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)


search engine by freefind

hit counter
 
The Crisis of Faith
by Duncan Park

In spite of loud protestations to the contrary, I maintain that it�s actually all over for �The Faith� as we know it. Forget the evangelical razzamatazz, the fundamentalist bluster, and the catholic arrogance. The situation for faith is so desperate I believe a "state of emergency" should be declared in the Church. 

Anyone who thinks "The Faith" is doing just fine, thank you very much, has been living on Mars or in Alabama. Here on earth things don�t look so good. A total paradigm shift has taken place in the global culture that will have dire consequences for religious faith and practice.

I am going to suggest, in my anecdotal way, why I believe a radical response is the only appropriate one for the survival of faith.

The whole "Religious Planet" is in deep crisis. I am certain that this is not just another crisis in religion. God knows we�ve had any number of these since Galileo looked through his telescope and did not see doctrines orbiting heaven. No. What we are witnessing is a crisis of religion itself - of all religion, from the most self-critical to the most rebellious - because the "crisis" is not about something rotten in the state of religion, but about the religious state itself being rotten.

This, of course, is the culmination of a whole series of crises that have battered the "Religious Planet" like a hail of comets since the Enlightenment - in philosophy, natural science, politics, psychology, historical criticism, biblical criticism, with the Darwinian comet coming dangerously close to throwing it completely off its axis. This relentless onslaught has finally reached catastrophic proportions in a head-on collision with the postmodern world. 

Until now, religion in general and Christianity in particular have survived largely because strong conservative forces have led the struggle back to some kind of workable equilibrium. And I mean "back". The only areas in the Western world where Christianity hangs on by more than its fingertips are where it has created religious theme parks isolated from the culture. Here supernaturalists and traditionalists huddle together like doomed dinosaurs trying to catch the last rays of a retreating sun. This is a sad place of desperate measures.

This desperation is exemplified in the Alpha Course - a vacuous enterprise, but one viewed by many churches as the cavalry charging over the hill to the rescue. Never has so much been owed by so many to so few for so little. This much-trumpeted "discover the meaning of life" initiative is little more than Sunday School with nuclear weapons and a Pentagon budget. 

The "course" itself is designed for evangelism - but is being used in sheer desperation as a revival tool for the faithful. It is as though the church is eating its seed corn. And still it is starving. It is not "reviving", nor will it, because the traditional Christian culture has no residual religious oxygen left within it to allow revival. Any movement you see is merely the herding of the sheep from one denominational pen to another. Only a truly radical response to the crisis facing religion has any hope of rescuing religious faith from extinction.

All Church establishments in the West are, of course, in an acute state of denial. The ecclesiastical machinery clanks away from the Vatican in Rome to the Bible-Belt in the United States, churning out its business-as-usual message to a dwindling constituency. 

What is its business nowadays? The Western Church is now largely part of the entertainment or heritage industry with residual, mainly administrative, care-taking roles in education, health and social services. One by one its powers have been stripped by the State and it is left with decaying shrines and a collection of culturally disembodied rituals. In the popular mind it has been largely reduced to a Gothic prop for Hollywood�s latest supernatural fantasy. 

Even in non-Gothic Western countries like Australia, the majority see the Church as a place for rather sad people who don�t get out much. More ominously for Western Christendom, as the entire cosmology of Christianity disintegrates before our eyes, the post-modern paradigm shift seems to be establishing itself as the global post-religious culture. 

I�m not saying this is bad news for the planet, just that it is the end of the road for traditional Christianity.

The old-time religion has become unbelievable. Not just "out there" in the big bad world - where "Church" stands for bum-numbing boredom and brain-dumbing twaddle - but also on its home turf. Even in once priest-ridden Ireland the seminaries are all but empty. And it is not just the more sinister bum-numbing that has emptied Mass of the vast majority of its youth, but the collapse of credulity in an educated and prosperous population.

And it is not only in the traditionally angst-ridden, hybrid Anglican-Quaker-Unitarian-liberal tribes that I encounter spiritual trauma and an anxiety of faith, but also in my own full-blooded evangelical tribe. 

For many, evangelical culture has replaced evangelical experience. Testimony is thin and unconvincing. Spontaneous prayer is often forced and clich�d. Sermons are often homilies on feel-good spirituality - sermonettes for Christianettes. The "I was far in sin" songs no longer reflect the experience of the largely middle-class singers who are now only "honorary sinners". Salvation fatigue is setting in. If even here, in the heartland of Western Protestant Evangelical Christianity, the old spells are no longer working, surely the end is nigh after all?

This is not only a serious situation for faith but also for the world. We still need a usable myth to define our world and give us meaning, purpose and even the will to live. We are structurally religious animals with a transcendental gene. Spirituality is as much part of our humanity as is our sexuality. 

Religion has survived previous crises because religion is itself a survival tool. But can it survive this mother of all crises? I think so.

