Have you ever looked carefully at fish tanks? Yes, actual fish tanks. Let me elaborate.
Recently my wife was in the hospital for quite a while and near the unit she was on was the children’s center. Near the main waiting area is a fish tank which became a favorite destination for us when we went on walks. Those repeated walks to look at the fish tank sparked in me a profound thought: Human lives on earth are very much like fish tanks.
Our lives in time and space have parallels to fish tanks and the goings on there. Consider the physical parameters of the tank—there is vegetation (real and synthetic), rocks, crevices and places to hide among these features. To the fish, with their limited perception of reality, swimming around in the tank appears “normal” yet we can look at the tank and see that it is bounded by the glass on the sides and the bottom base and by some kind of covering. All the fish know is this limited set of physical objects and what they do and encounter in the tank.
Their brief spans of existence are entirely dependent upon forces which they can neither perceive well nor understand. Food comes into the tank but they do not know how or where from. Their existence is open to interventions from outside which they cannot predict nor understand. If a hand suddenly came down into the tank they would not have any idea what it was or what it was doing but their very livelihood and life would be effected for good or ill.
Now before any of you dismiss this little parable, I ask you to focus your mind and follow my reasoning. Is not our lives as human beings very much like living in fish tanks? Consider the parallels. People set up the tank, put in the look alike trees, rocks, crevices and then water (and whatever else one might put into fish tanks). God created the universe and earth and all that is in it, along with all the processes which make the earth habitable. Humans were set on earth and only slowly learn about the world which they inhabit.
We humans are born into families from whom we learn the most elementary lessons about reality, language, “normal” behavior, religion and morality. Our lives are bounded by time and what we modern people have come to call “culture.” Culture is the expression of a people’s basic assumptions about reality and how to live together in community; it is, so to speak, the unwritten rules for proper behavior and beliefs. Unless an individual (or small group) decides to seek to know what is ultimately true—and ardently search—then such persons will merely follow the dictates of family modeling and culture.
People may be able, at some point in their emotional and intellectual growth, recognize that what they inherited culturally does not explain reality. They may begin to fundamentally question for a time and consider differing ideas and beliefs—and may even “convert” to a system of belief quite different from their upbringing. This occurs more than most of us realize. Reality in its fullness is not open to our examination because we are perceiving and seeing life from inside looking out. We cannot predict nor see how catastrophic events will effect our bodies, our livelihoods, our kindred or our countries. Like life in fish tanks our lives are completely dependent upon the persistent generosity of the unseen “hands” which feed us and keep the water we swim in clean.
So far as I know fish have no concept of time or of history. Human beings do. As the wise Teacher notes,
“I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:10-11, NRSV)
Obviously we are different than fish or other animals in this way: We can become acutely aware of some aspects of reality (particularly what we call “time”) and what we can and cannot do to change our experience of living. We have the capacity of memory and language by which to pass along to the next generation something of our collective perceptions and experiences and to instill customs which take on the force of law. This is human culture and its dynamic developmental processes. We cannot escape the bounded reality into which God has set us but we can apply our minds to learn from the past and discern some important truths about God’s ways. This is the primary reason why the idea and discipline of history is important.
Yet the living God is present in the world which he created and is continuing to make. The “invisible hand” of God in the fish tanks of this world is always leading us to turn toward what our cultures cannot tell us about reality. The Holy Spirit’s work is to unsettle and display the bankruptcy of human religion and philosophy and culture so that people will somehow begin to search for the living God (see Acts 17:22-27).
I think that one of the greatest points of evidence for the existence of God is the inner witness of the Spirit that this world (and pursuit of things in the world) cannot satisfy human aspirations. The confines of fish tanks are part of the brute facts of life which we must contend with and try to make sense of. This is a key aspect of human experience that we believers can explain and offer answers for. God’s purpose for us, as we swim about in this world among our fellow human beings, is to bear witness to the living God who created and intervenes directly in the world. The Spirit of God has already done God’s work and he wants us to partner with him in bringing people into the knowledge of the truth in Jesus the Messiah.