As a kid, I loved Wind in the Willows, and especially the chapter “Messing About in Boats”. I like crossing the Harbour in a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly, “seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care”, and even enjoying the few minutes as the ferry rocks and rolls as it passes the Heads, gateway to the misnamed Pacific Ocean. I have pleasant memories of a sailing experience or two in the safety and calm of Middle Harbour. But I cannot imagine daring to take a Mediterranean or South Pacific cruise, or, God forbid, boarding the Queen Elizabeth to travel to Australia. I have seen too many movies, from “The Caine Mutiny” to “The Poseidon Adventure” to the terrifying “Titanic”, not to get sea-sick at the very thought of going to sea. Say what you like about statistics. I know that any ship I would board is destined for Davey Jones’ locker. I can see myself madly trying to swim out of the oil-slick about to burst into flame, before gasping my last breath and sinking into the freezing depths of the Cruel Sea. Yes, I’m a land-lubber, and I reckon that if God had meant us to navigate the seas He would have given us tails and fins and gills.
I believe that people are mistaken about there being no atheists in fox-holes, and I am far from sure that everyone on a sinking ship would join in singing “Nearer my God to Thee”. But there are those who still say that when there is nowhere else to go, people fall on their knees : God as the Last Resort, on land, in the air and at sea.
Believers are not always exemplary in the practice of their faith. They know that they should love the God they created, and even the neighbor they didn’t as much as themselves. But, like Martha in the Gospel, they are busy about many things; they have other priorities. Nor do they pray as often as they might. But in a critical situation, when the chips are down, and the hull is smashed by the reef or the iceberg and it’s “May-day ! May-day !” (“M’aider ! M’aider !”), many of them would, I suppose, suddenly start asking the Great Illusion to save them. They’ve always wanted to go to Heaven, but preferably not just yet, and above all not like this.
Before they end up in turbulent waters and dire straights and turn to their imagined Savior whom they have more or less ignored for so long, would it not make sense, in the safety of their living room, or during a walk through the woods, to ask themselves whether belief in such a security blanket or Divine Protector is worthy of rational, grown-up people like themselves ? Children are afraid of the dark and need parents to reassure them. I am afraid of the sea, but I’ve outgrown the illusion of a Divine Lifesaver.