Tuesday, January 20, 2009

“The Meaning of West”

In the modern West, we are in transition between two versions of Christianity. The first is the old ecclesiastical version that ended in the early nineteenth century and is now slowly passing away. The second is our late-modern or postmodern civil society, which, with its liberal-democratic humanitarianism is the “Kingdom on Earth” version of Christianity. This is the thesis of Don Cupitt’s important new book, “The Meaning of West.” Liberal-democratic civil society is, he suggests, Quakerism writ large. Christianity is now becoming purely this-worldly and human. People are just leaving the clerical hierarchy behind. Cupitt calls these the officer-class of religious professionals who would control everything. One need only look at the collapse of the church in, for example, Spain, Ireland, and Italy to see the truth of this. In these once actively Christian countries hardly anyone goes to church and hardly anyone listens to, much less obeys, church pronouncements. The division between the sacred and the profane is gone. Now, we know only one world, our secular, human world. The entire divine realm has become scattered or disseminated into human beings.
Notwithstanding, the West is indelibly Christian. We are what Christianity made us. The modern Western-led international ethic is simply a continuation of Christian ethics. The proof of the ascendancy of the new “Kingdom" version of Christianity in the West is the fact that civil, secular society is now more consistently Christian than are the churches. The Church holds onto discrimination and injustice, as with its own employees, women, and gays, fighting inclusion and equality at every turn. Thus, the church is obsolete, and, Cupitt writes, we should leave it and commit ourselves with full religious seriousness to the best of our contemporary secular cultural life. Doing so, we would become better Christians. Of course, it hardly matters what the few people in the churches do. They are seen rightly as outdated anachronisms.
But even without the churches, Christianity is the active heart of the modern West, even though, as Cupitt points out, both religious dogmatists and Enlightenment scientific rationalists err because both are “realists,” wanting us to believe that the special bodies of knowledge out of which they earn their bread are objectively and permanently true. This isn’t so because any knowledge is always conditioned by our own human vantage point, our place in history, and the language we think, speak, and write in. And, because our language is always changing, our reality is also always changing since we have only our language to describe it. As a result we are learning to live without eternity, without foundations, without any absolute knowledge or reality.
Cupitt argues that this attitude helps us glimpse the long-awaited Kingdom of God on earth. This nihilistic religious-humanism-for-a-world-that-knows-it-is-passing-away, was, as far a we can tell, he writes, the original message of Jesus. Because he came to a dreadful end, his followers couldn’t see how his vision could be realized unless he were to return. He thus became a heavenly figure who would return one day to set the world right. This hope persisted, and ironically, drove the Faith toward working for the Kingdom here, because believers felt that Jesus was with them in this world. Cupitt calls this Faith’s own self-secularization. As Jesus emptied himself for us, so we in the West continue to recognize opportunities to empty ourselves into the world to help bring the Kingdom ever closer.

(“The Meaning of the West” was published in 2008 in England by SCM Press. I bought my copy from www.blackwell.co.uk for $22.49, including postage.)


Anonymous said...

Pete, thanks for your helpful summary of Don Cupitt's latest book. There's a lot here I really like, especially the assertion that secular western society is now more Christian than the churches. But can I ask you what you think of the following observations?
1. What does 'West' mean? This is thrown into sharp relief when we see that on Cupitt's various accounts of religion, some forms of Buddhism are also 'more Christian than the churches'. If we are talking about a culture that owes its heritage to Christianity, isn't it possible to conceive of a western secular society whose underlying ethos is Buddhist, and which doesn't trace its lineage back to Jesus? In other words, rather than looking backwards to Christianity, couldn't the West (whatever that is), on Cupitt's own account, be looking forward to Buddhism?
2. Isn't it possible that far from disappearing, the distinction between sacred and profane has just shifted slightly to bypass Christianity and focus on more perennial concerns. For instance, in our culture, it could be said that violence is as sacred as it ever was. I am wary of 'baptising' the society we live in and forgetting that Christianity was born as a resistance movement to a thoroughly religious, but not Christian, Empire. To politicise Cupitt's approach, couldn't it be said that the inheritors of Christianity are the resistance movements (perhaps of the sort Quakers tend to support - Amnesty International and the like) - not society as a whole, which is still dangerously religious?
3. Shouldn't this political turn also be applied to Cupitt's view of Jesus. One story about Jesus is that he was a gnomic Cynic philosopher in a broadly hellenistic vein. But another, and to my mind more convincing story is that he was sympathetic to Judean freedom fighters, and was executed as though he was one of them. Wouldn't this put a different spin on the significance of Jesus for our time?
4. A small point: not sure Cupitt counts as a nihilist. Does he state this somewhere?

