Finding God in Alaska by Philip Yancey
The following quotations are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Finding God in Unexpected Places” published in 1997.
Earth is crammed with heaven
And every bush aflame with God
But only those who see take off their shoes.
—ELIZABETH BARRETT BROWNING
I admit that I’m a soft touch for the Argument from Design. For me, the world of nature bears spectacular witness to the imaginative genius of our Creator. Consider these examples that I encountered on a trip to Alaska:
- A nearly invisible ice fish swims among the icebergs of Arctic and Antarctic waters, its survival made possible by the unique properties of its blood. A special protein acts as an antifreeze to keep ice crystals from forming, and its blood has no hemoglobin, or red pigment. As a result, the fish is virtually transparent.
- The instinctive navigational ability of common ducks, geese, and swans makes them the envy of the aircraft industry. On their trips south, some of the geese maintain a speed of fifty miles per hour, and fly 1,000 miles before making their first rest stop.
- When it comes to navigation, polar bears are no slouches either. A polar bear that is tranquilized, trapped, and released 300 miles away can usually find its way home, even across drift ice that changes constantly and holds no landmarks and few odors. But bears and birds are rank amateurs compared to lowly salmon, who cruise the expanse of the Pacific Ocean for several years before returning (by scent? magnetic field?) to the streams of their birth.
- Baby musk oxen are born in March and April, when temperatures still languish around 30° below zero. Thus as the tiny musk ox drops two feet to the ground, its surrounding temperature drops 130°. The mother must hasten to lick blood and fluid from the coat of the steaming calf lest it freeze. Within a few minutes, the calf staggers to its feet and begins to nurse.
- Comparatively, grizzlies and polar bears have it easy. Ursine mothers feel no pain when giving birth for the simple reason that birthing takes place in the dead of winter, hibernation time. The cub struggles through the birth canal, pokes around the new world, and figures out the nursing process on its own. (Imagine the mother bear’s surprise when spring rolls around.)
- One more fact about polar bears. For years it puzzled researchers that polar bears and harp seals never showed up on the aerial infrared photographs used in animal censuses. Yet both species showed up very dark on ultraviolet photographs, even though white objects normally reflect, rather than absorb, ultraviolet light rays. In 1978 a U.S. Army researcher discovered the reason. Polar bear hairs are not white at all, but transparent. Under a scanning electron microscope they appear as hollow tubes, without pigment. They act like tiny fiber-optic tubes, trapping the warming ultraviolet rays and funneling them to the bear’s body. At the same time the fur provides such efficient insulation that the bear’s outer temperature stays virtually the same as the surrounding ice—– which explains why bears do not show up on infrared photos.
When I learn such details about the natural world, I feel like writing a hymn in honor of the polar bear or musk ox. Such a hymn would have good precedent: In his majestic speech at the end of the book of Job, God himself pointed to the wonders of creation as compelling proof of his power and wisdom. When He and Job compared résumés, Job ended up repenting in dust and ashes.
As I say, I’m a soft touch for the Argument from Design. Still, I must acknowledge that not everyone responds to nature in the same way. As novelist Walker Percy has observed, “There may be signs of [God’s] existence, but they point both ways and are therefore ambiguous and so prove nothing. . . . The wonders of the universe do not convince those most conversant with the wonders, the scientists themselves.”
Why isn’t the Argument from Design more convincing? Percy is right: nature gives off mixed signals. I left Alaska with sentiments of worship and admiration; the polar bears’ prey probably has a different perspective. And I might have been less anxious to write a hymn had I pondered instead the design of Alaskan mosquitoes or of the Cecidomyian gall midge (whose young hatch inside their mother and literally eat their way out, devouring the mother as they go).
Like humanity the rest of the created world presents a strange mixture of beauty and horror, of splendid cooperation and savage competition. In the Apostle Paul’s words, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). Nature is our fallen sister, not our mother.
C. S. Lewis used to say that the Christian does not go to nature to learn theology—–the message is too garbled—–but rather to fill theological words with meaning: “Nature never taught me that there exists a God of glory and of infinite majesty. I had to learn that in other ways. But nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. I still do not know where else I could have found one.”
I didn’t learn much theology on my trip to Alaska. But wading in a glacial stream dyed red with spawning salmon, and watching a bald eagle pluck a sea bass out of the bay, I did fill a few words with meaning. Words like joy and awe.
Just a few miles outside Anchorage, as I drove along the oddly named inlet “Turnagain Arm,” I noticed a number of cars pulled off the highway. When Alaskan cars pull over, that usually means animals. Against the slate-gray sky the water of Turnagain Arm appeared to have a slight greenish cast, interrupted by small whitecaps. Soon I saw these were not whitecaps at all, but whales—–silvery white beluga whales. A pod was feeding no more than fifty feet offshore.
I stood for forty minutes, listening to the rhythmic motion of the sea, following the graceful, ghostly crescents of surfacing whales. The crowd was hushed, even reverent. We passed around binoculars, saying nothing, simply watching. More cars pulled off the road. Dogs chased each other on the shoreline, their owners oblivious. For just that moment, nothing else—–dinner reservations, the trip schedule, my life back in Chicago—–mattered.
We were confronted with a scene of quiet beauty and a majesty of scale. We all felt small. We stood together in silence, until the whales moved farther out. And then we climbed the bank together and got in our cars to resume our busy, ordered lives that somehow seemed less urgent. And it wasn’t even Sunday. (27-30)