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 Cost of Happiness
by Paul Walker

The hopes of most people in the world are fairly straightforward. Recently it was put to me simply as, "Somewhere to live, something to do, and a date at the weekend." People need food and shelter, occupation and sex.

Yet alongside fulfilling these basic instincts, over the centuries people have spent an incredible amount of their precious resources, of both time and money, on religion. Ancient temples, shrines and churches all bear testimony to a strange desire, inexplicable in evolutionary terms, to use valuable resources on the worship of something intangible.

In the rich Western world two things have now happened - perhaps coincidentally, perhaps related. People have food, shelter, occupation and sex in an abundance never before dreamed of. At the same time, fewer and fewer people bother with religion. And even if they do, the proportion of national income spent on places of worship is tiny.

So let me consider my abundance.

I have a life my grandparents could not have dreamed of. I have a home which is centrally heated, with labour saving devices that are incredible - a vacuum cleaner, an automatic washing machine, a dishwasher and all the rest. I holiday at least twice a year, often to exotic places. I have access to two cars, the World Wide Web, and all the food I want, in and out of season.

The list is endless - yet many people reading this would not consider me a rich man. Yet for (say) my grandmother, I am sure that she would have considered just the possibility of an automatic washing machine and a tumble dryer an incredible luxury in helping her with her seven children. She might have considered that not having a full day washing on a Monday was a contribution to her greater happiness.

But I appear no happier than my grandmother.

Evidence suggests that greater wealth in the West is not creating the happiness it promises. Once our basic needs are met, wealth does not fulfill. Ironically, we often feel that the reason we are not happy is that we do not have certain things. If I was as rich and beautiful as a Hollywood star then perhaps I�d be happy. The reality is that I�d probably be about as happy as the average Hollywood star.

In such a situation one might imagine that religion would flourish, offering something more than mere wealth, offering a deeper meaning to life. Yet wherever consumption of resources is most conspicuous, religion is in decline. It is growing only in those parts of the world that do not share in the wasteful consumerism of the West.

Perhaps the reason for the decline of religion in the West is the nature of the promises religion makes today. Modern Western religion promises the same illusory commodity as does Western capitalism - happiness. It has put itself in the same marketplace as the fashion industry or tourism: "Take our product on board and you will be fulfilled." The result is often Churches offering banal music with words to the effect that "In Jesus I find my real happiness".

Only - in my experience, Christians are no happier than Hollywood stars.

In fact, the only religion I see growing in the West is Buddhism. I suspect the reason for this is not that it�s trendy, as threatened Christians like to maintain, but that it does not offer happiness. Quite the opposite. It says stop seeking happiness. Strangely, Buddhists often seem very happy.

Jesus never offered happiness either. Nor did he offer personal fulfillment. What he said to those around him was, "Take up your cross, sell all your possessions and give to the poor. Go out in pairs with no possessions and heal the sick." These are not the ideas of a religion offering deep personal fulfillment. Rather, they are extremely practical ways of creating a more just world.

To follow Jesus turns out to be simply too costly. Most of us cannot think of giving up our possessions. John Lennon only imagined it. We cannot imagine the possibility of turning the other cheek to the aggression of 11 September, 2001. We cannot imagine taking our message only to the marginalized poor.

So because the message of Jesus is too costly, we prefer to reinterpret it. 

We turn it into a way of finding a degree of personal fulfillment which is somewhat deeper than we would get from a round-the-world tour.

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