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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 Before and After the Big Bang
by Richard DeRemee
 

There are two contrasting "world views." The first is called materialism.  It asserts that all reality can ultimately be explained in terms of objective physical elements and principles that can, in turn, be discovered and understood by exercise of the scientific method of inquiry.  It is implied that even moral-ethical and other metaphysical principles arise from a similar basis and need not be explained by the existence of non-material forces or principles. This view excludes the concept of a first cause, a divine creator or God. 

The other view may be called non-materialism or immaterialism.  Essentially, this is the view espoused by religion.  It postulates the existence of a primordial divine creator or spirit that pervades and presides over the material world.  It holds that the material world is only one part of reality; there is an over-arching domain of non-material reality that points to the idea of God. 

Tension between these views has existed to a greater or lesser degree since the Enlightenment when the authority of the autocratic church was questioned and personal freedom began to assert itself. In Western societies humankind extolled reason as the remedy for personal and social ills. 

Tension between these two world views has increased in more recent times, coincident with the exponential rise of science and technology. There is now frank antagonism between the two. Nevertheless, respected, intelligent people by the millions continue to hold religious beliefs and follow lives based on religious principles despite mounting empirical knowledge that would tend to refute many religious ideas.  This fact suggests there is a resilient hunger in the human species for thoughts beyond the material world. 

Some scientists have suggested that ultimately all reality including religious sentiments will be incorporated into a final unified material theory.  This would reconcile all apparent inconsistencies between the two world views.  Finally all moral and religious impulses would be absorbed and fit snugly into scientific empiricism. 

Not only have scientists challenged religion and the non-material view of reality; opposition has also come from the liberal Christian community. This community finds the church out of contact with current reality and in a mode of senescence and in the throes of death.   Furthermore, they assert that creeds are no more than instruments of coercion rather than true statements of faith. The liberals contend there are no absolute truths. All truth is shifting and relative. There is no such thing as divinity, i.e. there is no God and Jesus Christ cannot, therefore be His Son. Jesus is venerated but not worshiped in the usual sense. Liberals offer many other criticisms of traditional Christianity but I will stop here for the moment. 

I am in the late years of my life. My entire professional career was based on science.  Between the hours of work I married, raised a family and enjoyed the simple pleasures of living. I was baptized into the Augustana Lutheran Church founded by immigrant Swedes. My indoctrination into the church was traditional. There was no doubting the reality of God or of his Son. Right and wrong and making moral choices were accepted facts of life. 

I may have wavered in my faith from time to time but I never ventured far from the stream. How can it be that I, a person of science, find my faith to be the most important aspect of my being and world view? Is it a contradiction?  Can one be a materialist and a non-materialist at the same time? I say an emphatic, yes! When I need materialist solutions to a problem such as making a diagnosis I use the materialist compartment of my mind. Conversely, when I contemplate the nature and meaning of life I switch to my non-material faculties. 

According to liberal Christians it is a zero sum game. That is to say, the more that science and technology define reality the smaller becomes the realm of faith and religion. I have found that not to be so in my case.  I am sure I am not alone. 

I perceive flaws in the arguments of both science and liberal Christian thought. First I will address how science may not provide us with the truth we seek. 

Science and Truth
Stephen Hawking, in his book A Brief History of Time suggests that the discovery of a unified theory (it should really be considered a law if all truth is revealed)
"... would be the ultimate triumph of human reason for then we would know the mind of God."  E. O. Wilson has asserted, "Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge" (Atlantic Monthly, April 1998, p.70).  Both scientists would seem to believe that the material world is the only ultimate reality, to which the non-material world must finally yield.  The current state of human development suggests we have not yet arrived at that final point nor does it seem likely it will be reached in the foreseeable future. 

Thus, a number of questions arise.  First, how reliable is the scientific community in revealing truth?  Second, when the chain of scientific inquiry has reached its end and the question of the existence or absence of God is faced, by what criteria will the decision be rendered?  What are we mortals of fleeting viability to do until scientists discover final truth?

