Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Church of the Afterlife


In his new book, “The Meaning of the West,” Don Cupitt writes, “…I can at last finally leave the old religion behind, not just because what is left of it has now become so weak and irrational, but much more because the afterlife of Christianity has now become so much bigger and more interesting than its earlier period of existence as a great world religion. The British Labour Party, for example, has done far more to build the Kingdom of God on earth during the past hundred years than the Latin Church achieved in the same territory during the whole millennium AD 600-1600.
He continues: “Christian supernatural doctrine has not been public truth for centuries. Jane Austen, for example, is a profoundly Anglican novelist. In her world clergymen abound, and many of her characters are very serious about religion. Christian ethics -- at least in the form of an acute awareness of and sympathy for the feelings and the misfortunes of others -- is everywhere presupposed. But nobody in the entire Austen canon seriously advances a proposition of revealed theology, or even so much as mentions the name of Christ. We cannot imagine any of them doing so. In brief, even in Jane Austen’s world Christian theology is already dead. The Anglican Church is still around, but Christianity is in reality already well into its afterlife period. (My emphasis.)

The Churches Today

Can today’s Church be part of the afterlife of Christianity? Cupitt thinks not. As he writes, what’s left of religion is weak and irrational. It’s weak because most churches, particularly of mainline Protestant denominations, are unwilling to proclaim the old supernatural dogmas with conviction, while fearing to preach new messages to their “base” that is perceived as clinging to the old ways for support. The price these churches pay for their weakness is that most people find them unnecessary to their lives. The churches say nothing helpful to most people, and they live in Christianity’s afterlife without missing these churches.
The churches that today are not weak are instead irrational. These, of course, are the fundamentalists; right-wing Ratzinger Roman Catholics (the latter most clearly seen in Opus Dei and Society of St. Pius X with its Holocaust denier); and the Evangelicals. The Evangelicals are now ascendant in the United States, a religious bloc that constitutes a quarter, perhaps a third, of the population (“Christian Century” editorial, January 27, 2009). Rick Warren, an Evangelical, was anointed by Obama and is, as a result, now the most powerful religious leader in the US. Although not a thoroughgoing fundamentalist, Warren’s invocation for the Inauguration showed him to be in the tradition of Church Christianity’s theological realism. Namely, God is a supernatural theistic being, not of this earth, who deigns to hear the prayer of us lesser, earthly beings but only if we pray in the name of Him who has sole access to God. The implication of the prayer was that others should get with this program or be left out. Such arrogance, of course, sets up a conflict between the saved versus the unsaved, and, many people I spoke to resented that this theism was given a national seal of approval.
Especially since the 18th century, theism has no longer held sway among either Christian clergy or people, and yet many people, even though they no longer identify with theistic language, expect to hear theistic language from Christian preachers. Thus, in the churches, both clergy and the people who still attend are using language that no longer moves them. As a result, the church has little effect on peoples’ lives. Of course, many people have already drifted away from the churches because what they’ve heard is meaningless to them. So except for the right-wing churches offering certainty for the timid, the churches are fading away.

The Afterlife of Christianity

Although the churches are fading away, Cupitt maintains that the postmodern West is secularized Christianity. Rejecting Christian dogma and leaving the church does not disconnect people from Christianity. He writes, “We remain what Christianity has made us, and in many respects the post modern West is more Christian than ever. If you are a Westerner and are committed to Western values, then you are a Christian.” In fact, Cupitt points out that the West is indelibly Christian. “…Much or all of what is most important in Christianity has become so deeply assimilated that we are no longer aware of it, and nobody has yet studied it in any systematic way.” No one has even thought of writing a theology of the indelible (Cupitt’s emphasis), namely all the vital cultural material of Christian origin that post-Christians have not and cannot throw off. The central example is the typically Western form of individual selfhood, specifically selfhood as anxiety and the consciousness of sin, derived directly from the seventh chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (see particularly verses 16-25), which leads to critical thinking, the basis of Western philosophy and science.
Other indelible ideas Cupitt identifies are the driving force behind Western humanitarianism:
1. The belief in the uniqueness and the unique value of each individual
2. The ethic of mutual love and forbearance
3. The principle that the weakest and most vulnerable members of society have a moral claim on our love and care. This, of course, comes directly from the Jewish requirement, as in Deut. 14:29, to care for resident aliens, orphans, and widows.
Many will see in these ideas the essence of the Gospel, which proclaims that this is what God wants and, therefore, God’s followers should “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).
Another “indelible” is ‘the uniformity of nature,’ a narrative picture of the world governed by universal natural laws accessible to us. This belief originally was strongly theological and is rooted in the covenant with Noah (Gen. 8:20-9:17) and in the belief in the faithfulness of God. Biblical theism has produced the indelible conviction that the uniformity of nature can produce reliable scientific knowledge and technologies.
The belief in progress is another indelible. It starts with the belief that God seeks the betterment of creation and that humans are God’s agents in this improvement. As humans act in God’s stead, power is gradually transferred from God to humans and with the irreversible transition of humans from innocence to experience we become more ‘God-like.’ Today, we are indeed burdened with our God-like destructive powers that can destroy the world, but we have yet to find the will to act fully as God’s agent for good. This one fact points to the urgency of our identifying how the Kingdom has already come and to work to bring it to earth more fully.

