waves on a windy day. And in the cold winter months, that huge empty space over the ice was present in the silence that hung just over the sand dunes. 

I spent a lot of time in and on the water and I have often wished I could live for a moment beneath the surface where everything is quiet and where the light scatters…

But the Hebrew people did not think of water this way. 

Frens:

They’re not a seafaring folk.

Hoogerwerf:

Kent Frens is a pastor who has thought a lot about water.

Frens:

That Genesis narrative I think speaks, speaks into that with the chaos that’s there, and then it remains present with the Jewish people who recognize that water represents chaos in their world. And God, time and time again throughout the old Testament narrative separates the waters to create space for his people to thrive in creation. And yet also it remains a present danger for the people. 

Hoogerwerf:

As God creates this world which culminates in the all the creatures that fill it, he puts order to the chaos of the water, creating dry land, but also allowing the water to come down and bring life.

Frens:

They recognize this duality to water, that it had this dangerous, mysterious, potential, but also it had this life giving potential. 

Hoogerwerf:

Water remains an important part of the biblical story in Genesis, but it does not go away after Genesis. As Kent mentions, God continues to separate the water, after the flood, at the red sea and again at the Jordan. Jesus is baptised out of water and water shows up in the river of the water of life in the very last chapter of the bible. We’re going to explore the place of water in the bible further but first, why water? 

Water has an amazing creative ability. It flows over the dry ground and over the rocks, slowly carving it away and molding it into canyons and caves and cliffs, constantly changing the face of the earth. And as far as we know, there is no life form that does not depend on water. 

Segment 2: Science of Water 

McFarland:

Well this is a very special molecule and I’m not sure that there’s any other molecule across the universe that can really do the same job as water.

Hoogerwerf:

To begin to understand why that is, we need to understand the Chemistry of water. 

McFarland:

My name is Ben McFarland. I teach biochemistry and I research what proteins do. I’m really a protein chemist as well as a water chemist. 

Hoogerwerf:

I know some people light up at the mere mention of chemistry, but if that’s not you, stick with us here for just a few minutes.  

McFarland:

The structure is pretty simple because it’s one of the formulas that most people know. H2O is just two hydrogens and one oxygen. So it’s the three atoms stuck together at a particular angle 

Hoogerwerf:

That angle—a hundred and four and a half degrees to be exact—happens to be pretty important and leads to some interesting behavior. To keep this simple, let’s cover just four interesting characteristics of water. (if you want to know even more about water check out the links in our show notes for some further reading.)

Ok. Number One: Water is found in all three states in normal conditions here on earth. 

McFarland:

If you take temperature and put it on one axis and pressure and put it on the other axis, you can find out where you’ll get a solid, where you’ll get a gas and where you’ll get a liquid. And because there’s only three states of matter, there’s only three lines on that graph. And there’s a point where those three lines have to come together and it’s set by the properties, the atomic properties of that molecule.

Hoogerwerf:

That point is called the triple point. And while most substances have a triple point, for water, the triple point falls within normal earth conditions. 

McFarland:

And so that means that you have all states of matter. You have to be near the triple point to be able to have icebergs and oceans and water vapor in the atmosphere, all at the same time.

Hoogerwerf:

Number Two: Water is less dense when it freezes. 

McFarland:

The other fact about water is that the hydrogens they like to bond to other oxygens. And so two water molecules will stick to each other very tightly actually. So if you have a bunch of water molecules around, if they’re not moving that much, and if they calm down and they stop moving around so much, they start to bond to each other. And that will make hexagons.

The thing about those hexagons is if you lay out the water molecules next to each other, there’s this big hole in the middle of it. So they have these strong bonds where they’re forming these hexagons, but this big space in the middle of every single hexagon, because of that water, when it freezes will form a solid, but the solid will be like Swiss cheese. It has these holes in it and because of those big holes, it is actually less dense than the liquid form. And that’s why when you put ice in your drink, the ice will float on top of the liquid because it’s got all these tiny, tiny holes in it that make it less dense than the liquid which is all packed together like people on a subway car or something like that. 

Hoogerwerf:

This is a very important fact. If ice did not float in water, when the surface of a lake of a pond froze, the ice would sink down to the bottom, making aquatic life impossible on many places on earth. Onto to Number Three: Capillary Action. 

