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: #6
Richard Holloway

What's the Use of Heaven?
In my fourth lecture in this series "What's the Use of the Church?" I tried to capture something of the paradox of an institution that was created to preserve the challenging mem
ory of one who opposed the ethic of institutions and their inevitable sacrifice of individuals for the sake of the group.

I called this institutional principle the 'Caiaphatic ethic' because, as the eponym suggests, it was Caiaphas who honestly expressed it, when he said that it was more expedient to get rid of Jesus rather than risk the destruction of the whole people.

This is contrary to the ethic of Jesus who saw individuals, not  collectives, as the objects of his love and anger. It does not make institutional sense to leave 99 sheep alone and go searching for the one who is lost, but that is precisely what Jesus did. The Church exists to preserve the dangerous memory of Jesus but, by virtue of its reality as an institution of organised power, it inevitably embraces the ethic of the man who condemned him to death and pronounced the ethic of Jesus a historical impossibility. That is why the Church is, to quote St Paul, a true imposter or, to quote Monica Furlong's description of Alan Watts, a 'genuine fraud'.

But the imposture goes deeper than the inevitable corruption of  institutional survival. It goes down into the Church's very theological system and this creates a more profound departure from Jesus than the Church's tragic compromises with power.

I want to open up this subject by referring to a very difficult book on feminist philosophical theology which has been recently published. It is Grace Jantzen's Becoming Divine [1]. Basing much of what she says on the thought of Hannah Arendt, Jantzen suggests that we need to develop a new set of theological symbols if we are to convert Christianity into a movement that affirms rather than denies life.

She meditates on the significant fact that in the Western tradition  humans are described as 'mortals' and the task of the Church is to secure their immortality by programmes of 'redemption' and 'salvation'. The basic premise is that this life is of no significance of itself, but is only a prelude to a state beyond life that is either one of weal or of woe. We are mortal, born to die, and it is what awaits us beyond death that should preoccupy our every breath since the way we use this life will procure either an immortality of bliss or an immortality of woe.

Hannah Ardent scorns this dismal preoccupation with death and proposes a new symbolism, borrowed by Jantzen, that will emphasise, not the inevitability of our dying, but the actuality of our living. She wants us to think of ourselves not as mortals, as those who will die, but as 'natals', as those who are alive; and she wants us to act for love of the world not fear of it. Borrowing this symbolism, Jantzen wants us to emphasise our 'natality' rather than our 'mortality', and the 'flourishing ' of humanity and the earth we inhabit rather than programmes that will 'redeem' us from sin by guaranteeing us a life beyond life.

In her exposition of Arendt she points out that the Christian  preoccupation with death and salvation worked against a sense of connection to the web of life 'and taught people to be homeless in the world'. She quotes Arendt:

The other-worldly attitude of the early Christian creed made commitment to each other's natalities less significant since worldly aspirations and immortal fame granted by history were now viewed as illusory endevours ... In this context, human natality is no longer characterised by its unique capacity to begin, to act, or to re-enact but rather assumes a prominence only so far as it marks the occasion of the announcement of a new life whose ultimate meaning 
and fullfilment lay in the eternal life to come.
[2]

In this quotation Arendt is clearly echoing something said by St Augustine of Hippo, one of her intellectual heroes: "That a beginning be made, humanity was created". This does not mean that there was only one beginning but that it is in the nature of humanity always to be beginning. Each new birth is such a beginning.

The exciting thing about our history, the thing that helps to balance all the evil we have committed, is our passion for discovery, for beginning again. This genius for the new beginning characterises us in many ways and distinguishes us from other species. We produce new songs, new literature, new political freedoms, new understandings of God.

Religious institutions often give the impression that they have God taped, know God's settled opinion on everything. But the history of humanity's struggle with God is a history of constant surprise and discovery. Jantzen, in commenting on this insight, says:

... even when Christianity was gradually displaced 
by the secularism of modernity, the rejection of 
connectedness with the world and the efforts to 
dominate the earth and its peoples were a continuation of the Christian hostility to the world in another guise.
[3]

One of the conclusions Jantzen derives from looking at ourselves as natals rather than mortals is that it would help us to recover our kinship with the world. She points out that this is why feminist theologians take ecology seriously, in contrast to traditional philosophy and theology whose disembodied rationality assumes that our true home is in another world where God resides, so that the nearer we get to God the further away we must go from the natural and animal.

She contrasts this attitude with the words of the feminist, Clarice Lispector:

I felt that the animals were still one of the things 
close to God, a matter that has not yet invented 
itself, which is still warm from birth, and at the 
same time something that immediately stands on 
its feet, is thoroughly alive, that lives fully every 
instant, never a little at a time, that never spares 
itself, that never wears itself out completely..
[4]

This approach to life is in marked contrast to one side of Christian thinking which has looked upon the world with gloom and suspicion rather than with wonder and excitement. Thankfully, there is a counter tradition within Christian history. Charles Williams said that there were two fundamental Christian theologies, 'the rejection of images' and 'the affirmation of images'. I would like now to compare those approaches.

What Williams calls ' the way of rejection' is based upon a theology of redemption and rescue. By virtue of being born we find ourselves in exile from our true homeland and need to be rescued. We are not where we truly belong but are placed in some sort of captivity from 
which we must escape. The work of the Church is to effect this rescue.

Since this approach genuinely touches one of our ancient human experiences it is no surprise to find that in the mysterious collection of archetypes we call the Bible there are texts that can be read in support of this interpretation of human history. The originating text is found in Genesis, Chapter 3, where we read of the temptation of Adam and Eve, their fall from innocence, and their expulsion from Eden.

In the Letter to the Romans, in Chapter 5, Paul uses this text to develop an interpretation of the work of Christ whose role is to recapitulate or rewind this primordial tragedy and bring it this time to a happy ending. In the second lecture of this series, on the Bible, I discussed the archetypal power of this narrative and Paul's gloss upon it. There are other uses of it, of course. It can be used as a metaphor that expresses the human experience of discontent and loss.

I have already suggested that this metaphor is the best way to understand these ancient themes so that Heaven becomes an image of longing as well as loss, just as Hell becomes an image of dread as well as a description of much that we have made of ourselves.

However, there is another tradition within Christianity that sees these great archetypes not as living metaphors but as historical facts, and that is when, if we are not careful, we can seriously delude ourselves. Eden used as a metaphor can be illuminating; Eden used as a map of 
reference can be dangerously confusing. The theology of rejection we are thinking about has usually taken the metaphor literally so that it ends up condemning humanity to a guilt and bondage that requires some sort of literal redemption.

According to this system Christ's death is a blood bargain with God who demands satisfaction for humanity's original and actual sin. Christ pays the blood price by his death and saves those who associate themselves with his sacrifice by claiming his self-offering as the price already paid for their redemption.

The redemption theme is used by Paul as a metaphor by Paul to interpret the work of Christ, and it got its meaning and power from the practice of manumission or the freeing of slaves. The older generation of our society, particularly among the poor, will hear echoes of the pawn shop, where you put your grandfather's gold watch in pawn in the middle of the week when you had cash flow problems, and redeemed it on Friday when the wage packet came in. 

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