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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A PLAIN GUIDE TO ...
Christianity as a Way of Life

Most people think of Christianity as first and foremost a religion. But is it? Perhaps religion is merely a way of nurturing something more fundamental - that is, a way of living based on the person of the historical Jesus. If so, perhaps religion must eventually be put in its place - as servant not master.

For two thousand years Christianity has been defined as a religion, one amongst many.  But beneath the surface of doctrines, rules and group solidarity runs a silent river of life, seldom acknowledged but nonetheless flowing steadily.

That river is a way of living, prefigured by Jesus of Nazareth as pioneer of a radical approach to humanity's ultimate concerns. It has been there from the very beginning. Most Christians think of Jesus of Nazareth as the original source of the river. But that isn't what he claimed, even though his followers claim it for him.

The earliest stratum of history about Jesus is unequivocal. Jesus the Jew could not and did not claim to be the source of life. For him, only God could possibly be that.

Once layers of interpretation in the gospels have been stripped away to reveal the bare bones of history, Jesus' stand is clear. He urges his listeners to "Trust God" (Mark 11.22); it is God, not Jesus, we are to love with everything we've got (Mark 12.28-34); and only God knows "the last things", the secrets of the universe (Mark 13.32-36). Jesus calls attention to God, not to himself.

Little in Paul's letters contradicts this. Paul, a regular Jew who probably never met Jesus, used Jewish theology to teach and manage the new groups he founded. For him, an "apostle displaced in time", Jesus is the source of authority. But he speaks about the God of his ancestors as the prime mover, not Jesus. Despite the ambiguous use of the Greek kurios (which sometimes refers to God), the sense in Paul's writing is overwhelmingly that Jesus is a way through to God. But it is God who reigns supreme.

Jesus as an object of religion was born in the gospels. In the centuries which followed them, his followers created an ever more elaborate religious framework around him. The early Church Fathers gradually forged Jesus of Nazareth into a cultic object. They lived in times when religion was woven deeply into the minds and hearts of the vast majority. It was a fundamental way of perceiving the world.

The separation of Christianity from life has had the most profoundly negative effect upon the world. Simone Weil thought that

Never since the dawn of history, except for a certain period of the Roman Empire, has Christ been so absent as today. The separation of religion from the rest of social life, which seems natural to the majority of Christians nowadays, would have been judged monstrous by antiquity. [1]

Unfortunately for us, they used as the basis for their theology what then seemed to them the best and most detailed source - the Gospel of John.

In a natural process of building interpretation upon interpretation, John's Gospel (early second-century at the earliest) shows us a Jesus myth more developed than in the other Gospels. If Jesus had been a pop-singer, the author of John's Gospel would have been his agent and promoter. Almost none of this Gospel can be regarded as recounting "what really happened." It is mostly not history (though it may contain some). Few, if any, historians accept the bulk of it as an account of actual events. 

The once-giant Christian ecclesiastical machine which developed over more than a millennium no longer rules the minds and hearts of nations. It is being replaced by the first truly non-religious society in the history of humankind. That is, religion itself, as a primary way of looking at life, no longer has the grip it once had.

In the West - which I suggest will, for better or worse, continue for the foreseeable future as a change agent in global cultural norms - religion is changing rapidly. To a majority of Westerners, religion in the traditional sense is mostly irrelevant. Some are actively hostile. But most just don't care.

Why? Some main reasons might be:

  • We are irrevocably separated from the past by now being able to see ourselves as part of one world. Communication and transport have shrunk our planet to, in Marshall McLuhan's words, a global village. "Religion" is now perceptibly a planet-wide phenomenon of many kinds and shades. The "We're right, you're wrong" religious approach is increasingly untenable. Along that road lies blood and torment, as we know all too well both from our history and from present-day events.
  • Almost all societies today rest upon an increasingly integrated body of knowledge derived from rational questioning and analysis, and not from institutional authority. Religious constructs and metaphors, once touted as "the truth", carry less and less weight.
  • There is an increasingly widespread understanding that humans not only can be deceived by others, but can deceive themselves. A large body of psychological theory and evidence requires scepticism of perceptions as a basic life-attitude in a way never before known [2]. Pronouncements on the basis of revelation have limited force in such an intellectual climate.
  • R H Tawney in 1926 [3] argued that Western society has fundamentally changed the way it perceives happiness. Gone is the supposition that this world is necessarily a "vale of tears". Hope of deferred gratification has been replaced by belief that, given the right conditions, heaven (of a sort) is possible on earth. The mythical fall of mankind and the cosmos into sin no longer rules. It follows that every aspect of God's creation must be good. Such perceptions are fatally weakening religion insofar as it promises happiness deferred to an afterlife.
  • Growing awareness and knowledge of genetic, psychological and social forces has weakened to the point of destruction a formerly deep sense of sin and its consequences. Religion as a set of beliefs and rituals offering refuge from the possibility of eternal torture have less and less relevance in the minds of most.
  • We now have more knowledge of the past than ever before. It's true to say, for example, that we know more now about the Roman Empire than anyone living in it ever knew. It's almost impossible to credibly assert revealed knowledge in such an environment - particularly "knowledge" derived through holy writings which have themselves been revealed as the creation of humans [4].

