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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Freedom
Did Jesus intend to found the Church? Did he appoint a set of office bearers with clearly defined job descriptions and a set of official teachings? Rick and Mick don their debating robes again to discuss the eternal tension between individual freedom and corporate responsibility.
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Rick: "Individualism" is a salient feature of most free societies. It stands in contrast to "collectivism" that characterizes closed totalitarian societies. The American Constitution specifies in the Bill of Rights how the individual is to be protected. Before the rise of liberal democratic governments, dignity of the individual was espoused in Holy Scripture. There seems to be a link between human individual freedom as a general principle and its source in a transcendent power that some call God.

Societies are composed of citizens; churches are made up of worshipers. At some point, individuals must be subsumed by the collective group to become an effective instrument for what ever purpose they gather.

It has been asserted by critics of democracy that individualism is a flaw that ultimately destroys the fabric of society. If cooperation and solidarity breakdown, (as they can in an environment of unchecked individualism) chaos can result. On the other hand, the examples of Communism and Fascism show how suppression of the individual in the name of collectivism can be devastating to societies.

Organized religion has been charged by some as being totalitarian, demanding unswerving adherence to doctrine at the expense of individual freedom of conscience. Mick, my question is, do you think the concepts and rules regarding individual freedom in the context of religion are different from those applied to the domain of politics and government?

Mick: I'm anxious not to kick off this debate in a way which makes disagreement inevitable. But that is what might happen if the individual and the corporate are taken as incompatibles.

Stating the matter from another angle might help.

As I understand it, the transforming impact of love upon people ("salvation") has from the first been spoken of by Christians at the individual level. Each of us is transformed by love ("saved") as a person. Also from the first, those who are being transformed have gathered together to express joy and mutual solidarity. There has been an ongoing tussle in the fellowship between those who emphasise love as personal (individualists) and those who think of love as best expressed through the group (collectivists).

With this in mind, I think my best answer to your question is that I don't think of love as one thing in religion and another in politics and government. The transforming love of Jesus is not constrained by human constructs and boundaries. On one hand, concepts and rules are needed to structure the fellowship. On the other, the fellowship is the outcome of individual transformation, not its means.

Rick: When I speak of freedom in this context I refer to the agency of the individual and how this affects the dynamic between individuals and groups. You have reframed the discussion using the force of love as a definer of the individual/group relationship. We are both looking at the same thing. There are, I am sure, many angles from which to study the issue.

Individuals and groups fit together much as walls are made of bricks and living organisms are composed of cells. There is an inescapable unity. Yet, there may be tensions and imbalances. Each individual may belong to many different groups each one having different functions and rules. I would suggest that the "fellowship" may, at least in part, be defined by individual transformation; but it is also the fellowship that shapes individual transformation. There is a constant feedback between individual and group and balance is the key.

If the brick crumbles the wall is threatened. If the cell dies the life of the organism is at risk. Any group that does not take proper and sober recognition of the individual member is not healthy. Personal identity is one of the noblest manifestations of creation.

There is no such thing as absolute freedom. Authentic freedom always has conditions and restraints. Those who deny this are likely to be ineffective in their life�s goals and be detrimental to groups to which they belong. At the same time, there may arise genuinely critical occasions when the individual must stand up against the group. Where does one find the wisdom to discern these moments?

Mick: I'm no more enamoured of individualism than you appear to be. For me it equates with egotism. Self-interest discounts the fact that each of us survives only as part of society. At one extreme, anarchy touts individual freedom without reciprocal responsibility.

Democracy attempts reciprocity between person and group. It is a system by which individuals band together in a dictatorship of the majority to decide matters of freedom. Which is why Theodore Roosevelt is reputed to have said of democracy that "A government can be no better than the public opinion that sustains it". Nevertheless, its main strength is that free opposition is built into the system.

Some churches govern themselves democratically. In contrast, Roman Catholics (by far the majority of Christians) prefer a self-perpetuating oligarchy. Its leaders assert that hell awaits those who refuse to give allegiance to Jesus. They define the criteria for judging if that refusal exists - and also take the power to exclude those who don't meet those criteria. In other words, Roman Catholics are not free as long as they remain within the Church or unless they subvert the system.

