Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Religion: A Way of Visioning the Future

A common view in religion is that God does not change, and, therefore, religion, too, is fixed and unchanging. In this view, religion then becomes a repository of unchanging tradition, which is often confused with God’s supposedly unchanging will. However, our life is always changing, and sometimes change can be unpleasant and unwanted, so many people try to avoid change. Although they can’t do this in life, many often try to retreat into their “Old-Time” religion, where, they say, God is the same “yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Whether this is true or not is simply unknowable, at least by the likes of us. All we know of God are those experiences we label as “God.”
Because we know we change, we should rationally be able to agree that as our experience changes, our view of God can also change. One metaphor that can help us order our experience into a meaningful narrative is our life as a journey, moving from birth through life to death and always changing. Another helpful metaphor to add to this first metaphor is that God is calling us to move into the future trusting in God’s promises with all the frightening changes that such movement entails. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, the metaphor of God calling God’s followers on a journey into the future is prominent. God calls Abram to leave his home in Ur, and his father, and family to go to “the land that I will show you.” The Israelites follow Moses out of Egypt because of God’s promise that they will settle in Canaan. Jesus leaves Galilee and travels to Jerusalem to fulfill God’s mission for his life.
So, God can be envisioned as calling us into the future, a future containing many changes. Jürgen Moltmann, a prominent German Protestant theologian, has written about God not up there but out in front calling us into the future. Moltmann understands Christian faith as essentially hope for the future of human beings and for this world as promised by the God of exodus and by God’s resurrection of the crucified Jesus. Thus, an attitude of expectancy underlies all of faith. An active doctrine of hope gives hope for an alternative (my italics) future to the oppressed and suffering of our present time (adapted from The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology [http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/WeirdWildWeb/courses/mwt/dictionary/mwt_themes_855_moltmann.htm]).
As Christians contemplate possible futures, they remember the promises that God and they made in baptism, in the Word proclaimed, and in the meal. These promises can give us hope, and hope gives us courage to make choices that we trust will help make the promises a reality here among us now. Of the many promises we hear in the Christian religion, all can be understood as variations on “Thy Kingdom come on earth as in heaven.” The work of Christians is to participate in bringing in God’s Kingdom here on earth, where there will be enough for all and where justice and equity reign.
Each Christian has a unique contribution to make to this enterprise, and the choices each makes will help determine how effective these contributions are. Being conscious that we have choices is an important element in making effective choices. As we contemplate choices, we can play out the possible consequences of our choices in our minds and in conversations with others. So, if we can consciously envision a better world, a world more like the Kingdom, the perhaps we will make choices that, we hope, will bring it closer. So for Christians on a God-led journey into the future, the best chance for a future more like the Kingdom is based on trust in the promises and choices informed by the promises.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

It’s Only a Paper Moon

This is the paper from January of 2007 that gave me the title for this blog, "Worshiping at the Church of Non-Realism." Your comments are appreciated.

At the conclusion of his recent book, "The God Problem: Alternatives to Fundamentalism," Nigel Leaves asks whether God is real or simply a (non-real) symbol of our ultimate concern. He finds the non-realism advocated by Don Cupitt and Lloyd Geering more intellectually compelling, but the realism upheld by Marcus Borg and Bishop John Spong more emotionally appealing. Like them, many of us feel the need for a real God.
However, today even in the face of this yearning, Cupitt writes in "The Old Creed and the New," the great faith traditions, including Christianity, are rapidly breaking down and melting away, particularly in the West. Many people are no longer moved and motivated by traditional religion. The upsurge in virulent fundamentalism that would maintain the old supernatural religion with its real God is a clear sign of the challenge of non-realism. However, many people are dissatisfied with fundamentalism or other forms of traditional religion, because they no longer provide reliable answers and assurances in daily life or a convincing picture of a life after this one. As a result, non-realism is a popular default religious position for many people who have left the churches.
That said, thoroughgoing non-realism has been a hard sell, and Cupitt’s sales pitch can seem bleak: Nothing exists outside this world except (following Nietzsche) the Void. We are of this world and live and die in it. We can not observe God outside this life or demonstrate God by scientific experiment. No better (or worse) otherworld with promises of a perfect, everlasting life after this life, as conjured up by traditional religion’s supernatural picture, can shield us from the Void. To think that we can know God in heaven or in another realm not of this world in the way we know facts here in this world is an illusion. With the rise of rational enquiry from within the religious traditions, science and technology have come to dominate our thinking, leaving little inclination for supernatural explanations. And yet, along with Peggy Lee, we ask: “Is that all there is?”

