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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Questions

Two contributors present brief essays in response to some perennial questions. Each writes independently of the other. One comes from a person closely linked to a Christian denomination. The other comes from a person at the fringes of the traditional Church.

Is the universe all that exists?
I recently heard that some reputable physicists have suggested there may be many universes outside of our own. This means that at the same time our Big Bang universe is expanding there are others in various stages of similar development. 

In other words, there may be countless material entities having the potential of developing organic life similar to that on our earth. This is above and beyond similar possibilities already hypothesized for our own universe. As individual humans we may be even more insignificant than is already supposed.

Unless there are conscious observers of these spectacular phenomena, it is tempting to ask, "So what?" Can any of this have meaning and significance without some reference to a mind that apprehends it? I don�t think so.

I don�t think, however, that the initial question is posed to discuss the possibility of a multiplicity of material universes. Rather, I see the question as an introduction to the age-old controversy of whether or not there is an immaterial world or reality that co-exists with material reality.

This is a question that has infused our discussion of the other "Questions". Thus, I see this as perhaps the most important and pivotal question of them all.

I cannot produce a body of material proof that there is an immaterial reality. It is my choice to believe in one. The question might be posed, "What does it matter?"

It matters for large numbers of people who find strength and guidance in their religious faith. 

With our increasing reliance on science and technology for answers to human problems, faith and spirituality have come under increasing attack because they radically depart from conventional materialist rational thinking. Miracles, divine intervention, creeds and other manifestations of faith are ridiculed as superstitions by some intellectuals with a condescension that is at times breathtaking.

Yet countless numbers of people who are intelligent and well-educated have no difficulty in reconciling their views of the material world with those of immaterial reality that enables their religious faith. This empiric fact must mean something.

Humankind has sought for signs and symbols of a creator of the universe since time immemorial. I suspect this will continue no matter how sophisticated the world of science and technology becomes.

I would never argue with those who would constrict their world views to the purely materialist mode. That is their choice. But I would encourage anyone to embrace the idea of an immaterial reality if it gives meaning and a positive dimension to their lives. They are in the company of many thinking and intelligent people.

Aware of the mischief and frank disaster that can come from over-zealous religious practice, I would invoke some qualifications. Religious practice ought to have life-affirming goals and results. Furthermore, religion should promote freedom of mind and conscience and inspire people to find as much genuine happiness during this life as is possible.
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"Is anyone out there?" is a question human beings have always asked. No doubt the first people wondered, "Are there other tribes over them there hills?" And when this planet was our universe, we wondered if a similar world existed just beyond our perceptions.

Then along came Copernicus, Kepler and the many others who have mapped and analysed the vast reaches of interstellar space. Now the question is, "Are there other planets like ours?"

In the process of widening our horizons from the hills to the distant shores of space, something unique has happened. For just as we can't look back further than the start of space/time itself, so also we realise that our universe has no "outside". An inside/outside distinction depends on space/time beyond an edge - and the universe is by definition unbounded. It seems that the universe is our oyster.

So where do we end up? It appears that the universe is all there is, and that it's impossible to know anything other than it - if by "know" we mean "that which we can experience" in space/time.

In previous ages humans tended to imagine parallel worlds. The unknown became a variation of the known. We speculated about heaven and hell to mirror earthly pleasure and pain. The spirit world was a happy hunting ground for the early animist. Gods in their Valhalla or Mount Olympus behaved rather like human rulers. The Hebrew God punished disobedience and rewarded loyal service just like a king or tribal chief.

Now our boundaries are nearly infinite - and it has become difficult to imagine anything other than what lies within those boundaries. Is there a heaven? Is there a hell? Is the universe all there is? Perhaps, we respond. But if so, what is the evidence which leads us to an affirmative?

The Greeks once tried a different tack. It's patent, they argued, that we and everything else change, decay and disappear. If that's so, how is it possible to talk about truth? For if something is true, it must be permanent and unchangeable. And if that's the case, then there must be a dimension in which there are perfect, unchanging forms of the things we experience here - a perfect chair, a perfect table, a perfect tree, a perfect truth.

But this tack no longer works either. Just as we know that Mount Olympus doesn't lie the other side of this or that galaxy, so also we now know that we invent our truths. They don't lie around for us to pick up and polish. As philosopher Don Cupitt remarks,

Nobody sent them to us through the post. We invented them, and their meaning and their value to us is given by the part they actually play in our exchanges.

Of course, that doesn't prevent people concluding that there is more than the universe, that just beyond our reach there is another reality. Nor does it devalue such a conclusion.

It's just that increasing numbers simply don't need such a vision. The universe we inhabit is so vast that the human mind will never grasp it, nor the human psyche ever be fully at ease with it. To all intents and purposes the universe is infinite. We can no longer see the frontiers of our world.

If we have the universe, we don't need a heaven. There may be realities other than the one we know. But if there are, we have no way of interacting with them and therefore of confirming them.

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