On Religion

April 16, 2012

Titanic sermons, 100 years later


For the preachers of 1912, the Titanic was the ultimate symbol, not of the past, but of modernity and the dawn of a century in which ambitious tycoons and scientists would solve most, if not all, of humanity's thorniest problems.

The liner was, in other words, a triumph of Darwinian logic and the march of progress. Its sinking was a dream-shattering tragedy of biblical proportions.

The events of April 14 and 15, 1912, are the "closest thing that we have to a modern-day Bible story," according to Douglas Phillips of, in an essay saluting the men who went down with the ship. "Everything about Titanic was larger-than-life: her conception, her launch, her sins, her heroes and her judgment. ...

"Many perceived the ship to be a modern incarnation of the Tower of Babel. The sinking represented God's unwillingness to allow man to build any edifice of invincibility or to seek salvation through technology," he said.

However, days after the tragedy, a young pastor in Switzerland stressed that technology itself was not to blame, but the "playful arrogance" of those who wielded it.

"God has not set a limit to technology, to progress, to the human mind," said the Rev. Karl Barth, who would become one of the new century's most famous theologians. "Quite the reverse! ... When we become godless about the headway we have made, i.e. when we become bumptious and conceited and childish, then we need to be called to order." Thus, he argued: "It is true that God set the iceberg on its course, but no one was compelled to get in its way."

There was, however, an inspiring side to this story, as well. While there was cruel logic behind the decisions that caused the disaster, there was a radically different belief system at work in the heroic, self-sacrificial acts on that night, noted the Rev. Henry van Dyke, a Princeton University professor.

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