McFarland:

Unlike carbon dioxide, which doesn’t really stick to itself, that strongly, water sticks to itself. Because of that the water will hold together and yet it will also be this thing that’s able to flow that you’re able to pour and is able to move. So it all sticks together, but it all moves together and that’s where the capillary action comes from and that’s where its ability to actually move through a paper towel. Like if you spill something on a paper towel, you’ll notice the water will move through the paper towel.

Hoogerwerf:

It’s also what allows our blood to move through our veins and for plants to pull water up through their roots and stems. This ability for water to stick to itself is also where we get our Number Four: Surface Tension. 

McFarland:

Surface tension. Yeah, that’s really a cool kind of thing. If you’ve ever seen a water bug walking on the water. If you look really carefully at where the water bug’s feet meet the water, you’ll see little dimples where it’s pressing down. The water is actually acting like a trampoline. And the reason why that works is because its surface is actually tense. Water bonds itself so much that if you, if you hit it just right, then it will actually, not completely give way but it will sort of bend like a trampoline.

Hoogerwerf:

These characteristics of water make it pretty important for life here on earth. And so it’s natural that we would have whole fields of science dedicated to understanding water, how it works, how it moves, and what it does for us.

Postel:

We live on obviously a very water rich planet.

Hoogerwerf:

Sandra Postel is one the people who has dedicated her career to water, including as National Geographic’s Freshwater Fellow.

Postel:

I work on understanding global water challenges and you know, how we can repair the water cycle so that we have water security going forward.

Hoogerwerf:

We all know that fresh water is important to our lives, but it can be easy to forget the importance when water flows free and clear from your tap whenever you need it. Occasionally we are harshly reminded of the importance of water, during long droughts or when water we rely on becomes contaminated and unsafe to drink as it did for the people in Flint, Michigan. 

But many of us still take water for granted. 

If you look at a picture of our planet from space you might wonder how it got the name earth, when 70 percent of the surface is covered in water. Even though we have a lot of it, water is not equally distributed across the planet. Some is salty, some fresh, some frozen, some in the atmosphere, some trapped deep below ground. 

Postel:

97 and a half percent of that water is saltwater. And so two and a half percent is freshwater and two thirds of that is locked up in ice, so glaciers and ice caps. And so less than 1% of all the water on earth is both freshwater and accessible to us. And that water is finite. And that’s very important to recognize.

Hoogerwerf:

If we remember back to our grade school lessons on the water cycle, we know that this small amount of freshwater is constantly on the move. 

Postel:

You have water that’s being stored in the atmosphere, in aquifers, in the soil, in reservoirs, and lakes. And then you have the movement of water between those different places of storage, between atmosphere and the soil and the groundwater and rivers bring water to the sea. And so water is finite and then it’s distributed among these different places of storage and then flows. And so it’s really interesting to figure out, well, where’s that water coming from? And where is it going and what is it doing along the way? 

Hoogerwerf:

A lot of the water we use is coming from groundwater, stored in the soil or rock beneath the earth’s surface. 

Postel:

Not all groundwater is the same. Some groundwater is what we might call fossil groundwater, where it was put in place maybe tens of thousands of years ago during the ice age. And if we pull that groundwater up and use it, it’s a little bit like using oil. It’s gone. From that reservoir, it’s gone.  

Hoogerwerf:

And as for where the water is going…

Postel:

If you think about how we use water, 70% of all the water we extract, we humans extract, from aquifers, from lakes and rivers goes to agriculture. It just takes a lot of water to grow crops. Crops are thirsty. They need to transpire water in order to photosynthesize and grow. And so 70% of our water goes to agriculture and think about where agriculture does best. It’s where it’s sunny. So where we need the water is not always where the water is. And so we are in the business really of bringing water to where we need it, whether it’s for agriculture or for cities.

Hoogerwerf:

But let’s go back to the groundwater. 

Postel:

Now, Okay, you pull that water up, you use it to grow a crop. So some of that water is transpired by the plant back to the atmosphere. Some of it may not be used by the plant and goes back to the soil, may or may not recharge groundwater below. Some of it may sit on the soil and evaporate. Some of it may run off and join a Creek and which joins a river and goes back to the sea. 

Hoogerwerf:

The sea. 97.5% of water on our planet is in the oceans. And while we can’t drink from the oceans or use it to water our plants, it is nonetheless incredibly important to our planet. 

Brandon:

Basically every other breath you take, that oxygen is created in the ocean.

Hoogerwerf:

To help us better understand the importance of the oceans we welcome another scientist who has devoted a career to the study of water. 

