The Uncertainty of Life
Sea of Faith Conference, New Zealand, 2002
I shall argue here that life has now become our most important
religious word. Life is the new religious object, and we talk about having
faith in life and committing ourselves to life, rather as our forbears
spoke of having faith in, and committing themselves to God.
Life is everything: but unlike God, it is finite, and it includes both
good and evil, both joy and sorrow. When we love life, we accept a package
deal - as we did in the old marriage vows. But it is very important to
recognize a consequence of life's baggy, mixed and finite character: in
order to make sense of our life, we humans must actively impose shape and
pattern upon it. Life's inconclusive shapelessness makes human creativity
possible, and also makes it necessary.
That is why I picture the religion of the future as calling for a greater
creative input on our part than was normally expected in the past.
Life Is Everything
Life is everything. Life is God. (Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace )
Life is like nothing, because it is everything. (William Golding,
In the year 2002 the old Queen Mother died in London, at the age of
101. There had been abundant time to prepare for this event, and the
Palace could not fail to remember that when Diana, Princess of Wales had
died the public had been deeply offended by the way the royal family had
at that time retreated into privacy and silence, as if declining to have
any part in the general grief. That mistake must not be made again, so on
this occasion both the Queen herself and Prince Charles recorded short
statements, about two and four minutes long respectively, for television.
These statements were intended to relate the private grief of the
family to the public mourning of the nation, and to set the completed life
of an individual against the larger background of the ongoing national
More than that, it was also - as always - the sort of occasion on which
everyone feels a need to invoke a universal, cosmic background to our
existence. Given the special status of the Queen and her heir in relation
to the national church, and the Queen's own professed personal faith,
there was every reason to expect some use of religious language.
At it turned out, however, neither statement made any mention of the
soul, the world, God, faith, religion, sin, judgement, or life after
death. The traditional religious vocabulary was entirely lacking. Instead,
both statements made repeated use of the word "life". Prince Charles, who
used the word five or six times, is not known to be a student of
philosophy, but two of his uses of "life" had markedly Nietzschean
It cannot be doubted that both statements were very carefully checked
by advisers to make certain that they expressed only the most
unexceptionable sentiments in the most generally-intelligible language.
And, I suggest, we have here an illustration of the very striking fact
that in the past few decades life has become our most popular
all-embracing word - by which I mean, the word we use when we want to talk
about "it all" or "everything" - and various life-idioms have become the
dominant form of religious language that is usable in public
I first recognized this in about 1997, when I was casting about for a
new way of writing philosophy and theology for a public that seemed to
have become very resistant to both subjects.
I thought of an indirect approach: instead of vainly attempting to
interest the public in my own ideas, I would find a convincing empirical
method of demonstrating what philosophical and religious beliefs members
of the general public themselves already hold. I would do this by
collecting all I could of the stock phrases current in everyday speech in
which people choose to articulate their own thoughts about the meaning of
As the man in Moliere's play was astounded to discover that he'd been
speaking prose all his life, so the ordinary English person would be
convicted out of her own mouth of already having a worked-out
philosophical and religious outlook, whether she liked it or not.
I sat around with a notepad, looking dreamy and jotting down phrases.
In time I also purchased a shelf of dictionaries - of slang, of idioms, of
proverbs, of quotations and so on. But I still possess the very first
sheet of notes I made. At some later date, perhaps in 1998, I have gone
over this sheet with a highlighter pen, marking the terms which occur most
frequently. They are "life" and "it all", both of which are found some six
It was these two terms that stood out and continued to do so, so that
in due course they became the topics of the two "Everyday Speech" books of
1999, The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech
and The Meaning of It All in Everyday Speech (both SCM Press).
These books aimed to turn the tables on my critical reviewers. I would
look innocent and say, "I'm not trying to press my ideas upon
you. Heaven forbid! No, I'm showing you what a deep and interesting
thinker you already are. I'm showing you the implications of the language
that you yourself are already using."
Now, if my critics and all those ordinary people chose to be smart and
suspicious they could require me to justify my singling out from everyday
speech stock phrases that incorporate terms like "life" and "it all" as
being of special philosophical and religious interest. Why not focus the
enquiry around other terms such as "believe", "absolute" and "certain"?
The best answer is surely that people in general evidently find that
these are our most effective all-embracing terms. I mean that when we talk
of life we invoke everything about the human condition, human experience,
and human knowledge as it appears to us humans who cannot but see
everything from the point of view of living beings with an intense
interest in life.