Regarding the first question concerning the reliability of the scientific community in revealing truth, I speak from my experience as a scientist and physician.  Note, I would emphasize the "scientific community" not science as such.  The scientific method, if followed impeccably, should theoretically allow a complete understanding of the material universe.  It should be pointed out, however, that science is both practiced and administered by fallible people. 

 As a physician scientist it is at once sobering and enlightening to realize that when I started medical school over 50 years ago, the peptic or duodenal ulcer was a different disease than it is today.  In earlier times it was considered to be the result of an over production of acid by the stomach in an individual unusually susceptible to stress.  Guided by this concept we treated our patients with antacids and attempted to modify or eliminate sources of stress. 

Results from conventional treatment based on science were not bad but relapses frequently occurred.  If complications occurred, surgery could be used to cut out the acid producing tissue.  Today duodenal ulcer can be considered an infectious disease caused, at least in part, by a bacterium, H. pylori. Only rarely is surgery necessary. Perceived reality at one point in time is different from that at another point in time although the realities were the product of scientific inquiry.  All scientists are aware in their individual disciplines of similar examples wherein newer data revised, modified or even refuted earlier concepts.  In fact, it is a well-known aphorism in the scientific community that "science is corrigible."

While there may be the conviction that someday all reality will be explained by science, the scientist must meanwhile work in the daily, grubby world of uncertainty.  For the time being, science should be viewed as a method of inquiry, not the sole road to all knowledge. 

The uncertainty in science is not only the result of the faulty application of the scientific method or incorrect interpretation of data; it may also result from contemporary political or personal pressures.  For example, it is doubtful if a scientific study showing the positive effects of cigarette smoking could be published in a peer-reviewed journal .  I know of a number of salutary effects. However, most discrete investigators would dissociate themselves from such data either out of personal bias against smoking or fear of censure by research funding agencies or by the tobacco-phobic public at large.  What research is funded, either by public or private agencies, is frequently related to political popularity as much as purely scientific imperatives. Much research is continued and prolonged as much to create steady livelihoods as it is to create knowledge.  The human fallibility element cannot be easily dismissed.  The reliability of data from any scientific community must often be open to question and evaluated on a case by case basis. 

When the chain of scientific inquiry reaches its end and the question of the existence or absence of God is faced, by what criteria will the decision be rendered?  This second question raises important issues about how scientists apprehend data. What standards, indicators or devices will be used to determine if God exists or not?  Given the current corrigibility of science, the frequent misapplication of the scientific method, the misinterpretation of data and often overarching influence of politics on science, the final road to final truth is at best indeterminate. 

 In addition, most scientific data are derived by indirection.  That is to say, the scientist is rarely able to actually touch or see the actual substance or principle under investigation.  Rather, these are detected or measured by tests devised to detect or measure effects or manifestations of the substances or principles in question. A case in point is the measurement of certain blood enzymes.  The actual amount of enzyme is indirectly calculated by measuring products of the enzymatic reaction.  In turn, this product is reflected as a color or radioactivity change in the detection system. Such indirect methodology is usually accurate enough for the situations in which it is employed and is usually cost effective. Such indirection is still a potential source of error.  When it comes to the final detection and even measurement of God, will it be by indirection or will it be face to face?  It is possible that at the end of science mankind may possess all knowledge of the physical world but the "why" of it may not be answered or answerable. 

Finally, let us assume that science is on the right track to solve all the mysteries of life, be they material or non-material.  Quite likely that epiphany is a long way off, many years if not millennia. What is the individual to do in the meantime?  Should we simply content ourselves by the assurance that someday one of our species will finally reach the door of truth?  Or do we make the best possible accommodations with life as our experiences and traditions have taught us?  For life to have meaningfulness it must have some sort of current relevance. To be sure it is unwise to encumber life by refuting self-evident material reality.  In this context I am reminded of the Church's condemnation of Galileo whose adherence to scientific facts brought him at odds with religious dogma. The Church's credibility was damaged by this act. 

But I do not consider the material world to be irreconcilably at odds with the non-material world.  Effective citizens will invoke principles of the material world in certain circumstances and non-material principles at other times where they are appropriate.  I believe one can realistically live with one foot in science and the other in the world of mystery and subjectivity inherent in religion.  The trick is to develop a proper balance. 