Society Without God The persistence of the indelible ideas from Christianity has been documented in the book “Society Without God” by Phil Zuckerman, even though he does not use the indelible concept. For 14 months, he talked to Danes and Swedes about religion, and his findings are discussed by Peter Steinfels in the February 28, 2009 issue of the “New York Times.”
Sweden and Denmark are among the least religious nations in the world, as measured by responses to poll questions about belief in God, the importance of religion in their lives, belief in life after death, or church attendance. And yet in these countries, the quality of life, as measured by life expectancy, child welfare, standard of living, and other categories, is among the highest in the world. Furthermore, these countries, Zuckerman found, were “moral, stable, humane and deeply good.” In addition, although they don’t seem to fear death very much and spend little time pondering the meaning of life, they were not “despairing nihilists,” but were “for the most part, a happy, satisfied lot.” Their Christianity is generally cultural with “little to do with God or creed,” but centered on “holidays, songs, stories and food.” Although not believers, many Scandinavians remain in the national, Lutheran church, and this cultural religion helps explain aspects of Denmark and Sweden that Zuckerman admires. One nonbeliever responded to a question about the sources of Denmark’s very ethical culture by saying, “We are Lutherans in our souls – I’m an atheist, but still have the Lutheran perceptions of many: to help your neighbor. Yeah it’s an old, good moral thought.” And, we might add, it is one of the indelible ideas from Christianity present in this no longer religious society.

Characteristics of the Church of the Afterlife

Cupitt believes that churches should be allowed to wither and die, as they are doing. However, I hope that if some of them can recognize the vigorous afterlife of Christianity already in western society, they could work to promote the coming of the Kingdom of God more fully here on earth, and thus have a role to play and be useful for people. The Church of the Afterlife’s main contribution can be to call attention to the afterlife of Christianity in signs of the Kingdom already here and to energize people to work to expand the Kingdom.
How would the Church of the Afterlife accomplish this? What would be its characteristics? Here are a few: Afterlife congregations will be explicit about religion as a vehicle for feelings aroused by experience. Also, these congregations will be forthright in discussing religion as myth, evolution as a new source for life-guiding myths today, and sex as a central human activity to be managed, not suppressed.

Religion as a Vehicle for Feelings We often think of religion in terms of doctrines: written statements of belief that characterize a religion. But doctrines are far from the basic stuff of religion. Rather, religion most profoundly is about our feelings, including our thanks, happiness, fear, love, hate, disgust, and surprise. In “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” Cupitt wrote, before he lost his faith in the church, that the church is needed because “It is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings.” The theatre analogy points to what happens in church. When we go to the theater, 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 in the words and actions, and have religious feelings and experiences.
Charles Darwin 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, such as standing, sitting, kneeling, speaking, and singing. Joseph Ledoux in “The Emotional Brain” writes that emotions can produce conscious feelings, which, in turn, can lead to belief.
Religious rituals can bring 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 while we understand that God in the vertical, supernatural direction is an exciting special effect produced as we together find God in our church, our theater of feelings.
Organized religion has usually been suspicious of feelings, because they are unreliable and not easily codified. Feelings are indeed erratic and fleeting, i. e., they are often 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.

Religion as Myth Myths are the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of and to interpret our feelings and experiences. Religious stories are myths; they are narratives we appropriate or develop to give meaning to our feelings and experiences. Religious narratives are not literally factual, but today’s dying churches usually assume that everyone is mentally seven years old and needs to be shielded from that knowledge. The influence of Fundamentalism, especially in America, is so strong that even mainline congregations are silent on the mythic nature of Bible stories and doctrines. Many of the people who remain in churches are either complicit in this deception or wishfully hoping that these stories are literal after all. They look for a return to childhood certainty. Of course, most people, even in the church, are past such pre-critical naiveté (this is Paul Ricoeur’s formulation) in which all stories are factual. However, people grow up; leave pre-critical naiveté behind, and sometimes embrace critical thinking, the next stage of maturity, as the best way of coping with life. However, few people in our culture, which demands certainty, move in their religious understanding to the third stage: post-critical naiveté. At this stage, we are able to apprehend the truth of myths, while embracing the knowledge that they are not literally factual. In Cupitt’s terminology, they are non-real. Non-realism is discussed on his website (http://www.doncupitt.com/realism/aboutnonrealism.html). Here is an excerpt:
“In religion, the move to non-realism implies the recognition that all religious and ethical ideas are human, with a human history. We give up the old metaphysical and cosmological way of understanding religious belief, and translate dogma into spirituality (a spirituality is a religious lifestyle). We understand all religious doctrines in practical terms, as guiding myths to live by, in the way that Kant, Kierkegaard and Bultmannn began to map out. We abandon ideas of objective and eternal truth, and instead see all truth as a human improvisation. We should give up all ideas of a heavenly or supernatural world-beyond. Yet, despite our seeming scepticism, we insist that non-realist religion can work very well as religion, and can deliver eternal happiness. Cupitt sees his religion of ordinary human life as the "Kingdom theology" that historic Christianity always knew it must eventually move to, after the end of the age of the Church and the arrival of a religion of immediate commitment to this world and this life only.”
So, the Church of the Afterlife can become an aid for people immersed in the flux of life and in the struggle to make sense of their feelings and experiences. The classic myths of Christianity, including God, Heaven, Hell, etc, can be experienced not as timeless Truths handed down from above, but as shorthand explanations of feelings and experiences we find ourselves coping with, such as awe, gratitude, bliss, love, hate, guilt, fear, etc. However, the classic church language generally is so antique and the approach so realistic that most people just tune out, often muttering, as they leave the church, “How can you believe such stuff?”
The “church as theatre” idea is important, because it gives us a way of seeing that post-critical naiveté may yet work in church, in spite of Cupitt’s pessimism, in much the same way as in the theatre. People still flock to movies, plays, operas, TV programs, and video games to be entertained, yes, but also to enter alternate worlds where various possibilities are presented for living our lives. In the theatre, people suspend their critical faculties to enter a make-believe world, and, if the show is good, the feelings of the characters resonate with the viewers and ideas come to them on how they might cope with similar feelings in their lives. Of course, this process goes back to the ancient Greek theatre where plays, whether tragedies or comedies, were religious. Aristotle pointed out that viewers of tragedies may achieve catharsis, the purging of the emotions of pity and fear. Similarly, a liturgy, a sermon, a class at church is good if these activities touch us and help us manage our feelings wisely.
Notice that in this formulation, religion is not about abstract doctrines concerning grand religious concepts, but rather about the feelings our experiences arouse. Religious language and activity can help us put these feelings and experiences in perspective, but there is nothing everlasting about religious formulations. They change as peoples’ needs change. So the Church of the Afterlife will reformulate old myths and develop helpful new ones.