The Church as the Theater of Feelings
Cupitt has been a reformer, not a despiser of the Church, such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, or Sam Harris. Cupitt has always encouraged us to become more consciously religious; he urges us to remain in the Church, but keep our eyes open, making, as he writes in "Radicals and the Future of the Church," the church our (his emphasis) work of art. He writes that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.”
The theatre analogy points to how non-realism could work in real churches. When we go to the theatre we usually naturally and easily suspend disbelief to enter into the world of the actors who by speech and action on stage in turn evoke in us actions, feelings, experiences and thoughts. So, likewise, during a religious service we may also suspend disbelief, and have religious feelings and experiences.
Calvin wrote that each of us is an actor and God is the audience, but with the death of God and the disappearance of the supernatural from our scientific world, there is now no audience for the plays of our lives. But what if, instead, we are both actors and audience? What if, like Judy and Mickey and all the other kids, young and old, we run down to the old barn of the church and put on a play? We create the play of and about God and perform our creation for ourselves and the others with us who are also creators and performers? Then, God, who only lives if we manifest God, in the words of the old prayer, by our life and conversation, can appear again: this time in our play, both as playwright and performer. Of course, to encourage God’s appearance in our post-modern production, we will have to sprinkle ourselves liberally with the fairy dust of Paul Ricoeur’s post-critical naïveté to screen awhile our critical thinking.
That worship produces belief is an old idea. In "On Liturgical Theology," Aidan Kavanagh reminds us that orthodoxy means first “right worship” and only secondarily doctrinal accuracy. This implies that worship conceived broadly is what gives rise to theological reflection rather than the other way around. In the phrasing of Prosper of Aquitaine (c. 390 - 465), it is the law of worship which founds or establishes the law of belief. Belief does not come first, then worship, but rather worship produces belief.
Today, psychology is providing evidence that behavior, e.g., worship, produces feelings. For example, in "Feelings," James D. Laird argues that feelings do not cause behavior, but rather follow from behavior, and are, in fact, the way that we know about our own bodily states and behaviors. James W. Pennebaker points out that emotions, motivation, and other private feelings are inferred from our behaviors rather than being directly perceived. Stuart Walton writes in "A Natural History of Human Emotions" that this idea goes back at least to Charles Darwin, who in "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals" (1872), contended that all humans everywhere have the same basic set of innate and constitutive emotions that are expressed by two kinds of muscular action: facial expression and bodily movement. We communicate these emotions to others often quite involuntarily as the result of instinct, rather than by learned behavior. Everyone worldwide recognizes and “reads” them similarly. Thus, we and those observing us may sense particular emotions while performing particular actions in worship, and, as Joseph Ledoux writes in "The Emotional Brain," emotions can produce conscious feelings, which, in turn, can lead to belief.
Viewing liturgy through the lens of non-realism, then brings meaning, a hallmark of belief, into focus. God can be the name and the marker for the meaning we find together in worship. God, as meaning, appears horizontally among worshipers; we understand that God in the vertical, supernatural direction is an exciting special effect produced as we together find God in our church of non-realism, in our theater of feelings.
But aren’t our feelings an unreliable basis for a real God? Yes, indeed. Feelings are erratic and fleeting, i. e., often they are over before they are identified or named. They come and go; they are conscious, but represent only some of our emotions, most of which are unconscious and not subject to our control. Thus, feelings, and more so, emotions, can be dangerous, which can heighten our anxiety. Furthermore, feelings can be hard to conceptualize, verbalize, and understand. They, like emotions, are virtually impossible to stop or control while happening and, once gone, may be hard or impossible to summon up again. Thus, feelings are like life as Cupitt describes it: finite, time-bound, contingent, unpredictable, transitory, and impermanent. Our feelings, quick, acute, and intuitive, tell us we are alive, and as insubstantial as feelings are, they are the basis of our life, our experience. They suffuse our experiences, including our religious experiences.
However, if our awareness of God comes from our feelings and experiences, we soon learn that supernatural ways of thinking “improve” our God experiences, preserving them perfectly and unchanging, as Peter would have done on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus’ light shone before the disciples. But, of course, as Jesus knew, experiences can’t be preserved, but must be lived, even to death.
We yearn to be sure of something other than death, and, indeed, Cupitt writes, language is a sure basis for our philosophy and religion. Ordinary language (heightened in popular songs) is necessary for us to function as humans in society. Although language is the basis of society and religion, language is totally contingent, developing by trial and error, and open to continuing future change, evolving over (a long) time by consensus. We are born into a world where our language is a given, but it is a given hammered out by agreements arrived at by society’s members over the years, changing as new needs arise and old ones fade.
Therefore, using the theatrical analogy, our play of God is always in rewrite with many varied incarnations. One scenario, sketched here, presents some Christian concepts through the facial expressions, movements, and language of the actors, who thereby convey Darwin’s six basic, facially legible emotions -- happiness, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise – using some of the physical indicators he identified. Other emotions or states of mind, including contempt (which Darwin gave indicators for), love, hope, and joy are mentioned, and even though the presentation of these may not be as clear as that of the basic six, they may be suggested with the addition of dialogue. The emotions, feelings, and experiences produced in church may be thought of and spoken of as religious. In keeping with Cupitt’s contention that people use ordinary language for their religious experiences, ordinary, non-religious, in preference to “religious,” language and songs are used as much as possible.