You might like to check out my blog, Fourcultures.

Pete M said...

Hi Fourcultures,
Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my post on the “Meaning of the West.” I didn’t discuss it in my post, but in the book, Cupitt explicitly contrasts the “West” with non-Christian and particularly Islamic societies. He writes that Christianity has always acknowledged the role of the secular in society. For example, this is seen in the classic “two kingdoms” idea in which secular rulers are in charge of enforcing natural law. This is one way in which Christianity became secular. Furthermore, one of the “indelibles” is that humans are God’s agents for the betterment of the world, and in the process, they become more and more autonomous without the need to depend on God. Islamic society, Cupitt writes, is different. The goal in these societies is to eliminate the secular and to have all life controlled by God. In such a scheme, humans’ role is to obey. I think that much of the turmoil we see today in the Islamic world can be traced to the love-hate relationship that these societies have with the West. These societies want western technology, gadgets, and pop culture, but the price is an uneasy recognition of western values, particularly human autonomy. So, by the “West” Cupitt means those parts of the world that have been formed by Christianity and now find themselves living the Christian culture but not the religion.
Although people in those societies might incorporate Buddhist practices into their lives, the societies were never Buddhist, as some Asian societies are, so, at least for the foreseeable future, I don’t think western society is going to have an underlying Buddhist ethos. Cupitt in some of his other books has interesting observations on Buddhism; he is leery of its goal of being released from desire. He advocates a religious stance that actively works to better the world, and he worries that Buddhism may be too passive.
Your observations on violence sanctioned by the church are well taken. The Jesus movement was against Caesar, but with the Constantinean takeover of the church, the church became Caesar and the political edge of the Jesus movement was suppressed. Christianity became about cultivating personal piety to assure entrance into heaven. With the emphasis on heaven, the goal of the “Kingdom on Earth” was lost. With the enlightenment and the rise of critical thinking and liberal society, the bringing in of the Kingdom was once again a central goal of the West, albeit in secular form without the religious language. Quakers and other religious and humanitarian groups, such as Amnesty International, that value a “horizontal” egalitarian approach to religious life have played an out-sized role in relation to their numbers in bringing the Christian indelibles into secular Western society.
And, as you write, religion is often dangerous. Cupitt in “The Meaning of the West” has given up completely on the churches, characterizing them as either weak or irrational. He advocates that they wither and die, as, of course, many are doing. He does not want to resuscitate them. He would rather promote and encourage the spread of the Christian “indelibles,” the values underlying Western secular society. He calls these values the “Afterlife” of Christianity. In a post, I am currently preparing, I argue that there might be a “Church of the Afterlife” if at least some of the churches embraced the idea that church can be, in Cupitt’s words, “The Theatre of Feelings.” In such a church, the underlying myths of Christianity would be explicated, evolution would be a source for new myths to help us cope with the opportunistic world, and sex would be put front and center as a crucial part of our feeling life. I hope you look for this post, which will be called, “The Church of the Afterlife,” and comment.
Cupitt has emphasized the importance of embracing this world and working to better it. He would have us give up the supernatural, maintaining that our world is “outsideless.” This world is all we have, and when we attempt to look outside it we encounter the Nihil, so in that sense he is a nihilist. But this should not lead to despair, but to the realization that we and only we are responsible for the world. We should practice “solar ethics,” giving ourselves freely as the sun does without expectation of reward (or punishment). You might be interested in his website (http://www.doncupitt.com/doncupitt.html). On it, there are good explanations of his approach, which he calls non-realism, and a list of his many books.
I’ve begun to read your blog, and I’m pleased that you write about Paul Ricoeur. I often use his three stages of belief in my writing. They figure prominantly in “The Church of the Afterlife.”
Thank you for your comments. I hope you continue to comment on my posts; I’m sure that I’ll be commenting on yours.

Anonymous said...

This one stark image sums up the meaning of the West. It is featured in The Pentagon of Power by Lewis Mumford.


The recent Avatar film summed up the situation in dramatic terms. At a very basic level it was about the culture of life versus the "culture" of death.

It was very interesting to observe the right-wing "conservative response to the film, including that of right-wing religionists.

They all came out in support of the "culture" of death as represented by the techno-barbarian invaders.