Brandon:

My name is Dr. Jennifer Brandon, though I don’t normally go by that and I am a biological oceanographer by training.

Hoogerwerf:

You might not expect water to be responsible for the air that we breath, but the oceans play a major role in cycling our air.   

Brandon:

So phytoplankton are the main plant-like organism in the ocean and they’re right at the surface photosynthesizing and creating literally half of our oxygen. And the ocean is also absorbing at least 25% of the CO2 we’re creating. And so it really does operate as the lungs of our planet in a lot of ways. 

Hoogerwerf:

Beyond just giving us the air that we breathe, the ocean also gives us much of the food that we eat worldwide.

Brandon:

So the ocean is the protein source for the majority of the planet.

Hoogerwerf:

Water also drives an economy that is estimated in the billions.

Brandon:

Tourism, seafood, shipping, all those things, so, so much of the world, even if they don’t live in a coastal place, is actually truly dependent on the ocean. These things that you’re, you know, buying at a target in the middle of the country, very well, have like shipped across the entire Atlantic Ocean or the entire Pacific Ocean. And those things are important to just realize that we depend on it a lot more than we think we do. And then to protect it. But the ocean can truly protect us too. 

Hoogerwerf:

From protection against storm surges, to the filtering of water pollution, to the medicines we find from ocean plants and animals, we are only just realizing what kinds of services the ocean provides, especially to those who live in coastal areas, which, according to the national oceanic and atmospheric administration is around 40 percent of the US population.  

Brandon:

Muscle beds and sea grasses and mangroves act as natural storm barriers and natural flood barriers. Muscles are basically filtering pollution and heavy metals in the ocean and then are also buffering against the storm, like they’re so important. But when humans don’t understand that stuff, we just harvest them all away, don’t reseed any, and we don’t realize that this is going to have lasting impacts later.

Hoogerwerf:

There’s another thing that the ocean gives us, which is not as practical or obvious, but which I think is still vitally important and that is a sense of mystery.

Brandon:

We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the ocean.

Hoogerwerf:

Ok. Let’s step back and just get a sense of what lies mostly unexplored deep below the surface. At 1000 meters below the surface of the ocean, light no longer penetrates and the water hovers at temperatures just above freezing. This is the largest living space on earth. But it gets much deeper than that. The deepest part of the ocean is called the hadal zone from 6000 meters to 11000 meters deep and is made up of the deep ocean trenches including the deepest, the Marianas trench which is deeper than mount everest is tall. 

Brandon:

There’s so much to the ocean we haven’t really mapped, and so many animals that we think are out there that we’ve never identified to species. It’s so vast and it’s not stagnant.

Hoogerwerf:

Only 3 people have ever reached this deepest part of the ocean, while 12 have walked on the surface of the moon. 

Brandon:

They expected when they first went down there in deep sea submersibles to see nothing because there’s no sunlight. And of course what they found were these hydrothermal vents that are an entire new life source. They’re creating methane that then bacteria and things can live off that and then are eaten by that. And so there’s an entire other way of life called chemosynthesis besides photosynthesis. And I think just the idea that we didn’t even know that until 40 years ago, that there’s all these other things living without any sunlight is really fascinating to me because I think it just points to, scientists often think we understand what’s going on. We know that there’s more we haven’t discovered, but we also think the basic rules are kind of set. 

And the basic rules are never set in the ocean. There are so many unique things that change the very way we see life.

Hoogerwerf:

God reminds Job of this mystery in the later chapters of the book. It is a reminder for humility. But at times, I am tempted to think that God’s message to Job was merely a message that was meant for ancient people. God says to Job, “Can you pull in Leviathan with a fish hook or tie down its tongue with a rope.” And today we might be tempted to answer, yes. Or at least, “Not yet, but give us a shot.” 

We have learned a lot since the time of Job. Though the deepest parts of the ocean remain largely unexplored, we now have amazing video footage of some of the marvelous creatures that live there and new technology allows unmanned submersibles to explore more and more of the ocean.

In this way knowledge we gain from science can be a double edge sword. The lure of knowledge can cause us to be unwise. Our abundance of knowledge can make us arrogant, forgetting or mis-understanding God’s message to Job. It would have us think we can have all the answers, even from the deepest depths of our planet.  

