A brief article to say: I swam with wild dolphins, and in a moment I understood — and appreciated — more fully what is meant by the saying, “Fear of God.” Right now, I am traveling with my mother on the Big Island of Hawaii. Yesterday, I hiked an hour down a steep hill to the Captain James Cook Monument in Kaelakekua Bay State Historical Park to swim with wild dolphins.
The adventure began in the morning as sat under a tree near the trailhead, sipping local coffee and reading Theology of Her Body: Discovering the Beauty and Mystery of Femininity by Jason Evert. When I finished my coffee, I met up with a group of young Christian men visiting one of their college friends, a local, for winter break. On the hike down to the shoreline, we chatted about the Eucharist and Communion. The four of them volunteer for a Christian ministry called Young Life that uses summer camps, sports coaching, and other activities to reach out to kids, particularly those who have not been exposed to church. One of the guys works with a Catholic youngster; he, being Protestant, had some questions about Catholic teachings on communion. Between that conversation and the book I had been reading earlier about Theology of the Body, the name given to John Paul II’s sophisticated and scholarly discussions of human sexuality as important in revealing what it means for us to be made in the image of God, my mind was already on the topic of theology by the time I pulled on my flippers, strapped on my goggles, and slid into the water.
First: the reef was amazing. In my mother’s words (we returned to the same spot by kayak later in the day so she could visit it too): “It’s like an underwater aquarium!” There were expansive coral structures stretching along the entire arcing shoreline of the bay, in some places forming underwater arches, and schools of brightly colored fish bobbed by, oblivious to my intrusion.
I swam about, quite content, for twenty minutes before popping up to tell the guys that I wanted to go find dolphins. “Don’t worry about us!” they said, so off I struck on my own, into the deep. I swam clear across the bay, nearly half a mile, and rested on the rocky shore. The water was clear and deep — too deep to see the bottom — but I had not yet seen a dolphin. I asked some kayakers in the bay, and they told me to head further out to sea. On my way, I saw one dolphin jump out of the water about fifty feet from me, but I quickly lost sight of where it had gone. I treaded water for a bit, hoping to catch another glimpse, but as I began to get tired, I decided to head back to the monument where I had left my backpack.
I was satisfied. When you go to watch a meteor shower, expect only to see stars and you won’t be disappointed. When you go to sea to swim, expect only to swim and you will be satisfied. I had glimpsed a dolphin, explored a fantastic reef, and gone on a lovely swim. I was content.
But then, as I made my way toward shore, I heard them. Their squeaks and squeals were readily audible in the water. And then I saw them: a pod of at least forty dolphins — too many to count — swimming directly beneath me, about ten to twenty feet down! I was instantly struck by their grandeur. I felt a sense of awe and reverence as these intelligent, magnificent creatures graced me with their presence. I kept swimming in the same direction, but the dolphins doubled back and came up to the surface. All around me: they swam beneath me and to each side me, at some points passing within two to three feet. If I had wanted to, I believe I could have reached out my arm and touched one. And these are not tamed, trained, captive dolphins but wild mammals of the sea: large males, small babies, and every size in between. This happened repeatedly for nearly two hours.
I felt honored to be so close to them. They were swimming laps, and each time they passed me, they came up to the surface to play. The juveniles let me watch as they playfully chased one another, squealing. My palm, instinctively, pressed against my heart in awe at their power and majesty. Dolphins are gentle creatures; to my knowledge, they have never been known to hurt a person, but have occasionally acted heroically, for example by saving a drowning child. Dolphins have high social intelligence and are one of about five species with a demonstrated ability to recognize themselves in a mirror. To my mind (even, or perhaps especially, as someone with extensive familiarity with our fellow primates, the apes and monkeys), dolphins are more human-like (and therefore God-like) than just about any other creature out there. Maybe if I knew more about them, my notion of them would be not be so idyllic, but as it stands, I have to admit that I wouldn’t be surprised if dolphins sometimes pray.
This is my view of dolphins, and yet as they surrounded me, my feeling was a mixture of gratitude and reverence, but also fear. I was greatly out-numbered, and while I am a strong swimmer, I am quite sure that dolphins are stronger swimmers! Not unlike God, if they had wished to hurt me, I would have been toast. It was only because I intuitively trusted in their goodness that I could bear to draw close to them. I felt like Lucy in The Lion, The Witch, and Wardrobe. In one of my favorite dialogues of all time, Lucy, who is soon to meet Aslan the Lion (and metaphoric Christ) asks, “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Referring not just to a Jesus who washes feet, but who also “made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables” (NIV Jn 2:15), the answer to Lucy’s question is this: “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” A good king (like ours) serves his people with tenderness, mercy, and self-sacrifice, but he also defends them in battle, risking all to overcome the enemy.
I have often smarted at the phrase “fear of God,” preferring softer phrases like “love of God” and “reverence for God.” Swimming back to shore, tired and happy, I couldn’t help but admit that ours is a God who deserve our love and reverence, but whose very might and power ought to also inspire fear. If the dolphins, one of God’s many creatures, could have this effect on me, then surely the Creator Himself ought to inspire a similar joyful trembling. Like the dolphins, it is not because God is safe that we should draw close to Him but because He is good; in fact, God is love itself (1 Jn 4:8).