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 Uncertainty of Life (Continued)

Life is Contingent
In the world of everyday life - which, I am insisting, is the world of ordinary language, the primary world, the one into which we were first inducted and in which we continue to live - everything is contingent.

We are well aware that we can recognize some events as being meant by other people, and some pressures and "necessities" as having been imposed upon us by other people.

But we do not experience everything as being in some way meant or necessitated to happen. On the contrary, in the life-world everything just happens to happen, or turn out, or befall in the way it does. When we speak of "befalling" here, the fall in question was no doubt originally the fall of a die. And similarly, when we speak about the way things "pan out", the panning in question was originally the panning of a hopeful prospector in the goldfields of Northern California.

In such circumstances people may desperately want to believe in luck or fate, and may look very hard for some way of improving their chances. But the way we use the metaphors, and such other expressions as "the run of the balls", "the luck of the draw" and "the lap of the gods", shows that in the end we know that everything is the product of time and chance. Everything just happens. Too much looking for "meaning" or meant-ness is a waste of time.

That everything in the life-world is contingent becomes obvious when we pause to consider how it must originally have come into being. Emerging from their animal background into the first glimmerings of consciousness some tens of thousands of years ago, early humans started with little but their own intense sociability and their need to develop a common language - which in effect means a common world to co-inhabit.

The world of sense-experience available to them was very various, chaotic and fast-changing. How could a common world be built out of it?

Briefly, they had to use language to make bits of their sense-experience differentiated, clarified and common. They had to find out by trial and error which bits of sense-experience could be referred out into objectivity, fixed and stabilized as parts of a common world. It was not an easy thing to do. Even to this day we are often not quite sure what's out there and what's only in our sense organs. The main point is that we have to learn to do the referring-out in a standard, rule-governed way. In the end we succeeded and it was all done, just by the talk of us human beings.

So the life-world evolved. We all live in it, and for the most part it works very well.

But it follows from this account of how the life-world came into being that everything in it is contingent, and the order we seem to see in it is merely an order that we ourselves have imputed to it. Or (to put the point a shade more cautiously) collectively we have found it convenient to impute to our world the degree and the patterns of order that we seem to see in it.

Notice that in imagining how they and their world looked to the first humans we have made the mistake of projecting back our own highly elaborated language and world-picture into their situation. I did that in order to explain my theory of how they were first able to develop the earliest beginnings of a common language, a common world and some measure of lit-up subjective consciousness.

But it wasn't quite like that for them, in those days. We weren't hovering around, observing them and understanding them and so helping them to understand themselves. They had only their own immanent point of view, such as it was. They knew nothing of the past, nor of any independent world apart from themselves. All they could be aware of was the first appearance of a small, lit-up pool of consciousness in the obscure writhing painful darkness of animal experience.

That for them was the moment of creation. A little light appears in the general darkness. And what does this pool of illumination consist of? It is the very beginnings of a common language and a common world, when in the cry of a fellow-member of ones own species one recognizes a shared meaning, general significance, something in common.

So consciousness depends on language, which in turns depends upon the recognition of something public, something in common, which in turn again depends upon the establishment of shared meanings.

To demonstrate the point, lie back and let your mind wander. Consciousness-idling consists of running words - and words are public objects. Now try just inventing some new word of your own, and turn it loose. See if it will run along with the other, ordinary words in your vocabulary. It will not. The thing cannot be done. Idling consciousness consists, and consists only, of a motion of public objects, ordinary words, somewhere within your system.

Consciousness is not something private and "spiritual" that goes on in the brain. Consciousness is simply a secondary effect in us of the motion of the public language. That is why the dawn of consciousness coincided with the first establishment and recognition of common meanings, and it is also why, philosophically speaking, language precedes "reality".

That is, the public world of linguistic meaning logically precedes both the public world of fact and the seemingly private world of lit-up subjective consciousness. People usually make a rather sharp distinction between the public and private realms, but language in motion cheerfully disregards it. The public/private distinction is itself secondary.

All of which sounds very clear and satisfactory. But philosophy is not easily satisfied. It has long regarded the ordinary-life-world as a very unsatisfactory world, and has dreamt of escaping from it to find a more real, unchanging and intelligible world.

This dream of an intellectually-satisfying noumenal world influenced the way people saw the new mechanistic science that developed in seventeenth-century Europe between Galileo and Newton. The new physics proposed a highly-idealized picture of the workings of the physical universe as being completely describable in terms of matter, motion and number. It was a universe that was, or seemed to be, transparent to reason and fully deterministic.

