“God, The Universe, and My Aquarium” by Philip Yancey, Christianity Today magazine, July 13, 1984, page 66. ( www.christianitytoday.com )
When I look out my window, I see a 12-story apartment building, all concrete and glass, with bicycles, Weber grills and lawn chairs propped up at random on its balconies. And also twisted metal aerials protruding from a video store, the pebble-gray roof of Winchell’s Donut House, the aluminum vent from an Italian restaurant, and a web of black wires to bring electricity to all these monuments of civilization. We didn’t choose this place for the view.
But if I turn my head to the left, as I often do, I can watch a thriving tropical paradise. A corner of the Caribbean has reproduced itself in my study. A glass rectangle contains five seashells coated with velvety algae, stalks of coral planted like shrubbery in the gravel bottom, and seven creatures as exotic as any that exist on God’s earth.
Salt-water fish have pure, lustrous colors, so rich that it seems the fish themselves are creating and radiating the hues, rather than merely reflecting light waves to produce them. The most brightly colored fish in my aquarium is split in half, with a glowing yellow tail portion and a shocking magenta head portion, as if he had stuck his head in a paint bucket.
My marine tastes tend toward the bizarre, and in addition to the beautiful fish, I have two that are startling but hardly beautiful. A long-horned cowfish, who gets his name from horns extending from his head and tail, propels his boxy body around the tank with impossibly small side fins. If a bumblebee defies aerodynamics, the cowfish defies aquatics. Another, a lion fish, is all fins and spikes and menacing protruberances, resembling one of the gaudy paper creatures that dances across the stage in Chinese opera.
I keep the aquarium as a reminder. When writer’s loneliness sets in, or personal suffering hits too close, or the gray of Chicago sky and buildings invades to color my mind and moods, I turn and gaze. There are no Rockies out my window, and the nearest grizzly bear or blue whale is half a continent away. But I do have this rectangle that reminds me of the larger world outside. Half a million species of beetles, ten thousand wild butterfly designs, a billion fish just like mine poking around in coral reefs—a lot of beauty is going on out there, often unobserved by human eyes.
Yet even here in the beauty of my artificial universe, suffering thrives as well. Nature, said Chesterton, is our sister, not our mother; it too is fallen. The spikes and fins on my lion fish are appropriately menacing; an adult’s can contain enough toxin to kill a person. And when any one fish shows a sign of weakness, the others will turn on it, tormenting without mercy. Just last week the other six fish were brutally attacking the infected eye of the cowfish. In aquariums, pacifists die young.
I spend much time and energy trying to counteract the parasites, bacteria, and fungi that invade the tank. I run a portable chemical laboratory to test the specific gravity, nitrate and nitrite levels, and ammonia content. I pump in vitamins and antibiotics and sulfa drugs, and enough enzymes to make a rock grow. I filter the water through glass fibers and charcoal and expose it to an ultraviolet light. Even so, the fish don’t last long. Fish are dubious pets, I tell my friends; their only “tricks” are eating, getting sick, and dying.
The arduous demands of aquarium management have taught me a deep appreciation for what is involved in running a universe based on dependable physical laws. To my fish I am like God, and one who does not hesitate to intervene.
I balance the salts and trace elements in their water. No food enters their tank unless I retrieve it from my freezer and drop it in. They would not live a day without the electrical gadget that brings oxygen to the water.
You would think, in view of all this energy expended on their behalf, that my fish would at least be grateful. Not so. Every time my shadow appears above the tank, they dive for cover into the nearest shell. Three times a day I open the lid and drop in food, yet they respond to each opening as a sure sign of my designs to torture them. Fish are not affirming pets.
Whenever I must treat an infection, I face an agonizing choice. Ideally, I should move the infected fish to a quarantine tank to keep the others from pestering it, and also to protect them from contagion. But such violent intervention in the tank, the mere act of chasing the sick fish with the net, could do more damage than the infection. The treatment itself may cause death because of the stress it produces.
I often long for a way to communicate with those small-brained water dwellers. In ignorance, they perceive me as a constant threat. I cannot convince them of my true concern. I am too large for them, my actions too incomprehensible. My acts of mercy they see as cruelty; my attempts at healing they view as destruction. To change their perceptions would require a form of incarnation.
I bought my aquarium to brighten a dull room, but ended up learning a few lessons about running a universe. Maintaining one requires constant effort and a precarious balancing of physical laws. Often the most gracious acts go unnoticed or even cause resentment. As for direct intervention, that is never simple, in universes large or small.
Isaiah 55:8-9 — “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
Matthew 23:37 — (Jesus said), “Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me!”
O God in heaven, I thank you that you do not require me to comprehend you and your ways; for if that were required, I would be most miserable. The more I seek to comprehend you, the more incomprehensible you are. Therefore, I thank you that you require only faith, and I pray that you increase my faith in you. Amen.
— adapted from a prayer by Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)