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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The Myths of Christianity - 3
The Myth of Justification by Faith
Richard Holloway

In my first lecture in this series I referred to Thomas Kuhn's ground-breaking essay, 'The Structure of Scientific Revolutions'. One of Kuhn's most persuasive insights was that science is human and that shifts in scientific thinking, paradigm shifts, are prompted by social forces as well as by what we might think of as pure science.

This should not surprise us, of course, but it is worth repeating, because one of the permanent fallacies we commit in all the human disciplines is to accord them an objectivity they cannot have. So we imagine that the ideal scientific experiment is one that is completely clinical and abstracted, conducted from some kind of bunker that insulates the scientist from outside influences. No such isolation is possible or desirable. There is no way we can get ourselves out of our skin or out of our social and cultural context.

Even a scientist as rigorous as Darwin, in finding a narrative in which to express his discoveries, had to use metaphors that clearly came from nineteenth century capitalism, with its notion of struggle and the survival of the fittest. When Kuhn used the Copernican revolution as an example of how paradigm shifts occurred, he recognised that new social needs, as well as scientific discoveries, contributed to the replacement of the Ptolemaic paradigm by the Copernican one.

If non-scientific factors contribute to the work of science, then it is certainly the case that non-theological factors contribute to the work of theology. I would go further and say that there are no such things as purely theological factors. There may be objective elements in theology such as the claims of revelation and historical debates over their meaning, but the work of theology is an inescapably human work. In addition to the human factors involved, scientists do have an external reality to work on and look at in the form of everything other than themselves that exists.

Theologians, in spite of the claims they make to the contrary, do not have access to an equivalent metaphysical reality from which they can make deductions and conduct experiments. Everything they have to deal with comes from within the human envelope. Theology is more like psychology than geology; it is another way of describing human experience and its struggles with itself. The proof of this is that even if we assert the existence of a reality other than ourselves that reveals itself to us, we are inescapably fixed on the human end of that experience and cannot know the Other as it is in itself, but only as we receive it or have known it.

The reason theological dispute is so endless is that there are no empirical experiments that can obviously settle them, the way we might settle a dispute over the exact temperature of the boiling point of water or establish the age of an artifact by carbon dating. This will only disturb us if we have persuaded ourselves that when we are doing theology we are dealing with a substance other than ourselves.

Whereas the enduringly fascinating thing about theology is that it provides us with a mirror into our own souls. This is particularly the case when we come to examine one of the most fascinating and complex of the Christian theological themes, the idea of Justification by Faith.

In John Osborne's great play about him, he relates Luther's discovery of the significance of this great theme in Paul's letter to the Romans to the German reformer's constipation, to which he was a martyr. W. H. Auden made the same point when he said that 'Revelation came to Luther in the privy'. In Osborne's play the release of the great idea that ignited the Reformation exactly coincides with a massive evacuation of Luther's bowels.

Luther's anguish was caused by the fact that he felt incapable of achieving the perfection God required of him. Many of the great religious geniuses have been souls in torment about themselves who found peace through the discovery of a spiritual truth that rescued them from despair.

Buddhism is one of the most attractive examples of how human anguish can prompt people to the search for a costly peace. The story is well known of the young prince who renounced worldly glory to seek salvation, and discovered that the stumbling block to his own salvation, and the cause of all human misery, was desire or craving. If he could get rid of that desire, banish that craving, he would know the peace of high Nirvana. The genius of Buddhism is that it is a "Middle Way" that repudiates two extremes, the worthless life of self-indulgence and the equally worthless life of self-torture.

The difference between Buddhism and Christianity is that Buddhism is essentially a practice, an arduous discipline that can deliver peace and compassion to its adherents. Christianity also has its spiritual disciplines, but it also believes that its doctrines are themselves saving and life-changing. Much of this goes back to the originating genius of Christian theology, Saul of Tarsus who became Paul. The paradox is that what for Paul was a liberating psychological experience was later to be hardened into a formula that radically contradicted his original insight and the experience that prompted it.

It is hazardous to guess at the psychological disposition of long-dead people who are only known to us through their writing, but Paul did provide us with a lot of material for our speculations; he disclosed much of himself in a series of letters that are a valuable tool for our exercise in detection.