Evolution as a new Source of Myths The concept of biological evolution can be a rich source for new and re-worked myths. Evolution, in Darwin’s formulation, is the idea that all living things are descended from a common ancestor and change by natural selection into new species. Of course, the idea of evolution has been resisted mightily by the churches, both because it is not in accord with the Genesis account of creation, but also more importantly because, as Darwin saw, and biologists after him have confirmed, natural selection, the mechanism of evolution, is random, opportunistic, and purposeless. Or rather, the only purpose possible to assign to natural selection is that it ensures that the most fit organisms reproduce, insuring the appearance of the next generation. Natural selection allows for no Guiding Hand from above. The action is strictly down here on earth where the struggle for existence and reproduction is intense. The only conditions needed for evolution are chance (contingency, randomness), a very long time (billions of years), and natural selection. Darwin came to the idea of natural selection out of his experience of humanly guided breeding, in which humans select and breed plants and animals for certain desired characteristics, such as disease resistance in wheat or speed in race horses. Darwin reasoned that selection of organisms most likely to survive and reproduce is constantly occurring in nature, where there is no one guiding the process.

The Theology of Evolution Few Christian theologians have embraced evolution as a source of theological insights. John F. Haught is an exception, and he writes in “God after Darwin” (2000), that Darwinian evolution is a gift to theology. Although Haught’s argument is nuanced, certain points stand out as bases for new myths derived from evolution.

Accept chance as part of life New species arise as the result of chance events called mutations. Although most mutations are useless or harmful, a few give organisms a reproductive advantage. Out of such random and unpredictable events more reproductively fit organisms then arise, while other organisms, less able to compete for resources and mates, die out. Thus, new, fitter organisms arise because of contingency. Contingency is not a mask for a hidden necessity dictated by past events, not yet understood. Rather, it can be interpreted as a new myth. It is the way the cosmos breaks out of subordination to habitual routine and opens itself to the future.
Note that two popular catch phrases, often offered as explanations for events, are at odds with this understanding of contingency: “Everything happens for a reason” and “It is God’s will.” Often, no compelling reasons can be adduced for events, nor can God’s will easily be discerned in them. Notably, Jesus is recorded as sidestepping such reasoning in Luke 13:4-5, where he asked if those killed by the fall of the tower of Siloam were worst offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem. He answers no, implying that some events occur by chance or by unknown causes, and God’s will need not be put forth as a reason. The acknowledgement of contingency as a common feature of life can be the basis for myths that are more helpful than the anxious demand for reasons for events. A better catch phrase is “You should play the hand you were dealt as best you are able.”

With novelty, evolution moves toward the future Because unpredictable novelty is a central feature of evolution, the future is unknown and not merely the working out of past conditions. As humans contemplate the future, they can both acknowledge their ignorance of future events and carefully plan to minimize the harmful consequences of certain human activities. Our acknowledgement of evolution and of our profound, often unintended, effect on our survival and that of other species leads to new myths centered on the need for us to take care of the earth if it is to flourish. Our Garden of Eden has been ravaged and needs our help. Are we wise enough to provide it? This is the new narrative, the new myth we can step into now.

God “lets the world be,” permitting evolution Cupitt calls for “solar ethics.” This ethics presupposes a new myth about the future: We are to shine in the world for others like the sun. The sun does not grasp but empties itself, living and dying at the same time, and in so doing serves us all. Such solar language recalls the great hymn to Jesus in Philippians 2 that starts in verse 5: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Jürgen Moltmann argues that the creation of the universe itself can be thought of not so much a display of divine might as a consequence of God’s self-restraint. In order to create heaven and earth, God emptied Godself of God’s omnipotence, and as Creator, took the form of a servant.

God opens the future Further, Moltmann maintains, God can be viewed as the God of the future, and this suggests possibilities for a new myth, namely, God is not “up there,” but rather “up ahead,” drawing the whole creation forward into the future. In being the God of the future, God does not “micromanage” as a designer, but rather gives the world room to be itself. The world emerges as separate from and uncontrolled by God. This metaphysical and theological framework provides a way of bringing meaning not only to our bewilderment about our broken world and our individual suffering, but also the apparent struggle, waste, and suffering occasioned by evolution through natural selection. Calvin wrote that the world is a theater with God as the audience. This vision of God’s emptying is as if a “theater” has been provided where the drama of creation could take place. Like all good dramas, this play has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Science has sketched the outlines of the beginning of the world and the middle, our current time, but the future only God knows.

