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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Christianity Minus Theism (Continued)

What is Christianity?
  • Does it refer to "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3)?

  • Do we mean, for example, the belief system expressed in the creeds and confessions of the church (including the doctrine of the Trinity)?

  • Does Christianity consist of living a sacramental life within the authoritative institutional structure called the Church?

  • Is the essence of Christianity to be found in accepting Jesus Christ as ones' personal Lord and Saviour?

  • Does Christianity mean accepting uncritically a set of ancient scriptures as the written record of what is ultimately true?

  • Or does Christianity consist simply of a set of moral values by which to live?

Various groups at one time or another have promoted one or more of these definitions, as the essence or sine qua non of Christianity.

Modern historical research has made it very clear, however, that there has never been a time when all who confessed to be Christians (or followers of Jesus) shared exactly all the same beliefs. The New Testament phrase "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" was itself part of the developing Christian myth. That faith consists of embracing a set of beliefs which are permanent and unchangeable. Christian beliefs have changed and diversified through the centuries. 

Today, more than ever before, Christianity has no definable and eternal essence on which all Christians at all times, or even at any one time, agree. It is misleading, therefore, to use the term Christianity in a way which implies that it names some objective and unchangeable essence or thing - such as the theistic belief in God.

I suggest we think of Christianity as a stream of living culture flowing through the plains of time. 

Sometimes, like a river, it divides into sub-streams and sometimes it is joined by other streams. As it flows onward it gathers new material from its banks it passes through. Sometimes the fluid material in it crystallizes into more rigid objects. Sometimes it drops these objects and other forms of sediment it is carrying along. 

There is a tendency for people to regard the visible objects in this cultural stream, such as the priesthood, episcopal government, creeds and even the Bible, as being of the essence of the stream. In fact they have less permanence that the stream which carries them along.

Through church history people have attempted to reform the Church. Their critics have warned that they are throwing out the baby with the bath water. 

That is a misleading metaphor. Christianity has no permanent and absolute essence. There is no "baby". There is only the bath water, or what is preferably called the ongoing cultural stream, broadly known as Judeo-Christian.

Two of the chief doctrines which are often regarded as the sine qua non of Christianity are the Trinity and the Incarnation. I have already sketched how and why the doctrine of the Trinity evolved and how it began to come apart in modern times. 

The doctrine of the Trinity made a radical transformation of theism by incorporating the new doctrine of the Incarnation.

What is the doctrine of the Incarnation and how did it arise?
This is the brief answer. The doctrine of the Incarnation evolved by a series of steps which developed through a process can be documented even within the New Testament.
  • Jesus was claimed to be the Messiah (Christ) awaited by the Jews.

  • Jesus was claimed to be a Son of God (remember, at the time all anointed kings were " sons of God").

  • Jesus was claimed to be the Lord (a euphemistic title for God)

  • Jesus was claimed to be the Saviour (a play upon the name Jesus = Joshua in Hebrew).

  • Jesus was claimed to be the only Son of God.

  • Jesus was claimed to be the Logos or Word of God.

  • Jesus was God and creator of the world.

  • Jesus was the incarnation of God (the human "enfleshment" of God).

Where was this process of raising Jesus to divine status taking place? 

It was not a cosmic event. It was taking place in the minds of Christians. In this process Jesus was coming to be valued more and more highly in Christian devotion. Like the doctrine of the Trinity to which it later contributed, the doctrine of the Incarnation was a human construction.

In the process of raising Jesus to divine status, they almost rejected his humanity altogether and steps had to be taken to affirm his humanity. Even so, through most of Christian history until modern times, the humanity of Jesus has been played down if not wholly obliterated. 

To the extent that the humanity of Jesus was ignored, the doctrine of the Incarnation was being restricted to a short period of earthly time - a past event. Christ became the glorified Son of God sitting at the right hand of God the Father. 

The humanity of Jesus had been shed like an empty shell. The Incarnation was, in effect, now being denied. The denial of the Incarnation in turn affected the validity of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity was reverting into theism. 

This is the reason why orthodox Christianity today believes it is theistic. It has failed to appreciate its own most central doctrines.

From our vantage point in the modern world we are in a better position to appreciate the fact that these doctrines were constructed by human minds. They were not divinely revealed. Indeed everything which has been claimed to be divinely revealed is in fact of human origin. 

Several important points follow from this:

  1. The doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation are not set in concrete. We need not be unduly concerned that these mental constructions of the ancient church are now falling apart.

  2. They are not the only forms in which useful doctrines could have been constructed from the fluid material available at the time of Christian origins.

  3. We are now recovering some of the early material, including the footprints and voiceprints of the historical Jesus. These show that he was truly human in every way, even to being a man of his own times.

  4. But the Judeo-Christian cultural stream still carries on. It has given rise to the modern global, secular world. This is the current form of the same cultural stream.

The intellectual context today is very different from that in which the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation were constructed. The Judeo-Christian cultural stream is now in a very fluid and complex state. It contains within it many different sub-streams each claiming to be the genuine form of Christianity. They threaten to leave the main stream, now increasingly secular, and go off into a backwater of their own.

It is in this context that I now turn ... to fly my second kite.

Christianity is the rejection of theism
The Christian doctrine of the Incarnation states that
The Godhead and Manhood, were joined together in one Person, never to be divided, whereof is one Christ, very God and very Man.

I suggested a moment ago that the final glorification of Christ to heaven had the effect of negating the Incarnation in that Christ was worshipped as God but no longer seen as a man.

Instead of abandoning this idea of joining Godhead and manhood together I now wish to recover it and take it to its logical conclusion. When we do so we find that it takes on an unexpected new relevance in the global, secular world. 