Each of the above points could be expanded. They illustrate the possibility that as religion as a positive social force declines, so will traditional Christianity.

This is not to say that religion must die. That doesn't seem likely. Recent surveys have indicated that religion of various sorts is alive and well - but in the West especially of a "mix-and-match" kind rather than the monolithic institutional religions of the past.

A  relevant religion must, it seems to me, reflect the way people experience life now. We no longer experience life as our ancestors did [5]. The difference is fundamental, not incidental. It is radical, not cosmetic. Just as the first Christians interpreted Jesus in terms of their own world-view, so also must it be possible for new Christians in the 21st century to do the same. Traditional Christianity cannot be made or moulded into a form relevant to the future upon which we are advancing.

If, then, the religious practices and teachings which have served for two thousand years are increasingly defunct, what is to take their place?

Answers will no doubt emerge over time. In the meanwhile the idea of religion as a sine qua non must be replaced. In my view, a vital change must be in the long-held proposition that Christianity is first and foremost a religion. It may use religion, but is not itself intrinsically a religion.

As a religion

Code - As a religion, the Church has evolved a set of "right teachings". These lay down as normative certain aspects of reality such as miracles and contact with a transcendent or spiritual dimension. Also laid down are norms of behaviour or ethics, sometimes in the form of strict rules. Breach of these rules invites exclusion from the institution.

Cult - Various sections of Christianity emphasise different metaphors (often called myths) about God, Jesus, important people and the past. They all have rituals and ceremonies, participation in which is required for entry into the Church as an institution and for ongoing membership. A large proportion of the institution's assets is directed towards cultic activities.

Conversion - Religious experience is emphasised in many parts of the Church, often involving deep emotional catharsis. Some sort of changed orientation towards life in the world outside the institution is generally assumed for participation (the Roman Catholic Church, for example); Conversion generally demands submission to a higher authority, be it the Bible as God's infallible word, or the Pope or bishops or synods as infallible mediators of God the heavenly king to his subjects [6].

As a way of life
A Christian way of living, one which isn't necessarily linked to religion, is inspired by the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus may have, as it were two faces:

[1] The first is the traditional face of a multiple-personality Jesus as built up by the Church over two thousand years. This is a sort of "pick 'n pay" God, whose character depends much on the cultural background in which God-metaphors have been developed. So, for example, the Jesus of Eastern Orthodoxy comes alive through ritual and dogma; that of the Society of Friends through ethics and experience; of the Church of England through broad inclusiveness and alliance with the State; of the Lutheran Church through the Bible and preaching, and that of some American congregations through emotional expression using popular culture.

[2] The second face is that of the historical Jesus, the person revealed by New Testament records. This Jesus is revealed when we dig behind the early interpretations which exist in the Gospels. A person more user-friendly to today's average Western man and woman is revealed. If a portrait of the Jesus of history suffers from limited data, it gains immeasurably by becoming open once again to new interpretations. This gain seems to me to be essential if Jesus is to remain relevant in the near and far futures.

I find it difficult to isolate what might be some axiomatic aspects of this Jesus because I am acutely conscious in so doing that I risk merely projecting my personal psychology or social persona onto him.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that certain axioms can be derived from what we know of the historical person. I think it can also be shown that these (and perhaps other) axioms, rather than orthodoxy,  have driven and enlivened the Church over the centuries. 

So a Christian way of living ...

  • ... derives from the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth;
  • ... serves and nurtures life in all its forms;
  • ... focuses ultimately on others;
  • ... when necessary, puts the lives of others before     
        self-preservation;
  • ... can be chosen and pursued by anyone, at any time.

John Spong, a retired Anglican bishop, has written of how the Church worldwide has attempted to suppress the new currents of life which spring from Christianity as a way of life. He points out how the welling up of spiritual nutrients at the Second Vatican Council was blocked by successive waves of reaction. Brave scholars were mocked, vilified and then neutralized by institutional pressures, including heresy trials. But it seems that there is an "eternal human quest for wholeness":

... even Jesus ... is not an end in himself, as Christians have so mistakenly assumed. Jesus is but a doorway into the wonder of God. The first followers of Jesus were not called Christians, as if knowing Christ was their goal; rather, they called themselves "the followers of the way" as if Jesus was himself but part of their journey. [7]

It may be, of course, that such a way of living is difficult and perhaps nearly impossible without religious practices. But I can perceive no intrinsic reason why that should be the case. Indeed, it is likely that The Way of the future will exclude everything which today is labelled "religious".

The implications of such an approach for Christianity and in particular for the Church as a whole are no doubt many and varied. Some Christians may see in these axioms a deadly threat to "the faith, once and for all delivered to the saints", as they might put it. 

Others will seize an opportunity to work out positive implications for themselves in their current situations.
________________________________________________________
[1] Gateway to God, Collins Fontana,1978
[2] See The Historical Jesus
[3] Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
[4] See Revelation
[5] See Belief
[6] After Ninian Smart in the New Dictionary of Christian Theology, 1983
[7] Jesus for the Non-Religious, Harper Collins, 2007

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