Sex: Central to Life Since St. Paul, the church has sought to suppress sex, imposing the myth that sex is bad. Unlike Judaism, which views sex as essential for its survival, the church depended frequently on conversions, often forced, as a main means of growth. As opportunities for conversions waned, heterosexual marriage was seen as a second best source of growth.
Paul set up a distinction between the flesh (a major source of sin or evil in our bodies) and the spirit (the presence of God, thus goodness, in our bodies). Although many of the works of the flesh that Paul compiles, as in Galatians 5, seem nonsexual (idolatry, sorcery, enmities, etc), these come in the list after obviously sexual ones (fornication, impurity, licentiousness), thus leaving the impression that sexual activity is bad or at least leads to bad activities.
Whatever Paul actually thought about sex, his lasting legacy in this area for the church has been that our sexually inclined flesh is at war with God, and we should mortify our flesh and deny our sexual nature to become the people God wants us to be. Sexual renunciation became the sure path to spiritual holiness, and as Peter Brown documents in “The Body and Society,” some in the church became “spiritual athletes” by becoming seemingly totally nonsexual and thus, it was thought, pure and acceptable to God by their heroic efforts. This accounts, of course, in the church for the high regard in which virgins are held. They are venerated not so much because of their martyrdom for the Faith, but because they are biologically intact. These heroes, of course, were a source of guilt for the ordinary church members who were not so subtly reminded of their own impure, often nonvirginal state.
It is difficult to overestimate the damage that this “just say no” myth about sex has caused. Just one example is telling. Homosexual teenagers are 3 to 7 times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual teenagers. It’s likely that many of the gay teenagers who kill themselves couldn’t live with the knowledge that they were an abomination to be put to death (Leviticus 20:13).
However, this misery has been very good for the church. People’s guilt about their sexual sinfulness kept them coming back to church for absolution granted with the proviso that the sinner renounce the sin of sex and promise to be “pure,” meaning nonsexual. Now, of course, more and more people are accepting their sexuality as part of their lives and not something to be excised. However, they are getting precious little help from the churches in their efforts to become responsible sexual persons. People attending church learn that sex is evil, unmentionable, or both. The fundamentalists are still denouncing sex, while the liberals make great efforts to say as little as possible about sex as they can. The contortions of the mainline Protestant denominations over the gay question demonstrate this. The major impression from these discussions is that the churches fervently wish that they didn’t have to discuss sex, gay or otherwise. Because of the demand for sexual renunciation by the church, most people are embarrassed by sex and often can’t cope effectively with their sexual feelings and experiences, nor can they talk freely about sex with others.
So, the Church of the Afterlife will preach and teach to replace the “just say no” sexual myth of traditional Christianity with a “just say yes” sexual myth that celebrates sex as a central feature of our humanity. This “just say yes” sexual myth has a number of important aspects: Sex is central to life, sexual feelings are common and natural, sex is not only for reproduction, everyone is sexual, People are different sexually, and in sex, as in all of life, love your neighbor as yourself.

Sex is central to life For most multi-cellular organisms, sexual reproduction is necessary for the survival of the species, and therefore sex is as important as eating, sometimes more so. This simple fact needs be the main message of “just say yes,” namely, we are sexual people.

Sexual feelings are common and natural Further, many of our feelings and experiences relate to sex, relationships, and love. These feelings should be celebrated, not quashed. A church that requires its members to suppress sexual feelings because they are bad leaves people with shame and guilt for feeling sexual. If the Church of the Afterlife can help people recognize and accept their sexual feelings as good, it will make a useful contribution.

Sex is not only for reproduction As important as sex is to reproduction, that is not its only function. Sex gives pleasure whether for reproduction or not. Sex can build relationships and be the basis for companionship and bonding, as in the connection between sex and love, but sex can also be friendly. Sex can help establish hierarchies in primate bands, so much the same dynamic may play out in human relationships. Aggressive power relations can be sexualized, accounting for the often homoerotic nature of male bonding and competition.

Everyone is sexual From birth to death, sex plays a major part in human life. Often only sexually mature, young people are thought to be sexual, but infants, children, and older people also are sexual. Thus, infants and children are not “innocent” in the sense of being nonsexual, but, they have sexual feelings, thoughts, and behaviors appropriate for their age. The “innocence” of children in sexual matters is often invoked in relation in instances of sexual abuse or exploitation. In such cases, it is the abuse or exploitation that should be prevented or stopped. Children should not feel guilty about their sexuality, and abused children should receive help, if needed, in understanding that the abuse was not their fault.

People are different sexually Everyone is sexual, but not everyone is sexual in the same way. Peoples’ sexuality develops at different rates, sex plays a bigger part in some peoples’ lives than in others, people develop different ideas about appropriate sexual behavior, and, of course, not everyone is heterosexual. Current studies indicate that 5 to 10% of the population is sexual minorities, including male homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender people. Children in sexual minorities would be particularly helped if early in their life when they normally ask questions about sex, the presence of these minorities were discussed with them. If this happened, many a gay kid would be spared the misery of being “all alone with no one to talk to” about his or her sexual feelings.
In sex, as in all of life, love your neighbor as yourself The second great commandment is, of course, a call to push back on our self-centered impulses. Evolutionary biologists suggest that altruism is an effort toward group cohesion. Protect the person who needs your help today; you may need it tomorrow. However, the second commandment is more radical. Do right by anyone who crosses your path, even though you don’t know what he or she might do in response. This can be dangerous. After all, the cynic’s motto is “no good deed goes unpunished,” but nevertheless we are called to treat others as we want to be treated. The union sex seems to promise may not always be realized. Sometimes, extending ourselves into sex can be punishing, filled with pain and heartbreak. As a result, we may go at sex warily, if at all, or become takers, rather than, sharers of sex. The second commandment is a good guide for us sexual beings, because as we try to follow it, we begin to see the situation from the other’s point of view.

