Parable of the Great Ship of Truth

In the journey of life there was a great ship that had been built to carry people across the ocean to the promises of the other side. It was the model ship. Every aspect of it was built on expert advice so that there could be no possibility of danger to those who sailed in it. A great name was emblazoned on it, and it was presented to the world as not only unsinkable, but the way to travel in the company of the world’s finest.

The captain was chosen for his experience and skill – it was to be his final assignment. The crew were chosen for their qualifications, but were screened for their loyalty to the captain. The invitation was given, and the people responded. The world witnessed as the wealthy and well placed left home and contributed to the reputation of the ship. They were a picture of joy as they settled in for the voyage, despite the fact that they had left so many and so much behind. They watched, with some nostalgia, as they sailed away and planned never to return.

But before the ship sailed, the wealthy and well placed had not filled the ship. So the invitation was extended to still others, and still more responded. In general these others had less to give in return for their passage. Among them were those who had an endless variety of negative characteristics – criminal pasts, inherited deficiencies, cultural idiosyncrasies, disgusting habits, and more. Some were lame, some were blind, and some spoke but could not be understood.

Unlike the first who responded to the invitation, they were examined before they were admitted on board. They were required to give up a variety of things before they were admitted–but only things that would infect the others in the ship or damage the reputation of the ship. But they filled the ship, and in the end their numbers impressed the world. In their humility they found it a blessing to occupy the lowest of places in the ship–just to arrive safely on the other shore.

Then, when the first day was over, the ship sailed on through the night. It was an insignificant speck on the ocean. But within was celebration and feasting, day and night. The world outside was left behind and forgotten. Everything was free, and whoever wanted roamed the ship and developed close friendships with people they never would have otherwise known. They were friendships that they promised to continue in the new world. There were areas of the ship that were off limits, of course. It was rarely ever learned what happened in those places. But everyone knew that it was for the good of the travelers.

The ship was a closed world, and it was the responsibility of the crew to anticipate all possible disasters and take measures to prevent them from occurring. It was known that some of the crew, in their wisdom, made decisions about what the travelers should be made aware of. Occasionally they decided not to inform the travelers of their concerns. This was done in an effort to prevent fear and panic among the travelers. It was a wise move, because most problems could be dealt with quietly and the joy of the travelers would not be disrupted.

There were problems, of course. And there were those assigned to deal with the problems. Most often it involved those who were found to be out of their place–most often those from the lower decks who were found to be on the upper decks. Because of their dress, habits, and language they were easy to recognize, and could soon be reminded of the restrictions expected of them. They were not noted for causing havoc, but there were appearances and reputations to be protected, and it contributed to the harmony of the crossing if they stayed in their assigned places.

When asked how they got out of their place, it was most often learned that they had bypassed the accepted approach to the upper decks, and were advised not to offend in that manner again. There seemed never to be the problem of finding those out of their place in the lower decks. It was generally understood that the captain did not visit the lower decks, but dealt with reports of misbehavior there through the members of the crew who were assigned to the lower decks, and who could no longer control the travelers’ behaviors there that frightened them.

By the time the ship was out of sight of land, the captain decided that he could put his personal mark on the crossing. It would be a remarkable occasion if they arrived at their destination ahead of schedule. So he ordered more fuel on the fires, and the crew worked harder to meet his demands. He responded with anger when his decision was questioned. The travelers were unaware of this–they were not informed of the workings of the great ship and in any case would not understand the significance of the captain’s decisions. They would only know when they arrived early at their destination, that it was the skill of the captain that had accomplished that for them.

Then suddenly, deep in the night, there was an accident – a disaster. The ship sustained a gaping wound below the water line. Those who witnessed it were startled, and some panicked. It was reported to the captain, and he assured them that there was nothing to fear. The ship was unsinkable. When the accident could no longer be hidden from the travelers, a statement was made that would encourage the travelers to continue on their journey undisturbed. It worked–all but a few returned to the fellowship of the crossing.

But it did not work. The travelers in the lower decks began to see evidence that the ship was sinking. It had been a mistake on the captain’s part to forget that they would be the first to determine that the ship was sinking. While the travelers on the upper decks continued their celebrations, the lower decks became filled with horror, panic, disbelief, and drastic measures were taken by individuals who could not cope with the betrayal of trust that they had put in the unsinkable ship. There was, of course, no answer from the captain that could comfort those people. Understanding his predicament, he ordered that they be locked below the decks to spare those on the upper decks the consternation they would surely be plunged into if they knew the truth about what was happening among the other travelers. There was always the chance that a last minute saving of his ship was imminent.

Before long, though, everyone in the ship was aware of the disaster. The ship began to incline, and some from the lower decks actually broke out of their confinement and delivered a terrible message. The only solution was for the captain to order an evacuation. In the desperate situation, it was learned that no great attention had ever been given to such an eventuality as this accident. Lifeboats were in pitifully short supply, and some remembered how the decision was reached to provide such a small number of them. There needed to be lifeboats–ships always have lifeboats–so a number were supplied. However, since it was believed that the ship would never sink, more than half the number of lifeboats required to evacuate the whole ship were never provided. Indeed, it had been determined that it would damage the aesthetic beauty of the ship if it were cluttered with alternatives to the intended itinerary.

Therefore, decisions had to be made as to who would be allowed access to the lifeboats. An orderly evacuation was attempted, but it readily became apparent to all the travelers that to follow the orders of the captain would mean sure death. Their reaction is understandable – they were led to believe that they would never have to make the decisions that were now required of them. They understood that their salvation would be a result of what they did for themselves. In fact, it became obvious to them that life had only one decision left for them to make, and they had no time to ponder the question. They anguished most about the fact that they were going to have to do things to save themselves that they had always been taught not to do–be impolite and not defer to others. From that point on the only travelers who obeyed the captain were the members of the band, who continued to play long after their audience was dispersed.

Some people occupied the lifeboats. Some tried to grasp the lifeboats and missed, falling to their death. Others tried to grasp the lifeboats and were pushed away and fell to their death. Some searched for lifeboats and found none. Some were so overcome by despair that they simply jumped to their deaths. Some clung to what they could grasps of the ship, as though it were still unsinkable. Some spent their precious time looking for family and possessions and turned too late to find an escape. Then, suddenly, in the panic, the ship reared up in a great spectacle in the night. For a moment all eyes and concern were focused of the ship, which had changed direction and was undeniably bound for the abyss.

Remarkably, as all watched, the ship convulsed in a horrible, agonizing groan and broke in two. One part disappeared immediately, and the other settled down as though it might survive – at least long enough for the survivors to prepare for an orderly evacuation after all. Remarkably no one attempted to climb back onto the ship at this point. In fact, they had for the most part decided that they should move as far from the ship as possible so that they would not be sucked down by the inevitable dive of the remaining half of the ship.

Shortly the second half of the ship disappeared, and all was still and dark. Then, in the light of the moon, those who had been saved had their vision cleared, and they quietly rejoiced–fearing to question their deliverance lest it damn them to another disaster before the light of day. Not all were in the lifeboats. Some were alone in the ocean, having wisely chosen to discard everything but what they could trust to save them from the ocean.

Eventually the day dawned. All those who had accomplished a timely evacuation from the sinking ship were saved. Even those who did not have the fellowship of a lifeboat eventually arrived at their desired destination. It was interesting that every lifeboat and every other saving thing had the same name written on it as was emblazoned on the great ship.

Revised July 29, 2012
By Bob Williston