My remarks are made not to detract from the immense contributions of science to humanity.  The principles of the scientific method of inquiry are absolute and immutable.  As a scientist, I have seen their worth and benefited by them.  However, I have also witnessed distortions of reality imposed in the name of science.  What seems to have happened at this point in history is an imbalance of the two worlds in favor of science.  I am concerned that the popularity of science has dulled a critical analysis of its claims and accomplishments.  Most people seem to be unaware that science makes mistakes that can have far-reaching consequences for their lives.  They do not understand that scientists are vulnerable to human weaknesses that can undermine the process of scientific inquiry. 

Maybe scientists are frequently right or mostly right but they are not always right.  We need to maintain as prudent a skepticism about science as we would about some religious cults. In the meantime, as science continues its quest for truth, we cannot wait to establish our individual world views. To be sure, the physical world is grandeloquent. It is counterpoised by the other world of mystery and myth that is salt to the material world.  We must not neglect or reject either world at this time in history. 

Problems posed by Liberal Christianity
It seems to me incongruent that one can be a Christian and not believe in a non-material reality. If God is excluded, Jesus Christ becomes only Jesus of Nazareth. He has no divine status. This I believe has serious implications in explaining the historical development of the Christian Church and prospects for its future. 

I would seriously question there would be a religion called Christianity if Jesus had not been considered divine by the early church founders. Moreover, I doubt the Christian Church would have become universal if Jesus had not had the putative power of His Heavenly Father. By stripping Jesus of his divinity he becomes a purely human cult figure to be venerated, not worshiped.  

There have been many significant people who have lived lives of moral rectitude and espoused noble principles. I would cite the great American President, Abraham Lincoln as one on my list. Lincoln is venerated but not worshiped and he has no church.  

The next issue that needs clarification is that of the often-used word construct. It is said that God is nothing more than a human construct. I have trouble with the logic of this claim. First of all, what can there be other than constructs? The human mind is the only portal to information I know of. Just because the construct comes from the human mind tells us nothing about the primary stimulus of the construct or of its authenticity. It is an illogical assertion that should be challenged. 

There seems to be fear of Christian traditions, and particularly a fear of absolute truth. It is, in liberal thought, virtuous to hold no firm principles because they are in continual flux based on current circumstances. Under such a mentality, it is difficult for me to see how one can establish confidence in other persons or predict how reliable they may be. Personally, I believe there are absolute truths, though they may sometimes be hard to interpret and to apply to changing circumstances.

As I contemplate the fear of absolute truth, what I hear is a fear of authoritarianism and orthodoxy. Unenlightened and ill-motivated authority can pose problems. However, I think it unwise to construct artificial barriers against the possibility of enduring fundamental truths in the hope of avoiding the remonstrance of authority figures. 

Tradition is often cited as the cause of intolerance and exclusion. Traditions can be changed and there are probably more traditions in the church that encourage tolerance and inclusion than do not. It is inaccurate to automatically invoke tradition as the culprit. More likely than not, fault lies with society and not only with faith and its traditions. How can traditions best be changed? Should it be by blunt frontal assault? Or is it best accomplished by education and gradualism? 

Creeds are another controversial issue in liberal circles for a number of reasons. Creeds smack of authoritarianism. Supernatural events such as virgin birth, rising from the dead and going to heaven cannot be accepted by rational persons. It is non-sense, so it is said. To me the Apostles Creed defines the character of my faith in mythical symbolic terms. How can we begin to even try to approach God and His creation other than with symbols? Language is simply too ineffective. 

It must be obvious to anyone who has been in a Christian Church or observed Christians that they believe in symbols as representing an ineffable reality. Jesus does not bodily walk among the parishioners. Yet He is every where at the same time. He is spirit. In the creeds an attempt is made to grasp this difficult invisible reality. 

Whereas it is true the church has had a turbulent and an often inconsistent history of moral probity, it is misleading to feature that aspect as representative. Repeatedly critics raise the Inquisition, anti-Semitism, the Crusades, the Thirty-Years War, fundamentalism and other such unsavory topics as reasons enough to distrust the church and its minions. As with other human institutions there are good people and bad, good behavior and reprehensible. I do not excuse nor exonerate the church for any of that but there must be balance in our judgments. The secular world is equally culpable. 

