Moons, Morality and Control

My family and I got back from holiday last week. We went to a place we go to with some regularity; a little fishing village in Cornwall. As ever, we had a great time.

Our visit happened to coincide with the advent of a super moon. I had to google exactly what a super moon was. Turns out, it means the moon its perigee (which apparently means when it is closest to us) and so appears bigger and brighter from our perspective. So, the moon was “super” because it appeared much bigger.

Ordinarily, the moon looking 14% bigger would pass me by entirely unnoticed. I am not sure how big the moon appears ordinarily, and it appearing a bit bigger for a few nights would really make very little impact on me. As far as I am concerned, in the ordinary run of things, a slightly larger moon still ultimately just looks like the moon as it ever looked. I doubt I would have noticed anything.

However, even I couldn’t fail to notice its effects where we were. Though the moon looked much the same as it ever did to me, it seems it being much closer to us had a funny effect on the sea. More specifically, its gravitational pull would have been stronger, a bit like when a magnet pulls harder the closer it is to a metallic object. The moon was pulling the sea much harder.

What that meant in the little harbour town we were in was that the sea level was noticeably much higher. The first night we noticed it, we could see the sea level higher on the wall than usual. The second night we noticed it, it felt like the water was going to come over the harbour wall (and, in a few places, it did). On the third night, all the shops on the front had their flood defences in place and the sea – at high tide – can right up and for about 25 minutes flooded the quay and the village centre. Then, almost as soon as it rose up, it slowly waned away.

For outsiders on holiday, sitting in their cottage tens of feet above the quay, it was really interesting to watch and a point of fascination. We even wondered down into the village to see the extent of the flooding. The local pub – situated in just the wrong place – had to throw everybody out. As you looked through the doorway, you could see a foot or so of water covering their entire floorspace. Most the shops and houses right near the front – those who probably have the best positions for business – were all the worst affected. For the local business owners, the super moon didn’t feel all that super.

As I reflected on it some more, it reminded me of how little we can actually control. In the end, time and tide really do wait for no man. We have constructed our lives around the illusion that we can mitigate every circumstance and control every eventuality. But something as ordinary as the moon getting closer to earth and the tides rising – even with flood defences in place – there was truly nothing anybody could do. They were at the mercy of the waves and, for half an hour or so, the tide rose and then waned. It streamed in and then, just as quickly, streamed out again leaving (minimally) a clean up job for several people and, more likely, a trail of destruction.

Whilst those of us who do not live by the sea do not suffer in quite the same way from the waxing and waning of the moon and its effect on the tide, there are plenty of things we insist “something must be done” or “lessons must be learnt” when the reality is that sometimes the only lesson we can learn is that nothing could be done because the issue was beyond our control. Just the cycle of the moon and the rising of the tide was a potent reminder that there are some things, try as we might, we simply cannot control.

This past week, it was also reported that the UK cannot be called a “Christian country” anymore. News that came as a surprise to absolutely nobody. Of course we aren’t. God was banished long ago, largely by my parents generation. Those of my generation never had anything to do with him at all, finding it odd that anybody would. Even in the Church of England primary school I attended – which bore no evidence of being in any way linked to the CofE but for a weekly visit from a deaf-as-a-post vicar who gave every impression of never having met or engaged any children in his life nor being aware of what a Christian was either – my family were notably odd because we went to church. We sang more 60s folk songs in assembly than hymns and, being Oxfordshire, were forced to dance round maypoles and engage in pagan folk rituals on May Day. It was genuinely deemed less weird to be a Morris dancer and have intricate knowledge of the Waterson:Carthy back catalogue than it was to be a Christian and go to church.

It was interesting to see unbelievers like Rod Liddle and Juliet Samuel bemoan the decline of Christianity in Britain, but much like those who cack on about how awful it is that libraries are closing and the high street is in decline, it all feels a bit rich from people who simply never utilised them when they were there. Liddle bemoans the loss of common morality, which is odd given his own publicly documented moral failings that are not entirely likely to be welcome at the vicar’s tea party. Samuel seems more concerned that conspiracy theories have filled the gap and, in effect, suggests the Christian fable is more benign than these other conspiracies. They are essentially of the same order, she avers, but the fruit of Christianity is preferable to what has replaced it so let’s bring it back. Which is hardly a compelling case for Christianity, is it. We prefer this untruth (as we judge it) to these other ones. No wonder Richard Dawkins can continue to be taken seriously by simply asking, ‘Do you want to be comforted by a falsehood?

What has any of this got to do with the rising of the tides in a little fishing village? Much the same really. The dismissal of God from the public square, the decline of Christianity in Western liberal society, shows that we think we are manifestly in control. We are masters of our own destiny. We can mitigate our circumstances and address whatever issues may arise. We, many think, have no need for God or his church.

Apart from, just as the little fishing village realised it could do nothing about something so simple as the appearance of a large moon, so it turns out Western liberals can apparently do nothing about the moral mess we find ourselves in. The breakdown in society of community, the loss of common morality, the longing for a sense of belonging – though community, moral order and belonging are universally sought – they are entirely beyond our control. It isn’t like we are the first people in the world to discover this. We are just the latest. Even our secular commentators, though refusing to accept the obvious answer, bemoan what has been left behind and cannot escape the conclusion that the common values centred on Christianity that have been jettisoned were simply better than what we have been left with.

It is for this reason (though not only this reason) I not only believe Christianity to be true but to be good. There is one who is in total control. That is not the comfort of a lie, but genuine comfort founded on truth. The evidence there is a God who control all things – amongst many of the well worn arguments to his existence – is that what he commands actually works. It is almost as if these “rules” are not arbitrary after all, but were designed by the one who designed the universe so that we could flourish in his creation as we were made to do. The things we long for, the things we all want, are seen to work. They have been designed to work. When we jettison them, thinking we know better and can design better systems, we end in a mess. That seems compelling evidence to me that there is one behind it who designed it all and things simply work better when we all assume it is so and follow his design rather than being those clots who think it fun to unbox a new toy, “experiment” with the controls and wonder why it broke in five minutes.

But it is comforting to know that there is a God who is in control. We may think we are able to mitigate all our circumstances, but if we cannot even offset the effects of the moon’s cycles with any great ability, what hope have we got of offsetting the most serious moral failings that exist in every human heart the world over? If we recognise that there are plenty of things over which we evidently are not, and will never be, in control but when we genuinely believe in the God who is there and seek to abide by his good rule, isn’t the proof of the pudding in the eating? There is a good designer who is in control. We do better submitting ourselves to him and his rule – knowing we are not capable – than we are of seeking to control what we have little hope of ever controlling. It seems to me that shared Christian mores work societally, which is a powerful argument for there being a designer behind it who has designed it to work. If that is true, when we can’t even control the devastating effect of a bit of water rising over a harbour wall, that is real comfort.