Tuesday, September 15, 2009

“Jesus & Philosophy”

In “Jesus & Philosophy” (2009 SCM Press, London), Don Cupitt assesses the place of Jesus in the history of ethics. Biblical scholars, particularly those in the Jesus Seminar, maintain that, starting about 20 years after his death, Jesus was made into the personification of his teaching and given an exalted cosmic status. After a few decades, a supernatural superstructure was built around him obscuring his own sayings, producing instead mostly fictionalized narratives of his life, as well as material pertinent to his followers’ current concerns.
Using the ranking system of the Jesus Seminar, Cupitt finds that the sayings most likely to reflect closely Jesus’ own teaching (coded red or pink) reflect a major innovation in ethics with a shift from realism to emotivism. The moral standard is brought down from heaven, thought to be real, and relocated in the world of human feelings and relationships, or, in Cupitt words, the world of ‘the heart’.
For Cupitt, Jesus stresses the moral importance of a high level of critical self-consciousness: Get the beam out of your own eye, calculate, and then be extravagantly generous, because that is what melts the heart, unfreezes human relationships, and breaks the culture of ressentiment (Cupitt’s emphasis). Ressentiment is the French word that Nietzsche uses to sum up the whole range of reactive or negative emotions, including scorn, disgust, dislike, envy, lust, disapproval, repugnance, contempt, impatience, malice, irritation, anger, rage, fury, fear, terror, hatred, boredom, indifference, recoiling, seething resentment, begrudging, outrage, indignation at, despair of, and many more. When they surge up in us in reaction to another, we want to separate ourselves as far as possible from that person.
In contrast, the positive emotions do not cloud or block our relation to the other person. These emotions are mostly very cool and transparent and not numerous. They include regard, attention, interest, sympathy, pity, respect, admiration, allegiance, friendship, and love. Usually the positive emotions don’t present moral problems, but the negative ones are often violent and a threat to social peace. To overcome them, we must often be almost supernaturally “big” and generous, going beyond justice.
To help us do this, the Jesus of the red or pink sayings urges us to choose a new moral world where everything is clear and brightly lit, completely open, explicit, bright and clear, not continuing with ill-feeling which is often double-feeling, such as malice, deceit, deception, and duplicity which imply a certain doubleness that maintains a gap between our displayed feelings and real but veiled feelings that are hidden behind them.
Because of his emphasis on feelings between people, Jesus values people more than the religious law. Stories like the healing on the Sabbath (Matthew 12:9-14) imply the end of the rule of religious law and the appearance of a human who is more radically free and autonomous than ever before. Thus, Jesus radicalizes Jeremiah and Ezekiel who proclaim that the law will be written on people’s hearts and God will take away people’s hearts of stone and give them instead hearts of flesh (Jeremiah 31:33; Ezekiel 36:26). Jesus becomes anthropocentric and emotivist, changing ethics profoundly by secularizing ethics, historicizing it, and humanizing it. However, to question the Divine Law is to question God, especially God who is “outside” us. Thus, these sayings may be some of the reason for Jesus’ troubles with the authorities.
Jesus’ teachings are difficult for individuals to follow, and, of course, threatening to the religious establishment. It is no wonder that an overlay of supernatural narrative was quickly put onto Jesus’ radical sayings. It is easier to worship than to follow and emulate. “Go and do likewise” is a difficult command; it is easier for us to leave the changing of the world to God. However, if the law is written on our hearts, we become God-like agents of change.
At the end of the book, Cupitt addresses this dilemma of direction from “outside and above” us and motivation from within, writing that ethics has two different faces or dimensions, corresponding to the doctrines of creation and redemption. “Creation” ethics would have us support existing reality: be loyal to the system as it is, obeying the rules, playing our parts, and raising the next generation. In contrast, “redemption” ethics would have us keep alive and spell out the Dream of a better world. If the Dream is sufficiently vivid and attractive, it will shape our values and the orientation of our lives. The Dream present in Jesus’ sayings has only recently, with the collapse of external religious sanctions, begun to be recognized and grasped as the way to the Law within us. Cupitt concludes by suggesting that the rediscovered historical Jesus might become the way to the reform and renewal of Christianity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Apology for the treatment of Alan Turing

Today, the Associated Press reports that Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Britian, has apologized for Britian's treatment of Alan Turing. See the news item below.

