Christianity for sailors

A couple of months ago Scott (Gray) challenged me with a comment: “how might you more effectively (like watts and pirsig) say the right words, paint the right picture, so we get it?” I’ve been pondering about this for a while, and it’s something that I hope will prove to be a goad for me to continue providing images and analogies. It was also on my mind during my recent sailing course, which provoked me to think of ways in which imagery from sailing could be used to describe the nature of Christianity. So here goes…. (click full post for text)

Where are we going?
There are all sorts of destinations that a sailor might wish to aim for – including a simple round trip into the water before returning home – but let us take as our beginning image the desire to find a safe harbour. So we begin on the water, in the middle of things – and our aim is to find a safe place to rest up and gain refreshment. In order to gain this safe harbour we need to know where we are, we need to know information about the environment we are in, and we need to know how to get from where we are to where we want to get to. This is navigation.

This imagery of the safe harbour can be used as a rough proxy for some inter-related Christian terms: heaven, the Kingdom, resurrection. The differences between the Christian terms can be unpicked another time, let us for now take it that the ‘safe harbour’ can correspond to the end-point, the ‘telos’ of the Christian life. Christians also use the word ‘vocation’ – which means both the end point of the journey, but also the path itself, leading to the end-point.

On my course one high point came on the last night, when I navigated at night up the River Orwell to Ipswich (which is when the idea for this post came to me). In order to prepare for the journey properly I used a chart and noted down all the significant features of the journey, the most important of which were the marker buoys, which had coloured lights that flashed in particular sequences, in order to readily identify them. Often these lights marked out the channel through which we had to sail, the limits of safe water. If we went beyond the buoys then were at great risk of running aground.

Jesus summarised the law and the prophets (ie the life of faith) as ‘love God with everything, love your neighbour as yourself’. I think these two elements correspond to the two sides of the channel, that is, when we start to leave these commands to one side, then we start to run the risk of going aground. These two commandments represent the green and red buoys marking out the safe channel. If we keep within those two commands then we stay in the safe water.

On the course, the boat that we were using had a great number of advanced technical features, including GPS – the global positioning system using satellite information relayed electronically. However, there were times when this GPS information conflicted with what we could see using our main compass, at which point our instructor said ‘trust the compass!’ It is a remarkable feature of the earth that there is such a thing as ‘true north’ which draws everything magnetic to itself. This allows for a reliable indication of direction, which means that making a journey is much more reliable. Of course, as expertise in sailing develops, there are ways in which this bearing needs to be adjusted in practice, eg the difference between magnetic north and true north, the impact that other metal objects (including the boat itself) might have on the compass and so on. Yet even with these caveats, magnetic north is an essential part of navigation. When sailing at night, and when there is a reasonably cloud-free sky, it is also possible to navigate using the stars. In particular the pole star corresponds to North, and can be used with the compass to confirm the bearing being undertaken.

In Christian terms, North corresponds to Jesus – a fixed bearing against which we can judge our own manoeuvres. One quirk of this extended analogy is that the safe harbour is due North – because that is the bearing which will lead us to Christ – and Christ is, in a very real sense, the harbour master of our destination. As for things which may mislead or distort the message of true north, well, I think that’s quite a good image of pride.

Charts record the information obtained by people who have sailed in these waters before. They have an immense richness, especially in the detail, and take a long time to master. Different waters require different charts; indeed, some areas have incompatible systems of representation. Robert Pirsig, in his book set on a yacht ‘Lila’, talks about the ‘Cleveland Harbour effect’, when he was so convinced from his chart readings that he was in Cleveland Harbour that he neglected to pay attention to the information available to his own senses, especially his eyes, that would have told him that he was in a different stretch of water entirely. So charts are incredibly useful, but they should never be allowed to obscure the reality of the waters themselves.

For Christians, the relevant Charts are the Bible, our sacred Scriptures. In other areas there are different charts, more or less compatible with ours. The great mistake that many Christians make is to confuse a detailed knowledge of charts with the practice of sailing – to fail to take into account, eg, magnetic variation between chart and compass – and to end up in ‘Cleveland Harbour’. This is a mistake that is called ‘idolatry’ by Christians; idolatry always represents a failure to engage fully with reality.

