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“The Sea Within”: A Philosophy of Surfing

Mike Baird

Matthew Becklo - published on 12/12/13 - updated on 06/08/17

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 lectured on the sea, 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).

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