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“The Sea Within”: A Philosophy of Surfing

“The Sea Within”: A Philosophy of Surfing

Mike Baird

Matthew Becklo - published on 12/12/13

If the ocean is the perfect image of the eternal God, then surfing can only be the perfect image of the joy of dwelling in that mystery – a foretaste, in fact, of heaven.

In a recent clip from “The Pete Holmes Show” on TBS, the gawky comedian goes to visit pastor Rob Bell to talk about God – and to learn how to surf. “Is surfing like a spiritual thing for you?” Holmes asks. “Very much so,” Bell responds. “I think the ocean is all about love, but it wants a little respect.”

But Bell isn’t the first person to compare God with the sea and surfing with the spiritual life. In fact, the philosopher Peter Kreeft has been writing on the subject for years. Three of his books – The Sea Within (2006), I Surf, Therefore I Am (2008), and If Einstein Had Been a Surfer (2009) – delve into the oceanic grandeur of God and the mystical experience of surfing. Kreeft has

, conjured stories about the sea – even his website is filled with images of the sea.

Now, a short documentary from Blackfriar Films, The Sea Within, brings Kreeft’s lifelong fascination to life – and the result is an alluring glimpse into the beauty and bliss of surfing.

“I grew up surfing in a little beach town called Rockaway Beach,” explains executive producer Father Gabriel Gillen, O.P., a Dominican friar who appears in the film. “After working as a stockbroker on Wall Street for a number of years, Dr. Kreeft's books were a big influence in bringing me back to actively practicing my faith. I never knew that he was an avid surfer like myself until years later, when he mentioned his love for surfing during a lecture when I was serving as a college chaplain at New York University. At the time, I just started working with the film students at NYU. I suggested to Dr. Kreeft that we do a surfing video based on his books and he loved the idea.”

The film (which you can watch online here) opens with a quote from Albert Einstein: “Never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born.” We then see the 76 year old philosopher looking especially childlike as he gazes out into the deep waters, his board by his side.

“Life is more than the land, and surfing is more than the sea,” declares Kreeft – who at one point venerates his surfboard as he might a relic of a saint, a smile bursting out from ear to ear. “In fact, the sea is to the land what God is to everything: the surrounding, ultimate mystery.”

The conviction that we can learn about God through nature, which somehow reflects and participates in God – a view theologians call the “analogy of being” – is not common to all religious (or even Christian) traditions. But as Gillen notes, Kreeft’s approach to surfing reflects the thought of the great Dominican, Thomas Aquinas. “Aristotle, versus Plato, very much concentrated on the senses. This world can teach you about God and the next world. St. Thomas Aquinas took Aristotle and elevated that, and in the same way I think Dr. Kreeft is taking surfing and the senses and he’s drawing analogies toward a deeper understanding of God.”

The prolific writer’s advice to young surfers – which is interspersed with the physical, mental, and spiritual training of the Honolulu Surf Camp – gradually reveals why the sea is such a perfect image for God.

First and foremost, the sea is bigger than us – in fact, it’s the biggest thing our eyes can glimpse in this life (“like a seven trillion ton grandmother who lives in your backyard,” jokes Kreeft).

Keep reading on the next page

But the sea is also incredibly mysterious. We can’t see the deep sea because natural light can’t reach it, and we can’t swim in it because the pressure would crush us like grapes. But we know it’s there – and the more scientists explore it, the more they see its complexity and beauty. As the National Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Portal puts it: “Deep below the ocean’s surface is a mysterious world that takes up 95% of Earth’s living space…yet there is life – an astounding variety of creatures that will boggle your mind.”

The sea is also wild, powerful, and unpredictable – which is why “never turn your back on the ocean” is a cardinal rule in surfing. You have to have respect its strength, and always expect the unexpected when diving in.

The sea is bigger than us, the sea is mysterious, and the sea is wild – and so it is with God. “If you don’t know that God is wild, you don’t know God,” muses Kreeft. “If you think God is tame and predictable… that’s not God. God is wild, like the sea.”

If the ocean is the perfect image of the eternal God, then surfing can only be the perfect image of the joy of dwelling in that mystery – a foretaste, in fact, of heaven. The experience of surfing, like the experience of God, is not something we do as a means to some end, like using money or going to work, but is good in and of itself, like spending time with a good friend.

The experience of surfing, however, feels like a confrontation with something ultimate. Even if, like me, you’ve only been bodysurfing, Kreeft’s 14 features of “stoke" – a word describing the “high” of surfing – ring true. The experience of catching the perfect wave is ineffable and irresistible; it transcends all fear, boredom, and time; and it creates in us a sense of joy, awe, and even ecstasy. Surfing makes us become little children again.

“A lot of people who surf see the beauty of surfing,” says Gillen. “It immerses you in nature, even in a more radical way than hiking or skiing does. The energy of the wave really puts you into contact with things. There’s something of a movement that really opens up God’s beauty and power.”

And as Kreeft notes, the experience of that high – or “stoke” – isn’t limited to believers.

“You can be an atheist and have an experience of stoke. So there’s no conscious relationship to God. Yet what happens to your soul is that it’s ripped out of your body. And this cage of ego – it’s not the skin that’s the cage, it’s the ego that’s the cage – the bars of this cage come loose, so that you fly free.”

The freedom of stoke, Gillen thinks, may for some people be a first glimmer of transcendence, a light out of the prison of nihilism that swallows up so much of our world.

“It’s waking you up and getting you out of this nihilistic type of view. Flannery O’Connor said nihilism is the air we all breathe, and I think nature has a way of bringing us out of a view that everything is chance. There’s something in nature and beauty that begins to lead you toward philosophical questions, and those philosophical questions can lead you into deeper waters toward theological questions.”

The Sea Within reminds us that God, like the ocean, is bigger, lovelier, and in some ways wilder than all of our conceptions and experiences, and that the whole point of cooperating with the waves of grace – like the whole point of riding the waves of the sea – is to fill us with joy.

“The great sea on which we surf, I think, is God Himself,” Kreeft explains. “And those waves are perfect.”

Note: To order a DVD version of The Sea Within, please contact George Goss at: george@dominicanfriars.org.  

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