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: #4

What is the use of the Church?
[Continued]
One of the best statements of this understanding is found in the Gospel of Thomas.

His disciples said to him, "When will the kingdom 
come?" Jesus said, "It will not come by waiting for 
it. It will not be a matter of saying, 'Here it is' or 'There it is'. Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it." [2]

Jesus already lived in that kingdom of the father, and ignored the system of organised power on earth that divided and ruled. He crossed the taboos between different classes, between women and men, the clean and the unclean, Jews and Gentiles. And the most radical sign of this new reality was that he ate with anyone he chose to. This was one of the most potent charges against him: "This man receives sinners and eats with them", they said.

But his earlier membership in the apocalyptic movement is still represented in the New Testament narratives, witnessing to the complexity of the time and the and the enduring power of these longings among oppressed people. A fascinating example of the same phenomenon can be found closer to our own time in the reaction of the American Indians to American imperialism. Here are the words of  a scholar on the subject:

The Indians suffered loss of independence, economic 
hardship, and the breakdown of their order of society, and they experienced atavistic revivals passively advocating continued belief in Indian culture by Indians, undertook militant wars of religion like that led by the Prophet and Tecumseh, believed in messianic movements emphasising high morality, like those in the Pacific Northwest, and even began proselytising among themselves as in the case of Indian Shakerism or the Peyote cult. [3]

The apocalyptic strain in religion inculcates in its adherents a sense of special election to the glories of the end time, as well as a conviction that their disciplined holiness will help to bring the time nearer, hence the movements into the purifying wilderness that characterises the phenomenon.

More fatefully, perhaps, is the fear of being lost or rejected at the end of time by colluding with the enemy or being corrupted by their values. Again, if you know the Bible you can hear echoes of that voice sounding through its pages. The sectarian mind of today is captivated by the mysterious remnants of the apocalyptic tradition that are present in the scriptures and the Christian tradition.

They have a tremendous sense of something of eternal importance being acted out, something that promises either eternal bliss or eternal torment, so getting it right, being among the elect, is vital. This probably accounts for the high anxiety that characterises these systems, their cruelty and dismissiveness. After all, if you are trying to fight your way into the fall-out shelter to escape from the coming nuclear winter you can't afford to be too magnanimous.

I have placed most of the weight of this kind of anxiety upon sectarian Christians, but we have to admit that they have simply carried to an extreme an element that was in the consciousness of the Church from the beginning. The Church, until fairly recently, officially preached a message that might be described as delayed apocalyptic in its teaching about hellfire. We'll look at that more closely next time, but I want to underline the fact that high-level anxiety infected the Christian mind early on and it seems to have its root in the apocalyptic fervour that often characterises oppressed people everywhere.

If the sectarian impulse has its roots in anxiety over being on the wrong side at the end of time then the impulse behind the formation of the inclusivity of the Church is the human search for truth. In spite of our occasional irritation with the fact, it remains the case that truth is rarely  simple and seldom obvious. This is why mature institutions recognise the importance of conflict and disagreement in their search for truth, or the compromises that are often as close as we get to it.

The developed Church's obsession with heresy is negative witness to this fact. Heresy is a bit of the truth, a part of the complicated whole that is exaggerated at the expense of other perspectives. But what has been called the heretical imperative is very important in the testing of truth and the widening of its scope. The Church has wrestled for centuries with the meaning of Jesus and the movement that grew from 
his life.

Jesus did not found the Church nor did he appoint a set of office bearers with clearly defined job descriptions, nor did he codify and hand down a set of official teachings. What he did was to place himself and God on the side of those the official system defined as expendable outcasts among whom he generated an excitement about this new  understanding of God and one another.

He did more than question the received order: he treated it as though it did not exist; he acted as if his own vision of the welcoming father were already a universal reality. He was executed by the system he stood against; he too was an expendable man, but the vision did not die with him. It lived on, mixed up with elements of the old system he had  opposed as well as with elements of apocalyptic longing and messianic hope.

In fact, the earliest disagreements among his followers were about the meaning of the strands of apocalyptic expectation that had once been present in his thinking; and whether the movement that gathered around his memory was to stay in Jerusalem as a messianic sect waiting for his return, or whether his message was for all of humanity and could be taken to the ends of the earth. The struggles around these issues can be delineated in the pages of Paul's letters and in the Acts of the Apostles.

By the end of the first century the Christian movement had separated itself from Judaism in a way that was to have terrible consequences for the future of the Jewish people; had lost the edge of apocalyptic expectation though it was to remain an unpredictable and volatile sub-theme throughout Christian history; and had finally settled the  Gentile question and was poised to become a universal movement, a world-wide Church.

But what did all of this have to do with Jesus? There is an obvious conflict between the spirit of Jesus and the dynamics of institutional power so to be a follower of Jesus and a member of the Church, particularly if you are an official, creates a difficult tension. Let me try to explain that paradox.

Whenever any new vision or idea is born, whether in religion, art or politics it requires a process to carry it through history. The process is invented to mediate the vision, to make it present in time. Weber called this process "the routinisation of charisma". The great, gifted, given thing has to be embodied in a routine, a mechanism, whether it is a political party or a church. And two related and unavoidable things happen in this process.

By definition, visions or charisms cannot be perfectly routinised or institutionalised so the very process that gives them continuing life also begins to kill them. That is bad enough, but what amplifies the process of corruption is that the people who are brought in to direct the routine 
are usually more interested in, and are better at guarding, the process than the purpose or vision it is meant to serve.

The process itself becomes fascinating, takes over, becomes Church for Church's sake; so that the protection and maintenance of the institution becomes the institution's primary purpose. And Caiaphas, who sent Jesus to his death to protect the community of which he was a leader becomes the patron because the ethic of institutions is 
always expedience. It is always expedient that one man should die, or that marginal or unpopular groups be kept outside, rather than that the whole people perish.

Some echoes, some remnants of the original vision still get through of course, so the dangerous memory is preserved; but the main purpose becomes the survival of the institution itself. There is even a kind of tragic grandeur in this necessary corruption if it is honestly admitted. Part of Abraham Lincoln's greatness as a human being was that he understood how necessary these tragic compromises were to the survival of institutions. He wanted to preserve the Union without slavery if possible; but if the price of saving the Union was the retention of slavery, he was prepared to pay that as well.

In him, as in some other leaders, there is a sense of the tragic grandeur of these necessary compromises with truth and justice and one can salute those who have to make them. In the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov it is this very dilemma the 
aged Inquisitor describes to the imprisoned Jesus. Jesus says nothing, but he steps forward and kisses the Grand Inquisitor's "pale, bloodless lips". He understands. Even the cruelties of institutional logic are forgiven by the all-forgiving one.

But the paradox of the Church is deeper and more tragic than other institutional compromises because the Church has the impossible task of developing an institution and its logic of power in order to preserve the memory of one whose mission was to oppose the processes and sacrifices of power and its ethic of expedience, even at the cost of his own death.

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