And so we find ourselves at that place where science and faith sometimes meet, creating questions that can feel threatening, questions like, does the place for the mystery of God get smaller as our scientific knowledge gets larger? I think the answer is no, And I think instead fearing this meeting of faith and science we can find an illumination in which our scientific knowledge opens up new questions, expanding the mystery and reminding us of our limited abilities and enlarging our capacity for awe in God’s creation.  

Frens:

I think creation and water, even though we might be gaining a greater understanding of the dynamics of the water system, I still think the sheer nature that we continue to discover more and more shows that it’s God’s handiwork and the creation still should put us on our knees in a humble place, which doesn’t diminish our need to continue to search and understand the dynamics of the creation. And we’re going to keep doing that because God’s creation is so intricate and magnificent that we will never fully wrap our minds entirely around it. 

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation. 

Segment 3: Water in the Bible 

Hoogerwerf:

We’ve dipped our toes into the science of water, understanding how special it is and how important it is to life on this planet. Now let’s go back to where we started this episode, to the 700 mentions of water in the bible, or at least a few of them. Not too long after the waters are separated on the second day of creation

Frens:

God separating the waters above from the waters below…

Hoogerwerf:

The waters come crashing down again in the flood narrative. 

Frens:

And then the ending of the flood narrative with the bow that’s set in the clouds, which is the promise that those waters above are never gonna again crash upon the waters below.

Hoogerwerf:

In the flood narrative we see what becomes a common story… we see water as chaos and danger, under the control of God and we see a separation of water also by God, allowing life to thrive in the place in between. We see it again in Exodus. 

Frens:

We arrive in Exodus 14 when all of a sudden the people of Israel are standing there, there’s the Egyptian army that’s pursuing them from behind and in front of them is the red sea. And the seas part and the Israelites go through on dry ground and then that opens them up into a life now outside of slavery.  

And now they wander for 40 years and it’s finally time to enter the promised land. And then God parts the waters of the Jordan, he stops them from running above.

Hoogerwerf:

Once again the people cross on dry ground.

Frens:

Oftentimes when water shows up in the biblical witness, whether it’s those two moments or Jesus baptism or even at the end in revelation, there are these new moments that God is opening up for his people and they become these kind of threshold moments for the covenant people of God, which is beautiful and wonderful. 

Hoogerwerf:

Many of the stories in the bible, from the old testament to the places where Jesus did his ministry took place in a part of the world that has a particular climate, geology, and hydrology. And because of that, the writers and the early readers of that text would have had a certain perspective of water. Understanding this perspective can give some meaning to some of the passages about water. 

Frens:

So a shepherd like David who would have been doing his work in the Judean wilderness would, would have to travel great distances day in and day out to find enough green pasture for his sheep to eat because the rainfall is pretty sparse in those places. And when it does rain in the hill country those waters find their level and they eventually find their way into small dry stream beds, which are referred to as wadis.

Hoogerwerf:

Most of the time a wadi is the best place to walk. It is sandy and has a gradual slope, unlike the rest of the landscape which is rocky and treacherous. But when the rains do come, the wadis fill up fast and become large rivers and with very little notice. This puts the “still waters” from psalm 23 into perspective. 

Frens:

And in Psalm 23, it gets translated as still or quiet waters that the shepherd brings his sheep to referring to waters that are, that are moving in the sense that they’re not, they’re not stagnant bodies of water just sitting there, but they’re a flowing body of water, but they’re not flowing so quickly that the sheep are going to get swept away when they go near it to take a drink.

Hoogerwerf:

As you can imagine, water would have been very valuable to people living in the desert. Cities often were built around places with natural springs. During the dry season water would have been stored in cisterns where it sits still. But water that moves is safer to drink, whether from springs or from rains. This kind of water was referred to as living water. 

Frens:

Maim haim, would be in Hebrew. And that, that shows up in two…one psalm in Psalm one that the person who meditates on God’s laws is like a tree that’s planted by the living water. Water that’s water that’s moving. It’s not static. And it shows up again in Jeremiah 17 when God is referred to as the one in whom we trust. And when you trust in the Lord, it’s like your roots going down into the streams of living water.

Hoogerwerf:

Of course living water shows up again in the new testament when Jesus refers to himself as the living water. The conversation happens at the edge of a well with a woman who is clearly an outcast, travelling to the well alone. 

Frens:

She goes to the well and Jesus encounters her there, strikes up a conversation with her, and in that conversation names himself to be the one that she can drink from and never have to drink again because he is the living water that gives life to her. When I think of that I think of sort of how that gets picked up by the apostle Paul. And certainly by the early church and ever since with the sacrament of baptism. 

