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 - 5
The Myth of the Resurrection

Richard Holloway

One of the problems people have with Christian beliefs is that they do not know what they are for. They may know what the belief is, but they are not sure what it is meant to do or why it is important to hold it. After all, everyone has beliefs of one sort or another, but people usually understand what they are for and how they work. 

For example, if a friend is accused of some crime or offence, they say, "I believe in Simon and I know he is incapable of an act like that". A belief of this sort is an act of trust, a conviction about the character of another person that you act upon. And it can be tested, it can be verified or falsified. In the case of Simon, who has been accused of embezzling funds from the charity of which he is treasurer, there is a solid chance that his innocence will be proved or his guilt established. If he is declared innocent, our trust in him, our belief in his honesty, will be vindicated; if he is proved guilty, our trust in him will be broken. 

Whatever happens to it, we at least know what our belief in Simon is about and we know what it would take to vindicate or destroy it. So there is a logic behind belief in people which we can all understand: it is about placing our trust in them, sometimes in a risky way. 

Trust is important in day-to-day living. We can't spend our time constantly testing the honesty and the trustworthiness of our friends, so we go on our intuitions, our hunches about them, our experience, the knowledge we have built up about them over the years. That kind of trust is the reality that under girds all our important relationships.

Come to think of it, it is the basis of almost every aspect of our lives: many of the things we do are based on assumptions that are acts of trust or belief. Apart from trusting our friends, we put our trust in surgeons when we have an operation. That's a very radical sort of trust, because we allow them to anaesthetise us and cut us open and mess about with our insides. 

Less momentously, though perhaps more grudgingly today, we trust the transport system. When I get on the train at Edinburgh for King's Cross, I believe that I'll be taken to London, not Lowestoft. All these cases, though they are examples of belief, are based on experience - experience of the trustworthiness of the Health Service or the Railway Company - so that I am prepared to put myself in their hands for a heart operation or a trip to London.

But how do religious beliefs operate, how do they work? 

There seem to be two difficulties with them. First of all, it is not easy either to falsify or to verify them. We can take steps to verify Simon's honesty; we can test the trustworthiness of a surgeon by various means, including the number of people who leave his operating theatre alive rather than dead; and we can study the claims made by the train companies about how many of their trains made it to London on time last year. 

How do we verify the existence of God, or even falsify it, for that matter? You can get round that difficulty, to some extent, by saying you choose to trust your intuition, or you are persuaded by the philosophical arguments that deal with the matter, or you have decided to bet on the possibility, following Pascal on the grounds that if you win you win everything, and if you lose you only lose nothing. Pascal's wager is superficially seductive, but on closer analysis it leaves lots of questions. 

What God are we betting on? Our understanding of God and God's role in the life of the universe has shifted radically over the centuries. So what God on whose existence are we going to bet? If believing in God is to hold in our minds the conviction that there is a superhuman being to whom we give that name, it is still legitimate to ask: 'So what? What difference does it make?' After all, according to the Letter of James, even 'the devils believe, and tremble'. 

So it is entirely appropriate to ask this other question of belief: what's the point, what difference does it make, what is its cash value, to use an expression from William James?

If we think of miracles, for instance, which many people proudly claim to believe in, as though some special virtue were attached to such a belief: what difference does it make to believe in them? Leaving aside for the moment whether Jesus actually performed any miracles, what would be the point in believing that he did, what would the belief be for? 

In an earlier period of theological history, people used Jesus' miracles in a practical way as evidence of his divinity, but that is a perilous enterprise for us to engage in today and few apologists for orthodox Christianity proffer it in serious debate. Apart from the healing miracles, which can be made to fit our understanding of the psychosomatic nature of the human being, most interpreters now allocate the miracles of Jesus to the worldview of his time and accord them little significance in the lives of modern believers.

After all, miracles of the sort described in the New Testament continue to occur, but not where we live and rarely to people like us. If a statue starts weeping in Sicily or an impression of the face of Jesus appears in a motel window in El Paso, supernatural claims are made for these events and large crowds gather, but most of us will look for natural explanations for the incidents, including straightforward fraud. 

It does not follow, however, that we will want to dismiss those who believe in a supernatural cause for these events as primitive or ignorant. We understand well enough that people have always occupied different places in their understanding of things. I cannot grudge those who believe in it, the comfort or excitement of a magical world-view. But I cannot hold it myself, not because I am a representative of faithless scepticism, but because I have inherited a different way of looking at things and it would be dishonest of me to abandon it or exclude religion from its consequential effects. 

In this area, we have to pick our way along a defile between cultural arrogance and superiority, on the one hand, and honest acceptance of our own cognitive situation, on the other. It is reminiscent of Thomas Kuhn's dilemma when he was comparing Aristotle's Physics to Newton's. It was a liberating moment for him when he realised that Aristotle's Physics were a valid interpretation of the way things were in the universe, but that it was superseded by a later account that was a better fit. 

The miraculous way of looking at things is still held by some with perfect integrity today, just as it was once possible to hold an honest belief in Ptolemaic astronomy. But once a particular society has shifted to a different scheme of interpretation, a different paradigm of understanding, why do some people hold it to be virtuous or faithful to cleave to remnants of the old world-view in the religious department? 

