Friday, July 25, 2008

A review of "Reforming Christianity"

A few posts ago in “The New Yorker,” Theodicy, and Don Cupitt, on July 2nd, I mentioned "Reforming Christianity" by Don Cupitt (Polebridge Press, 2001). Below is a review by Graham Warren from November 2001 of that book on the blog, "Sofia, Sea of Faith in Australia" (http://www.sof-in-australia.org/blog.php?blog_id=140). I think the review provides a good overview of Cupitt's ideas and a challenge to us church members to move out of church Christianity into Kingdom religion, because for me the saddest idea in Warren's review is "The Church has condemned itself to the sideline of history." This is because the church refuses, as Jesus did, to stand with "God facing up to nihilism."
By the way, "Radicals and the Future of the Church" is another wonderful book that I recommend highly.

Here is Warren's review:

Don Cupitt's latest book "Reforming Christianity" is a post-script to his 1989 reformation book, "Radicals and the Future of the Church." His proposals for and sketches of a church of the future - how it will be organized and what it will actually do - were mocked. Now, sadly, he portrays himself as a man who does not mind losing the church and its version of Christianity. However, he fears the loss of Jesus - a serious blow. Jesus may not be rescued as a divine saviour but we may be able to do something with him as an ethical teacher - provided we don't mind seeing him not as a god who can't be wrong but as a man who might be right.

My first acquaintance with Don Cupitt was a life-altering reading in 1988 of "Sea of Faith - Christianity in Change" (1985). I then read backwards "Taking Leave of God" (1980), "Jesus and the Gospel of God" (1978), "The Leap of Reason" (1976), "Christ and Hiddenness of God" (1971). Somewhere along the way I read "The Long-Legged Fly" but I have lost my copy and with it the memories and thoughts evoked in the reading.

Don Cupitt prefers plain speech. He refuses to be an ecclesiastical apologist. He is a philosopher of religion and an heir to the Enlightenment exploring Kant's insight that we fabricate our world. Like Hegel he believes that reality emerges in our encounter with historical developments. Don Cupitt follows the critical path of Schopenhauer, Freud, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida. Cupitt does a more complete draft of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer intimated - religionless Christianity. He asks 'do we want to grow up?' Do we want to join the global shift away from authoritarianism and traditionalism? Are we prepared to move away from the assumption that the world is ready-made and all we are required to do is to be enthralled.

Can Christianity be reformed? It is a given, is it not? Only if one has a belief system which is immutable - “deposit of faith” as it is known in the Roman tradition wherein all is revealed from above. Contrast this with a voluntarist view where autonomy and responsibility are balanced one against the other.

This book may scandalize the faithful. With each new book Don Cupitt adopts a more urgent iconoclastic polemic with the church as a “deposit of faith” squarely in his sights. One constantly hears echoes of the forebears of Cupitt's ideas: "…faith as an act of will", "…religion is an attempt to familiarize the terrible" - Soren Kierkegaard; "…man’s last and highest parting occurs, when, for God's sake, he takes leave of god" - Meister Eckhart. This book is an urgent call to throw off "the painted veil", a metaphor as old as Plato, to describe that which hangs between the eternal world and us. This is not new material from Don Cupitt but it is the most urgent and latest call to act. As Church Christianity melts away there is an urgency: don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Don’t lose sight of what Jesus represented!

The Church has condemned itself to the sideline of history and Cupitt has analyzed the reasons for this over a lifetime of writing. But now we are in danger of losing the voice of Jesus - not the Christ of faith constructed by the church since first they puzzled over the delay in the parousia - but the Jesus as the original caller to the Kingdom. Don Cupitt preaches kingdom theology, kingdom values.

Jesus preached the Kingdom and we got the church. Now that the church has reached its use-by-date, we need to rescue core teachings.

Don Cupitt argues that reformation and renewal of Christianity are possible. Church Christianity, as we have received it, is handicapped in its view by two great errors – the mistaken interpretation of Jesus Christ as being co-equal Son of God incarnate, and a mistaken belief that there is a controlling supernatural place beyond this world.

To escape we need to start again with the message of Jesus about the Kingdom of God on this earth. In honest reflection on this message Don Cupitt argues for a religion that is immediate, beliefless and entirely based on the here and now. Religion is no longer how we relate ourselves to the supernatural realm, but rather how we relate ourselves to life. To reject the church is to reject a mediated view of God.

What power had the old mediated view? It promised reward later! History and maturity have stripped us of this as a credible belief and we stare in the face of nihilism. Don Cupitt embraces nihilist Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer but shows us God facing up to nihilism. This is the voice, resurrected after two millennia, of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus preached the Kingdom. Don Cupitt preached Kingdom religion. This is a combination of "solar spirituality" and humanitarian social ethics. It is autonomous and responsible. It embraces the end of belief in life after death. Why did Jesus express such eschatological urgency? Perhaps it is, and was, here and now. We need to embrace it. We are not called to prepare for it. It is now. "Solar spirituality" is lived not explained. If Jesus had so much trouble being understood, small wonder that Cupitt likewise does.

This is not a secular humanist rebellion against God nor a repudiation of Christianity. On the contrary, we see it as Christianity's own struggle to advance from its warped ecclesiastical stage to its final Kingdom stage of development. The church has always prayed "…thy Kingdom come (but not yet please!)”.

The church very early became locked into the view of Jesus as portrayed in John's gospel - a divinised Jesus Christ. This is in stark contrast to the human Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the other gospels. Why do church theologians in seminaries not cross the corridor to listen to their colleagues in scriptural study? New hermeneutical tools and analyses have given us a chance to hear the muffled voice of Jesus. Why has the institution remained deaf and mute to these new understandings of their founder?

7 comments:

Franklyn said...

The endurance of religion is testimony to the popularity of what it offers. Among other things, it offers a defined set of instructions on how to live, what to believe, how to behave in specific situations and how to recover from errors in following these instructions. No demanding thinking, true self examination or emotional growth is required. It also offers the approving company of others who have choosen to accept these teachings. And, as a final reward for obediance it offers no less than eternal life.

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