Because of complications like air resistance, rolling resistance and so on, bodies in the empirical world did not behave with quite such exact predictability as the model said they would. But it was assumed that the complications could be taken into the calculation, and that the world as described by scientific theory was a clearer, more exact and truer account of the real world out there than the account given in ordinary language.

So to this day many scientists can still regard themselves as being like platonic philosophers, leading us towards a truer vision of the real world than the one that is given to us in our ordinary language.

This history explains why for a long time Western thought suspected that although everything in the life-world seems to be contingent, the higher truth revealed by science is that every event in the physical world is mechanistically determined. Determinism seemed to be a major problem, and indeed threat.

Today, we hear much less about determinism. The mechanistic world-model thrown up by seventeenth-century science was only ever a highly-idealized model. It was a mistake to suppose that it was a world-picture more reliable, more real and more true than the world-picture of ordinary language and everyday life.

On the contrary, in order to bring the idealized world of Newtonian mechanics into line with the fuzzier facts of the world of ordinary language and everyday life, we would have to introduce so many qualifications and complications that we would inevitably move over from the clean-cut mechanistic notion of causation to something much more like the Buddhist account.

And in any case, the old mechanistic determinism presupposed an exceedingly clean-cut notion of a determinate material world existing out-there, prior to language, independent of it and copied by it. But today, language and the world are interwoven, and the world has inevitably come to share language's own fuzziness, indeterminacy and (sometimes) slippery ambiguity.

So we can forget determinism, and I return to our insistence that everything in life is contingent - which means that it is not meant or necessitated, but simply happens or befalls. Everything comes to be, and passes away, in time. Everything, including both so-called objective reality and so-called subjective consciousness, is language-mediated and part of a single package.

It is because everything is part of a single great big shapeless, boundary-less bundle - a package that we ourselves have described and assembled - that to my mind the only way to come to terms with it all is to say "Yes" to it all. Try to moralize about it all as little as possible, and to complain about one's own fate not at all.

Cultivate instead the large, generous spirit of one of those great picaresque artists such as Pieter Breughel or Laurence Sterne. That is the best, and the least judgmental or moralistic attitude to life.

We should say "Yes" to life in all its contingency because it is the accidental-ness of life that makes happy accidents possible, and that makes innovation and creativity possible. We wouldn't wish the self-replication of DNA always to proceed with precise accuracy, because without all the slippage and the accidents there would not have occurred the favourable mutations on which evolution depends - and so it is also in the realm of language and personal life.

No doubt people�s suspicion and fear of universal contingency is related to their fear of death. They imagine - no doubt we all of us sometimes imagine - that on the leading edge of time, where the present is always slipping away into the past, everything is passing away all the time, and we with it.

Many people suffer dreadfully from the fear of death, and above all from horror at the thought of the state of being oneself dead. They need a cure; and fortunately there is a cure.

In religion, the cure is the practice of solar living. In philosophy, we can make essentially the same point by saying, "Don't think only of the universal passing-away of everything. Think also of everything's coming-to-be. And then give the two thoughts exactly equal weight."

Contingency is universal passing away and universal renewal, going away and coming back, loss and gain, both at once, and as a single package. To accept and affirm universal contingency is to say "Yes" to the whole package, in the recognition that we cannot really imagine things otherwise.

How else could it be? Those of us who have learned to love contingency have found that it is precisely the most fragile, ephemeral and secondary things that move us most deeply, and that we love most dearly.

Life Exceeds and Laughs At All Our Faiths And Ideologies
Georges Perec (1936-1982) published Life: A User's Manual [6] in 1978. It is "the last major event in the history of the novel", as Italo Calvino called it, an encyclopaedic account of the inhabitants of one Paris tenement house, in all the extraordinary variety of their lives and concerns, which becomes a microcosm of the whole human life-world.

Which in turn leads me straight to the question to be debated now: the human life-world is so vast and so endlessly varied and contains so many inconsistencies, extremes and sharp incongruities that it surely cannot be summed up and explained in any one tidy system of general thought. Life contains all the systems - the religions, the philosophies, the works of art, the political ideologies - but it is bigger than any of them. It far exceeds them, and it laughs at them all.

What do we make of that? Might we perhaps respond to this challenge by trying to frame a philosophy of life, which starts from precisely the features of life that are alleged to nullify theories about it? Maybe - but surely it cannot end up with any more than what Perec has already given us, namely a rather detached, droll and good-humoured description of a typical sample of life's huge, tumultuous variety. No theory of life is going to be able both to do full justice to it all and to tell us what it all means, and how we should live.