Hoogerwerf:

Baptism. Maybe our clearest spiritual encounter with water. 

Frens:

That imagery of baptism, especially in an immersion baptism where one is baptized down into the water, which represents being baptized into that, that dangerous nature of water, that if you stay there, you will die. It’s up over your head and you cannot breathe. And then the moment later as the person being baptized comes up out of the water another symbolism of us also being baptized into Christ resurrection, which gives us not only life eternally, but it also gives us the opportunity to live into eternal life right now as Christ’s followers.   

Hoogerwerf:

Baptism happens in a lot of different ways in a lot of different traditions, some with adults, some with infants, some with full immersion, some with only a brushing of water on the forehead. But in each baptism water becomes a symbol of a new life in Christ, one that keeps in line with both with the dangerous qualities of water and also the cleansing qualities. 

Frens:

In that liturgy, when it says water cleanses, water purifies, water refreshes, water sustains, those are all words that indicate a desire for purity and desire for cleanliness. And so as we, as we strive for that in our spiritual life, living out of our baptismal identity in Christ, we want to, to strive toward living these pure lives in him. And I think that connects absolutely to striving to, to purify the water systems, to protect them from overuse and from pollution

Segment 4: Caring for water 

Hoogerwerf:

This brings us to our last segment of the episode. The earth’s water systems have not always been protected well. And that leads to problems that affect us all, but often have the biggest effects on those who are poor and lack resources. The problems with water are many and often complicated. The overuse of water is one of them and something Sandra Postel has been studying for a long time. 

Postel:

You know it’s sort of an all hands on deck moment here. I mean, we do have a lot of places in the world that are water stressed that are in states of depletion for part of the year, for all of the year. And the areas that are in those situations are growing. If you look at a map, which you know, I have and can show that map is getting redder and redder.

Hoogerwerf:

It might be easy to think that here in the United States or other 1st world countries that we don’t have much of a role to play in water depletion around the world. But we are more connected by water than we might think. 

Postel:

Every cup of coffee takes about 34 gallons to make. Well, if you just, you know, I didn’t feel like having that, I’ll drop that coffee down the drain. That’s like thinking about 34 gallons of water going down the drain. And that’s because it takes a lot of water to grow the coffee beans so that water might have originally come from Guatemala or Ethiopia. So we’re connected to water all around the world through our personal water footprint. 

Hoogerwerf:

And the way we use water here in the United States and our attitude toward water has a role to play. There have been widespread campaigns to help people reduce their water use, for example by turning the water off while we brush our teeth. This kind of awareness of our household water use is good but it’s not the full picture of all the water we use on a daily basis. 

Postel:

Our water footprint is much bigger than that. If we’re an average American, we use, directly or indirectly, 2000 gallons of water a day, right? Only five or 10% of that is water we use at home. Most of that water is hiding in the food we eat, the energy we use, the transportation mechanisms we use, the clothes we’re wearing, the computers we’re using and so on. So 2000 gallons a day to keep our lifestyles afloat. That’s a lot of water on a daily basis. Only 5 or 10 percent of that is the water at home. 

Hoogerwerf:

Fortunately, Sandra doesn’t make us aware of  the problems with water and leave us hanging. Her most recent book on water is called Replenish, and just the title gives away some of her optimism. 

Postel:

It’s interesting because Replenish is my most recent book I’ve written for water books and the over the time I’ve written those books, the trends have gotten worse pretty much. Right? So it’s kind of interesting to me that I wrote probably my most optimistic book after the trends have gotten worse. But the reason is, you know, after I spent these six years as National Geographic’s Freshwater Fellow, I had had the opportunity to see and to some extent work on some of these projects on the ground that really showed me that through collaboration, innovation and a boldness to act differently, we can solve these problems. 

The optimism I would call realistic optimism, it’s realistic in the sense that I can point to a place, a group of people, a farmer, a rancher, a community that’s doing something differently that allows there to be good economic benefits, food production, whatever the use of water is, and yet have a healthier ecosystem side by side with it. And so if we can learn from those and adapt those solutions to different circumstances and then scale that up, we start to get some solutions that really can, can turn things around. And so that’s where the optimism comes from.

I think there’s just so many things we can do. And again, that’s a source of optimism to me. We haven’t run out of solutions. We have a lot of solutions we just haven’t really implemented them yet.