The word life comprehensively reminds us of what we are and from what
angle we see everything. And in fact I found that the new life-idioms and
it-idioms are quite remarkably numerous. It seems that in modern times we
have become acutely aware that life is everything, that life is all we
have and all we will ever have, and that our being in life flavours and
shapes the way we see everything.
In the past, thinkers have constructed God-centred, being-centred and
knowledge-centred visions of everything. But today it seems that the
life-centred point of view is the best. It leaves nothing out. As
Wittgenstein says, "The world and life are one" .
But why has the old religious vocabulary so suddenly gone out of use,
and why have the new terms so suddenly come to seem much more appropriate?
Why the big changeover?
The historical story that I have already told elsewhere remains, I
believe, substantially correct. It invokes "the discovery of time", "the
discovery of the mind", the discovery of bildung, and the discovery
of the innocence of everyday modern life, all in the period around
After the French Revolution a new commercial and industrial
civilization led by the middle classes began to develop very rapidly. Its
outlook was and is highly "historical" - progressive, humanistic, liberal
and democratic. Through the Romantic movement and the rise of psychology a
strong interest in individual human subjectivity and individual
life-experience began to develop. People began to see the human life-world
as being the primary world in which we all live, and the novel became the
dominant literary form.
Naturally enough, novelists began to show a special interest in the
major events of the human life-cycle. Everyone became highly conscious of
the story of her own life, and especially of the formation and development
of the personality through childhood and adolescence to adulthood,
courtship and marriage. Not least through the novel, women began to come
forward into equality, both in art and in social and public life.
And finally, people cast aside their traditional heavy moralism about
big cities, and began to affirm the innocence of secular urban
Plein air impressionists, painting Paris, are a world away from
Hogarth's London. Even a figure as intensely religious as Vincent Van Gogh
sees very clearly that modern city life escapes traditional religious
censure. In particular, it escapes the old distinction between the sacred
and the secular, or profane. The two have become fused together in a new
outlook which dramatically re-values everything that is finite, temporal,
contingent and of this world.
Two of the very best statements of the new outlook are Wordsworth's
straightforward confidence in the innocence of bodily life and sensuous
experience, and Tolstoy's sentences - attributed to Pierre and written in
the late 1860s - towards the end of War and Peace: "Life is God",
and "To love life is to love God" .
Thus by 1870 or so in the work of certain major artists life is
emerging as the new religious object. It is within us, it is that in which
we live and move and have our being, and it is also in a sense over
against us. My life is my own personal span, and I have to decide what I
want to do with my life. At the same time, life is also our other, our
milieu and our only home. It may be personified as calling for our
commitment to it, as guiding us, as teaching us lessons and as dealing out
to us our fates.
Gradually ordinary people's outlook has become more and more
life-centred, until by today people instinctively take a life-centred view
even of death itself. Thus the funeral service has become "A Thanksgiving
for the life of ...", and the memorial service is "A Celebration of the life
of ..." the dead person. Increasingly, even the churches are opening forest
burial grounds where corpses, instead of lying "asleep" waiting for the
general resurrection, are content to be recycled into the biological life
of this world.
So we see today that a long process of return to this world, to time,
to the body and everyday life - a process that first began, perhaps, with
or shortly before the Protestant Reformation - has by now reached a
certain completion. In the early days Protestant attitudes to the senses,
the body and everybody life were decidedly mixed.
On the one hand there was a desire to assert the holiness of everyday
work and especially of domestic life, a theme to which seventeenth-century
Dutch painting already bears eloquent witness. But at the same time there
was also a pessimistic conviction that sin could not be finally conquered
and the human condition could not be changed greatly for the better by
anything short of the return of Christ.
In the nineteenth century that mixture of optimistic and pessimistic
strains continues, as we are reminded when we note that Tolstoy's Pierre
who so extravagantly praises life is also a prisoner of war who has
recently lost his faith and has been having a cruelly hard time; and that
the Paris whose everyday life is so eloquently hymned by a long line of
painters had just gone through the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War.
Claude Monet himself had experienced great hardship and had left the city
- but here he is back home, and Paris is paradise again.