A new and radical faith might seem a pretty Spartan, minimalist creature compared with the baroque splendours we have known.  But it can survive the near zero climate of the religious void into which we are moving. It is very robust.

I believe there is another constituency in waiting for this new faith to emerge. Christianity is slowly yet determinedly renewing itself from those who have fled to the margins. A new religious life-form has been evolving in the cold intellectual regions of our "Religious Planet". While those exotic religious creatures that depended for their spiritual life on the heat from the supernatural sun out there are facing almost certain extinction, the time has come for newly-evolved creatures to emerge that can generate their own spiritual heat .

The trick is to survive the transition. Some argue that only a truly radical response to the faith crisis which includes an embracing of the death of supernaturalist, realist religion in all its forms will succeed. 

However, others still think that a visible, yet radically reformed Christianity is possible. It will require subversive loyal disobedience on the part of those who value the Christian tradition if a radical Church is to have a place in the new order. The irony is that although the traditional Church wants radicals like a hole in the head, they are precisely what it needs if it is to survive.

In this respect I am indebted to Bishop Richard Holloway for the following comments, taken from his recent farewell charge to the Scottish Episcopal synod in Edinburgh:

The duration of a tradition is important to societies that prize stability and continuity, but the price they pay may be a level of stagnation that ends by threatening the safety of the tradition itself, because they inhibit its evolution and development.

�.. it is precisely those who deviate from the tradition, because of their proneness to doubt and reflection, who provide the means for its development and continuance. The very people who are persecuted for their heresy may be the agents that preserve whatever is enduringly sound in the tradition in question. A deeper aspect of the same paradox is that the founders who became the passionate focus of fundamentalist loyalty in a later era were almost always heretics in their original context, as was certainly the case with Jesus.

Personally, I believe - Lord help my unbelief - that the Church can facilitate the whole spectrum of religious need. It can be all things to all men and women. There are at least three ways of looking at it.

The Church can be a kind of Spiritual Health Service. Yes, literally at point of need - rather like a twelve-step programme for people who feel powerless before the mystery of life. It can be a vehicle for the lost sheep to hitch a lift back to the ninety nine that need no repentance. Real suffering can�t be healed by a virtual God, though. Despair, pain, grief, panic don�t respond well to abstract theories. Healing needs people. But, when health is restored, there is no longer any need for supernaturalist drugs. They then only produce spiritual hypochondriacs and religious junkies.

The Church can be a kind of Spiritual Education System where stories of the Christian myth can be told to children - without qualification. At six years old, a literal Father Christmas or Father God, Noah�s Ark or Jack and the Beanstalk is not a theological problem. At sixteen years, it is a mental health problem. So there must be a deliberate process, on Piaget�s model, to take children from concrete realism to adult abstract non-realism.

The Church can be a Spiritual Theatre where metaphysical drama allows the emotions full play. We don�t have to keep putting inverted commas around the script and continually remind ourselves that the actor on stage isn�t really Hamlet. We can enter unselfconsciously into an agreed dramatic reality. Of course, if anyone starts to think he really is Hamlet, it's time for the lights to go on.

There is no need for radical Ramboes to "take out" every non-radical enterprise. If individuals want to baby-talk with the Almighty and have a big cosmic cuddle, let them. If teenagers fall in love with Jesus and want to sing and dance a Rave-in-the-Nave, let them. And if some people want to stay romantically involved with a Mills & Boon deity, let them. If others want the grand opera version of religion, with outrageous costumes and the whole theatrical bit, fine.

But, and it�s a big but, the Church must also allow the radical alternative. It must also let its children grow up. It must let the healed leave the casualty ward. It must let the actors exit stage left. It must not withhold permission. It is on this point that a new radical faith must be uncompromising.

This is where radicals must get political, because the religious establishment will not gracefully give permission. Religious dependency is big business. The princes of the church, the evangelical fat cats, the fundamentalist Mafia, will need to be faced in battle. In this war, the Pope has many more divisions than the radicals, so those who want to liberate people from the tyranny of inferior knowledge and emotional bondage will necessarily have to employ guerilla tactics.

It will also need martyrs. Martyrdom is not the career move it used to be - which is why most clergy have not passed on to their people what they learned at theological college. This gets worse the further up the totem pole you go, so you can be sure a radical faith will not start at the top. In a recent tour in the United Kingdom with Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar, I witnessed ecclesiastical and academic privileges that were worth lying for. One forgets.

No, the new Reformation will be fought at street level, as Jesus fought his reformation and radicals must fight theirs. 

I believe the Church can re-mythologise. I think the global culture will eventually force it out of the nineteenth, fifteenth and maybe even the first centuries. 

It might come kicking and screaming, but I think those who love it can persuade it, especially those who are already on the far side of belief.
_____________________________________________________
This is an edited version of an address given at a Sea of Faith conference in Australia in 2000

[Home] [Back]