Finding God at the Beach: An Interview With Peter Kreeft

BOSTON – “Nature reveals God’s mind and imagination, and scripture reveals God’s heart and will,” says philosopher Peter Kreeft. But the “ability to read natural signs has decreased with the increase in the ability to read and decipher artificial signs.”

A professor of philosophy at Boston College, Kreeft has authored nearly 50 books including, The Sea Within, I Surf Therefore I Am, and If Einstein Had Been a Surfer. He reflected recently on why the sea holds such a fascination for us, even as we are more and more distracted by technology.

CWR: Why do you think the sea fascinates us?

Kreeft: The reason why the sea does this in a special way is as mysterious as the sea itself. Its size, of course, bespeaks the ontological size of God, but the air — the heavens above — is even bigger, but does not evoke in us the same wonder.

In the last resort the wonder of the sea is not reducible to a clear, rational explanation. “Deep calleth unto deep” — the sea of waves without evokes the sea of wonder within.

Partial explanations are helpful, however. In general, the reason for the fascination is what the Iroquois call “orenda,” the spiritual magnetism or electricity in things that draws us and gives us that standstill shock, that catch of the breath. It is the secret ingredient the Creator put into seas, trees, stars and music.

More specifically, the sea combines the bigness, the ever-aliveness, and the paradoxical juxtaposition of peacefulness and storminess that we see in our own souls when we dive deep enough there.

CWR: You have written about the vitality the beach provides through seemingly  boring things, the endless rolling in of the waves, long stretches of sand, etc… What do you think this tells us about God?

Kreeft: I have A.D.D. and get bored easily.  Yet waves are endlessly fascinating.  Why?  The Iroquois had a word for it, “orenda,” designating the spiritual magnetic power to draw the human spirit out of itself, a power something like the “te” of the Tao for a Taoist or the “chi” in Tai Chi.  It is found especially in mountains, oceans, and forests.  As to how it works, that is as mysterious to me as most of the other things in life, including why God invented the face of an ostrich.  I remember a Woody Allen line from one of his later films.  His son has rejected the family’s Jewish faith and become an atheist, and his wife blames him because he can’t answer his son’s questions about the problem of evil.  She tells him, “He wants to know: If there is a God, why are there Nazis?” And Woody replies: “Why are there Nazis? How should I know why there are Nazis?  I don’t even know how the damned can opener works.”

In the words of Merry to Pippin in The Lord of the Rings, sometime’s it’s “better not to know.” G.K. Chesterton, driving down Broadway at night during a trip to the U.S., was asked what he thought of the “great white way.” Noticing both the beauty of the neon light colors and the silliness of the commercial messages, he replied that it was the first time he wished he was a pre-literate child.

That’s what we are at the beach.

CWR: You have written about how sea in such a way that harkens back to medieval cosmology where a deeper understanding of God, the Creator, comes through his creation. In light of this, how do you view the sea an icon of God?

Kreeft: The medieval mind, in essence, is simply the human mind. Seeing nature, and especially special things in creation, such as the sea and the stars, as an icon of the Creator is as natural as seeing a work of art as an icon of the mind of the artist.

It was a medieval commonplace that “God wrote two books, nature and scripture.” Both are beautiful, mysterious, and without errors, only puzzles. Nature reveals God’s mind and imagination, and scripture reveals God’s heart and will.
CWR: You suggest that man has lost the ability to distinguish between facts and signs. How do you understand these terms? Do you think this vision of reading signs can reacquired?

Kreeft: The ability to read natural signs has decreased with the increase in the ability to read and decipher artificial signs.

Similarly, the ability of my students to do simple, natural, ordinary-language logic — Aristotelian logic — with its base in the natural signs that are concepts, has decreased proportionately to their ability to do artificial, mathematical logic, with its base in arbitrary propositions — “p” and “q” rather than “men” and “mortals.” Especially, they can no longer understand analogies. The SAT Reasoning Test had to drop the whole section on analogies; Harvard geniuses were flunking them.

This is more significant than it seems, since the whole of creation is a set of analogies, likenesses, similes or metaphors of the Creator. We understand them with right-brain intuition, not with left-brain digital analysis. The analog half of our brain is atrophying as the digital half is exercising.

There is no way to teach sign reading. You just catch the art, as you catch a baseball, or the measles, from someone who has it. Read Black Elk, or St. Bonaventure, or C.S. Lewis.

CWR: As a philosopher, you bring in a discussion of the age-old question of happiness. How does untamed nature bring happiness in a way a computer never can?

Kreeft: All explanations, all hows and whys, are like hypotheses in science: They are for the data, to explain the data, and must be judged and validated by the data, by how well they explain the data. The more deeply you go into the data, the better hypotheses you have. So the more you understand, by experience, how nature makes you happy, the less nonsense you will spout when you try to explain it.

Those who have gone most deeply into this happiness, speak the least. The classic case is Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, with its famous beginning: “The way that can be spoken of is not the real way.” A silent smile speaks more than a scholarly book about music, romance, music or nature: “Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”

The how question is important only in technology: “Techne” means know-how. It’s a distraction elsewhere. Who knows how divine grace works? Who cares, except the professional theologian? It works. Jesus explained nothing, especially himself. He presented everything, especially himself. He gave out meals, not cook books.

Someone said, “Life is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be lived.” That’s a hard truth for me as a professional philosopher to swallow, but it’s true.

CWR: Have you had any similar thoughts about other elements of nature, as St. Francis would have said, about “brother sun, sister moon,” or the mountains, raging storms, the universe and their ability to reveal God?

Kreeft: St. Francis will teach us all in heaven, where there will be a “new heavens and a new earth,” to love and sing the praises of all the new creatures, even the mosquitoes. Look at one under a microscope even now and see the wonderful delicacy of it.

But God put Francis here to teach us to rehearse for eternity. If we really saw the Sun and Moon as “brother sun, sister moon,” it would transform us twenty-four hours a day, not just when we’re camping.

We would feel at home, tiny children in our Father’s big, beautiful mansion with presents and surprises coming at us like gushing geysers. And that’s an exercise in realism, because that’s what the world really is, and what we really are, and what God really is.

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About Carrie Gress, Ph.D. 54 Articles
Carrie Gress has a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of America. She is the editor at the Catholic Women's online magazine Theology of Home. She is the author of several books including The Anti-Mary Exposed, Theology of Home, and . Theology of Home II: The Spiritual Art of Homemaking. Visit her online at