Folk tales from traditions around the world posit that God created the Earth on the back of Mother Turtle. Why would God choose a turtle as the earth-bearer? (And who knew there were turtles before the world was even created?) The resumé of turtles makes them better candidates than most creatures for the job. They are steady, patient, and one-stumpy-foot-at-a-time creatures. They stay on task, are not picky eaters, and live long quiet lives. Longevity is a plus. Some of the oldest turtles on record have lived for hundreds of years. It’s an enchanting, if preposterous, picture to imagine the earth spinning counterclockwise on the back of a turtle.
In the first chapter of his book A Brief History of Time, cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recounts another oft-told turtle story:
“A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
Scientists and theologians can contradict this story with the presumption of scholarship. But it is a beguiling image. Turtles ad infinitum, as far down as the eye can see and then still further down. Are the turtles progressively bigger? Progressively smaller? Or maybe even all the same size or maybe a mixture of small on top of large on top of small. This bale of turtles is an unending line or tower or curve with the earth perched solidly or precariously on top.
I love this kind of story. It is not only playful, but it expands my visual and spiritual imagination. Stories in Scripture often seem preposterous –people running around naked in a garden, arks with pairs of every animal, burning bushes…. We can argue about whether these events actually happened or whether they are just meant to teach us about God’s magnificence and our presence in the scheme of things. In either case, I want to be able to picture the described scene. I want to see fruit and snake and flame and golden calf and giraffe dung. Those images lodge themselves in my brain for future use. So I love the swaying tower of turtles in my mind. It is not quite straight and kind of wavy but the turtles are infinite in number.
This turtle story poked its green and brown shell from the depths of my memory last Sunday in church when the preacher referred to John 1:14-16 in his sermon.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified to him and cried out,“This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
So my mind immediately went to summarizing John 1:16 and the sermon as a haiku. (I’ve been writing haiku almost daily for a year.)
No longer turtles,
But grace upon grace upon….
All of the way down.
The turtle trio photo is from the wikipedia page Turtles All the Way Down and in the public domain.