Conclusion: The Trinity or Can God be Saved?

So, church is to become a place where expositions on myth, evolution, and sex take center stage? No, but churches should use these ideas to give people better tools to engage the world with a broad religious vision. The small, static vision of the world presented by most churches will make them even more weak and irrational, serving no need but their own survival.
Churches should be religious organizations, helping people apprehend and appropriate the “more,” in Williams James’s terminology, into their lives, so they might see the “big picture.” Of course, this “more” or the “big picture” is traditionally called God. However, “God” is rarely compelling in people’s lives. When people do make a forceful case for God it is usually because they are pointing us to the highest moral or spiritual values they can imagine. Nigel Leaves in his book, “The God Problem” writes of Feuerbach’s concept of a loving God as the human ideal of love projected onto the universe: “God” is love deified. God may become “real” when the feelings expressed about God strike us as real. Such a moment occurred for me watching Dustin Lance Black’s acceptance speech for his Oscar for best screenplay for “Milk” (http://www.couragecampaign.org/page/s/ThankYouForMilk), in which he assured gay teenagers that God loved them for who they were. Black’s obvious passion made God real in that moment. When we feel deeply, our use of God language to express our feelings can ring true, and God can become real.
From the record of the New Testament, something like that appears to have happened as people encountered Jesus or perhaps more accurately the post-Easter Christ. They began to experience him as God in human form. Bishop John Spong in his essay of November 20, 2008, entitled, “MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, Deepak Chopra and Biblical Illiteracy,” points out that it is possible to trace this divinizing trend in the New Testament from the writings of Paul in the 40s to the 60s of the first century CE, through the synoptic gospels in the 70s and 80s to the Gospel of John in the 90s with John’s writings clearly forming the basis of the doctrine of the Trinity. One way to explain this trend is to imagine people in worship listening to the Bible stories and having feelings for Jesus that could be best expressed in God language. Such language would lead to the idea of Jesus as God, embodied. The doctrine of the Trinity is an attempt to put such feelings into words, while maintaining the monotheistic understanding. However, words are never adequate to describe feelings. Without the feelings that first prompted the doctrines, they are lifeless. No one cares; they are but relics.
Such changes in our understanding of God are ongoing. In “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” Cupitt writes that 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 humans can be God incarnate, expressing the Spirit through (as the old prayer has it) “our life and conversation.” The challenge lies in whether we can express God in our lives so that our words and actions will be in keeping with the ideals that we can envision.
By recognizing that religion is an attempt to make sense of and to share feelings, the Church of the Afterlife could revitalize old formulations in ways that capture peoples’ imagination anew. The power of their feelings could help them and those they touch to lead truly religious lives here, as they continue to help bring in the Kingdom on Earth.

(“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.)


ngepot said...
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Franklyn said...

I enjoyed your review of Cupitt’s work. I found it clear, concise and well written.. However I have a few problems with Cupitt’s thoughts.
For example, Cupitt says “If you are a Westerner and are committed to Western values then you are a Christian”. While the modern secular world clearly incorporates religious values, I would question whether these are exclusively Christian. What about Judaism, eastern religions and Islam? Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that Christianity incorporates the thinking of other, older, religious traditions and that the sum total has become part of the thinking of the secular West.
The breathtaking idea that the modern sense of selfhood is derived from St. Paul’s Epistle is another example of Cupitt’s parochial thinking. Selfhood is the result of the infant’s realization of individuation: that he is not part of the mother but a separate entity. It is this process that creates anxiety and has nothing to do with any religion (although there are many religions which attempt to undue this healthy development). And the “consciousness of sin” while surely a Christian tenet is hardly a positive feature of Western thinking. Nor is it original to the Christians. Long before Christianity savages were offering sacrifices to the gods in order to expiate their sins. It is more lightly that early Christians got the sin idea from earlier cultures and ran with it.
While many of his ideas that you present are interesting and some I would certainly agree with, my impression is that he is held back by being surrounded by too many Christians and that this has limited his views. He would be even better if he was less parochial and knew more anthropology.

Pete M said...

Thank you for your comment. Cupitt is maintaining that because values from Christianity are indelible in the West, even when people in the West are not religious, they are still, often without thinking about it, committed to values derived from Christianity. And, although Christianity and rabbinic Judaism developed together from second temple Judaism and share much in common, Christianity has long worked to suppress and minimize its Jewish aspects and to suppress Jewish contributions to the West. So, Christianity, as the imperial, state sanctioned religion of the West or the Latin Church in Cupitt’s words, has forced the marginalization Judaism. The modern secular world incorporates religious values from Judaism, eastern religions and Islam precisely because Christianity is no longer the imperial, state sanctioned religion of the West with a near monopoly on acceptable religious thought. Values from these other sources are now entering Western thought more widely than before, but that doesn’t change the fact that Christianity is still the primary source of values in the West for good or ill.
As to selfhood, Cupitt is not writing about “the modern sense of selfhood,” but precisely the opposite, the very old sense from St. Paul. That sense of selfhood “…as a constant nagging awareness of a gap between the self that I know I should be and like to think of myself as being, and the self that is revealed in my actual behavior; and selfhood as dual, with always a highly comical contrast between the unworldly, idealistic, posturing, ineffectual master-self and the short, rotund, earthy, low-life, cynical, lecherous, evasive servant-self. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the Ego and the Id, and so on through dozens of permutations.” If you don’t identify with this description, perhaps your upbringing did not inculcate you with a sense of sin or separateness that many of us grew up with. One function of psychoanalysis could be seen as helping those of us with this issue to develop an awareness of such duality and the ability to let go of it.

