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 Sixth Paradigm  (Continued)

Kung's second paradigm ranges from the first to the sixth centuries. This is often called the Church's Hellenistic period. The second paradigm arises out of the encounter between the Jesus movement and Greek philosophical intellectual culture.

This paradigm is still around. We call it theology. It's also still around in some parts of the larger Christian institution. If you visit Cyprus you'll see men in stovepipe hats still very much in many ways embedded in this paradigm. It may be true to observe that the Orthodox churches are least of all susceptible to cultural shifts and changes, and most of all likely to become locked into cultural imprisonment.

The language of the second paradigm dates back fifteen hundred years to the period in which Christian theology was being formulated. It was written up in Greek. So it makes understanding it difficult if you're a 21st century English speaker!

Remember that all translation is to some degree a distortion of the original. We all experience this when we talk in the creeds about three "Persons" in one "Trinity". The word "person" means to us a separate individual. But it's actually a translation of a translation of a Greek term that probably refers to the mask that Greek actors wore. When you've got three actors playing about fifteen parts in a Greek play, they switch to a new part by picking up a new mask - that is, a persona - in order to express another personality in the play. This word has been translated into English as "person", which confuses things a good deal.

So Christian theologians grabbed some of this far older Greek language and these ancient Greek ideas in order to try and express their current experience of God through Jesus in the centuries after the apocalyptic era.

That's when you get a developed christology and the notion of the two natures of Jesus as perfect God and perfect man. It's also when the nature of the Trinity as the personas of Father, Son and Holy Spirit is worked out.

Most of the theological language we use today comes from this period. There is something exciting about it - but there's also something intrinsically problematic about giving language that kind of power.

We should note that theological language has more power than normal language because it purports to be about God. It is supposed to inform us what God is like and how God has interacted with humans and the world. And if that's the case we should obviously pay more attention to it than to language about, say, the merits and demerits of a film star.

The thing about words is that things are not what we say they are. My favourite example is that the word "bread" is not something edible. A word is a nothing that points to a something. It's simply a breath. It's simply a sign, rather like a road sign.

Words are a sort of map, if you like. But you can't walk through the countryside on a map. Nor can you climb a hill on the contours of an ordinary survey map. We know that words are only guides to the world, not the world itself. For most purposes of language we make that distinction.

Unfortunately theological language has gone kind of paranoid. Ecclesiastical institutions tend to think that their language is in itself something. So you get theological wars. People actually fight over the meaning of words. And they fight because there's nothing to which they can infallibly refer. When we talk about God we don't actually have before us the thing to which God-talk refers. We only have the sign.

It's a bit like operating in a country that is fully mapped but does not exist. So we have endless opportunity for quarrelling about the road signs themselves. We debate whether the word-maps really have measured that mountain, or whether that loch really does tuck in this way, or whether that firth is exactly like that. Obviously if the country to which the map refers is not available to us then we have an infinite opportunity to punch each other up over the exact status of the language.

That's why theology is such a contentious, argumentative business. Apart from our natural quarrelsomeness as human beings, there's something particularly quarrelsome about religion precisely because we don't have access to the things we claim to be talking about. At the end of the day we can't really decide the issues in question. That's what makes theological language both so exciting and so precarious, and that's why people like Schweitzer gave up on it.

It really is a kind of word game. We constantly invent new ways of doing it. There's a new way, which I vaguely understand, called "radical orthodoxy". It appears to be very highbrow and French and is taught in various universities up and down the United Kingdom. It seems to be very orthodox. It likes the old language and so it keeps it around.

How are we to take this movement? You know where you are with an absolute fundamentalist who thinks that God is essentially a kind of three-headed being or something like metaphysical triplets. They unabashedly place objective meaning on theological language.

It's hard to tell what the radical orthodoxy people are doing except to note that they like to keep all the old words around and that they're trying to develop new meanings for them.

The enduring element of the second paradigm is that it recognises and affirms that we are creatures who can think for ourselves. And if today we're in a faith community we want (at least most of us do) to have the totality of our beings involved in living the Christian life. Insofar as we want that, we also want our minds to be involved.

The American Episcopal Church ran an advertising campaign some years ago which said, "You don't have to park your mind outside our Church before you come in". The idea being that it appealed to the mind as well as the emotions. And there's one that I like even better. As we know, one of the big debates in the USA is the debate about prayer in school. A bumper-sticker in Texas once read, "If you won't pray in my school, I won't think in your church".

The enduring element of this paradigm is precisely the wrestling that we do with our own meanings. As creatures in a universe that appears to be unconscious, we inevitably and irresistibly and compulsively ask questions about ourselves. Do we mean anything? Does the universe mean anything? Is there that which we mean by God? How best to live with one another?

The reason we have not rewritten the creeds, for instance, is that we couldn't agree on any new versions. It's far less trouble to disagree over fourth- or fifth-century creeds than over 21st-century creeds. If we started thinking through and debating the latter it would surely develop into a major punch-up. At the moment we can keep the creeds, unchanged and inadequate translations of a foreign language that they are, and each claim to interpret them differently. If we actually started writing new creeds we really would show how differently we believe and how wide the gap is between different faith communities.