Finally, revelation is a bugaboo. If one does not subscribe to a non-material reality there can be no imparting of wisdom from God. End of discussion. Those who subscribe to a non-material reality will assert this is the way God feeds knowledge to the human mind. This is how constructs of God are made. I recognize the character of the prophet who declares the revelation is key to its authenticity. But if a non-material reality is not accepted the issue of revelation can be dismissed. 

A Fusion of Two Worlds
The only way I can explain the apparent contradictions of my life is to postulate a life in two worlds, the material and the non-material. I live in both the
"sacred" and the "profane" worlds. My situation is not unique. I am sure there are countless people who live the same way. Some may not even be aware they pursue binary lives. 

An image occurs to me in this context, one I saw in a movie. A wealthy Japanese businessman comes home delivered by a chauffeur in a modern expensive automobile. On entering his home there are flowers, tranquility and incense. He takes off his business suit and sinks into a steaming tub. Afterward he dresses in a traditional robe and sits on the floor on crossed legs. There is no contradiction in the two worlds. They are complementary.  

In my view it is important and necessary to live in both worlds. If humankind ever comes to the position where a non-material reality is completely denied, society will be the worse for that. I subscribe to the idea that moral rectitude derives from a source beyond the material. I do not share the view that humankind is perfectible by its own resources. 

At the dawn of the human race natural phenomena were attributed to various and sundry gods. Today we think in terms of a unified system with a single source of beginning and a single creator or cause. To me this is monotheism. There is one force that initiated the Big Bang. The universe is continually expanding and theoretically will reach an extremity where attractive forces will bring everything back to the original nidus of energy or matter where it all began in the first place. There is an eschatology inherent in the physical universe not unlike that proposed by religion.  

Voltaire said, "God cannot be proved by the mere force of our reason." Stephen Jay Gould, the eminent American scientist, proposed the concept of Non-Overlapping Magisteria to resolve the conflict between science and religion. A magisterium 

... is a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution ... the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).

I agree with both authorities. It is the way in which I can make sense of my being. 

Belief in a non-material reality should not be trivialized by citing a supernatural world of goblins, angels on a pin, and bolts of lightning emanating from an angry god. That is silliness. 

What I do believe is that God is responsible for the Big Bang and its ultimate conclusion. He continues to speak to the hearts and minds of receptive people to guide them in the difficult journey on Earth. By heeding such prompting an abundant life is possible. When natural law overcomes our hopes and instills fear there is nevertheless consolation. Without a belief in a non-material reality all of this is not possible. 

Perhaps religion is moribund in many places. Over the many centuries since Jesus walked among us there have been many ups and downs and ebbs and flows of Christianity. This should not discourage us. It is my profound belief that when and if Christianity is bereft of its transcendental non-material underpinnings that will surely reduce it to a cult status. 

What caused or went before the Big Bang may seem like a nonsensical concern. What comes after the Big Bang has subsided and imploded will be considered a whimsy by many. However, it could be that such abstract considerations are of immense importance in shaping how one views the world and the universe and how our individual lives fit into this colossal event. 

I have suggested that "truth" derived from the material world is provisional at best. This fits with the liberal view of all truth including that of the moral world. There is a distinction that must be drawn as suggested by the Non-Overlapping Magisteria concept of Stephen Jay Gould. In the Magisterium of religion there are absolute principles that govern morality. The material world and its contingencies may obscure those principles and present problems in their application. Those who subscribe to a non-material reality will consider the material world a "provisional" setting in which to search for enduring truth. 

In the great sweep of history we are but specks in time. All the world's problems, all the mysteries of science, and all the great philosophical questions will not be solved in the fleeting moments of our individual existences. While we have sentient life we must make choices about how we believe the world works and how such belief can maximize our chances of happiness. There is a dread of despair and meaninglessness that furrows the brow of human kind. Can materialism assuage it or is more needed? 

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