Waterspot: Is surfing spiritual?

Anyone who watched the latest Super Bowl to its conclusion was forced to recon with the thought that professional football is, for some people, a spiritual endeavor. The winners thanked God, while the losers might have been invoking deity in a different tone. I enjoyed the game and the free speech offered by coaches and players, and was left wondering: if a human invention played on flat ground in uniforms can have spiritual significance, shouldn’t an activity such as surfing, where nature itself serves as the stadium, prove more so? This is not a new question and has as many different answers. Ancient islanders had their ideas, as did men who came later like surfing pioneer Tom Blake, whose equation Nature = God is enough for many of my surfing brothers and sisters.

Catamaran inventor and surf legend Woody Brown was generally invoked a Christian God in his approach to defining a creator. Sixties Aussie standout Ted Spencer was a Hare Krishna monk for a time. Numerous other surfers from the ‘60s have taken Hindu-based, New Age beliefs to heart. Surfing legend and ex-patriot Bob Cooper is a Mormon, while shortboard innovator and Australian Bob McTavish is a Jehovah’s Witness. Quite a few others like Calvary Chapel pastor and former Pipeline Master Joey Buran hang close to mainstream Christianity. Others in the mix are Boogie Board inventor Tom Morey, who is a Baha’i, and surfing rabbi, Nachum Shifren. The vast majority of the surfers I encounter, however, are garden-variety agnostics, while a few claim atheism. I know there must be some Muslims in our ranks, but I don’t know of any.

I am not at this time advocating one sort of spirituality over the other, but the question of God is one many surfers seem to discuss, especially during months of small to flat surf, like what we’ve experienced in this, one of the smallest winters on record. The sunshine sends surfers to the beach, and with little else to do they often engage in philosophical exchanges. I myself have spent hours perched on the Swami’s rocks with some of my most worthy theistic, agnostic and atheistic friends discussing the possibilities or impossibilities of there being a God.

Among the strongest of my opponent’s arguments is: “If God is all good and all knowing, why do terrible things happen to good people?” I cringe at this frontal attack since it has no easy answer, at least not one I can postulate in the few words I have left in this column. They lob the ball softly into theism’s court, saying that I have faith and they have science. “No,” I often say at this point, “you have faith that the universe created itself from nothing, and sustains itself without an intelligent being in charge of it all. Either that, or matter, which science says can neither be created nor destroyed, always existed.” While a good argument, it is hardly a checkmate, and we go from there, pointing out the weaknesses in each other’s ideas, usually ending in a peaceful cat’s game as we stare longingly at the horizon praying or just wishing that nature or God or some gigantic wave plow would churn up a swell and send it our way so that we can forget all this heady stuff for a while and simply ride some waves together.

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