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

What is the Use of the Bible? [Continued]

We will find that there is a whole world of significance in that idea of the collective consciousness of the human race, and that it has particular importance when we meditate on the enduring power of the religious narratives.

It is the anonymity of the religious narratives that is the secret of their power. All great art is essentially anonymous in its impact. We do not need to know anything about its provenance for it to have its effect. We do not know who or how many people were behind the writing of Genesis or the Iliad, and we need not care, because these texts  communicate truth to us at a level that goes beyond the artistry of any particular individual.

That is why they go on touching us long after we have abandoned the official theories or teachings that have been derived from them. For instance, we do not know for certain who wrote the four gospels or when, but they still have power to connect with our lives today, so that, reading them, we sometimes have to put them down and look into the distance as their words strike ancient chords within us.

The difficulty that many of us face today is that we find ourselves, to some extent at least, spiritually homeless, or semi-detached. We are no longer comfortably and unselfconsciously established at the heart of any of the great traditions. And it is with the nature of tradition itself that I want to start.

There are a number of formulas that try to capture the atmosphere of our society in the final months of the second millennium, but the one that I think is the simplest and easiest to expound is the end of tradition: ours is a post-traditional society. A tradition is a system of ideas and practices based on a set of assumptions or premises from which a complex social or religious structure has evolved.

Let me give you an example of a theological system or tradition that might help us to understand how some of these human constructs work. Here are some verses from the Letter to the Romans, Chapter 5:

It was through one man that sin entered the world, 
and through sin death, and thus death pervaded 
the whole human race, inasmuch as all have sinned. 
But God's act of grace is out of all proportion to 
Adam's wrongdoing. For if the wrongdoing of that 
one man brought death upon so many, its effect is 
vastly exceeded by the grace of God and the gift 
that came to so many by the grace of one man, 
Jesus Christ.

If, by the wrongdoing of one man, death established 
its reign through that one man, much more shall 
those who in far greater measure receive grace 
through the gift of righteousness live and reign 
through the one man Jesus Christ.

It follows then, that as the result of one misdeed 
was condemnation for all people, so the result of 
one righteous act is acquittal and life for all. For 
as through the disobedience of one man many were 
made sinners, so through the obedience of one man 
many will be made righteous.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of that passage in the formation of the Christian theological tradition and its effect on human self-understanding. Let me pick out a few details.

Paul takes it for granted that his readers will know the story of Adam  and Eve from the Book of Genesis. Using that ancient narrative as a foundation or premise, he builds up his theological system.

First of all, he suggests that human death is the direct consequence of the sin of Adam. He then goes on to suggest that the primordial  disobedience of Adam passed guilt on to us like some kind of 
metaphysical virus.

Paul does not spell it out here, but we know that the tradition as it later developed, held women to be disproportionately responsible for the Fall and its tragic effects, and that is why later Mariological  developments took the form they did. Mary alone of all her sex was miraculously preserved from original sin, and was therefore not subject to physical death and instead was assumed bodily into heaven.

But the Christological implications of this ancient narrative were even more profound. The first man's disobedience infected us with guilt; but the second Adam's obedience and self-sacrifice intervened mystically to switch off the offending gene that had condemned us to death. So Jesus becomes the solution, the cure, to the problem created for the human race by the original disobedience of Adam and Eve, and the punishment of death it had brought upon humanity.

Once you accept the originating assumption, the premise on which the system is based, it works with captivating simplicity. And it has  enormous dramatic power. It has profoundly affected the poetry of liturgy and hymnody, as well as the mechanics of evangelistic  preaching. As a working tradition, its echoes are all around us, outside as well as inside the Church. People who have never read Genesis or Romans get the cartoon significance of Adam and Eve, the snake, the apple and the fig leaf.

But what happens when you question the premise, the originating  assumption, on which the whole system is built? What happens to a tradition when you no longer believe the claim on which it is built?

We know that the story of Adam and Eve is a myth, a narrative device for conveying abstract truth; it is not history; it does not account for anything, except its own meaning.

We know, for instance, that death is not a punishment for sin, but a biological necessity, an ineluctable fact of life. We experience it as a loss; it fills us with fear; we rage against it; but we know it is not a punishment handed out to the human race because of Adam's disobedience. We also know that, captivating as such myths are, there was never any pre-lapsarian golden age of human innocence, any Garden of Eden from which our parents were banished.