I would say, then, that any system of government, Christian or secular, which does not allow free opposition, should be opposed.

Rick: Freedom is uniquely a property of an individual conscious person. It implies the capacity for making conscious informed choices. In essence it represents the perennial idea of free will. Choices can be made primarily in the interest of self (egotism) or in the interest of others (altruism). What is it that tilts decisions to one side or the other?

I venture to suggest we both recognize and respect what might be called a "healthy ego." Such an ego is manifested in a person who has great self-respect but who, at the same time, expresses empathy and respect for others and the community at large. It is as though there is an instinct to transcend individual barriers to become directly involved in the thoughts and feelings of the other person; it is, as it were, a coalescence of consciousness.

How one chooses or to which side one tilts in the dynamic of egotism versus altruism must to a large extent be the result of the teachings and examples of the nurturing community. It follows to ask, what kind of community is most likely to foster "healthy egos"? Is it one disposed to consider human kind as only one of many animals, distinguished only by so-called intelligence? Or is it one that considers human kind as unique and special in creation having not only intelligence but as well a soul?

Perhaps the highest expression of freedom and free will is the decision to give up freedom and surrender to an idea or person in which one has invested total confidence. Such a contradiction is commonplace and without apparent logic. Freedom itself is not a virtue. It is how it is used that gives it meaning. When one opposes a system because it "does not allow free opposition" might not that opposition represent the height of egotism?

Mick: I think we agree that balance between individual freedom and group solidarity is the essence of health. If balance is disturbed for too long either way, harm results.

If you or I sacrifice ourselves - say in war, or some other way - it is as part of a group that we do so. However, submission to the group is (or should be) always temporary. It aims to preserve the group now so that individuals will prosper through it in the future. It is a great lie that a group exists for itself and that the individual can therefore be sacrificed for it. It is a lie because behind it are always power-hungry people willing to cheat and enslave others for their own purposes.

The first task of a despot is to eliminate opposition and claim absolute obedience from the individual. So I'm uncomfortable about the idea that freedom can be equated with "surrender to an idea or person". I think the concept may derive from a traditional Christian understanding of the ideal way to relate to God. But it seems to me that one of the ways in which the Christian faith is changing substitutes for this idea one which stresses personal autonomy in the service of others.

In other words, God is less and less the parent or boss who insists we do what we're told. Instead, God is being perceived as growing people to their full potential within the constraints of creation. That growth, I maintain, requires optimum balance between group and individual.

Rick: For the most part, we share common views about individual freedom and group solidarity. There is one aspect I would like to discus a little further before we quit this topic. It has to do with commitment as I expressed in my statement "surrender to an idea or person." The idea of commitment is as old as the rational, conscious mind of humankind. It is as axiomatic as mathematical equations. Commitment is not unique to Christianity or to any other religion.

I believe that commitment is often the essential ingredient in success of marriage or a job. If one has the paranoia that bogeymen are always lurking in our personal relationships and civic affairs, eagerly waiting to devour our wealth and autonomy, then we will be impaired in our ability to establish lasting relationships or commitments. I agree we should maintain a realistic skepticism about the motives of persons in authority but it should not be a pervasive, all-consuming mind set. That is an unhealthy balance.

Commitment may be viewed as a spectrum ranging from never (the egotist) to always (the altruist). There are dangers to being on either extreme. There are always risks in any range of the spectrum. Perhaps I am a romantic and see that commitment and risk-taking give life a dimension and spice that make it truly human.

Mick: We have been addressing freedom in relation to the individual on one hand and the group on the other. The individual can't mature to full potential without the group. And the group which doesn't exist for that purpose must be suspect.

In other words, I'm saying that the group which facilitates the growth of all to full maturity has my commitment. Indeed, there's a sense in which the ability to be a supportive, generous part of such a group is essential to individual maturity.

So commitment for me is a given. It's a necessary part of relationships.

At the heart of the matter is the question, "To what and who do I commit myself?" Not all groups are worthy of that commitment. Nor is every person. Recognising that some groups and some people are evil or on the way to it, is not paranoia but plain good sense.

The difficulty is to know beforehand which is worthy and which not.

And there's the rub.

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