September 11, 2009
UK Gov't Apologizes to Gay Codebreaker Alan Turing
Filed at 11:58 a.m. ET

LONDON (AP) -- British Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a posthumous apology Friday for the ''inhumane'' treatment of Alan Turing, the World War II codebreaker who committed suicide in 1954 after being prosecuted for homosexuality and forcibly treated with female hormones.

The mathematician helped crack Nazi Germany's Enigma encryption machine -- a turning point in the war -- and is considered a father of modern computing.

In 1952, however, Turing was convicted of gross indecency for having sex with a man and offered a choice between prison and ''chemical castration'' -- the injection of female hormones to suppress his libido. His security clearance was revoked and he was no longer allowed to work for the government.

Two years later, he killed himself at age 41 by eating an apple laced with cyanide.

As Britain marks the 70th anniversary of the September 1939 start of the war -- remembered as its ''finest hour'' -- Brown said Turing ''deserved so much better'' than the treatment he received from postwar society.

''It is no exaggeration to say that, without his outstanding contribution, the history of World War II could well have been very different,'' Brown said. ''He truly was one of those individuals we can point to whose unique contribution helped to turn the tide of war.''

Brown said Turing was ''in effect, tried for being gay.'' Homosexuality was illegal in Britain until 1967.

''The debt of gratitude he is owed makes it all the more horrifying, therefore, that he was treated so inhumanely,'' Brown said. ''We're sorry, you deserved so much better.''

Brown's apology follows an online petition that drew more than 30,000 supporters, including novelist Ian McEwan, scientist Richard Dawkins and actor and comedian Stephen Fry.

Computer scientist John Graham-Cumming said he started the petition campaign because Turing ''wasn't as well known in Britain as I think he deserved to be, as a hero of the Second World War and a great mathematician.''

Working at the wartime codebreaking center at Bletchley Park, Turing helped crack Germany's secret codes by creating the ''Turing bombe,'' a forerunner of modern computers, to help reveal the settings for the Enigma machine.

Turing also did pioneering work on artificial intelligence, developing the ''Turing Test'' to measure whether a machine can think. One of the most prestigious honors in computing, the $250,000 Turing Prize, is named for him.

Graham-Cumming said Turing had a strong claim to the title ''father of computing.''

''He was thinking about what it meant to have a computer long before they existed,'' Graham-Cumming said. ''He laid out the fundamental science of it.''

Turing was among a motley group of mathematicians, cryptographers, crossword puzzle aficionados, chess masters and other experts assembled at a mansion called Bletchley Park, northwest of London, to wage a secret war against Nazi Germany. Their goal: cracking Adolf Hitler's supposedly unbreakable codes.

The team uncovered the secret to the Enigma machine and other ciphers used by the Nazi high command, revealing details of the movements of Germany's U-boat fleets and handing victory on the seas to the Allies.

Their work also provided crucial information in the desert campaign against German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and the preparations for the Allied invasion of France.

''It is doubtful whether the D-Day landings would have happened, let alone succeeded,'' without Bletchley Park, said Kelsey Griffin, a director of the Bletchley Park museum.

She said Turing ''stands alongside (Winston) Churchill as one of our great Britons.''

Secrecy about the work at Bletchley Park, maintained long after the war was over, meant that for decades the role played by Turing and thousands of other codebreakers was not widely known.

Brown's apology, published on his office Web site, was seen as rare. The British government has resisted previous calls to apologize for historical events. In 2006, then-Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed ''deep sorrow'' for the slave trade, but stopped short of saying sorry.

Gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said Brown's apology to Turing was ''most welcome and commendable,'' but didn't go far enough.

''A similar apology is also due to the estimated 100,000 British men who were convicted of consenting, victimless same-sex relationships during the 20th century,'' Tatchell said.


On the Net:

Gordon Brown's apology: www.number10.gov.uk

Bletchley Park: www.bletchleypark.org.uk

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rethinking Basic Christian Concepts in the Light of Charles Darwin

Below is Bishop John S. Spong's mediation today on the revolution in theology that the work of Charles Darwin has wrought. It outlines the task ahead if Christianity is to enter the 21st century with anything like intellectual rigor.

