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: #5
Richard Holloway

What is the Use of Hell? (Continued)
The wicked ought to be punished, but rarely are in this life, so they will have to be punished in the next because righteousness must be vindicated. It is the thought of the millennia of unrequited suffering that is the strongest emotional element in the logic of damnation. Morally speaking, however, this is light years way from the terroristic use of the threat of hell to deter young boys from sexual experimentation so that it disfigures later development of the doctrine. 'Surely', the original logic must have reasoned, 'if there is anything for us beyond death, a righteous God must require the wicked to pay for their evil deeds in this life and repent of them'.

Repentance, that change of mind that owns the truth about itself, requires some sort of response on our part, some sort of reparation. A good contemporary example of this powerfully felt conviction is provided by programmes that bring offenders together with their victims. Often, the encounter leads offenders to a change of awareness about their conduct and a recognition of the victim as a person. Repentance means a change of attitude, a turning towards and an owning of the truth about oneself.

But what if the repentance has not happened in this life? Is there another chance beyond death, supposing that anything awaits us beyond death? The absolute systems say a definite 'no' to that. That is why death-bed repentance features so strongly in history. It is cutting it fine to leave it until the moment of death, which is why the old Prayer Book litany prayed fervently against dying 'suddenly and unprepared'.

However, there was an interesting development in Roman Catholic theology that modified the rigour of this answer. One of the fascinating things about Catholic theology is the way it invents rather unpleasant doctrines because of its passion for logic and law, and then gradually admits to itself that it has probably gone too far for frail humans. So it proceeds to construct ameliorating exceptions to the general rule, into which it manages to fit most people; or it develops the offensive concept in different directions to give it a saving versatility.

This is what happened in the case of hell. It was later followed by the concept of purgatory where the soul confronted what evil it had committed in life and went through a refining fire that purged and purified it so that it could at last enter the presence of God.

It is true that hell was still the verdict for what were classified as mortal sins while purgatory was for venial sins; but casuistry did allow a bit of leeway even here and concepts like invincible ignorance were useful ways of getting people off the hook.

There are obviously several human applications of this rather grisly theme in Christian theology. The main one has to be the need to take personal responsibility for our own actions, especially for the pain and damage we have inflicted on others. The important thing to notice here is not any forensic or legal logic: we are not talking about punishment to satisfy the law's demands. That may have its place but it is not what I am focusing on at the moment.

It is important to ourselves to accept responsibility for our actions and to acknowledge the effect they have had on others because knowing the truth about ourselves is fundamental to our spiritual and moral development. On of the saddest misuses of a life is to go through it without really getting to know it. Plato said the unexamined life was not worth living. To get through life without any discernible increase in self-knowledge is a terrible waste because it is a refusal to look attentively at the reality that is closest at hand, our own self.

That is why all the great systems of spiritual discipline emphasise the importance of self-examination and confession. If we are to grow as humans we need to know what we are up against within ourselves, need to understand the reality of our condition, our weaknesses and our strengths, our failures, as well as the things we have done well.

Unfortunately human males in particular have developed among themselves cultures of honour and shame in which losing face or owning up to weakness is not done. That is why it can be particularly difficult to bring them to deep self-awareness, which may be one reason why institutional religion has manufactured brutal spiritual mechanisms such as hell in order to blast through the carapace of male insensitivity. Unfortunately, their effect has often been to coarsen rather than refine the process of true spiritual awareness.

But let me return to the concept of hell itself. The idea, as expressed in the sermon from Joyce or countless others we could quote, is so gross that something deep and archetypal must be going on below the overt need to control human waywardness by literally scaring the hell out of them. Why did the concept develop in the way it did, with its list of demons commissioned to lure unwary souls into their clutches?

One of the theologians who gave some thought to this was Paul Tillich. He believed that the idea of the demonic was the mythical expression of an important human reality, namely, the structural and inescapable power of evil.

There is a kind of mind (kindly, liberal, humanist) that either refuses to, or is incapable of, confronting the intractability of this kind of evil. It sees only 'individual acts of evil, dependent on the free decisions of the conscious personality', says Tillich. It believes 'in the possibility of inducing the great majority of individuals to follow the demands of an integrated personal and social life by education, persuasion, and adequate institutions', he goes on.

This kindly belief in progress and human perfectibility was destroyed by the horrible wars and purges of this century as well as by our explorations into the depths of our own psyches. The great analysts of humanity's sick soul (Freud, Jung, Adler) explored and recorded their encounters with destructive forces deep within us that unpredictably determined the energies of individuals and whole groups.

It was as though their encounter with the unconscious forces within us were providing them with a preview of the great horrors that were to erupt on the conscious surface of history. The wars and persecutions of this century, as well as some of its most exciting intellectual discoveries, have forced us to confront two almost ungovernable sources of evil which Tillich called demonic.

One is the hidden continent within our own nature which we call the unconscious; and the other is the herd instinct, the collective dimension of humanity which can take over or possess our individuality. These demonic forces, together or separately, create structures of evil that are beyond the influence of normal powers of good will. They promote individual and social tragedy of the sort that we have witnessed throughout this century and which we continue to observe helplessly in our own time. [4]

Our impotence in the face of this kind of structured evil, our recognition that the institutions we create have a collective dynamic that often overrides the ethics of the individual, and our experience of the brutal reality of the group mind, all persuade us that there are systems of evil that are superhuman in their power and impervious to human rationality. That is why it is so difficult to find a way of explaining those great forces that does not fall back on supernatural language.

The best analogy I can think of comes from the weather systems that make life in the United States dangerously unpredictable. The great hurricanes and twisters that wreak such damage in the United States could easily lead the uneducated mind to supernatural conclusions. Science, however, knows about the collision of weather systems that generates these spectacular forces, and can even predict them.

The myth of the demonic is a way of expressing the eruptions and collisions of evil and suffering that so disfigure our history. If it is hell we are thinking of then we have confronted it in our own century in a series of monstrous evils that might have been scripted by Dante. And none was worse or more archetypal than the holocaust, the destruction of six million Jews in the death camps of Europe. It was as if the hell of Christian imagination had finally erupted into history and established itself in our midst.

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