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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Religion on the Level: #2
Richard Holloway

What is the Use of the Bible?
In my first lecture of this series I tried to adopt a certain tone of voice towards religion. Religion is an infinitely varied thing and it is always tempting to dismiss what others have made of it. Sometimes it is right to make these critical judgments, particularly if we recognise that there is a systemic contradiction between the claim and the life of those making the claim.

Of what good is it, for instance, to claim to know that God is all-merciful, if we ourselves do not try to practice mercy?

However, in most circumstances it is better to leave people to the devices they have created to get themselves through life. Frank Sinatra said that he believed in anything that got him through the night.

On a more profound level I am haunted by some words in the greatest of the Holocaust novels, The Last of the Just by Andre Schwartz-Bart. The book is the story of Ernie Levy, the last of "the just men", who died at Auschwitz in 1943.

At the end of the story Ernie is in a box car with some women and children, many of them already dead, lurching towards the death camp. It is Ernie's burden to console the inconsolable. The children gather around him for comfort as he cradles in his arms the emaciated corpse of a child who has just died of dysentery.

"He was my brother", a little girl said hesitantly,  anxiously, as though she had not decided what 
attitude it would be best to take in front of Ernie.

He sat down next to her and set her on his knees. 
"He'll wake up too, in a little while, with all the 
others, when we reach the Kingdom of Israel. 
There children find their parents, and everybody 
is happy.

"Because the country we're going to, that's our 
kingdom, you know. There, the sun never sets, 
and you may eat anything you can think of. There, 
an eternal joy will crown your heads; cheerfulness 
and gaiety will come and greet you, and all the 
pains and all the moans will run away�"

"How can you tell them it's only a dream?" one 
of the women breathed, with hate in her voice. 
Rocking the child mechanically, Ernie gave way 
to dry sobs.

"Madame", he said at last, "there is no room for 
truth here". Then he stopped rocking the child, 
turned, and saw that the old woman's face had 
altered.

"Then what is there room for?" she began. And 
taking a closer look at Ernie, registering all the 
slightest details of his face, she murmured softly, 
"Then you don't believe what you're saying at all? 
Not at all?"

"Tread softly, for you tread on my dreams" is not a bad motto for 
religious investigators. There are times when we should leave alone 
what we believe to be consoling fictions, and let people find what 
comfort they can against the emptiness or horror that confronts them.

That is why in my last lecture I tried to leave to one side some of the ways of dealing with the religious question, without necessarily  repudiating them. I suggested that there was a sort of gift relationship 
between believers and the thing believed in, whereby they found 
themselves believing or not believing; or not knowing enough to believe or not believe.

Those categories of belief take care of most people. But what about those who do not fit any of them easily, the people I called God botherers, because the question of the meaning of Being was like a tooth that nibbled at the soul?

What I am trying to find in these lectures therefore, is a way in which the great religious symbols and narratives can be used by people who do not have and cannot find a settled attitude to the question of whether there is or definitely is not a beyondness to the answers the questions have provoked, an eternal, out of this world reality to which religious signs point.

This week I want to apply this approach to the great narratives of the Hebrew scriptures to see what use we can make of them. If you already have a confident, fulfilling and love-enlarging way of using these narratives, you will not find the approach I am suggesting anything more than an intellectual curiosity.

On the other hand, if you are intrigued by the great religious narratives, but have not found a way of adapting them to a life that seems to be cultures and aeons away from their world view, maybe something useful will emerge for you in this approach.

Something AN Wilson wrote in his book on St Paul will provide us with a useful entry point. It is a little polemical, this quotation, and it reminds us that part of the trouble with adapting religious discourse to our own situation is that finding one that fits us may sound like too peremptory a dismissal of an approach that works for others.

Anyway, here is the quotation I mentioned:

"The modern Christian 'fundamentalist' who bravely 
continues to 'believe' in a real star of Bethlehem or an actual Garden Tomb in Jerusalem from which Jesus rose from the dead is making the same unimaginative mistake as Heinrich Schliemann when he dug in the sands of Hissarlik and thought he was finding Homer's Troy. Troy is in the Iliad, not in the sand. And because of Homer, not because of the sand, Troy exists in the collective consciousness of the human race".
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