In the twentieth century the same ambivalence continues, as Henri
Matisse maintains the vision of this life as Edenic while living under the
Vichy government in southern France. But modern people take a non-realist
view of life. It is not an iron cage. Our life is what we make it. By
changing the way in which ordinary people see themselves and their world,
and by changing the political and economic arrangements under which they
live, we can make everyday life paradisal. It can be done. It�s up to us.
There is therefore no excuse for not holding, and battling to
realize, the Edenic vision.
So it has come about that since the 1960s the new religion of ordinary
life that Tolstoy had adumbrated a century earlier has now become the
religion of ordinary people, embodied in all the stock phrases about life
that are common currency. All life is sacred, and we must have faith in
life. We all of us want to love life, to live life to the full, to trust
it, to commit ourselves to it, and to make the most of it while it lasts.
Two centuries ago, Hegel described the process by which the entire
supernatural order returns into this world, coming down to earth and being
diffused through the common life of ordinary people. We should not
this process. Its happening is part of the working-out of Christianity's
After Protestantism, the next step is the religion of ordinary life. As
I have suggested elsewhere, the traditional "church" sort of Christianity
should not grumble about this, but rather rejoice to see itself as at last
being elbowed aside by its own fulfilment. Like John the Baptist,
it should graciously give place to its proper heir and successor.
In the little book of 1999, The New Religion of Life in Everyday
Speech and its two successors I said all this. But I made some
mistakes. I concentrated the argument around an attempt to demonstrate
that life has become the new religious object, trying to show in some
detail how the various things that we used to say about God have now been
reshaped into sayings about life. We need to have faith in life, we should
not tempt life, because nobody is bigger than life ,
and so on.
This "interest" or tendenz of the argument led me to stress the
respects in which life resembles God, and relatively to neglect the
various important ways in which life is quite different from God. The
result was a little book that was accurate so far as it went, but which
failed to make as much as it should of the good idea from which it had
There are two ways in which life differs markedly from God. They arise
from the fact that the "omni"-attributes of God come out quite differently
from those of life, because God (or was) transcendent, simple, unmixed
perfection, sovereign over all things, whereas life is finite, temporal,
immanent and all-inclusive. God is pure holiness and goodness, whereas
life is baggy and shapeless, and includes all the opposites - bliss and
wretchedness, comedy and tragedy, fullness and emptiness, good and ill,
all bundled together in one great package.
The result is that saying "Yes" to life is markedly different from
saying "Yes" to God. When we say "Yes" to life we say "Amen" to all
of it as a package deal, and thereafter the so-called problem of evil does
not arise. We are required to renounce the victim-psychology and the old
impulse to complain about being unfairly treated.
Those who say "Yes" to God, on the other hand, take sides. They commit
themselves to a dualistic view of life, at every point choosing this and
rejecting that. Inevitably, they have great difficulties with
suffering and evil - not least because with our historical picture of
nature it has become very hard to maintain that aggressiveness and death
are no more than secondary intruders into a life-world that was originally
designed to work best without them.
But there it is! Those who love life say "Yes" to it all and try to
learn never to complain, whereas those who love God pick and choose in the
hope that they will one day be spectacularly vindicated.
The second way in which life differs from God is that - unless they
claim to believe in a "life-force", or something of the kind - the lovers
of life are non-realists. Life is not a great Being, self-existent and
utterly distinct from us. Life is just the going-on of things in the human
life-world. Life is our human traffic, our business, our conversation.
Life is communication. Life is our world, and life is what we make it.
A religion of commitment to life is therefore the only fully immediate
and non-dualistic religion, for it refuses to make any distinction between
our outer life and our inner life, or between secular and sacred spheres
of life, or between loving God and loving it all or loving one's
Nor does it distinguish between temporal and eternal concerns. On the
contrary, it simply calls for an unhesitating and unreserved ethical
response to the call of life, where you are and right Now - that
is, the sort of response that the teacher Jesus of Nazareth is reported to
Life is chaotic. We can�t expect to be able to completely sum it up it
speculatively. But by the way we commit ourselves ethically to life and to
our neighbour we can make sense of life.
Here we should notice that the religion of life is metaphysically very
different from traditional theism. In the religious outlook in which we
were all brought up there were two great all-embracing ideas, God and the
finite, created order which is usually called "the World".
I am now replacing those two with a single new object, which may be
called Be-ing or life. It is finite, temporal and contingent. Above all,
it is a single, immanent, continuous whole of which we are seamlessly
parts. It is outside-less. Life is, simply, everything.