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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Henri Bergson
(1859-1941) 
Bergson advanced a theory of evolution based on a spiritual dimension of human life. His thinking had widespread influence in a variety of disciplines. In the Christian religion he opened the way to an interpretation of reality which promised union with God through mystical experience, an escape from the limitations which reason places upon traditional doctrines.

Born in Paris, on October 18, 1859, Bergson was educated at the Ecole Normale Superieure and the University of Paris. He was influenced by the so-called "activist" teachings of L Olle-Laprune and 
E Boutroux.

He taught in various secondary schools from 1881 until 1898, when he accepted a professorship at the Ecole Normale Superieure. Two years later he took the chair of philosophy at the College de France.

Bergson's doctoral dissertation, Time and Free Will (1889) presented his theories on the freedom of the mind and on human consciousness.

This work was followed by Matter and Memory (1896), emphasizing the selectivity of the human brain. Laughter (1900) is an essay on the mechanistic basis of comedy that is probably his most quoted work. Creative Evolution (1907) probes the problem of human existence and defines mind as pure energy, the Elan vital or vital force responsible for all organic evolution. 

In 1914 Bergson was elected to the French Academy. In 1921 he resigned from the College de France to devote his time to international affairs, politics, moral problems, and religion. He converted to Roman Catholicism (his parents were Jewish). He published The Two Sources of Morality and Religion in 1932, in which he attempted to align his philosophy with Christianity. In 1927 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The influence of Bergson's earlier books, as well as his many papers and lectures, on the philosophers, artists and writers of the 20th century is extensive. He was considered a master prose stylist and a brilliant lecturer.

Some argue that Bergson was too original and eclectic to be easily categorised. He emphasized the importance of intuition over intellect and it is for this reason that he has frequently been approved of and appropriated by Christian theologians. 

Roman Catholic modernists, dissatisfied with traditional emphasis on knowledge through reason and the development of revelation by the human intellect, welcomed his ideas. Bergson's thought has been perceived by some as exemplifying a revolt, which began with Rousseau, against reason as a dominant mode of being. This revolt - even though often based upon poor thinking and false premises - has gradually penetrated many aspects of contemporary life.

Bergson promoted the notion of two opposing currents in reality. Inert matter is to be contrasted with organic life, the latter exhibiting the life-force (elan vital) which strives towards novelty and free creativity. Some think that this perception of reality is dualistic, others that Bergson saw matter as a by-product of the life-force and therefore as a unity.

Central to Bergson's system is the concept of duration. This is "... the form which our conscious states assume when our ego lets itself live." The kind of time which we normally associate with space can be, as it were, carved up into units. It can be measured and is a means of analysing matter in various ways. 

Duration, on the other hand, is what produces consciousness. It's a stream, not of disparate moments such as when we listen to a clock ticking, but a unified, continuous and immediate experience of life itself. Normal time is useful in our relation to space and material objects, but it's essentially a construct. In contrast to space/time, the duration of consciousness produces "succession without mutual externality." This "flow of consciousness" is perhaps best expressed in James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) and perhaps by certain kinds of abstract art.

An immediate problem arises when the nature of memory is considered. If duration or "true time" is of the essence, how can anything in the past be remembered as a discrete mental entity? According to Bergson, the present moment is the only real activity anyone can possibly experience.

The past, says Bergson, is that which no longer "acts". This position reveals Bergson's fundamental mistake. A person subsumed in the flowing consciousness of duration cannot know a discrete past. Therefore Bergson's definition of the past should have no meaning to us, since we can't by definition know anything except, in Bergson's words, "that which is acting" in the present at a particular moment in the ongoing flow of duration.

The circularity of his position seems to arise from confusing the present recollection of the past (which one assumes would be active in the duration of consciousness) and the past events which are remembered. The difference between the past and a recollection of the past is not the same as the difference between the past and the present.

As if this were not problematic enough, the form of Bergson's writing presents insuperable difficulties to any thinking person. This is because he gives no reasons for his views. Rather, he relies on what one writer calls "picturesque and varied statement" to produce an overall impression which rests neither upon evidence nor reason. Analogies and similes make his work more poetic than reasoned. Life, for example, is like a shell which when it bursts forms a number of new shells. Or again, life was originally only a "tendency to accumulate in a reservoir, as do especially the green parts of vegetables."