Alternatively, we may admit that life itself is wildly chaotic and excessive in all directions. But then we may go on to say that the job of a particular philosophy or religion, or whatever, is to present us not with the whole truth about life, but only with a reduced art-image of life, life made sense of in such a way that within this simplified and meaning-rich representation of our life we can hope to frame a personal faith to live by and a meaningful project of our own.

How will a person who takes this line explain and justify her own faith?

She'll say, "If I try to stay true to life itself and as a whole, I'll end up in Perec's position: droll and detached, with a feeling of infinite absurdity. I'll feel overwhelmed: I won't be able actually to live. So it seems to me reasonable, for the sake of gaining life-satisfaction and for the sake of ethics, to seek out a powerful and wide-ranging art-image of what life is all about, and to commit myself to it so that within it I can shape a life and pursue the values that seem most worthwhile to me [7]. It seems to me that life itself is so chaotic and appalling that just in order to live I've got to cut it down to size and make it make a sort of sense."

Thus she admits that we cannot have a conceptually-clear total philosophy of the meaning of life. But she says we can be content with art-images of life's meaning, depicting it for example as a great journey, or as a school in which we are preparing for a final examination.

By the end of the twentieth century, I suspect that most people in the West had reached the position just described. It implies that we've given up old ideas of divine revelation, and we've given up the claim that our own religious doctrine-system is universally and dogmatically just true, for all human beings everywhere.

Instead, the person I have described sees religion as being cultural, and like art.

Most of us humans have at least some residual connection with an ancestral religious tradition. That tradition gives us, under a group of dominant symbols, a world-view and an account of how we human beings come to be here, how it is with us, and how we should live. Such traditions are in most cases pretty flexible: they can be bent into new shapes and appropriated in new ways.

Other people, in other cultures, are often so different that it hardly makes sense for me to claim that my tradition is normative for all other human beings everywhere. But I can make the much more modest claim that with a bit of low cunning I can appropriate my own tradition in such a way as to make it possible for me to construct a meaningful and value-rich form of life for myself out of it.

In which case we now say: Life is much too vast and various for any one religion or philosophy to be objectively just true, everywhere and for everyone. But by working with the stories and symbols that we have inherited we can still build a house of meaning for ourselves to inhabit.

And others, in other traditions, are fully entitled to do something similar for themselves with the rather different materials available to them.

Notes
[1] See my The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (London: SCM Press, 1999). I several times refer to this book in what follows, because I am starting from the data and the argument that it presents in order this time to turn the argument in a different direction.
[2] Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 5.621 (Pears and McGuinness translation).
[3] The Discovery of Time is the title of an interesting book by Stephen Toulmin (London: Hutchinson, 1965, subsequent Pelican reprints). The Discovery of the Mind is the title of the last major work of the Princeton historian of philosophy Walter Kaufmann. For hildung, see for example Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity by Charles Taylor (Cambridge England: the Cambridge University Press, 1989). On the novelty and innocence of modern urban life, see various of the Impressionist painters, and later, the letters of Van Gogh.
[4] On Wordsworth. see The New Religion of Life cited above, pp.25f. The most important mistake in that little book was my failure to recall the Tolstoy quotation. In the L. and A. Maude arrangement of the text of War and Peace, it is from Bk 14, c.3.
[5] I take the phrase 'bigger than life' from the film actor Elliott Gould: 'There's a great danger of thinking you're bigger than life. Nobody is bigger than life' - an interesting transfer to life of the traditional warning against hubris. Daily Telegraph, 22 March 1999, pp.14f. The belief that we can transcend the limitations of our own biological makeup, and live like spirits while still in this life has sometimes been called angelism. The implication was clearly that angelism makes a bad mistake: a living human being is always a sexual being, whereas spirits in Christian art always lack secondary sexual characteristics. Angels never have either breasts or beards, and Satan always lacks genitals. All of which is clear enough. But in Christian culture people usually failed to draw the obvious conclusion - which is that the very notion that we can and should spend our life preparing for another sexless world 'beyond this life' is badly mistaken. We will never get either religion or morality straight until we admit that we belong here, and only here.
[6] English translation by David Bellos, London: Collins/Harvill, 1987.
[7] I offer this as an interpretation of what Jean Anouilh means when he says that the job of art is to give life a shape.

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