Hoogerwerf:

Let’s turn to one more problem that has been gaining some awareness in the past years, a problem that Jennifer Brandon has devoted her career to understanding. 

Brandon:

Having this much microplastic in the ocean um can just kind of have untold stressor effects.

Hoogerwerf:

Maybe you’ve probably heard about microplastics or maybe you’ve heard about the great pacific garbage patch, a swirling collection of plastic floating in the middle of the pacific ocean. But scientists are really only beginning to study and understand this issue.

Brandon:

I wanted to do my PhD on the effects of these microplastics and then I realized just how much we didn’t know. We didn’t really know how small they could get. We didn’t know where they all were and, and we didn’t truly have a good abundance estimate of how much microplastic was out there.

Hoogerwerf:

Microplastics are defined by their size and include anything smaller than 5 millimeters. Of course there are bigger plastics in our water too which is also a reason for concern but the microplastics have the added problem of being hard to see and hard to clean up. There are four sources of microplastics. 

Brandon:

The one everyone thinks of is big stuff that breaks down, and that’s what we call fragments.

Hoogerwerf:

They also come from microfibers, small fibers that come out of our clothes, which are being made more and more from synthetic materials. When we wash them, some of the fibers break away and are too small to be filtered out at a wastewater treatment facility. They also come in the form of microbeads, found in cosmetics and toothpaste and are also too small to be filtered out.

Brandon:

And then the last one is the silliest one called nurdles. And nurdles are basically pre-production pellets. So they’re where your plastic comes from. It basically gets turned from crude oil to plastic into these nurdles. These nurdles get shipped to the toy factory, the bottle factory, the shoe factory, wherever and get melted into whatever they’re going to become. But they’re super small, they’re super light and they’re super inexpensive. And so people aren’t super careful with them and we find them everywhere on like pretty much every beach, you can find some.

Hoogerwerf:

So what are the effects of all the plastic hidden in the water? The obvious effect is on the wildlife that must live in water laced with plastic. 

Brandon:

So sometimes it can affect a whole population of animals. Like 50% of turtles out in the ocean right now have eaten plastic at least once in their life. And so then when you impact a whole set of organisms like that, you’ll start to see these food chain wide effects or these ecosystem wide effects of there being less turtles so then there’s less things eating what they eat and you can just see everything, get out of balance when that happens. 

Hoogerwerf:

But microplastics don’t just stay in the ocean. They find their way back into our own drinking water. That’s not necessarily a reason to be concerned since research so far has not shown there to be adverse health affects from microplastics in our drinking water. But it’s also pretty clear that there has simply not been enough study. 

Brandon:

We only understand some of the health effects, which is kind of troubling. There’s a lot of chemicals in your plastic like BPA and dyes and all these additives. And we know some of the health effects of something like BPA, which is an estrogen mimicker and can mess with people’s hormone levels and it can mess with people’s kidneys if you consume too much of it. But we’re just learning, kind of, the scope of all the chemicals that are out there and which ones kind of affect humans, which ones can leech off the plastic, which ones stay on the plastic through its whole life cycle. So probably aren’t affecting us. there’s so much to be learned about what our own pollution is doing to us.

Hoogerwerf:

And so with another crisis now more visible because of  the scientific knowledge that we have, we are in need of a turn toward hope.

Brandon:

People always ask me how I’m still hopeful after studying this all the time. but it’s really that, I’ve been studying it for seven years and seven years ago people were barely talking about plastic in the ocean. They didn’t really know it was a problem. Now so many people know about it. So many people are excited about it and there are solutions kind of on every level. So there’s legislative solutions of banning single use plastic. There is technology coming on board to clean the plastic that’s in ocean. And then there is a whole world of like bioengineering and biotechnology that’s trying to make us new, better plastics that are made out of things like algae and can fully biodegrade if they make it in the ocean.

Hoogerwerf:

Water is a substance that I think demands reverence …and fear…and also provides peace and it literally sustains life. It is vital to our planet and it has a rich place in the Christian story. 

The knowledge we have gained from science about water I think does lead to a sense of wonder, but it also makes us aware of the woundedness of the planet and our own complicity. As Christians we are called to care for the planet and for the creatures on it. As a people baptised we probably want to make sure the water we immerse ourselves in is clean and safe. As people called to care for the poor, it must be a priority to provide aid to those without clean safe drinking water around the world and to think of those downstream of us, like those living at the terminus of the Colorado River,  which most days does not make it all the way to the sea. 