But rather than operate the way scientists do, which would be to put the creeds in the appendix at the back of the prayer book, we embed them in our worship. We stand up and recite English translations of abstruse metaphysical constructs from the fourth century as worship. Let's not ignore the fact that the perennial debate about the past does provide opportunities for some people to earn a living. That's not to be sneered at.

The whole enterprise of seeking answers is, I think, what is enduring about the second paradigm. And it's very taxing - which is why a lot of people don't want to get into it. They prefer a system which thinks for them and soothes them - and so they simply operate as Christians without too much questioning. You don't want to disturb that. But for people who can't turn their minds off, it does make theology a very vexing enterprise because it never, ever settles.

Paradigm number three is the medieval Roman Catholic paradigm. We're talking here of the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. This one is still very much in business. It's the biggest of the current paradigms in terms of numbers adhering to it.

If the second paradigm, the Hellenistic one, was the result of an encounter between the Jesus movement and the Greek genius for philosophy and thought, the third paradigm is the result of the encounter between the Jesus movement and the Roman genius for order, for discipline and for administrative brilliance.

And so it is the institutional paradigm par excellence. It's highly rationalist. Even its theology is a kind of bureaucratic theology. If you do your philosophy through Thomas Aquinas you'll find it's a bit like reading an enormous theological highway code. You've got all the questions and all the answers. The complete picture is given to you.

This paradigm helped organise the Church in ways that still pertain. It formed Christianity into an enormous hierarchical articulation of order and authority.

All of these theologies are embedded in a particular time, so they partake of what was around. There was a lot of apocalyptic around in the first century. There was a lot of intellectual struggle and strife around in the early Christian and Greek world. In the medieval paradigm there was struggle from social chaos towards a political order based on authority.

It was appropriate in its day. It resulted in a highly articulated absolutist system. One Jesuit describes the Roman Catholic Church today as the last surviving absolute monarchy. It's premised on the notion that there is a single fount of authority, God, and that everything flows from that. God is at the apex - and tucked under God's left wing is the Pope.

Everything descends from that apex. It remains a system of authority in which no one thinks for themselves because they receive the truth from on high. This was brought home to me by the Roman bishops in Scotland some years ago. They said to me, "We would ordain women tomorrow if the Pope told us to". In other words, their objection to the ordination of women was not theological, but entirely related to the hierarchy of what they perceived as a Papal court.

As an aside, and to ram home the point, the present Pope is not going to change his mind on contraception, but his successor probably will. It will probably happen overnight, because in Roman Catholicism everything is forbidden until it's made compulsory.

So this is the great third paradigm. Some of us may in the past have had "Roman fever". I certainly did as a young man. I thought that the Anglican Church was a second-rate, shoddy copy of great Mother Rome. I used to pray for the Pope during the Anglican liturgy (under my breath, of course). I did so because Rome is a grand spectacle. There is something about us which wants to give up the struggle and simply hand ourselves over to what appears magnificent and powerful.

To illustrate further: I was putting together a radio program in Rome some years ago. There were three of us called "The Three Amigos" - a Church of Scotland minister, a Roman Catholic priest and myself. We used to go around making radio programs called A Sense of Place. We would go to a place important to one of us who would talk about it while the other two would interrogate.

One day, John Fitzsimmons, a Roman Catholic priest, took us to Rome where he'd once been Rector of a college.

He took us to St Peter's. I had been there many years before. I was overwhelmed. It is so massive with its great pillars and great statues and the nuns fluttering around like seagulls. I came out into St Peter's square and said all this to John. He replied, "That's just what the bastards want you to think!" He was, of course, referring to the whole Counter-Reformation endeavour of the 16th and 17th centuries through which the Roman Church tried re-asserting its absolute authority over a world which was increasingly thinking for itself.

The Roman Catholic Church remains a compelling and fascinating institution. I suppose its enduring value is that it stands as a kind of counter-culture, a world of itself which stands for a sort of absolute dedication and obedience. The Pope can assert and speak truth that contradicts political truth, for example. On the whole his record is good on such issues. He was quite good at saying to Tony Blair and George Bush, "Thou shalt not invade Iraq!" It didn't stop them, of course, but at least someone with some kind of spiritual authority has asked them to think again. I think his record is not so good on issues of private freedom.

The Roman Church is the biggest of the Christian shows, and therefore in a sense the biggest paradigm. It is diminishing considerably in Europe, of course, as the numbers of people adhering to it reduce and its institutional power in the secular world gradually wanes.

The main reason for this decline is that it's so entrenched in its own paradigm that it's not very good at adapting to the difficulties of its own position.

If I were the Pope I could, for example, solve all my ministerial problems tomorrow by ordaining celibate women and married men. It wouldn't create new problems because having married clergy would alter the sociology of Rome more radically than ordaining women. This is because with married clergy the Church becomes more inevitably bourgeois and less set aside from the real world of ordinary people.


______________________________________________
[1] The Sixth Paradigm was developed from notes taken of a largely
      extempore address given at Cheltenham, UK in May, 2003

Richard Holloway: This article may not be reproduced  in any
     form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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