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 Honest Broker
by M H Maasdorp

For some hundreds of years now, Christian thinkers have been examining - and often rejecting - the ancient concept of God as a being, other than the natural world, out of whose will everything was created and who we are duty bound to obey.

These scholars and others have often found themselves driven out of the Christian community, their work discounted by heavy-handed assertions of absolute truth, and their livelihoods as often as not taken away. In short, they have one way or another been forced into exile.

Bishop John Spong, long a thorn in the side of the conservative Church establishment, notes the long rearguard action of Church officialdom over the last forty years and maintains that

Our first hurdle in our new spiritual journey is, however, simply to recognise the reality of exile �

The role of the exile is important. Spong correctly identifies that it has become the exile's task to be open to new possibilities for the Christian way of life in the 21st century and, in the process, to

� journey past those definitions of a God who is eternal, supernatural and invasive ... [1]

Spong notes that the usefulness to ordinary Christians of traditional formulations about God has been declining ever more rapidly for some 300 years or more. Some observers have charted the history of that decline with ongoing anxiety, while a majority seems to have been more or less oblivious of theological storms, both in their back garden and on the horizon.

In the process there has been a severe fracture of Christian traditional consciousness. Perhaps there has always been one. At any rate, almost all of the Church's clergy to a man or woman is today theologically literate to an extent never before achieved. They understand to some considerable degree that the Bible isn't what it's been cracked up to be through the Christian millennia. They also know, if somewhat less acutely, that the ways in which humans have envisioned and talked about God in the past will no longer do in Western cultures.

This is not the first time that humanity's vision of God has changed. There seems to have been a similar fracture of consciousness in a passage from polytheism to monotheism. But it is reasonable to say that the current slow change from realism (a personal God exists out there) to non-realism ("God" is that which concerns us ultimately) is more demanding than anything we have experienced before.

The progress of history is, of course, seamless and far too complex for much more than an attempt to encapsulate the major features of its great and more obvious changes. Nevertheless, certain markers or beacons stand out more clearly than other features on the recent landscape of the Church's history. They enable us to recognise the nature of the terrain, to get an approximate fix on the deep, slow underground forces which will determine the eventual landscape of the Christian faith.

One such marker was the remarkable appearance of an apparently unremarkable book published in England in 1963. Written by John Robinson, then Anglican Bishop of Woolwich in South London, Honest to God struck a loud chord for large numbers of readers who either had little idea of theology and its controversies or, until then, had not cared one wit about Christianity. (See a brief summary.)

Like Spong after him, Robinson immediately became a thorn in the side of the Anglican establishment. For that he was hounded mercilessly by conservative elements, eventually abandoning his episcopal ministry in the London Diocese of Southwark and returning to the calmer and less treacherous waters of academia.

Perhaps a brief examination of this event will serve to illustrate what I mean when I propose that not only is the Church fading from the landscape of the old Christian world, but so also is the very idea of God. The majestic, sometimes threatening but always compelling notion of a person, somewhere "out there" who rules the world is rapidly becoming a mere myth to most of the Western world.

It's worth dwelling briefly on the book and the controversy which rapidly attached to it, if only because it illustrates quite well why so many Christian exiles have chosen to seek fulfillment outside the Church. 

One of the great ironies of Honest to God, considering the world-wide fuss it stimulated, is that it was substantially unoriginal. Robinson was merely an honest - that is, an accurate and sympathetic - broker of the views of others.

When Bishop Robinson pointed out, for example, that the "Old Man in the sky" motif of traditional theism is no longer tenable, he was merely echoing a conclusion long-since reached and accepted by a substantial majority of theologians and philosophers.

The truth of this statement is too large to spell out here and it is difficult to summarise adequately. Briefly, theists are those who accept that

� there exists a God, in the sense of a being who is personal, without a body, omnipresent, perfectly free, perfectly good, omnipotent, omniscient, creator and sustainer of the universe, the proper object of human worship and obedience, eternal and necessary. [2]

The powerful impact of Honest to God seems to have been the result of the fortuitous coincidence of a number of factors.

First, the Church of England is an established church, part of the State structure. It's not unfair to say that part of an unwritten code, now as then, is that bishops don't wittingly rock the boat of England's national religion. Bishop Robinson did just that when his book was published.

The Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Michael Ramsay, took Robinson to task within days of publication for caricaturing traditional images of God. In a television interview he said of Robinson that

� it is utterly wrong and misleading to denounce the imagery of God held by Christian men, women and children: imagery that they have got from Jesus himself � [3]

Ramsay must have known of the many and illustrious predecessors of Bishop Robinson who had already ploughed this particular furrow with far greater skill and credibility than Honest to God did. If so, his clumsy outburst was all the more misplaced. 

To take one of many possible examples, it had long been clearly stated by great Christian thinkers such as Emmanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) that it is not unreasonable to dismiss the concept of God as an objective being to whom one can relate in a way analogous to the way one relates to other persons. On top of that, Ramsay would have found it extremely hard to win a debate with even more conservative biblical scholars that Christian imagery of God derives "from Jesus himself".

In effect, Ramsay was attempting to perpetuate what I call a "clerical trade secret" to which the clergy have access through their theological training, but which must not be communicated to defenceless laypeople lest they lose their "faith" - that is, their willingness to publicly and psychologically affirm official doctrines. Clerics who do this are guilty of nothing less than treachery (see heresy trials). The early part of the 21st century in Anglican Britain is, to take only one instance, seeing a resurgence of attempts to persecute the clergy who profess "heretical" views. The powerful Curia of the Roman Catholic Church have also lately stepped up their efforts to muzzle dissent amongst priests and theologians.

To do him justice, Ramsay later admitted that his initial response had been hasty. But he did nothing of any significance to right the damage he had done, or to counsel the clergy of the Church of England to correct his error in their congregations.

However, despite his efforts, this particular trade secret was at last out in a big way, wriggling vigorously and messily in the public marketplace. It marked a definite point in the 20th century when the tide of "unbelief" (in contrast to that of true faith) finally turned. Ramsay could do nothing about that. In the first decade of the new millennium, despite a conservative and evangelical backlash, it is fair to remark that more and more Christians are now learning to live with a non-realist God.

Second, Robinson already had a high public profile for having recently defended in court the publication of D H Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover by Penguin Books. That he presented a well argued case which could be refuted only by resort to traditional doctrine and conventional morality was largely not comprehended in Church circles.

Third, and most important, the London newspaper The Observer printed a prominent article about the book which was entitled "Our Image of God Must Go". Within seven months some 350 000 copies of the book had been sold and it eventually sold well over one million (an unusually high figure for any book on religion in general and Christianity in particular). Far from stopping the flow of the tide, Ramsay and his cohorts were simply swept aside.

In the forty years since then, the possibility that theism need not be normative and that other ways of envisioning the universe can be usefully sought has become more and more widely accepted. 

I doubt very much that in the long run traditional perceptions of God will survive, except in slow moving, turbid theological backwaters relatively undisturbed by the faster currents of life.
______________________________________________
[1] Why Christianity Must Change Or Die, HarperSanFrancisco, 1999
[2] David Jenkins in Lambeth Essays On Faith, SPCK, 1969
[3] A Life of Bishop John A T Robinson, Eric James, Collins, 1987

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