William James divided people into healthy and sick souls, into people with equable dispositions and people who are internally conflicted and divided. Paul seems to have been an example of the latter. He tells us in the Letter to the Romans that he is puzzled by the divisions in his own nature:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?

The orthodox way to interpret Paul's personal anguish is to say that he sought to make himself perfect through the minute observance of the Torah or holiness code of the Jewish people. He tells us in the Letter to the Galatians that he was a strict practitioner of the way of his people:

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.

An insight from Rabbi Lionel Blue may help us here. In a lecture he gave in Edinburgh he remarked on the different ways the followers of the three great monotheistic religions go mad. In Judaism madness takes the form of obsessive compulsive neurosis; in Christianity it becomes sado-masochism; and in Islam it is megalomania.

It is a perceptive insight. There can be little doubt that the Christian obsession with guilt and punishment has been richly productive of sado-masochism in the practices, as well as in the iconography of his adherents. Obsessive-compulsive neurosis is an equally obvious danger for those who follow a highly ritualised religious code, like the Torah. And Woody Allen is a good example of how these tendencies can be entirely secularised. As far as Islam is concerned, there does seem to be a tendency to megalomania, if only in response to what is perceived to be international prejudice against this ancient religion.

If there is anything in Lionel Blue's insight, it might help to account for Paul's crisis, both before and after his conversion. We do not know if he ever met or heard Jesus, and he certainly does not quote him nor show explicit acquaintance with his teaching. What he does is to develop a mystical response to the crucifixion of Jesus, but at its heart we can detect a relieved acceptance of Jesus' critique of code based religion, precisely because it can become a vehicle for obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

The best way to get into this is to look at the attitude of Jesus to the Sabbath, because it exemplified his approach to a number of fundamental matters. We invent systems, such as days of rest, to help us live wisely, but there is a tendency in us to take these useful inventions too seriously and offer them an absolute allegiance. This was the point that Jesus made in his dispute with the legalists of his day.

One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grain fields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" Jesus answered, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?" Then he said to them, "The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath."

On another Sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the Sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, "Come and stand here." He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, "I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?" After looking around at all of them, he said to him, "Stretch out your hand." He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

Mark's original version of the first of these two incidents is even more significant, because it contains the saying that relativises all human systems, including religious ones, and refuses them any absolute and unchanging authority. They are all human and therefore provisional in their usefulness. The time may come when they have to be modified in response to a particular human need, as in the case of the man with the withered arm in Luke, or replaced entirely by a system that does the job better.

One Sabbath he was going through the grain fields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.

Our danger is that we often make things we invent for a good reason so absolute that they end up defeating the purpose they were intended to serve. There's an amusing example of this in the Robert De Niro comedy, 'Meet the Parents'. Ben Stiller, the hapless hero of the movie, is in an airport departure lounge about to board his plane. The steward calls for passengers in seat-rows nine and above to come forward. Since the departure lounge is completely empty, our hero steps forward and presents his boarding card for seat-row eight. The steward orders him to step back, because his row has not been called. He remonstrates with her: 'No one else is boarding, why can't I come through now?' 'Because we board by strict rotation of seat row' is the reply. They wait for a few minutes while no one boards; then she calls for all remaining passengers to come forward and he, alone, presents his ticket.

Boarding planes by seat-row-rotation makes sense, it assists us in wise living, but to make it an absolute rule in all circumstances is insane. That's the point, the only point in Jesus' dispute about the Sabbath. Exact, compulsive observance of the letter of any code can take us over and drive us mad, as we seek to achieve a perfect conformity to the law or custom.

Whatever the precise nature of Paul's religious torment, he found release from it by a particular application of the teaching of Jesus to his condition.

Fatefully, however, rather than proclaiming a new attitude to human codes that would help us to get them into proportion, which is what we get from Jesus, he claimed that the death of Jesus effected a mystical change in the order of things that mechanistically changed relations between God and humanity.

Behind the formula he developed to express this doctrine there probably lay an awareness of Jesus' critique of all codes, because they can turn what was meant to assist humanity into a heavy burden round its neck. Paul expressed the liberation he experienced in the metaphor of justification or acquittal: a wretched criminal stands in the dock, tormented by guilt and self-loathing, waiting for certain condemnation; miraculously, the tortured soul is gratuitously acquitted of guilt and set free.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

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