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Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: U.S. hopes sunk with Titanic

Jack R. Van Ens
Vail, CO, Colorado

April 15 marks a century since the RMS Titanic, the most luxurious ocean liner of its day, hit an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sank. This ship symbolized the Industrial Age’s marvels.

The Titanic’s sinking marked a watershed moment in history. Dreams of building an Eden based on human achievement lay shattered.

Before she went under, people bragged how industrial progress made us captains of our future. After the Titanic plunged into icy water, America’s hopes sank, too.

Radical shifts in outlook about the future flow throughout history. During the 1780s, U.S. Ambassador Thomas Jefferson’s artistic spirit thrived in Paris. But living in the City of Lights had its dark side: Parisian politicking, a crush of beggars and chamber-pot waste turning streets into open sewers.

Jefferson left Paris in 1787 to visit ancient Roman ruins in the south of France. “I am now in the land of corn, wine, oil and sunshine. What more can man ask of heaven?” he exclaimed in a letter from Aix-en-Provence. Sunny Provence symbolized for Jefferson what the Titanic did at its launch – everything bright and beautiful.

Starting in the 1890s, Christians got caught up in the euphoria of industrial progress. Toning down speaking of the future as shaped by God’s guiding hand, they raved about economic progress.

Some Christians minted new language to describe an upbeat future. For instance, the 1890s Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a newspaper poet Walt Whitman edited, rhapsodized over improvements ahead as the next century unfolded. Could the mind imagine airships floating across skies, electric lights stamping out crime, disease curtailed because fewer flies hovered around horse-drawn carriages, being replaced by horseless kinds? Furthermore, home entertainment would cut work’s drudgery. The “union of the telephone and phonograph” promised sounds of theater and opera wafting into “the salon of one’s own home.”

At the same time, Christians spoke less about sin and more about improving bad habits. They spread Jesus’ ethics, lifting up the poor. Human nature required scant scolding because personal good flowed naturally into altruistic service. Polite conversation avoided mentioning human depravity and greed.

Human potential to achieve virtuous lives seemed limitless. Social evolution, with our development soaring on an upward-sloping line, made people feel good about the future.

Industrial prosperity produced expectations of titanic proportions.

After the Civil War, Christians began using “millennium” as the biblical synonym for “progress.” Most believers then embraced “a post-millennial outlook.” Life became nobler, more comfortable, more scientific and godlier. Christ would come again as the grand culmination to this golden age of industry and progress.

The millennium is mentioned once in scripture. Christians persecuted and left for dead, says the seer on the island of Patmos, will come back “to life and reign with Christ a thousand years” (Revelation 20: 4). Late 19th century Christians didn’t necessarily believe the millennium was an actual 1,000-year-reign of Christ on earth. Rather, it symbolized a golden age of progress. Christendom’s morality permeated culture, ushering in an era of prosperity. It popped up in history like roses peeking through a picket fence.

When the Titanic sank, hopes of better tomorrows were dashed, too. In “A Night to Remember” (1955), Walter Lord recounts how the Titanic – Lord of the Seas – stood for “the greatest story of modern times.”

Lord writes, “Here was the ‘unsinkable ship’ – perhaps man’s greatest engineering achievement – going down the first time it sailed” and sucking into the deep some the world’s richest, most famous citizens.

“If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else?” Lord asked.

“People have never been sure of anything since,” he observed. The world into which the Titanic sunk became an angry sea of world wars, the Great Depression and nuclear Cold War stand-offs.

Later in the 1900s, Yale’s H. Richard Niebuhr criticized this sunny outlook of making human nature buoyant as the Titanic at dockside. In his book “The Kingdom of God in American,” Niebuhr wrote the epigram: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

What do we make of all this?

The rise of industrial progress in the late 19th century made people blind to life’s pitfalls. They acted like the Titanic, which didn’t carry enough life boats because when hanging from the sides of this ship, they blocked first-class deck strollers’ ocean views.

Besides, who needs life boats on an unsinkable ship?

Today, we are more wary of what the future holds. Wise people identify obstacles and navigate around them. They tend to survive, whereas the Titanic sank.

The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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