The Study of Life, Part 6
Rethinking Basic Christian Concepts in the Light of Charles Darwin
As I retraced Charles Darwin's steps through the Galapagos Islands, I contemplated anew his impact on traditional Christian thinking. I had been working intensively on Darwin for about three years in preparation for my book on eternal life. Darwin, more than anyone else, had shaken the foundations of belief in eternal life by defining human beings as animals with more highly developed brains, removing any sense of immortality from them. By the time we arrived in the Galapagos the time for any rewrites on this book was over. My manuscript was at my publisher, HarperCollins. The next time I will see this book will be in its published form. This book had been for me a grueling task since it drove me almost against my will to come to a new understanding of my faith. I discovered first that I could no longer make a case for life after death until I had journeyed to a place that was, as my subtitle suggests, "beyond religion, beyond theism and beyond heaven and hell." That was a direct result of my deep engagement with Darwin's thought. It is fair to say, however, that in the writing of this book I also became aware that Darwin's thought had also helped me to arrive at a new vision of what I believe will be the future of Christianity. Through this column I seek to share that process with my readers.
My struggle began with the recognition that the primary titles that we Christians have given to Jesus all carry with them a particular definition of what it means to be human. To call Jesus "savior" implies that human life needs to be saved from something. The same is true about the titles "rescuer," "redeemer" and "reconciler." This negative definition of humanity is why the traditional telling of the Jesus story focuses on Jesus' suffering, which was the price that Jesus had to pay for our salvation. The traditional Protestant mantra, "Jesus died for my sins," and the Catholic definition of the Eucharist as "the sacrifice of the Mass," both reinforce the assumption of human depravity that is a major theme filling Christian theology and history.

These distorting images began in a mythology that assumed that human life was a special creation, made in the image of God, and suggesting that human life originally shared in the perfection of God's finished creation. Falling from that status into what came to be called "original sin," however, quickly became the major focus of Christian theology. Starting with Paul, it has been the "fall" and its resulting distortion of God's creation that has been the bedrock of the way we have told the Jesus story. It was our sinful status that mandated God's divine rescue operation "for us and for our salvation." The heart of Christian theology, including such core doctrines as the Incarnation, the divinity of Christ, the Atonement and even the concept of God as a Holy Trinity, were all attempts to spell out the Jesus story in terms of this definition of what it means to be sinful. Human beings were those creatures who in an act of disobedience had destroyed the beauty of God's original creation and had plunged the whole world into sin. Charles Darwin's understanding of human origins ran directly counter to these assumptions. If Darwin was correct then this whole theological system, which featured the account of Jesus' sacrificial death to save us from our sins, was doomed to become inoperative.

If human life, as Darwin suggested and as modern science keeps verifying, is the product of millions of years of evolutionary history, then none of these theological formulas remain valid. Without an original, perfect and complete creation, there could never have been a fall from perfection, not even metaphorically. Original sin has thus got to go. Without that fall from perfection there was no need for God's rescue and no reason for Jesus to come to our aid. The idea of God as the punishing parent organizes religious life on the basis of the childlike and primitive motifs of reward and punishment. The cross understood as the place where Jesus paid our debt to this vengeful God becomes not just nonsensical, but it also serves to twist human life with guilt in order to make this system of thought believable. That is why Christian worship seems to require the constant denigration of human life. Christian liturgies constantly beg God "to have mercy." Our hymns sing of God's amazing grace, but the only reason God's grace is amazing is that it "saved a wretch like me." This theology assumes that God is an external being, living somewhere above the sky, whose chief occupations are two: first to keep the record books up to date on our behavior, thus serving as the basis on which we will be judged; and second to be ready to come to our aid in miraculous ways either to establish the divine order or in answer to our prayers. Darwin was only one part of the explosion of knowledge that rendered these ideas not only irrelevant, but unbelievable. Copernicus and Galileo had destroyed God's dwelling place above the sky by introducing us to the vastness of space, suddenly but not coincidentally rendering this God homeless. Then Isaac Newton discovered the mathematically precise and immutable laws by which the universe is governed, leaving little room in it for either miracle or magic, which rendered the miracle-working deity unemployed. One well-known English theologian, when he finally embraced these realities in the early 1980's, abandoned his Christian faith, pronouncing himself "a non-aggressive atheist." When asked why he was no longer a believer, he replied quite simply "because God no longer had any work to do."

