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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Head to Head
Religion
R
eligion in its many forms remains for the vast majority of people worldwide a primary factor in their lives. Religions are many and varied. Some are happy to exist side-by-side with differing religions. Other religions show limited tolerance of rivals. In the modern age, secularism displays a singular lack of interest in religion as a necessary social force. Here Rick and Mick debate the merits of religion.
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Rick: For the moment, let us put aside our argument about materialism versus non-materialism and consider religion in its own right irrespective of its genesis. Religion has been around a long time, suggesting to me it is an important feature of the human psyche.

We are both aware of the terrible things done in the name of religion. Currently the Middle East fulminates due in large part to religious issues. The crusades, the inquisition, anti-Semitism and other religiously motivated cataclysms stand as indictments of various organized religious entities.

My question to you, Mick, is: Do you think organized religion is a positive or negative influence in human society?

Mick: Let me be plain at the outset that if I were never again to attend a church service I would experience little or no regret. Religion is to me like a symphony to a tone-deaf person.

And so to your question. I think that religion is like the curate's egg. Some may know of the famous cartoon in the magazine Punch in 1895. It shows an obsequious young clergyman at one end of a long table, his bishop at the other. The bishop remarks, " I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones." Replies the curate, "Oh no, my Lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!"

And so with religion. Those aspects which enhance self-worth I find pleasing. So also the parts which provide accepting, supportive fellowship. But those which promote bigotry, intolerance and ideology I regard as profoundly damaging to humanity.

Rick: Before proceeding further I think it advisable to define religion. I offer the following: In its simplest reduction it is a conscious person standing in relation to what they regard as holy, sacred or divine. When a number of individuals of similar beliefs join together and develop some kind of unifying doctrine it is called organized religion. Prime examples include Christianity, Judaism and Islam. All religions are predicated on a non-material reality, a discussion we will not enter at this point.

Bigotry, intolerance and ideology are not confined to religion. I would even say they might be found less frequently in religion than in secular institutions. It is a mindless task trying to apportion blame. Bigotry, intolerance and ideology are bad no matter where they emanate. When a religion fails to reflect values of goodness and humanity, the failure is magnified and considered hypocritical. Similar failures by secular institutions may incur only a sigh and shake of the head as nothing more is expected.

On reviewing my experience with religion (in this case being a lifelong Lutheran) the scale tips heavily to the good side. If I could not regularly attend church services I am sure I would be disoriented in the world. I have seen my church pour out vast amounts of charity to needy persons; I have seen consolation given to the grieving; I have witnessed strength rendered in adversity. I will not go on to give more examples as you know whereof I speak.

Here is my next question: What if all religions were suddenly to disappear leaving only the secular world. What would the world look like and what would fill the void vacated by religion? Would there be a different quality to charity, consolation and strength?

Mick: I prefer Lloyd Geering's description of religion (from the Latin religio, meaning an attitude of devotion):

A conscientious concern for what really matters � not a concrete noun naming a thing but an abstract noun referring to a state of being �

I know very few people who are not religious in this way. But I suspect that what we're discussing here is the institutional expression of religion by Christians in particular.

Unlike you I have spent many years completely outside the Church. I found no difference between religious people and secular people. Some of the former - especially Christians and Muslims - tended to recite doctrines which they claimed were absolutely true for everyone without exception. This tended to get in the way of solving difficult mutual problems.

You're correct that bigotry, intolerance and ideology are present everywhere. However, a critical difference between Christianity and the secular world is that the former claims to be motivated by a deep love for the world as exemplified by a certain Jesus of Nazareth.

If so, I say they have peculiar ways of showing it. Jesus accepted everyone, refused the rule of religion, and chose death rather than give up his friends. The Church accepts others only on its own terms, exerts ruthless power over its members, and will sacrifice the individual for its own safety.

But, thank goodness, Christianity is not essentially a religion but a way of life.

Rick: You did not respond directly to my question as to what the world would look like if all religions were to suddenly disappear. However, I infer from your remarks that you probably think, if the moral climate were not better, at least it would be less hypocritical. Did I understand you correctly?

I will not quibble about our definitions of religion. I am sure there are many that would fit the scope of this discussion. I agree, the main focus of this debate concerns, "�the institutional expression of religion by Christians in particular."

There are issues you raise concerning the Church�s demeanor that are provocative and not very complimentary. Not being a theologian I must defer to your superior knowledge of scripture and doctrine to clarify some points for me.