To restrict the Incarnation to one human person, namely the man Jesus of Nazareth, is to miss its full significance. The idea that God could become enfleshed even in one special person was more than most Jews could accept at the time. All Jews and Muslims since that time have rejected it, insisting on preserving a pure theism.

The idea that God could become enfleshed in humanity as a whole is more than most Christians have been able to accept.  Yet the seeds of the beginning of this are in the New Testament. Jesus was at first not separated from his fellow-humans by a great gulf, in the way that God had been, and in the way that the glorified Christ later became. 

Rather this Jesus was said to represent or symbolise the whole race. Just as the first Adam (meaning "mankind") embodied the whole human race, so the Christ figure evolving out of Jesus was said to be the " New Adam" (i.e. the embodiment of the new humankind): "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" 
(1 Corinthians 15.22). 

That is why Paul spoke of all Christians as being "in Christ". They were conceived as participating in the Incarnation. This is why it later became common to speak of the Christian life as one of "sanctification" and why the Eastern Orthodox spoke of it as the process of "deification". Thus, from the beginning, and continuing in later hints, there has always been the seed-thought that humans were now to become the enfleshment of the divine. The doctrine of the Incarnation was to be applied to the whole of humankind.

The first theologian to take the doctrine of the Incarnation to its logical conclusion was Ludwig Feuerbach. This he did in his book, The Essence of Christianity

For him, the coming of Jesus, mythically interpreted as the incarnation of God, marked a turning point in history. From then onwards the human race was to manifest the virtues of love, justice and compassion, the very things long regarded as the exclusive attributes of God - the very attributes, incidentally, which constituted the being of God ("God is love").

The implication of the doctrine of the Incarnation in the context of the global secular world is that the mythical throne of heaven is empty. The God, once conceived by humans as sitting upon that throne, has come down to dwell in human flesh - in all human flesh. Not only is the throne empty but heaven itself is empty. As the Pope said in 1999, heaven is not a place but a state of mind.

The implications of the Incarnation are these:

  • The doctrine of the Incarnation and the doctrine of the Holy Trinity both affirm that the human and the divine are becoming united.

  • We must learn to live without the divine heavenly props thought to exist in the past.

  • We must be perfect as God is perfect (Matthew 5.48).

  • We now have to play the role traditionally attributed to God.

Chalcedonian Formula
But we must not play that role in such a way as to lose the distinctions between the divine and the human. Even the strange words of Chalcedonian formula take on a new relevance. They tried to describe how the divine and human natures were to be related in the idea of the Incarnation, as applied to the one person Jesus Christ. 

When we extend the Incarnation from one person to humanity as a whole, the words are still relevant, perhaps even more relevant.

What the ancient theologians said about the Christ figure can be applied to the human race as a whole. They were anxious to preserve both the unity and the individual identity of the human and divine natures. So they said:

The divine and the human natures are not to he confused with each other - the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved.

To put it in more simple terms, it would be a gross example of megalomania for us humans to assert that "We are God". Yet we humans have the potential to display all the divine attributes and to play the divine role. We do so the more we relate to one another in a healthy human society.

If the doctrine of the Incarnation was intended to be applied to the whole of humankind then why has it taken so long for this to manifest itself within the cultural stream?

We may answer this simply (even if somewhat simplistically) by referring to four related steps:

  1. It was the apparent failure of Jesus to return and usher in the expected new world that led Christians of the second and third centuries to engage in the mental construction of a supernatural world to take its place. (This process somewhat parallels Aaron's fashioning of the golden calf, when Moses delayed his return from the mountaintop).

  2. The elevation of Jesus to a supernatural throne in the heavens had the effect of virtually cancelling out the Incarnation.

  3. Not until the mentally-constructed supernatural world began to dissolve into unreality (as it has been doing over the last four hundred years) could the ultimate significance of the Incarnation come to be realised.

  4. The restriction of the Incarnation to one human person is to miss its full significance.

Curiously enough it needed a modern Jewish thinker to bring out the abiding significance of the doctrine of the Trinity. It was Martin Buber in his great spiritual classic I and Thou. The divine is a presence and it is found in relationship. He took up the idea from Feuerbach. Father, Son and Holy Spirit form a relationship. Feuerbach said:

The secret of the Trinity lies in communal and social life; it is the secret of the necessity of the "thou" for an "I"; it is the truth that no being - be it man, god, mind or ego - is for itself alone a true, perfect and absolute being.

That led Buber to speak of God in terms of the quality of personal relationships. Wherever there is true community there is the divine presence.

Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them (Matthew 18.20).

Thus the doctrines of the Trinity and of the Incarnation take on a new relevance in the global, secular and ecological world. 

More than any other living species on this planet the human race is being forced increasingly to play the role of God with regard to the sustaining of life on this planet. We have become responsible for the planet's future. It is not too much to say that this self-evolving planet is (in a sense) becoming conscious in us humans with all the responsibility for the future that that entails.

Just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit were conceived as "three-in-one" because of the Incarnation, so today we are coming to acknowledge a new but secular form of Trinity or three-in-one: 

  • the creativity in the cosmos itself;
  • the human species that the cosmic creativity has brought forth;
  • our collective consciousness and the knowledge it has brought forth.

These are not independent but a whole. These three must act in unison to meet the challenges ahead. The more we become an harmonious global society, relating to one another and to the planet, the more we make manifest the lasting aspects of the doctrines of the Incarnation and of Holy Trinity.

I now haul my two kites to the earth. They are no more than one person's constructions. There is nothing final or authoritative about them.

I have tried to show that Christianity, understood as a broad cultural stream, can and will continue without theism. 

This is because, in the first place Christianity made a radical departure from pure theism in the early centuries. And in the second place because in modern times it is taking that radical departure to its logical end, which is the abolition of theism.

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