Anonymous said...

Pete, I found this really interesting and it makes me confront a number of questions:

1. The idea that the Labour Party has done more for Christianity than a thousand years of Christendom did is wonderfully provocative and I'd like to reframe it as follows. When St Paul wrote 'there is neither slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus' he was describing the semi-private aspirations of a small hellenistic-Jewish sect. Notwithstanding 1,800 years of Christianity it took until the abolition of slavery in the Nineteenth Century for this to become an established political reality. However, there is still much work to do, without guarantee of success, since human trafficking is a resurgent problem in spite of universal denouncements. Similarly, it took nearly 2,000 years for women to attain formal equality with men (e.g. in Britain, the 1976 Sex Discrimination Act), and yet St Paul's statement 'there is neither male nor female' is still not achieved, since women continue to face significant discrimination which requires further political and cultural amelioration. Finally, while discrimination on the basis of religion has been reduced since Paul wrote 'there is neither Jew nor Greek', there is still a long way to go in this respect also. In other words, the Christian project is still in its infancy, and some early wins don't mean the season is over; it has only just begun. That's one version of the story, and I find it quite attractive. But a rival version might go like this: Christianity had hundreds of years to achieve its humanistic aims and it failed. What it succeeded in doing was to establish and entrench its illiberal aims: the enduring sanctification and institutionalisation of slavery ('slaves obey your masters' is a canonical saying), anti-Semitism and sexism, for instance. Movements against these arose sporadically (the Cathars, for instance, practised a measure of gender equality), were characterised as heretical by the Church and violently suppressed. The successful reform movements can be characterised as 'Christian', since that is the environment from which they arose, but their strong discontinuity from what preceded them calls into question the extent to which this characterisation is correct. For example, to a large degree, the gender politics of the Quaker pioneer Margaret Fell are so discontinuous from the rest of Church history as to be almost indefensible as a continuation of that history. This was well understood by Fell's contemporaries. Rather than looking back and calling this new thing a continuation of Christianity (as Quakers insisted on doing) it makes more sense to look forward and call it the start of secular humanism, a successor to Christianity (as Christian authorities insisted on doing, imprisoning Fell and her accomplices for long periods, and as Evangelical Quakers now charge).
So here's the question: how do we choose between these rival historical representations?

2. You seem to be claiming, against Cupitt, a church of some sort is still necessary. So, where is the 'actually existing' church of the afterlife? Cupitt seems to suggest it is all around us, embedded in the basic assumptions of western societies - a radical version of Anglican universalism, 'extra Ecclesiam nulla Societas'. If so, it's not obvious that a church has any role at all, even in pointing this Christian influence out. But this is not necessarily a matter merely of opinion. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Where are these post-christendom churches? Maybe you belong to one. I know of the Sea of Faith movement in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, but I'm not sure it really functions as a 'church' in the way you are meaning that term. If the church of the afterlife exists, it is self-evidently useful to someone. If, as I suspect, it doesn't exist, is it necessary to invent it?

3. I am very uncomfortable with the idea of being able to identify 'indelible' characteristics of Christianity which are now permanently enshrined in secular society. The problem with 'the essence of Christianity' is that like everything else, it hasn't got an essence. Recent popes and American Evangelical leaders agree that what really matters about Christianity is that hierarchical distinctions such as between men and women and between heterosexual and homosexual people must be maintained at all costs. So their list of 'indelibles' is quite different from that of Cupitt and the rivalry between these two lists is not yet settled. In other words, it's far from clear who the winner of the 'Culture Wars' is. Obviously, in Cupitt's triumphalism I want to believe, as Mulder in the X-Files used to say. But this historical trajectory is really just one more story, one more myth. The question: is deciding what is 'indelible' really anything more than a matter of assertion and counter-assertion?
3. For Cupitt Christianity was, is and it seems always will be central, but for many it isn't and won't be in future. If, as Richard Rorty(1989:52) puts it, 'liberal culture needs an improved self-description rather than a set of foundations' perhaps Christianity could take its place as just one influence among many, and Cupitt's claim that we are now more Christian than previously can be replaced with the more accurate claim that we are now less Christian (i.e. the common sense perspective). Just as the Greek and Roman gods were once central to Western thought but have been dead for some time, so too isn't Christianity passing away, just a phase we were going through? I could claim, 'We're all Apollonians now' but isn't it obvious that we're not? To test this idea isn't it possible to construct a history of Indian or Chinese humanism in which Cupitt's 'indelibles', or something like them, are central, without reference to Christianity as a foundational ideology? Or is it the claim here that Christianity provides unique and supremely worthwhile resources which no society other than the late Hellenistic one and its descendants has ever attained?

In summary, I'm very sympathetic to these ideas, but think they represent the start of the discussion rather than its end point.

Pete M said...