I can appreciate the argument from preference or cultural weariness here - but not the claim of faithfulness. 

Some people just don't like new things. They prefer stage coaches to steam trains, ocean liners to jumbo jets, coal fires to central heating. It is not difficult to sympathise with this kind of weariness with change and the endless successiveness of history. When we encounter this kind of nostalgia among our friends, we smile, shrug our shoulders and say something to the effect that James is just a young fogey who doesn't like the modern world. All of that we can negotiate and even appreciate as having a certain kind of counter-cultural attractiveness to it.

The stakes shoot up when we enter the religious end of the argument.

People might prefer steam trains to diesels for romantic reasons, but it would be wrong of them to claim the virtue of faithfulness for doing so. They are exercising a preference, that's all. We might offer a similarly relaxed attitude to people who said that they preferred the religious world-view of earlier societies to the scientific world view of their own; or that they liked the drama and unexpectedness of medieval consciousness, with its sense of encircling spiritual forces out to infest and entrap the unwary human; and they might even persuade themselves that they were inhabiting it. 

Of course, we know that we and they are incapable of entering the consciousness of a French peasant of a thousand years ago; and if they pulled off the trick it would probably scare them witless. These are games we play, choices we make; and it is all right, as long as we don't exert spiritual blackmail on those who choose not to play the game.

The point I am labouring here is that the scheme of interpretation that presents Jesus as a visitant from a supernatural realm who performed wonders, including raising the dead and walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee, is just that - a scheme of interpretation, a way of responding to events that was congruent with a particular stage of understanding and development. In that world people regularly witnessed miracles, encountered ghosts, were infested by demons and knew of men who had been turned into wolves during the full moon. That was how most people interpreted what was happening around them. 

David Hume understood what was going on:

We are placed in this world, as in a great theatre, where the true springs and causes of every event are entirely concealed from us; nor have we either sufficient wisdom to foresee, or power to prevent those ills, with which we are continually threatened. We hang in perpetual suspense between life and death, health and sickness, plenty and want; which are distributed amongst the human species by secret and unknown causes, whose operation is oft unexpected, and always unaccountable. These unknown causes, then, become the constant object of our hope and fear; and while the passions are kept in perpetual alarm by an anxious expectation of the events, the imagination is equally employed in forming ideas of those powers, on which we have so entire a dependence.

What Hume called our 'ideas of those powers on which we have so entire a dependence' have been in permanent flux, as the history of our species, including its ideas, so clearly illustrates. If we are wise, we won't sneer at earlier ideas about the powers that control us, but nor will we accord them virtue just because they came before us.

Apart from school boards in the buckle of the Bible Belt in the USA, most people in our world accept the narrative metaphor of evolution as the best way of accounting for things on planet earth. Who knows, a better way of stating the situation may come along, but most of us operate within the Darwinian paradigm fairly successfully today. What, then, is the point of insisting that the now abandoned paradigm of Creation is true? Why is it held to be virtuous to go on believing it, or any of the other elements from previous ways of explaining things?

The immediate reason is that in religious discourse we have accorded a particularly privileged status to the documents that narrate the old paradigm. The traditional way of putting this is to say they are 'inspired' or dictated by God and are therefore deemed to be beyond correction. 

There is an inevitable circularity in this argument: we believe the Bible, because it tells us that it is the word of God - and God cannot be wrong. 

A deeper reason for holding to a previous understanding of things is probably rooted in our psychological need for certainty, even if we manufacture the certainty ourselves. We are unhappy with the fluidity and impermanence of the explanations that are around today. Something in us wants more than this kind of experimental provisionality. 

If we are not careful, this is the kind of need that can seduce us into falling for dictators and their grand schemes, even if they are only American tele-evangelists. There is no doubt that grand, totalising claims can rescue us, for a time, from anguish and ennui and make living worthwhile again, but that is why they are so dangerous. When they fail us - usually because we discover more honest ways of understanding the world - we can be left with an utter contempt for all religion.

Let me return now to my question. For the sake of argument, let us suppose that we persuaded ourselves to believe in Creationism, or to believe that Jesus materially multiplied five small loaves and three small fish into enough food for more than 5000. Will believing these things make any difference to us or make us better people? Is there some virtue in believing things that accord with a previous world-view precisely because they are contrary to the present state of knowledge in our culture? Is there a "believing muscle" we exercise by persuading ourselves to entertain fabulous possibilities? 

Christian doctrinal beliefs are mainly about the interpretation of distant events that are beyond our ability to falsify or verify, so we can't resolve the issue by any obvious test. 

There seem to be two options for us: We can either get ourselves embroiled in the factual detail of claim and counter-claim. Or we can resolve the issue by the paradigm test by which we admit that the challenge of Jesus is completely enmeshed in a world-view we can no longer accept. But we decide that its cultural envelope is incidental to its main message, which we can still make use of today. 

If we take this approach, it means that for us a Christian belief is not a device for containing obsolete interpretations of the universe, but is an action indicator. This means that Christianity is not an organisation for the reproduction of antique mental furniture, but is a movement that presents a fundamental moral challenge to humanity. Christianity is not a way of explaining the world; it is a way of disturbing the world. So the only test left is the difference a belief makes, the cash value test.

This approach is particularly important when we come to consider the central or constitutive Christian belief, which is the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

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