It was Darwin, however, who applied the coup de grâce both to religion and to the belief in life after death, at least as traditional Christianity had proclaimed these things. To Darwin human beings were merely a work in progress. Far from being created perfect we had evolved into our present form like every other creature by "natural selection" over more than three billion years. Salvation built on the three premises of a perfect creation, a fall into sin and a rescue from above that was achieved on the cross became an exercise in fantasyland. Indeed the story of the sacrificial death of Jesus by crucifixion began to look bizarre. This theology made God appear to be a deity who required a blood offering and a human sacrifice in order to forgive. Jesus began to look like a perpetual victim, perhaps even a masochistic person who willingly endured, even welcomed, suffering and death on the cross. Human beings looked like guilt-ridden creatures whose sinfulness made the death of Jesus necessary. Finally, Christianity became a religion of guilt, which was encouraged liturgically. There was nothing about this scenario that could be called good news or "gospel," yet it persisted for centuries. These distortions in the Jesus message began to wobble under the impact of Galileo and Newton, but it was Darwin who made it clear that the Christian world could no longer go on pretending that nothing had changed. The foundations on which the Christian message had been erected had collapsed.

When I embraced what this meant existentially I came to the conclusion that if Christianity was to have a future, then I must find a new point of entry and a new way to hear and to believe the Jesus story. That was the challenge I had to meet before I could ever address the possibility of life after death. I began that reconstruction task in my book Jesus for the Non-Religious and now I had to complete this task by spelling out a new way to view eternal life.

I was delighted to discover that the greatest of the New Testament scholars in the 20th century, Rudolf Bultmann, regularly spoke of Jesus not as the "savior," but as the "revealer." That shift was not subtle. Bultmann was suggesting the Jesus "revealed" a new dimension of what it means to be human and in the process opened a new window into what it is to experience the presence of God. Suddenly I had found a whole new way to look at what divinity is in human life. Underneath the focus on sacrifice revealed in the gospels I began to view Jesus as one who was so deeply and fully human that whatever it is that we experience God to be could be seen in him and experienced through him. A new way to view the cross next began to come into view. The cross was not a sacrifice to placate an angry God, but a living portrait of a human life that was no longer controlled by the innate drive to survive. Here was a life free to give itself away, a life with no need to build itself up at another's expense. This was a new dimension of what it means to be human, what it means to live fully, to love wastefully and to be all that life was meant to be. When I got beneath the level of later explanation, which dominates the gospel narratives, and began to ask what was the Jesus experience that compelled his followers to stretch the words available to them to an infinite degree to enable those words to be big enough to capture their Jesus experience, I heard them saying we have met and encountered in the life of this Jesus everything that we mean by the word "God." It was that word "inflation" that gives us virgin births, wandering stars, miracles, parables, physical resuscitations and ascensions into heaven. They were trying to say that in his humanity, which seemed to break all human barriers, they had found a doorway into the meaning of transcendence, the reality of God. The way into divinity became for me the pathway of becoming fully human. It was to affirm that we are still evolving into we know not what. Jesus was a new dimension of life for which we may all be headed.

So I had to begin my quest for life after death by going into the depths of the mystery of life itself. Just as we now know that life evolved out of lifeless matter, that consciousness emerged out of life and finally that self-conscious life has emerged out of mere consciousness, so perhaps the day is now arriving when we will experience the possibility of entering a universal consciousness that is beginning to emerge out of self-consciousness. We are thus part of the oneness of life, bound together by a common DNA and that oneness makes us part of God. It also suggests that we are linked to eternity since God is found at the depth of the human.

These words can only scratch the surface of the thought I try to develop in my book on eternal life, but they do presage the path I walk. Charles Darwin, who for me made a new Christianity necessary, turns out to offer the clue to that new direction. This vision now stands before me. I invite you to join me in entering it.