The Water We're Swimming In | 1. What Water?
Just Keep Swimming?
When it comes to famous quotes that are now infamous memes, Finding Nemo is surely up there with The Princess Bride.
“Fish are Friends. Not Food”
“Sharkbait. Ooh ha ha”
“I shall call him Squishy. And he shall be mine. And he shall be my Squishy”
And then, there is the most classic of them all.
“Just keep swimming”
It comes at a moment in the film when Nemo’s dad is feeling particularly lost – both literally and metaphorically. He doesn’t know what to do or where to go. Dory says to him “You know what you gotta do? Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…”
We’ve kind of adopted that mantra haven’t we? When we’re not sure where we are, where we are going or how we are going to get there, when everything feels just a bit too difficult and daunting, we tell ourselves “Just keeping swimming. That’s all I’ve got to do. Just keep swimming”.
Now, I’m not sure about you, but as Christian who lives in a world which is becoming more and more unfamiliar and, in many ways, really quite daunting, I’ve found myself relating more and more to Nemo's dad. I've been feeling a bit lost, a bit unsure, a bit uncertain about where I am and where I am going in this increasingly foreign landscape I find myself in.
In that situation—in our situation—is Dory’s advice the advice we need? In this increasingly strange world, do we need to just keep on swimming? Should we just be putting our heads down, our fins out and swim hard and fast?
Well, I think that there is something we need to do before we can properly answer that question. Before we decide to “Just keep swimming”, I think we need to stop, pop our head up above the surface, tread water for a bit and have a good look around us. Specifically, I think we need to take note of the water that we find ourselves swimming in.
In 2005, the American author David Foster Wallace was addressing the graduating class of Kenyon College. He opened his speech with this story:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?"
The point is, of course, that it so easy, so natural, so instinctive for us to not be aware of the very environment we are immersed in. Or even that we are immersed in a particular environment at all! Those younger fish don’t understand that as they are swimming they are swimming in something. They don’t recognise that the thing that is surrounding them, the thing they are immersed in has texture and mass... and effect.
I think we can be like those younger fish. We tell ourselves to just keep swimming in this increasingly strange and daunting world, all the while not recognising that swimming involves us being immersed in something. Something all but invisible to us. Something we’re perhaps largely unaware even exists. Like the younger fish we think “What water?”
If, as Christians, we are to “just keep swimming”, then we need to understand the water we are swimming in. We need to understand the environment that we are immersed in. We need to have some understanding of its depths, its currents, its tides, its shallows, its rips. And we need to understand how all these things effect us as we swim.
So, that’s the plan for this series of blog posts. Together, we’re going to stop swimming, tread water for a while and look around us. We’re going to take the time to identify that we are actually swimming in something, to understand some important things about that something. And, very importantly, we're going to pause and consider what God's word has to say about this water and how his people ought to swim in it.
But before we do that, we need to set some expectations.
We are swimming in a vast, vast ocean. It is expansive. It is deep. It is stormy. And there is just no way we can explore it thoroughly in a short series of blog posts. We’re not going to even try. To extend the metaphor further (perhaps to breaking point!), we’re not going to suit up, don our oxygen tanks and dive down for a thorough exploration of the water's depths. Rather, we’re going to attempt to hover above the surface and just dip our toes in. We're going to get a feel for it.
What this means is that we are likely to be left with more questions than answers. But that’s OK. In fact it is excellent.
As we explore the watery worldview around us we need to be equipped to realise there are many questions to be asked, answers to be sought, understanding to be pursued, effect to be observed.
But there is also a second expectation for us to grapple with as we embark on this discussion.
These are just some of the buzz words of the present moment. They are all important in their own right. They all communicate some element of truth. They can all be applied really helpfully… and also really unhelpfully. They can be used to both foster dialogue, and shut it down.
But we’re not going to use them here. We’re not going to frame our discussion according to them. We’re not going to try and group our observations underneath them.
Well, because our purpose here is simply to take a step back and to identify and describe some of the foundational convictions of the world we live in today (or at least, the world that those of us who are Westerners live in today). Yes, we’ll engage a little with and how and why those convictions have come to be. But our concern is to rise above the heated (and often, politicised) debates that these words often engender and just ask ourselves “What is the texture and the mass and the effect of the water I’m swimming in? And how is it effecting me as I swim?”.
Don't be Alarmed
Of course, as we embark on our (admittedly rather brief) exploration of the environment around us, we don't only need to check our expectations. We also need to check our attitude. And the first thing we need to grapple with is that we ought not be alarmed.
Christians living the the 21st Century West are much aware that the water we are swimming in – the world around us – is one which has (even just in our lifetimes) become perhaps best described as post-Christian. Not only is Christianity the subject of increasing misunderstanding, but also dismissal and even hostility.
And here’s the thing. That is OK. In fact Jesus says we should expect that to be the case! He told his disciples:
“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. – John 3:18-19
Of course, I'm not suggesting we should take pride or comfort in the fact that those around us don't understand us, or even hate us! There is nothing "good" to be found in that. However, a sense of increasing isolation and marginalisation should not be cause for alarm. We know why it is happening: because we belong to him - Jesus, the one the world hated first - rather than to it, the world.
So, don't be alarmed. God has not somehow lost control. In the midst of opposition and ridicule, the gospel is not somehow being emptied of its power. Just the opposite in fact! Remember what the centurion standing at the foot of the cross said? In the moment Jesus was most despised, most hated, most scorned… in that moment, the centurion looked on him and recognised him for who he truly is:
“Surely this man was the son of God.” – Mk 15:39
Don’t let the strangeness of the water we are swimming cause you to be anxious or alarmed. God is at work in and through it, making Jesus known and calling people into relationship with him.
Do be Alert
Don’t be alarmed. But do be alert.
Why? Well, think back to our little cartoon again for the moment.
The young fish had no comprehension of the water they were swimming in. They were just carrying on, completely unaware of the environment around them. And so they were also completely unaware of the impact the environment around them was having on them. Similarly, if, as Christians, we have no concept of the water we are swimming in, then we won’t be aware of the way that water is impacting, shaping, informing us and the way we swim.
Because here's the thing. The water surrounding us – our broader cultural and societal environment – it isn’t neutral. It wants to impact upon us. It sets out shape us in the way we act, in how we think, in who we are.
The Bible challenges us about what we should and should not be shaped by as Christians. For example, Paul reminded the Ephesians
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world. – Eph 2:1-2
To the Romans he wrote:
Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. – Romans 12:2
This is why we Christians need to be alert. Because if, like those young fish, we aren’t aware of the worldview that surrounds us, we won’t be able to see how it might be shaping us. We need to be able to understand the worldview of the water we are swimming in, so that we can swim well in it… but as people who have our own unique, Jesus-shaped worldview. As people who are committed to no longer following the ways of the world but following Jesus instead.
So, as we explore the watery worldview that surrounds us today, we need to check our attitude. We need to remember that there is no reason for alarm. The gospel is still the power of God for all who believe. Things have not slipped out of his control. The light shines most brightly in the darkness.
But we do need to be alert. We don't belong to the watery world around us. We have been chosen out of it. We live (and swim) in it as people who belong to something, and someone else entirely. It is this other thing, this other person, who ought to be shaping us into the people we are and long to become.
In our next post: The Water We're Swimming In | 2. I'm an Individual