Wednesday, July 2, 2008

“The New Yorker,” Theodicy, and Don Cupitt

“The New Yorker” didn’t publish my letter, below, so I’m posting it today:

Although James Wood cites Nietzsche at the beginning of his article, “Holiday in Hellmouth” (June 9th & 16th), he seems to yearn for the return of the theistic God, whom Nietzsche so famously declared dead, to solve the problem of theodicy. Such a supernatural, otherworldly, almighty God no longer captures the imagination of many people. Rather, as Don Cupitt writes in “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” some of us are coming to “... believe in an historically-evolving, human, and culturally-established God.” Further, “...we now have become responsible for our God. We’ve got to appraise him, update him, rewrite him continually.” Cupitt points out, following Hegel, that the doctrine of the Trinity is an obvious beginning for reinterpretation: “The co-equality of the second person (Christ, the Son) with the third person (The Holy Spirit) is an invitation to demythologize, because the full coequality and coeternity of the Son means that everything the Father is, the Son is also. And when the Son completely and irrevocably commits himself to becoming human then God has become human, without remainder. So everything that God is, this fellow human being beside me now is.” Also, “... the God of Pentecost (The Holy Spirit) is a postmodern God who has ceased to be a substance and has instead become the interrelatedness of everything.... the medium in which we live and move and have our being, the dance of signs.” Therefore, we are not passive bystanders in God’s world waiting for God to overcome evil, but rather we humans can be God incarnate, expressing the Spirit through (as the old prayer has it) “our life and conversation.” We know all too well that we have the ability to bring about evil. The challenge lies in whether we can express God to foster good.

This letter is an outcome of my re-reading “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” which, I think, 19 years after its publication, is still an excellent description of what the church could be like if non-realism were adopted. It is out of print, but Amazon has 6 used paperback copies from $7. It’s well worth the read.


gillt said...

Over at theolog one of the staff of bloggers posted on this article and thought that Wood's was rebelling against theism as a teenager would rebel against a curfew. And that morality does not exist without god belief. The implication being atheists are somehow immoral.

I'm an atheist and a scientist. What I couldn't get the whole lot of them to see was how scurrilous and offensive this remark was to a nonbeliever. Anyway, I'm not really clear how the postmodern god you describe in your post is any different from pantheism or Buddhism, which seems more humanism than theism.

Pete M said...

Hi gillt,
Thanks for your comment. I too am an atheist and a scientist. I’m an atheist in the sense that I don’t believe in a theistic, supernatural God, and I am a biochemist. I am also religious and a church goer. The reason for this seeming contradictory behavior is in Cupitt’s recalling of Hegel’s insight into the doctrine of the Trinity, which is in the blog post you commented upon, “The New Yorker,” Theodicy, and Don Cupitt. As he writes: “When the Son completely and irrevocably commits himself to becoming human then God has become human, without remainder. So everything that God is, this fellow human being beside me now is.” Some may call this humanism, which is fine, but I prefer to think of it as the outcome of a completely immanent God, who is as near to us as our breath if we would but recognize the Presence.
Along with this goes the old saying: “God only exists if we believe in God.” It is up to us to manifest the best God we can imagine in our “life and conversation.” Another point worth considering is that, I think, our religious life is a result of our feelings, which are fleeting and inconstant. The supernatural structure that theistic religion builds is an attempt to capture feelings and fix them for all time in ideal form. Thus, traditional Christianity, what Cupitt calls “Church Christianity”, is platonic, and platonic forms easily lend themselves to hierarchical formulations: God up there; we down here, where we dare not aspire to God-ness. However, the Jesus of the Passion narrative as the Suffering Servant (from Isaiah II) provides a model of God who encounters violence with nonviolence and calls attention to the scapegoating going on in order to bring an end to scapegoating. As “Little Christs,” we are called to follow Jesus’ example as a way of manifesting God. That’s part of the meaning of “Love your enemy” and “Turn the Other Cheek.” We find this hard to do, because we worship ourselves. Not God in the persons around us.