In order to sail effectively, there are many standard maintenance tasks which need to be carried out on a regular basis – making sure that the lines are clear, attending to the state of the sails, cleaning the boat, learning the knots etc etc. These are basic and routine. They are not the point of sailing, they are what allow the sailing to take place; in other words, where they are neglected then, given enough time, something seriously severe could go wrong.

These correspond in the Christian life to the spiritual disciplines: prayer, reading the Bible, attending church and so on. In the same way, whilst there are satisfactions to be gained in the mastery of the tasks, they are ultimately not ends in themselves. The end is to gain the safe harbour. Travelling to the harbour in a flotilla, and drawing on the friendship and expertise of the other sailors, is both a pleasure and a practical benefit.

Obviously the wind is tremendously important to the sailor and, whilst on my course, I was impressed by the detailed and sophisticated awareness of the weather – and the implications for our sailing – displayed by our instructor. The wind is one of the major factors determining the direction in which sailing can take place; it also determines how the boat should be set up. In very strong winds the sails should be at least reefed, or a special storm sail put up; when sailing against a head wind lots of tacking is needed; with the wind behind then all the sails can be opened up – and more added – to take advantage. A knowledge of the wind is essential for any sailor.

The wind corresponds to the cultural influences that a Christian experiences in their life – it is ‘the world’. The wind may not blow where we want it to, it can be experienced as incredibly hostile to our purposes, yet it is still possible to sail in almost any weather, and to sail towards our destination.

Tides and depths
As well as the wind bearing on the boat, the impact of the movement of the water itself must be taken into consideration. Tidal streams can make a mockery of the best laid navigational plans and, if this leads into the shallows, catastrophes can result.

The water corresponds to the spiritual realm, all that happens beneath the surface. Sailors know that the safest water is not in the shallows but in the deeps, where there is no risk of running aground. They are also aware of how to be blessed by the movements of the Spirit, in order to be carried towards their destination all the more swiftly.

“There is no sea”
There isn’t a real-world correspondence for this, I just wanted to share an image of atheism with you. I see two sorts of atheism – humourless and sophisticated – and I want to pursue the imagery with respect to those two sorts. The humourless sort says ‘there is no sea’. They are on the boat, but they recognise nothing other than the boat itself, and when they hear talk about the sea they want to know which bit of the boat is being referred to (and when there is a general hand-waving in response they start talking about unacceptable vagueness).

Some varieties of humourless atheist don’t engage even in this level of conversation. They are occupied below decks consuming the rum and having a great party. They’re not aware that the rum will soon run out, and they are certainly not prepared for the subsequent hangover.

Sophisticated atheists are a little different in that they recognise the existence of the sea, and therefore have a understanding of what sailing involves – what they fail to recognise, on the whole, is the value of other sailors’ expertise. In particular they take pride in being able to sail without charts and instruments. This is possible for as long as the weather is favourable and there is no concern about the eventual destination. However, the attainment of a safe harbour through this method of sailing is entirely dependent upon the work of grace, ie benign tidal currents.

The balance of the boat
There comes a point when the sailor and their boat find a balance, and real sailing becomes possible. The sailor understands the impact of wind and tide, the nature of their vessel, how to set the sails, how to steer and where to go. At this point the attainment of the destination is no longer the most important factor, for the sailor is safe at sea. In a very real sense the sailor is in a safe harbour wherever they are on the water.

When a Christian has discovered their vocation, has accepted it, pursued it, developed it and is now living it – then they are at peace with themselves and with God. The attainment of any specific aim has become irrelevant, they know their eventual destination and they know that, even though the environment might conspire against them and they may not make it there themselves, the destination is real and they can share in it already. This is called ‘living in the kingdom’, and those who have attained this are called saints. I think Rowan has attained this – he knows that he is not in control of the processes in which he is embedded but he is still sailing, expertly, and he gives every evidence of being in a safe harbour in his soul. Something to which to aspire on my own journey.


I may continue to work on this post as further elements occur to me.