Hi Fourcultures,
Thank you for your comments. The goals you mention in your first point, the end of slavery and equality of the sexes, are two examples of how theological ideas have been transformed into social movements because of the secularization of Christianity. Cupitt’s point is that just because the churches are weak or irrational, we shouldn’t miss the fact that many of the strands of Christianity form some of the basic elements of modern Western society. The Enlightenment with its democratizing energy was crucial for this transformation. Before this, society like the church was viewed as always hierarchical with God (and King) above the people and the goal of the Kingdom was always deferred to heaven which was oh so much better than this vale of tears. The transfer of political power to the people in the Enlightenment was accompanied by the transfer of religious power from the church to society, so that at least the outlines of the Kingdom on Earth can now be glimpsed in the secular society of the West. Obviously, the Kingdom has not fully come to earth, but it is not going back to being only a heavenly goal. Critical thinking derived from at least two of the “indelibles,” scrupulosity in examination for sin and the humanitarian impulse derived from the Biblical imperative to care for the most vulnerable, continue to be major forces for scientific advances in medicine and agriculture and for social change in the secular world.
You are correct in your second point that I part with Cupitt on the question of Church. In “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” published in 1989, he still held out hope that the Church might be reformed and become useful. But with the publication of “Above Us Only Sky,” in 2007, he formally announced, “…I shall finally and sadly terminate my own lifelong connection with organized religion.” He see religion either as morally ugly, reactionary and violent as in the case of the Evangelicals in the Republican Party or as feeble as with the Bishops of the Church of England who permitted a near-complete takeover by Evangelicals of the country’s oldest and best institution, its national Church. He asks... “Why couldn’t they put up a fight?”
I do agree with him in that most churches are either irrational or weak, but I hold out hope that some congregations might embrace the conscious use of myth as guides for life. Of course, this entails recognizing religion as a human activity and letting go of the supernatural. Obviously, Cupitt sees this as too tall an order, and I doubt also that many congregations can make the change. My hope comes from my New York City congregation, Saint Peter’s, which is a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I see glimmers of the program I outlined in “The Church of the Afterlife” at Saint Peter’s, especially in the acknowledgement of the mythic in religious stories and our need to shape myth to help us deal with today’s issues. I’m hopeful about the activity at Saint Peter’s, but more generally I am convinced that theological change comes from those in the pews and that lay people really influence doctrine. It’s obviously a slow process, but it happens. Cupitt has documented this in his books, “Life, Life” (2003) and “The Great Questions of Life” (2006), which describe religion in the lives of ordinary people who substitute “life” for “God.” As a starting place for this change, he quotes Pierre in “War and Peace:” “Life is God, and to love life is to love God.” Ordinary people make meaning from this life, and they expect the churches to do the same or they stop going to church. So far, not many churches have changed significantly, which is as good an explanation as any of their current, wretched state. Whether churches will become again become a useful part of peoples’ lives is a long shot, but I’m willing to hope that some can.
As to your third point, I don’t see Cupitt being triumphal about the indelibles, but merely descriptive of a situation that’s hiding in plain sight. He wants us to see that the future of Christianity is in society at large which already translated many Christian tenets into aspects of the secular. Christianity in his view is in large part no longer religious but secular, and he believes that the arena for positive social change is no longer the church but society at large. He sees the opposition of the right wing churches, Evangelical and Roman Catholic, as rearguard, self defeating efforts that won’t influence the great majority of former church members who have voted with their feet, leaving many churches empty.
As to whether the “indelibles” he identified are real, he is not trying to convince us of their presence in secular society, but is maintaining instead that they are clearly present in secular Western society for anyone who looks for them and that they can be traced back to Christianity. Concepts such as self criticism, the belief in the uniformity of natural phenomena, and the humanitarian impulse so obviously motivate the behavior of Western societies that it would be hard to argue that they are not present. Cupitt in his discussion traces these and other ideas back, convincingly in my opinion, to Christianity. Whether they are convincing to other people depends on their reaction to his presentation.
As to your fourth point, Cupitt maintains that Christianity has been the major shaper of Western civilization, but now we live in a time when Christian religion has little influence, but Christian concepts by being absorbed into society and becoming secularized play a significant role current Western society. Whether secularized Christian concepts continue to influence society remains to be seen. It is certainly possible in this global age that concepts from Eastern religions may also gain influence. Cupitt urges us to see how the Kingdom has to some extent been realized in secular society and to make our contribution so that the values of the Kingdom, if not its religion, continue to spread in Western society.

Pete M said...

Bill W. has responded to this post, as follows:

I have plowed through your long dissertation about many things, mainly about Christianity and what's wrong with it, and where it should go, etc., etc., etc. How can I respond? and take it all seriously?

My first question, what is the difference between what I think I read and ethical culture? I have atheist friends who would agree with much of what you wrote. The thoughts seemed to represent western thinking rather than anything universal. For at least 20 years, I have thought that much criticism of Christianity is more philosophical than religious. That when we allow that there is more to reality than our reason or senses grasp, awareness of God is more likely. Certainly Africa and Asia differ from us in this respect. And the amazing growth of Christianity in Africa is by no means all fundamentalist.

Your view of the church of today. Certainly, there are a lot of crazies out there. But in the communities where I spend my time, it's a different picture. The conflict between science and religion, for example, does not exist there. There, theology is apt to be quite orthodox. God comes to us in grace through bread and wine. And through Bible study. And we see God in the neighbor we help in his need. Life after death is part of our understanding, as well as part of the creed and catechism.

The gay issue, is, of course, church-dividing. And we will see worse, I'm afraid. Ellie and I belong to two churches. The first, Georgetown, where I am pastor emeritus, has a gay pastor. Yes, this has been offensive to some; but others, not only gay but straight, have no problem with this. The second church, the Community of Christ in DC, where I am technically pastor, has a president who is a lesbian. No problem for the congregation. In August, the ELCA will again deal with the issue of ordaining gays in committed relationships. I'm not optimistic about the potential decisions. These two churches are not that unusual.

