Story of the Starfish

I got the following email from Tim Safford the Rector at Christ Church Philadelphia where I had given the sermon last Sunday. In my remarks I cite the story of the starfish. Tim shared with me his research and it is a wonderful gift well worth sharing from his recent Easter Sermon.

Thank you for preaching yesterday. Folks found your sermon compelling and your presentations illuminating. I hope it was a good experience for you.

Regarding starfish, you may know the Philadelphia connection to that well-travelled illustration. But in case you don’t, here’s my version from a recent Easter sermon. I share it because the meaning of the story is far more nuanced than the reduced version, I think.

Loren Eiseley was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania; a great naturalist, biologist, botanist and expert in Darwinian theory; a true understander of what it means that evolution is the result of “survival of the fittest.” And yet, he had a mysticism amongst his scientific thought, believing that the universe was not so cruel that it only progressed toward death. He sought in his work to find a moral message in evolutionary theory, to refute that biological progress only advanced by random deaths.

He discovered along the coast of Costabel, England, through the plight of starfish washed along the shore, that the moral possibility of evolutionary theory was found in how the conscience (and I would add religious) mind responded to the moral emptiness of “survival of the fittest” determinism. Darwinism might reveal biological truth, but “Social Darwinism” is a clear evil if it means that the least, weak, and frail are left for dead in an alleged moral society.

The beaches of Costabel are “littered with the debris of life”. I’ve never been there, but from Eiseley’s great essay, The Star-Thrower, it’s apparently a very ragged part of the coast, where the surf is vicious. And any sea life that comes into the purview of the waves in this coastland gets chewed up and spit up onto the sand in such a way that the sea life can’t get back to the ocean. Shellfish, and sea snails and crabs, all die, every morning. The animal that dies the most is the beautiful starfish.

Eiseley, an insomniac, would wake up early and look out in the dark, and he’d see flashlights on the beach. He went down, and he realized that scavengers were collecting the starfish, and taking them and boiling them alive, and then tacking them out to dry so that the starfish could be sold to the tourists of Costabel. And Eiseley observed, Well, that’s evolution. That’s death. That’s how the universe proceeds. The starfish that get thrown up will not pass on their genes, and the starfish that don’t will survive and pass their genes suited to Costabel onto the offspring.

But all of that death on the beach reminded him of what he thought was the cold nature of the universe.

And then he saw one man, bending over, grabbing a starfish, and throwing it into the surf.

And while scavengers destroyed life, this one man on the shore of Costabel saved life.

As Eiseley described it in his essay, at this moment the sun was rising and with the plume of the surf, the man had a little rainbow over him. “He had the posture of a god.”

In the middle of the next night, Eiseley wondered, Does the universe have a star-thrower? Even though we are lost to death and the grave, Eiseley asked, is there a thrower of stars out there who throws me, and throws the creation, this creation in which I live, back into the safety of the sea?

The next morning Eisley got up early and picked his way through those who scavenged the starfish, and he found the star-thrower, and with him bent down and began to throw starfish back, himself. “I understand,” Eiseley said. “Call me another thrower.”

And Eisley writes, as he cast a starfish far into the sea, “I flung myself . . . for the first time, into some unknown dimension of existence. From Darwin’s tangled bank of unceasing struggle, selfishness, and death, had arisen, incomprehensingly, the thrower who loved not humanity, but life. . . . Somewhere, my thought persisted, there is a hurler of stars, and he walks, because he chooses, . . . not in defeat.”

Eiseley writes, “Only then I allowed myself to think, the star-thrower is not alone any longer. After us there will be others.”

With Easter faith, let us be the “others.” Christ, abandoned and in desolation, destroyed death and saved us. Now we must cast back the abandoned and desolate, proclaiming with our deeds, ‘Death does not reign. Life can conquer death.’” God is our star-thrower. The tomb need not condemn us or define us. We are thrown back by the love of the risen Christ. And we can be star-throwers, too, to all of the death that we find on the coastland of this life.

in listening to your sermon and your journey to ECS, I wondered if you saw yourself as the starfish or the star-thrower. Maybe both?

Tim Safford

Good question for all of us. I need to think about the answer, but I need to see if deeds match desire here. Good question? Thanks Tim.