First, you seem uncomfortable with any form of authority and absolutism. Christ said: "I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6) This has the ring of absolutism and authoritarianism to me. Or, do you reject the historical authenticity of the statement?

As for Christ�s acceptance of everyone he was quite un-accepting of the money changers and a few Pharisees not to mention others. He was quite un-hypocritical in his enmity and I think correctly so. Do you think the blanket acceptance of everyone irrespective of their behavior is necessary to be a Christian or is this Polyannaish?

You assert the Church is exclusionary, exerts ruthless power and sacrifices individuals for its own safety. In citing these actions, are you constructing an absolutist code of proper behavior? Or are these simply passing offenses that have meaning only in context of which side of the issue one finds himself? Does the Church have the right of survival as we discussed some time ago?

I need your help in clarifying these issues.

Mick: I'm not saying that Christians as a group are hypocritical. But I am pointing out that love of others is the Church's self-proclaimed fundamental priority. Actions which contradict that must be questioned. Institutional Christianity can't have its cake and eat it, though it tries to do just that.

For more than a century now a majority of scholars has agreed that your quotation from John's Gospel are the words of its author, not of Jesus - though the news hasn't been given much space in the pews. In contrast, the money-changers incident, minus some likely accretions, is probably historical. But I don't know for sure what Jesus meant by this action.

Whatever its meaning, I have little doubt that acceptance of everyone was the overall stand Jesus took. The historical evidence for this I regard as overwhelming.

The Church has distorted this unconditional acceptance. Baptism, for example, was at first a ritual sign that a person had boarded the Christian ship. Today it is a ticket allowing a person on board. That is, the Church has become a club which restricts entrance to membership and access to its sacraments. This is not true to Jesus.

It's likely that organised religion will remain a valid and viable way for many Christians to express their "conscientious concern for what really matters". But I doubt that it is a "feature of the human psyche", as you put it. That would make it sine qua non to every human. It clearly isn't that. Many millions have a deep commitment to life and the love of others without it. In short, religion is optional. It is useful to some, but not essential to all.

So the essence of being Christian is not to be religious but to live a certain type of life. This way of life looks to Jesus as one - for some the one - upon whose pioneering lifestyle a person's being can be fashioned. Some Christians seek to sanitise this way of life through the Church as institution. Control of ritual, doctrine and ethics expressed in absolutist terms is essential to achieve this. The final sanction is to exclude those who don't toe the line. They become expendable outcasts.

When this happens, as it so frequently does, a religion becomes evil. When it becomes evil it has no more right to survive than any other evil institution.

Rick: As a physician I am particularly aware of the importance of history. It is critical in formulating a diagnosis (reality). As an expert witness in many medico-legal cases I have experienced how uncertain and malleable the truth can be. As time recedes from the present, the problem of inaccuracy of the facts increases. Thus, any body of information must be tested on the basis of accepted sources unless and until these sources are impeached by unassailable and demonstrable facts.

You assert that a majority of scholars say the words written in the gospel of John are not those of Jesus. I think to revise the history of 2000 years ago is at best a stretch. History is made up not only of putative fact but is, as well, laced with the bias of its author. The realities of historiography leave us with more speculation than certainty. To say the words reported in John are false or inaccurate is to engage in a fruitless polemic. If the divinity of Christ is not accepted there are no aspects of the historical record supporting his transcendence that will be accepted by detractors. Those who ascribe to Christ�s divinity will of course select facts that support their belief. It is a never ending process.

So who is Christ? Is He simply an historic person? Who has the canon of Christology? The Church relies on the account of Holy Scripture. You have said he accepted everyone. I disagree. Furthermore I think that unqualified acceptance of everyone is not necessarily a criterion of ultimate goodness. Acceptance probably means many things to many people. Do you accept Adolph Hitler or Joseph Stalin?

If suppression of the individual is a test for evil, then I submit all of secular society is culpable and, therefore, has no right to survive. In this context, including the sometimes errant Church in the company of Nazi tyranny, Stalinism and the Holocaust is intemperate and serves only to trivialize evil.

Finally, I am puzzled how one can be considered an "outcast" from an organization he has not joined. The Church is founded on the metaphysical premise of transcendent non-materialism. If this is not accepted it is illogical to claim membership. Were I such an outcast I might consider joining with friends of like-mind to create a Jesus club and rid myself of the problem.

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