DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Myths of Christianity - 6
The End of Religion
(Continued)
Richard Holloway

When authority, in religion as well as politics, is dispersed among many centres it helps to neutralise the corrupting and oppressive effects of power. We see something of this going on in the debate about what should be the extent and scope of the European Community in the lives of its member states. And we see something of the same dynamic in the relationship between churches and other faith communities.

The new ethic of pluralism is difficult for exclusive theological systems to deal with. If you have strongly internalised the conviction that your outfit, whether political or spiritual, is superior to all others, you will find contemporary multiculturalism difficult to cope with. It is even more difficult if you believe that your system is exclusively true and no salvation beyond it is possible. Comfortable co-existence with friends and neighbours who are on their way to damnation is an awkward though not apparently impossible feat to carry off.

In the religious wars that are raging in North America at the moment many casualties have been created, such as the family of a Presbyterian minister I heard about. John, a conscientious if unimaginative pastor of suburban churches during a long career, was a characteristic product of early twentieth century American Protestantism. A gentle, liberal-minded man of extremely conservative instincts, two of his daughters married ordained ministers, the third a wealthy stockbroker. Shortly after John's death, the wife of the stockbroker became a born-again Christian and announced to her mother that her father, regrettably, was now in Hell because he had never really given his life to Jesus. Traditional Presbyterianism, apparently, doesn't have the fuel to get souls to heaven.

That sad little story perfectly illustrates the dilemma that faces Christianity today. There is much in the Christian tradition that can be used to support the ugly exclusivism of the rich sister's religion. There is plenty in our past that makes the sentencing of this gentle American pastor to eternal torment mild by comparison.

When Callum Brown discussed the contrast between traditional evangelical Christianity and contemporary human experience, he focused on the specific role of women but he could have made the same point in a more general way.

The real question is not any particular human consequence of believing the classic evangelical economy of salvation, but the whole set of assumptions that undergirds it.

When Christian traditionalists opposed the emancipation of women within the structures of the Church they intuitively understood that the real issue was the status of the scripture and the religious claims that have been based upon it. If you believe that every word in the Bible was in some sense dictated by God then you are going to have massive problems with contemporary society, particularly with its attitude to women and sexuality.

To come at it from the other side for a moment, if you are a Christian who believes in the freedom of women to order their own destiny within the normal limitations that define any human life, then you have already deconstructed the traditional view of the Bible.

A contest has occurred and been resolved, whether you realise it or not. The contest is between what you now believe about the rights of women to the same freedoms and opportunities as men, and the traditional. biblical view of the status of women.

As Brown reminded us in his sociological jargon, the classic Christian attitude to these matters was a highly "gendered discourse", which set down a precise and unalterable set of gender identities. That is clear, so the choice is obvious.

Brown suggests that because people in Europe, though less clearly in North America, have chosen a new gender discourse that affirms and celebrates the right of women to embrace roles that were previously closed to them, they have simply abandoned Christianity en masse because it is fundamentally inconsistent with their new consciousness.

For these people, the majority of the population in many parts of Europe, the traditional Christian understanding of life is no longer plausible. It is as irrelevant to them as crinolines and stage coaches.

It is true that refugees from post-modern consciousness who find a life of multiple choice difficult to sustain, occasionally seek asylum in a traditional religious system. But even here there is something unmistakably post-modern going on because the element of choice is so strong. And the clamour they raise against the consciousness they have left is itself highly significant.

The question is whether the options for choice are limited to the two I have described - either abandonment of Christianity or of contemporary consciousness - or whether there is a third choice.

Most people in our culture appear to have decided that being a Christian means inhabiting a kind of consciousness that is no longer possible for them, so they have abandoned it and rarely ever think about it. They are fortified in their rejection by the Christians they hear most about today, because they agree with their estimation of Christianity, though they draw diametrically opposite conclusions from it. Both groups believe that Christianity is emphatically committed to a specific way or ordering human relationships that was decreed by God and cannot therefore ever be changed.

Is that it, then? Christianity has already been pushed to the edges in our society as an eccentric type of consciousness that is profoundly antipathetic to contemporary values. Are we to witness its slow but inevitable death, apart from a few refugee encampments here and there?