A Play for the Theater of Feelings
In this scenario, the play has a prologue, two acts, and a conclusion. In the prologue, we see God happy: smiling, laughing, dancing, and clapping, while drawing our attention to the nifty supernatural set, painted by the likes of Michelangelo and Chagall, and at the same time singing the anthem to non-realism: “Say, it's only a paper moon, Sailing over a cardboard sea, But it wouldn't be make believe, If you believed in me.”
In Act I, “By the River,” a presentation of feelings aroused by Rom 6: 3-11, we first see a roiling, fast moving, and apparently deep river with many people on the shore and in the water. Bullies are pulling, pushing or dragging others into the water and holding them under.
We sense the bullies’ contempt. They uncover their canine teeth on one side, snort, and turn up their noses as they manhandle their weaker fellows. We also know that the bullies are angry. Their faces are flushed, their eyes wide open, and their breathing accelerated. They grind their teeth, clench their fists, and incline their bodies towards their victims. We also see the bullies’ disgust by their wide opened mouths, their spitting, their blowing through protruded lips, and the retraction of their upper lips.
The tormented, struggling to the surface and breathing again, show, after the shock of the cold water, surprise at breathing again. They open their eyes and mouths wide and inhale suddenly. Of course, their flailing limbs and contorted expressions convey mainly fear. They are pale, breathe fast, and have dilated pupils and contracted neck muscles.
We in the audience empathize. We either cheer on the bullies or yell to those drowning to resist more vigorously. Of course, others may be drowning on their own without any bullying. Some, by their bold move into the river, convey misplaced self-confidence. Others look sad. The corners of their mouths are drawn down, they are pale, and their muscles and eyelids droop; they seem to be seeking drowning.
As this scene unfolds, we become aware of another group near the shore. By their calm expressions and open stance, they convey empathy for all, including the bullies, the tormented, the confident, the despairing, and all the rest in danger of drowning. They don’t turn away to avoid the perils of the river, but gesture in invitation to act as supporting guides for all those who would enter the river. Many of the guides are singing: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, Gather with the saints at the river, That flows by the throne of God.” Some whom the guides put down into the river come up screaming at the shock of immersion. Others, before going in, show fear, cringing back from the deep, cold, rapidly rushing river and tensing up with possibility of going under, losing control, not being able to breath, suffocating, and dying. But some, who accept the invitation, show by their relaxation into their guides, a tentative, but growing trust and confidence that their loving guides, while putting them under, won’t abandon them as they are drowning. And, yes, some of these, upon being brought up, may show, by their tears of joy, happiness at being able to breathe again, to live again. Thus, this non-real drowning can engender as toward God real emotions and feelings of happiness and gratitude that people might feel upon being brought back to life from death.
Act II, “Walking, Talking, Breaking,” describes feelings upon reading Luke 24: 13-32. The first scene shows two people walking along a dusty road. Their slow pace, slumped shoulders, downcast expression, and desultory talk convey sadness. They are joined by a man who asks what they are discussing. The two continue to show sadness while telling him about the crucifixion of Jesus but soon show flashes of anger as they point out that his death, at the hands of both the Jewish and Roman authorities, has dashed their hopes that he would free Israel.
Now, added to their anger, is the memory of their surprise at the tale of some female followers of Jesus, who said that early that morning they saw his tomb empty and angels who said he was alive. The two walkers tell the stranger that other followers of Jesus also went to the tomb and found it empty but hadn’t seen him. As the walkers recount the women’s story to this male stranger, contempt replaces their surprise (“You know how these silly women are. They’re always seeing things.”) But they are still bewildered that the others have confirmed the empty tomb.
The stranger’s response is tinged with anger. He is provoked and irked by the walkers’ slowness to perceive the meaning of the crucifixion in light of the promise of Israel’s redemption. He shows exasperation at their distrust and refusal to imagine the Messiah’s glory. Their critical thinking has reinforced their fear of death and prevented them from entering into the women’s vision. For them, the promise is unreal; not yet non-real. They have not yet embraced their post-critical naïveté to allow them to experience the promise in their theater of feelings, where hope might contend with fear.
However, in the second scene, later at the walkers’ home, as they see the stranger breaking bread, their eyes are opened, and they know Jesus again, even as he vanishes. They have yet to name the emotion they sense: It is happiness, the physical indicators of which are the brightening of the eyes, a quickening of the circulation, and the coloring of the complexion. This is a good description of the physical correlates to their experience, described in Luke, of “our hearts burning within us,” as Jesus opened the promise to them.
But, of course, their experience was deeper than happiness; it was joy. As Huston Smith remarks about the early Christians in "The Soul of Christianity," “...they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was uncontainable.” They radiated joy as the sun radiates light. Their post-critical naïveté, no longer fairy dust, now lit them from within. Cupitt writes that we, like them, should emulate the sun, which shines now without regard to whether it will shine in the future or whether it will shine again when it dies. So, in joy, we attempt to make Jesus’ words real: “...do not worry about your life...but strive first for the kingdom of God...”
As Jesus vanishes and our play concludes, we hear a voice: “The play is over.” The doors of the church swing open, and, as we leave, we look back and see the empty set where just awhile ago God sang and danced. Back in the real world, we will again grapple with sadness, anger, fear, disgust, contempt, surprise, and happiness. But, feeling God singing within us, we radiate joy.