This month marked the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic, lost along with 1517 lives in April 1912. I was reminded of it by a piece of classroom work a girl was doing about it.
It’s remarkable how the Titanic has stayed in the public mind. It’s not history’s greatest maritime disaster — it’s actually number 5, with the greatest single loss of life just on three times the Titanic’s. So, why the fascination still?
The girl’s teacher had an interesting insight. “Gripping story,” she said. “It’s a whole combination of tragedy, romance, remoteness and I don’t know what else. Hubris, heroism — you name it.”
I guess that’s equally true of most disasters. But among her quick-fire snapshots, I especially noticed hubris. It’s not a word you hear every day. It means pride; specifically, the sort of pride that makes you act as if you were God.
Shakespeare knew all about hubris. It is the sin that caused the downfall of all his tragic heroes — Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear — not killing people, or taking over their kingdoms. Certainly they did those things, but they did them because they failed to appreciate their true station in life, the place where their boundaries fell, the limit on their jurisdiction. The place belonging only to God.
So, hubris for the Titanic? Well, this was the vessel that was unsinkable. This was the greatest achievement of the engineering age. Nothing could stop this ship. So she was travelling too fast in iceberg waters, for just one thing, with insufficient lifeboats. And the ice got her. There was, after all, something bigger in God’s world than Titanic.
We all live in a world that is bigger than we are. In spite of what Richard Dawkins and others are telling us, it is still God’s world. Or, if that’s too specific for you, it certainly isn’t anyone else’s. When we think it is, and that we might be that someone else, we too are guilty of hubris.
Which is not to say that some iceberg is about to leap on us out of the darkness. Some people will tell you that disasters are God’s specific judgment on our collective arrogance, but the idea leaves me uncomfortable because of what it would suggest about God, who is a God of grace and who allows us room to find our way to him in spite of ourselves.
And yet, he is a God who notices our wrongdoing, and our shortcomings, and yes, our sinfulness, and he expects us to do something about it. God expects us to give other people their due place in our lives, and he expects us to give him his due place in our lives, and he does not easily overlook our arrogant capacity to assume to ourselves the central place in the universe. That space belongs to him.
The Bible talks about those who “neither glorified God nor gave thanks to him.” Paul says excluding God brings all kinds of social problems: greed, envy, depravity, murder, deceit, malice and a whole range more. And the end of it all, he says, is death.
You don’t have to be a reader of theology to know that. You only have to be a reader of a newspaper. People who exploit others, by rape or pillage or just by deceit or subtle exploitation, act beyond their station. Think Norway. Think the Soviet gulags. Think broken relationships with people around me. God says to love him, and to love others. Whom I love, I do not exploit.
There have been various memorials of the Titanic disaster this week. In Belfast, where the ship was built, a choir sang “Nearer, my God, to Thee.” In Halifax, where 120 victims are buried, a bagpiper played the same hymn. A string octet played it over the place where Titanic lies, at the time that she sank. A brass band played it in Broken Hill, New South Wales.
All these memorials played this song because Titanic’s band played it on the deck as they sank with the vessel. A Japanese member of the memorial string group talked this week of the tsunami in his country — “Everyone’s idea that you can protect against nature has totally changed. Everyone’s thinking about how they can prepare for the next time. And they know it’s never enough.” And his band spoke too, of how they had been drawn together.
Hubris, it isn’t. Closer to God, really. A message from the Titanic, and good for us to hear, even after a hundred years.