The Face of the Deep

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In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.

I thought often of these first lines from Genesis while crossing the North Atlantic two weeks ago aboard the Queen Mary 2 from New York to Southampton as the ship steamed through a series of gales interrupted only by a violent storm, when walls of green water covered the plate glass windows of the dining saloon for 20 seconds at a time. “Were we traveling in a smaller ship,” Captain Wells observed in one of his noontime reports from the bridge, “you would know all about it.” Having sailed the same route in winter on a Cunarder half the length and one-sixth the tonnage of the Mary, I could appreciate his words while feeling that I knew all about it on another level. This great ocean liner, technically defined as a passenger ship capable of withstanding the very worst the North Atlantic has to throw at her—a description the QM2 alone answers to today—was herself “moving over the face of the waters.” As if accompanying us, so was the Spirit of God. Judging from the eight-meter swells rising around the hull, He was an angry spirit, as God so often seems to be these days. Greta Thunberg, bouncing about on her borrowed catamaran on a sea such as this one, might have claimed to have understood also. Somehow I think she would have missed the point.

Having lived for the past four decades in Wyoming, and spent as much of that time as I’ve been able to manage in the backcountry wilderness, I have a healthy appreciation of, and respect for, the rigors of nature at her most extreme. The ocean which I contemplated for six and a half days during the second week of December was only too plainly inimical to individual human life and human civilization. Quite recently relative to how time is measured against civilization—and quite abruptly—humans have resumed thinking of the seas and oceans that cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface as an encroaching and threatening enemy rather than the becalmed azure playground pictured by the tourist and travel industries, spotted by tropical oases of land that are lightly encumbered by luxury hotels. When one reads or hears of oceans today, it is nearly always in terms of the existential danger they pose for the continents upon which men, women, animals, insects, and vegetation depend for their future survival.

Viewed from the boat deck 75 or 80 feet above the waterline, the Atlantic was a violent chaos of heaving black swells marbled by foam and culminating in furious bursts and twists of spray as far as the horizon 15 or 16 miles distant in all directions. Yet it was chaos of a stunning, supreme, metaphysical beauty, just as the world in its six formative stages rising to the peace and restfulness of the seventh day must have been beautiful. To fear the broad waters where the universe began, and whence all life arose, is as humanly foolish as fearing interstellar space in its cold, brilliant, encompassing sweep and to which, perhaps, all will return in the end. Fear of rising seas is as silly, and as vain, as fear of the hypothetical deadly asteroid that might someday annihilate life on earth, or even the earth itself—a growing popular fear that dates from around the same time as the hysteria surrounding climate change does, and accompanies it as comfortably as if the two concerns were identical twins. I wonder why people don’t perceive something positively medieval about this twinned obsession.

The distance Western civilization has traveled from its Christian history and orientation may be measured by the degree to which postmodern Westerners—Christians included—no longer reflexively relate the thought of rising waters to the most famous example of that natural phenomenon in history and literature, i.e., the Great Flood. It was unleashed by God upon a corrupt world, and Noah and his immediate family escaped it by embarking on the Ark, which, to judge from her extensive passenger list, must have been several times the size of the Queen Mary 2. This failure to make so startlingly obvious a connection, and to draw starkly clear comparisons from it, is the more remarkable when one considers that eager Western leftists and much of the non-Western world have been quick to identify climate change as nature’s revenge upon the industrialized West that has been thoughtlessly and greedily sacrificing Gaia to its own anthropocentric and Faustian ends for the past two centuries. Environmentalists and leftists of all sorts might easily associate themselves poetically with Noah, his family, and their menagerie, and associate capitalists, industrialists, industrial agriculturalists, and the lumpen bourgeoisie with the unenlightened and drowned multitude left behind on the rain-sodden, flooding earth. They are not doing so, and perhaps it is idle to speculate why. Widespread biblical illiteracy is an obvious explanation. Another is a waning spirituality in a progressively unspiritual world and an atrophying poetic sensibility along with it, both of which have been overtaken and smothered by the hyper-developed political consciousness that prevails everywhere in the modern world.

Going to sea aboard a real ship (not a “cruise liner,” which is a small ocean-going Las Vegas) is a wonderful, blessed escape from the over-developed world ashore and a thing comparable only to a venture into the remotest regions on earth—the wilderness. At sea, one is alone when on deck with only the sea, the marine life—waterfowl, dolphins, porpoises, the occasional whale, and sunfish nine feet across floating just below the surface—and the sky for company. At sea, it is still possible to imagine a world cleansed of the industrial wasteland, smog, light pollution with its hundreds and even thousands of square miles of electric lighting, and suburban sprawl with its housing subdivisions and shopping malls, glittering streams of metallic traffic moving (or not moving) in parallel lines of eight or ten along glaringly lit bands and coils of concrete. Onshore, the thing is impossible. The imagination fails. Reforming, restraining, and reducing industrial “syphilization,” as Edward Abbey called it, is a plain impossibility. We humans must live with the world as we have recreated it, and abide the consequences—adapt to and live with them, whatever they may be. The Spirit of God moves upon the land, too, and He doesn’t seem pleased by what He sees. Perhaps He will order us all to build arks, and thus escape the shrinking lands we have plundered by betaking ourselves to the rising, expanding, and perhaps unexpectedly friendly seas.

Photo credit: Chilton Williamson, Jr.


Chilton Williamson, Jr. is a senior contributor at Crisis. He is the former editor of Chronicles magazine, and his column "Prejudices" appears in The Spectator USA. He is the author of After Tocqueville (ISI, 2012) and the novel Jerusalem, Jerusalem! (Chronicles Press, 2017). For over a decade he served as literary editor, then senior editor, at National Review. He blogs at

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