Postel:

What kind of a world do we want to live in? Do we want to have habitat for, for birds and fish and wildlife in the Colorado Delta? Or do we want to write it off as dead and gone? It’s a choice and we need to think about those choices. I think from a moral and ethical standpoint, from a very practical standpoint. Do we want to have a place like that to go for recreation and enjoyment and, and inspiration, or not? You know, we sort of are pulling the levers now when it comes to water. And so we have some big choices to make.

Hoogerwerf:

As Christians, when we arm ourselves with knowledge, we might be more capable of making choices that glorify God and the creation. And a deeper knowledge of the creation might deepen our spiritual lives, even if it does bring about further questions.  

Brandon:

I feel like I almost feel closest to God when I’m like way out in the middle of the ocean on a research vessel because you’re just surrounded by water in every direction and you feel so small in the most peaceful way of like, okay, God has this handled. And I think what you were saying about Job and what they didn’t know about the ocean is also important because the ocean is super powerful and can cause massive storms and all these things and massive floods and all these things. And there’s like a weird verse in revelation where they talk about there won’t be an ocean in heaven.

Hoogerwerf:

Revelation 21:1. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.”

Brandon:

I remember like coming across this verse a couple of years ago and being like, wait, what? Like I don’t get to hang out on the ocean? But it was really, it’s kind of this idea that the ocean was seen as something unknown and scary. A lot of people have really rightful fears about the ocean, especially when you have so little technology to know what’s going on below you. And so really that verse probably means like there won’t be any storms in heaven, and there won’t be like that fear of the unknown in heaven. I hope there’s water somewhere. I’d be sad if there wasn’t.

Frens:

That strange saying in Revelation 21 referring to Christ returned back to earth to restore all things and it says there will no longer be any sea…It’s one of those strange comments. And you and I were talking earlier about that not so much saying there isn’t going to be water in God’s new creation. I absolutely think there will be, just like all the good we enjoy in this world, on land and on sea will be a part of our experience in the new heavens and the new earth. And yet the no longer be any sea, I think is referring to that chaos. Just like God triumphed over that chaos when he brought cosmesis out of it. In Genesis one at the end, it’s sort of that assurance that God will, will bring the chaos and the brokenness of this world, whether it be human sin or the pollution of the natural resources. God’s going to bring that to an ultimate end and it will be good.

Hoogerwerf:

Hmm. Seems like a good ending.

Frens:

I’m good with it.

Credits

Hoogerwerf:

Thank to our guests today, Kent Frens, Ben McFarland, Sandra Postel and Jennifer Brandon. 

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf, that’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episodes find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Finally, if you’re enjoying the show and want to help us out, leave a review on iTunes, we love hearing from and it helps other people find the show. Thanks.


Featured guests

Kent Frens's Headshot

Kent Frens

Kent Frens is the Minister of Worship and Preaching at Thorneapple Community Church. He enjoys outdoors endurance activities like trail running and backpacking.

Jenni Brandon's Headshot

Jenni Brandon

Jenni Brandon was a double major in Biology and English at Duke University, where she researched stormwater runoff pollution, before getting her PhD in Biological Oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in 2017, focusing on the nascent field of marine microplastics. She is an expert in quantifying and identifying marine microplastics, and has developed multiple novel methods to identify the smallest sizes of microplastics and determine the age of plastics exposed to varying weathering conditions in the environment.

Sandra Postel's Headshot

Sandra Postel

Sandra Postel A leading authority and prolific author on international water issues, Sandra has been hailed for her “inspiring, innovative and practical approach” to promoting the preservation and sustainable use of freshwater. She is co-creator of Change the Course, the national water stewardship initiative awarded the 2017 US Water Prize for restoring billions of gallons of water to depleted rivers and wetlands.

Ben McFarland

Ben McFarland teaches biochemistry and chemistry at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington. He grew up near Kennedy Space Center and wanted to be a paleontologist in the second grade. He received a dual B.S. in Chemistry and Technical Writing from the University of Florida and a Ph.D. in Biomolecular Structure and Design from the University of Washington. His research uses the rules of chemistry to redesign immune system proteins. In 2013 he received an Evolution and Christian Faith (ECF) grant from BioLogos to write A World From Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (Oxford University Press, 2016). He lives near Seattle with his wife Laurie and his children Sam, Aidan, Brendan, and Benjamin.

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