Hi Bill,
Thanks for your email with your response to “The Church of the Afterlife.” I know it’s long, and I appreciate your reading it.
The essay is dealing with Christianity in the democratic West; clearly, as you point out, people in the developing world seem more fervently religious than those in the West. This is precisely Cupitt’s point: people in the West are fast becoming uninterested in church Christianity, and allegiance to the church is waning. New evidence of this is seen in the results of a survey of Americans, reported in the April 7th issue of “Christian Century.” The results show a 10% drop in the number of people identifying as Christians in the period between 1990 and 2008: from 86% to 76%. During the same period, the proportion of “nones,” including atheists, agnostics, and other secularists, nearly doubled, from 8.2% to 15%.
Cupitt has documented this shift away from church Christianity in a number of books. He’s collected over a hundred very striking idioms used by ordinary people that contain the word “Life.” Soon it was clear to him that “…in ordinary language a very large-scale shift of attention from God to Life has already taken place during the two generations since World War II” (“Above Us Only Sky” [2007]). Thus, through our language, we Westerners are moving over, mostly without realizing it, to a new religion of ordinary life. He writes that people in the West no longer feel the need to “look up” for religious and moral guidance to the supernatural world, to the upper classes, to the older generation, or to tradition generally. Theirs is a democratized and secular understanding of life, and this understanding is accompanied by a commitment to “Life” and “My Life,” as in: I need to claim My Life, I need to find a way to best live My Life, I must live it to the full, and find a way to contribute to the whole of Life. I must “do my bit.” From this feeling has come the steady growth of humanitarian concern to make life better for all, indeed to help bring in the Kingdom. To the extent that Western liberal democracy represents at least a partial coming of the Kingdom on Earth, then indeed The Church of the Afterlife has much in common with Ethical Culture. I believe, along with Ethical Culture, that we humans are responsible for our world and our relationships with other people and with the natural world. We know that we can destroy the world and we’re well along in doing just that. The Church of the Afterlife will encourage us to love our world and help us summon the will to save it. We know by and large what we must do and it is pointless to expect God to do our job for us. After all, we have Moses and the prophets; we should listen to them (Luke 16:29) and do what’s right.
As to your next point, indeed, I am an atheist in that the theistic God of pre-enlightenment times who is above us is dead. This “God in the sky” is not a metaphor that resonates with many people today, including me. Instead, with the enlightenment came democracy and the metaphor changed from vertical with the King (and God) above us to horizontal where, at least in theory, all are equal and God is to be found in our neighbor. As you point out, “…we see God in the neighbor we help in his need.” This, of course, is the humanitarian “indelible” that Cupitt identifies as part of Christianity that is lives on in secular society. Church people tend to be suspicious of this development, because it is too secular and not religious enough. Rather than applaud signs of the Kingdom on earth, church people too often want to keep the focus on Heaven above as a reward for our believing here on earth. Rather than loving their earthy home and working for its betterment, too many church people want to escape to death and Heaven. Too many forget that the promise of their Baptism frees them from concerns about death and frees them for work to make this world a better place. The Church of the Afterlife will encourage the baptized to be bold and unafraid in tackling the problems of the world, because their Baptism is a sign that God is always with them even in danger and uncertainty, even in their earthy death.
The failure of the current church is nowhere more apparent than in the timidity and conservatism of so many church people. They resist change, won’t participate in it, and decry it when they are ignored and the world moves on. Make no mistake: the Gospel is still being proclaimed and followed, but not in most of the churches. This is what Cupitt means when he writes that Christianity has been secularized. The movement for change and the growth of the Kingdom is now in secular society with the churches resisting at every turn. The churches are becoming the Party of No, just like the Republicans. They’re still around but they’re background noise that most ignore. The fact that there are some churches that are out in front of some issues and are the exception to this rule, only highlights how ossified most churches are.
Of course, the churches’ approach to the gay issue is also illustrative to their irrelevance for most people. Although gay people would like the churches to support their efforts, they know that the real action for gay equity is in the courts and the legislatures. Moreover, beyond the gay issue, the churches’ attitude toward gays illustrates their profound discomfort with sex generally. From St. Paul on, the churches have taught that sex is bad, to be tolerated only in heterosexual marriage. The ELCA’s draft document on sexuality reinforces this stance, evincing a profound discomfort with sex. Churches find it hard to change their approach and they would rather avoid the discussion altogether. I’ve had many a church person say to me, “Why are you gays always talking about sex?” And, “Sex is a private matter,” the implication being that it should not be discussed in public. The Church of the Afterlife will affirm the central place of sex in life and will encourage ongoing conversations on how we are to live as sexual people.
The churches approach to science and evolution is much the same as its approach to sex: don’t ask; don’t tell. For example, I’m guessing that “The conflict between science and religion, for example, does not exist there” (in the churches you are familiar with), because these churches have not begun the discussions necessary for evolution to become more fully integrated into church teaching. In his essay yesterday, Bishop Spong named some of these discussion points in answering a question about the Church of England’s apology to Charles Darwin 200 years after his birth. Spong points out what the implications of this apology are, and the work the church must undertake to make good on this apology:

“For Darwin attacks the basic Christian myth of a perfect creation, the fall into sin, the divine rescue carried out by Jesus and the restoration through faith to our status as those created in the image of God. If we evolved from single cells into complex self-conscious creatures then there was no perfection from which to fall, no fall into sin, no need for a divine rescue and no capacity to be restored to something which we have never been. This means that the whole way of telling the Jesus story must be rethought, and this reformulation will threaten church leaders deeply. Clergy on Sunday mornings can no longer address "fallen sinners." The mantra that "Jesus died for my sins" will have to be retired. The traditional meaning of the Eucharist will have to be revised. We will have to recognize that we are now addressing not those who need to be rescued from a fall but those who have not yet achieved the status of being fully human. Jesus must then empower us to be fully human; he cannot rescue us from sin.”

This is a very tall order indeed, and a task the church has not even recognized as necessary.