There is another group in the game - though whether it will be sent off the field is still an open question, since it tends to be despised by both the other groups as traitorous.

This group believes that it is possible to be a Christian and post-modern, to be a member of a church and a supporter of feminism and the rights of sexual minorities in spite of Christian tradition.

It is a radical position, which has uncoupled Christianity from absolute claims about the status of the Bible and tradition.

And what broke the chain, as the traditionalists rightly foresaw, was the emancipation of women. Having embraced the ethical imperative of feminism, those of us who are members of this group came to realise that we were now reading the Bible as a human not as a divine creation.

The issue for those of us who find ourselves in this position is whether we can discover new ways of using the Christian tradition that will deepen our humanity, our care for the earth and for one another. That was the agenda I set myself in this series of lectures.

My working assumption was that the discoveries we have made in our quest for meaning all came from us, were all human constructs.

Their existence is testimony to our extraordinary creativity as a species.. We are constantly digging for meaning, searching for understanding. During these lectures I made use of one of the most influential texts of our era - Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argued that in seeking to understand and interpret the world that lies before us, we have created habits of thought and practice that he called "paradigms". These are working systems of interpretation that endure until they are succeeded by systems that do the job better. Ptolemaic astronomy was succeeded by the Copernican system, which was succeeded by the Newtonian physics and so endlessly on.

We are astoundingly fertile in our conceptions. There is unlikely to be a final, settled endgame which absolutely establishes everything in a single theory, because it is in our nature to go on questing for understanding through time and space.

It is important to remember that a wise humanity does not dismiss previous paradigms with contempt or scoff at them as primitive. They were valid interpretations of the world for their time, though they were later succeeded by other points of view. If you accept the Kuhnian approach to meaning then you find yourself in a state of permanent but relaxed and expectant uncertainty. You don't make absolute claims for your present position, but you allow it to work for you as long as it can, till the next set of revolutionary insights replaces it.

I have argued that that is the best approach to the great religious narratives and systems that have been such a profound part of human history. I tried to distinguish between the transient and the enduring elements of these traditions and suggested that it is better to see them as good poetry than as bad science.

It is obvious that the astronomy of the creation narratives of Genesis no longer works for us, so it is just silly to cling to that ancient paradigm as a piece of descriptive science. It is inevitable that the religious narratives that have come down to us are framed in the science and social norms of their own day. Do we reject them for that reason as many people appear, reasonably, to have done? Is Christianity to be rejected because of its accidental historical framework, which includes an attitude to women which is profoundly at variance with our own best values today - or does it contain an enduring challenge that needs to be separated from its incidental context?

I believe that at the heart of Christianity there lies a moral challenge that is as pertinent today as it ever was. Released from their antique setting, the anger and pity of Jesus will confront us with renewed power.

Since I believe that the Christian account of meaning has to be separated from its historical packaging if it is to work for us today, I have spent time deconstructing important aspects of the Christian doctrinal tradition. But my ultimate intention is resoundingly positive.

I have tried to find ways of using the ancient writings of both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures that have meaning for us today. In deconstructing the doctrinal themes in Christianity such as Original Sin, Incarnation and Resurrection, I was more intent on using the power of these great themes for our lives today than in discarding the ancient containers that convey them to us. I am trying to craft from the Christian past a usable ethic for our own time.

The way I am proposing is not a middle path between those who hold to the old beliefs and those who totally reject them. What I am proposing is not a way of belief or unbelief, but a way of action.

I have argued that it is more important to follow the way of Jesus than to believe or disbelieve the traditional Christian claims about him. Above all I have claimed that the task of Christianity today is the challenge not to go on interpreting the world in the ancient way, but to start disturbing it in a new way.

[1] River Out of Eden, Richard Dawkins, Weidenfeld and Nicholson,
London, 1955, p.96.
[2] The Will To Power, Friedrich Nietzsche, Vintage, New York, 1968, p.12.
[3] Seeing the Blossom, Dennis Potter, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, p.5.
[4] The Death of Christian Britain, Callum G Brown, Routledge, London, 2000.
[5] Brown, pp.196-7.
[6] Reflections on Religion, Francois-Marie Arouet de Voltaire, from The Portable Enlightenment Reader, Penguin Books, New York, 1995, p.131.

Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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