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.

Can the Church Die?
Liberal theologians claim the Church is dying. Its demise is attributed to the influence of Enlightenment rationalism on an archaic, anachronistic, ridged, bureaucratic organization that has failed to keep touch with modernity and the world of modern science.

How can a rational person admit to the verity of things such as the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and the Son of God? It is all nonsense - so goes the argument. For this reason "thinking people" are leaving the Church in droves, particularly in Europe. In this context I am reminded of the words of Mark Twain following reports of his death: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." I wonder if the gloomy reports of the death of the Church are not similarly premature.

As a regular visitor to Europe over the past fifty years, I am familiar with the apparent lack of interest in state-sponsored churches. I have attended services in major cathedrals when the officiants and choir outnumbered the congregation of worshipers. In contrast my church in the United States is vibrant and thriving. I regularly sit with my fellow parishioners (mostly well-educated professionals) and recite the Apostles� Creed, offer prayers and participate in all the mysterious ceremonies without any sense of betraying my rational self.

These experiences cause me to question the soundness of the proposition that the Church is dying because it lacks a sound rational basis. I submit that if religion is turned into a purely rational process it is no longer religion. Could it be that rationality has poisoned religion by robbing it of its fundamental mysterious character?

Many people (even "thinking people") need thoughts and aspirations beyond the rational/material world in which to anchor their sense of meaningfulness in life. To claim no reality beyond materialism or to say that human kind is just one of the animals that dissolve into nothingness at death, is to destroy a source of reassurance and comfort for living in the material world.

Could it be that to the degree religion is reduced to a purely rational affair, to that degree potential adherents will turn away because that form of religion cannot offer the mysterious experience they seek?

State sponsorship of religion surely plays a significant role in the decline of churches, particularly in European countries. Faith cannot be forced or extorted. State sponsorship creates such an attitude among its citizens. Furthermore, behavior of the clerical hierarchy has to be affected by the insulation afforded by the state. This insulation is not only financial but, more importantly, parishioners are insulated from participating in a meaningful way in church affairs.

Given the effects of rationalism and the heavy hand of state sponsorship, it could be that religious disaffection is as much a problem of spiritual deprivation as it is of an apparent gap in rationality.

The organized Church will probably have ups and downs in its influence in modern society. However, I am convinced the passion for religious experience is a fundamental faculty of the human psyche and will never abate no matter how thoroughly the material universe is defined.
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Jesus is reputed to have said, "And so I tell you, Peter: you are a rock, and on this foundation I will build my church. Not even death will ever be able to overcome it" (Matthew 16.18). Christians have subsequently interpreted the passage as predicting that the Church will not disappear like other human organisations.

To make sense of the Church, I divide it artificially into two aspects. The first is Church as institution; the second is Church as people.

As an institution, the Church has already died several times. The Church we know today differs from the Church which preceded it as one generation differs from another. Today, the world-wide (or "catholic") Church is not a single institution but many thousands of fragments. Their vision is limited; their membership is limited; and their thought and imagination appears stunted. They exist mainly to reinforce the conviction of their members that they are right with God. This is Church for Church's sake. Richard Holloway suggests of this Church that it

� has the impossible task � to preserve the memory of one whose mission was to oppose the processes and sacrifices of power and its ethic of expedience, even at the cost of his own death.

This conglomerate can and will die, whereas the Church as people will not. That is, the person and message of Jesus has proved so fundamental that he is certain to be preserved by free Christians, with or without Church as institution. He is fundamental to humanity because he serves some of the deepest needs of ordinary people living ordinary lives.

So as the Church in one form ossifies and decays - as it has in Europe and will elsewhere, perhaps terminally - so the Church in another form spills over into God's world, once more invigorating and giving meaning to human lives.

But note well - death comes in many forms. An apparently vibrant, stable Church community may attract numbers to its activities. It may be feted as a so-called mega-church. It may be that it is nevertheless among the living dead because what it is and does is too comfortable, too dogmatic, too exclusive. It may be that it has jettisoned Jesus for the sake of right doctrine, or a cultural tradition, or a view on sexuality, or a correct structure of authority. It may be that those faithful to Jesus must flee it if they are to remain Christian.

Let me put the matter another way. God belongs to everyone. Just as our wonderful planet is so richly varied in its expression of God, so also do different people respond to God in a vast array of ways.

It is Jesus alone who sets Christians apart from all those others who valiantly love and loyally venerate their creator. It is Jesus, not the Church, who calls out some to be his surrogates in the world.

A secular Church, bound helpless by tradition, by money and property, by mean little pseudo-Christian doctrines, has little or nothing in common with Jesus, even though it worships both him and God. This Church may metamorphose as its circumstances change. It may last for centuries. But it will die - indeed, it is already dead.

The Church which exists for others will live. It will do so in many ways and forms, a multi-coloured cloud of butterflies fluttering freely over the face of the earth, delicate but indestructible, pollinating living plants to new life.

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