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? [Continued]
By applying the metaphor of redemption literally against the background of an equally literalist reading of the narratives of fall and banishment from Eden, the Church began to think of itself as being like on of those special forces groups sent in to deal with those hostage situations that have become such a clich� of our era. Its job is to free as many hostages as it can from captivity and get them on board the ship of safety. So, to mix the metaphor, the Church becomes a life boat, launched to fish as many people as it can from the sea of destruction.

When this theological system becomes dominant the prevailing 
emotion becomes anxiety. If we accept this account of the human predicament then our anxiety is bound to become acute. We become anxious, not only to avoid actions that may lead to eternal damnation, but to avoid thinking or believing the wrong things about our condition.

In the last lecture we spent some time thinking about the ethical logic of systems that used the threat of punishment after death as a way of controlling our actions before death. The anxiety goes deeper than that and affects the way we think, because wrong believing becomes as dangerous as wrong action. This is the logic behind the excesses of the Inquisition and all those purges that characterise the history of religion. It is expedient that a few heretics be burned at the stake than that the whole people of God perish through the infections of heresy.

Theologies of anxiety postulate God as judge and the Church as the criminal justice system. It becomes more important to root out evil than to promote good. Contrary to the parable of Jesus much energy is spent pulling out the weeds from the field of corn. If we follow the advice of Jesus and leave them until the harvest we might discover that they have taken over and suffocated the corn.

Religious anxiety always hates the devil more than it loves God. It creates churches that are exclusive in their self-understanding and proclaim that there is no salvation for anyone outside their walls. It is this great engine of anxiety that promoted the remarkable successes of Christian mission. The urge to save as many as possible from the wrath of God was a powerful spur to missionary heroism; and the fear of that same wrath has always been a powerful incentive to conversion.

Theologies of anxiety have several important strengths. The main one is the coherence of the system they proclaim. Once we accept the premises on which the message is based, the logic is powerful and persuasive. It can be learnt easily and taught effectively. It is essentially a product, a package that can be explained to the sales force.

Its second strength is that it can be remarkably successful in inculcating particular systems of behaviour. the Protestant Work Ethic is an example of how a particular version of the theology of anxiety led to a powerful ethic of duty that remains long after the theological premise of which it was based has been abandoned.

The final strength that is worth noting is the sacrificial lives of those who have committed themselves to this particular theological approach. It has taken them to the ends of the earth and prompted them to extraordinary feats of human endurance. Those of us who cannot admire the theological motivation that lay behind such heroism ought, nevertheless, to admire those who gave their lives in its service.

Fortunately, this is not the only theological tradition that has been developed in Christian history. There is the approach the Charles Williams calls 'the affirmation of images'. This tradition emphasises incarnation rather than redemption, and the goodness of creation rather than its fallen state. The great texts from scripture that express this approach are the first chapter of Genesis and its celebration of the gift of creation, as well as the first seventeen verses of John's Gospel that proclaim the enlightening presence of the Word of God in the creation from the beginning.

These rival or complementary theologies inevitably remind us of the old challenge that asks whether the glass is half empty or half full. It is a question as to whether we emphasise what Matthew Fox calls 'original blessing' and the goodness or joy of life; or 'original guilt' and the undoubted fact that we go on destroying our own peace and polluting 
our own habitation.

The original blessing or incarnation approach coheres well with Jantzen's theology of natality and flourishing. Grace and the celebration of life, rather than dread and fear of death, become the motivators of action and thought. The message does not warn people how to be saved out of this wicked world. It invites them to feel at home in it, to reverence it, and to practise the disciplines of sharing its good things with others, particularly with the poor of the earth.

It is not true to say that the theology of natality and flourishing, the theology of life, lacks challenge and rigour. It calls us to courageous action against all that spills the joy of life and the sacredness of creation. It calls us to a politics of justice and redistribution because one of the scandals of history is the way the powerful always colonise God's creation for themselves and yoke God's children into slavery. The theology of flourishing calls us, in the language of the prayer of Jesus, to build the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

However, compared to the theologies of anxiety and fear, the theology of life and flourishing often suffers from presentational difficulties. The theology of rejection, as we have seen, is schematically logical once we accept the originating premise on which it is based. That is why it is easy to plant it as a complete system in the hearts and minds of its practitioners.

Its negative use is also easy to apply, which is why the most successful student organisation in Britain is able to operate a test that screens out those that do not adhere to the purity of the system. They do not want theological creativity in their speakers because the system is already perfectly created. The only creativity that is permitted is at the rhetorical level where the speaker's art may be used to commend the system.

Human beings find these complete systems to be the best antidote to anxiety, so it is not surprising that the history of religion and politics is full of them. TS Eliot was constantly reminding us that humankind cannot bear too much reality, so the success of these systems should not surprise or dismay us. Perhaps those of us who can no longer adhere to them should not waste our emotional and intellectual energy in combating them, and instead should turn our attention to the positive promotion of the other vision of reality we have been exploring.

In conclusion, therefore, I would like to sketch the outline of such a positive programme and in my lectures next year, my final year as Gresham Professor of Divinity, I will continue the process.

What should be the defining characteristics of a positive theology of life? I would like to suggest three elements.

We must learn to pay attention to the earth and its creatures. The traditional name for this process is prayer or contemplation. We must be people who pray or pay attention, people who stop and notice things. One way into this is through the writings of poets, who are the geniuses of attention and contemplation. In my second lecture I pointed out that language, while it was our greatest gift and invention, was also our greatest danger because it can deceive us.

The word 'water' is not drinkable. Rather, words are pointers to realities, outside the self, to which they call attention. That is when we must beware of sanctifying the words themselves. They are not holy though they can be the means whereby the holy is communicated to us. But there are words which transcend this limitation so that they almost become, or at least put us in the presence of, that which they signify.

Poetry is the supreme example of this as far as language is concerned, though music is probably its purest expression among the human arts. Poetry is the fruit of attention or contemplation and through it we find ourselves in the real presence of mysteries beyond ourselves.

But this prayer of attention should not just be focused on nature. We should look at one another with the same expectation of revelation, especially when we look into alien worlds, even frightening ones. One way of doing this is to make a point of buying The Big Issue from every vendor we meet so that (and this is the real point) we can look into their eyes and say something that connects us to them. Even if we have no money we can look at them and apologies and smile ruefully. Many of them will find that just as important a gift as the pound coin we can too easily slip into their hands without paying attention.

And we should pay attention to people enjoying themselves, especially to lovers and friends sharing affection or amusement. Great cities are the best places for this because we can encounter many worlds as we walk along the street.

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