The best example of his poetic method is, however, when he compares life's energy to a cavalry charge: 

All organised beings, from the humblest to the highest, from the first origins of life to the time in which we are, and in all places as in all times, do but evidence a single impulsion ... one immense army galloping beside and before and behind each of us in an overwhelming charge able to beat down every resistance and to clear many obstacles, perhaps even death.

A philosophy which does not depend on argument can't, of course, be refuted by argument.

In further assessing Bergson's work it may be useful to note that the so-called "death of God" in the 1960s  was the end of a process, extending over more than two centuries, which has made the supernatural God of traditional theology less and less credible. The vacuum which resulted has, I think, made the God of mysticism more desirable, if only because a subjective God can't be tested in any way by reason.

The way Bergson arrives at his conclusions has more in common with the paradigms and methods of the mystics. It appears to be a sort of global apprehension of truth or reality which is, by definition, inaccessible to reason. There is no way in which an intuitive world can be truly thought about, since thought requires a kind of reflectivity which discovers meaning through pattern and analysis.

Bergson equates life-force with God: 

God, thus defined, has nothing of the already made; he is unceasing life, action, freedom. Creation, so conceived, is not a mystery; we experience it in ourselves when we act freely.

As we have seen, only through the "duration" of consciousness is this freedom attainable.

Bergson's dualism lies more in how he presents humanity than in how he views matter and life-force. He regards human beings as split into two contrasting aspects - intellect and intuition.

Intellect is the means by which we handle the reality of experience, the practical side of life. Through it we conceptualise, we attribute and fix values, we analyse and quantify. It is a "translation in terms of inertia".

Intuition is derived from animal instinct. It is inside life not separate from it as is intellect. It is sympathetic feeling, not thought. It leads to the life of inwardness because it is 

... instinct that has become disinterested, self-conscious, capable of reflecting upon its object and of enlarging it indefinitely.

It enables us to expand consciousness into life's domain to become fully part of a continuing creation. It is dynamic, not static.

In placing the two aspects of humanity in opposition, Bergson writes that there are 

... two profoundly different ways of knowing a thing. The first [intellect] implies that we move round an object; the second [intuition] that we enter into it. The first depends on the point of view at which we are placed and on the symbols by which we express ourselves. The second neither depends on a point of view nor relies on any symbol. The first kind of knowledge may be said to stop at the relative; the second, in those places where it is possible, to attain the absolute.

It seems to me that to claim access to what is absolute is to claim not only truth but absolute truth. In other words, Bergson claims for intuition the capacity for getting everything right. But if intuition attains such absolute truth or knowledge, how are we to know it is right unless we somehow test it? And if we are to test it, is there any way other than to test it by means of the intellect or action? I don't think Bergson's approach stands in this respect.

In relation to Christianity there are at least two interesting observations:

  1. Christianity is fundamentally an historical faith. That is, it's founded on a real-life, actual person who once lived and died. History is essentially a discipline which uses evidence and reason to arrive at conclusions. While intuition may result in startlingly accurate hypotheses, the latter can only be tested through what Bergson calls the intellect. A Jesus of "intuition" has no force until confirmed by a Jesus of history.

  2. Some modern Christian practice, perhaps driven by fear of intellectual uncertainty, seeks to venerate a "spiritual" Jesus-cum-God who seems to have much in common with the flowing, eternal life-force which Bergson proposes. Its practitioners meditate and pray, apparently seeking enlightenment through something very close to Bergson's stream-of-consciousness intuition. In contrast, another kind of Christian practice appears to relate mainly to a thoroughly human Jesus - and therefore to focus mainly on practical matters. This seems more like the intellect of Bergson's approach, one which strives to reinterpret the Christian faith in terms suitable and meaningful to contemporary society.

Towards the end of his life, having become a Roman Catholic, Bergson tried to move closer to traditional Christian teaching about God in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion. He affirmed that God is love and the object of love and that there is divine purpose in the evolutionary process.

But the discovery of this purpose cannot, he said, be made by the intellect, but only by the sort of intuition that is the mystical experience. He contended that the Elan vital is communicated "in its entirety" to exceptional persons - the mystics who achieve contact with the creative effort which "is of God, if it is not God Himself." The spiritual intuition of the mystics must become universal to ensure mankind's future evolution.

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