The myth is still powerful, of course, because it expresses the tragedy of the ways we all go on ruining our own happiness, but it is not a historic event upon which we can build a sustainable system.

Women are not disproportionately responsible for human sinfulness and their subjection to men was an aspect of patriarchy, not a punishment from God. When we use the Adam and Eve myth today, therefore, we do not treat it as history, we do not build arguments upon it, we use it as a more or less instructive parable of the human condition.

There are religious communities that still use ancient narratives like this one in theological and moral argument, as though it were a fixed and established fact like the multiplication table, but the society in which we live does the opposite. It questions the premises on which all traditional systems are based; and it repudiates the claims of religious revelation to decree infallibly how the rest of us should live.

For example, when tradition, quoting its scripture, tells society that women should be subordinate to men or that same-sex lovers should be condemned, society asks why, wants to understand the reason behind the prohibition.

And here we come to the main difference between contemporary  society and traditional religion.

Post-traditional society is quite prepared to identify certain kinds of conduct as wrong, but the basis for the wrong has to be demonstrated, reasons have to be given.

It is strongly opposed, for instance, to abusive sexual relationships 
because it believes consent is an important ethical value, even in  marriage. Traditional religions, on the other hand, operate on the basis of the authority of their claims, not their rational defensibility. That is why when we ask them why same-sex love is wrong they do not offer us an argument that is persuasive, they offer us a text, they point to the tradition as though it had no history, they refer to it as if it were beyond argument. That is what we mean by fundamentalism.

Anthony Giddens defines fundamentalism as "defending tradition in the traditional way". A non-religious illustration might help us make the point.

Take the British monarchy: this is one of our oldest traditional systems. If you were asked to justify the retention of the monarchy today, you'd probably offer a number of pragmatic arguments: you'd say it was a valuable symbol of the continuity of the nation or that it was good for the tourist trade or for British exports or that it guaranteed us against ending up with a President Thatcher.

The monarchical fundamentalist, however, would scorn these attempts to rationalise the office and would point instead to the divine right of kings to rule over us. In other words, the fundamentalist defends tradition in the traditional way, and refers to original assumptions as though they were valid for all time and required no new justification.

In times of accelerating social change, fundamentalism is an obvious refuge. Its refusal to negotiate with the new consciousness is its greatest strength, but for those of us who find ourselves within the new consciousness, its insistence on holding on to the original meaning of ancient traditions renders them inaccessible to many of us, because it places the interpretation of the text beyond any kind of negotiation.

For instance, as far as the tradition we are looking at goes, the fundamentalist would simply state that the Adam and Eve story is a historic event and Paul's exposition of it literally true. Death is the wages of sin. The woman did fall to the tempter. Everyone is born guilty of an aboriginal offence committed by our original parent. Christ's mission was to rescue us from the destiny forged for us by the sin of Adam by substituting himself for us.

The tragedy of this approach, for those who cannot receive it, is that it may work to cut us off from the other possibilities the great religious narratives offer us for the exploration and illumination of our own condition.

I would like to suggest that some of the themes in the Hebrew 
scriptures offer us the opportunity for personal and social exploration leading to human wholeness. There are three complex and enduring human experiences expressed by the ancient biblical narratives. There is the theme of falling into captivity. Next there is the theme of liberation through the wilderness. Finally, there is the discovery of the promised land and the regret and disillusion which accompany it.

There are not too many human themes or archetypes, but falling into discontent and then falling through discontent into some sort of prison or captivity is one of them. We can see it at its most dramatic in the simplest and starkest of human dramas, that of addiction bred of deprivation.

If you are a young man living without hope in a desperate housing project in New York, Liverpool or Glasgow, then heroin is going to offer you a way out of your discontent, for a time and at a price. It's the Sinatra imperative again, something to get you through the long night of the soul, to dull the pain, to lead you into merciful oblivion.

There may be ways of escape, mechanisms of fall, that do not have terrible landings, but they do not seem to have been invented yet. The cruelest part of the human paradox of discontent is that the instruments or places of release or escape themselves become the place of imprisonment. The substance that takes us out of ourselves, the secret relationship that gives us something to live for, become the instruments 
that take away our peace. In the case of the addict, no matter what the addiction is, the means of escape inevitably becomes the bondage from which there is no escape.

Addiction seems to be one of the characteristics of our era though it is not obvious why this should be so. It may not take much insight to follow the logic of oblivion that prompts the kid from the housing scheme on the edge of town into addiction and death, but there are plenty of examples of generalised addiction in our culture.

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