Monday, March 29, 2010

“After God: The Future of Religion”

Don Cupitt summarizes “After God: The Future of Religion” (1997. New York: BasicBooks) as follows: “Although the point is obvious, it remains curiously difficult to recognize that we made it all up. We evolved the entire syllabus. We have slowly evolved our own languages, our values, our systems of knowledge, our religions, and our world views. We evolved even our subjective consciousness, because the brightness, the consciousness, of conscious experience is a by-product of language.” (p 126)
It is curiously difficult for us to grasp this simple idea, because we still believe, or want to believe, in the Real. Plato with his ideal forms out there, not here, was the source of idea of the real, and, as Cupitt writes, “…Western philosophy was oriented mainly toward knowledge of the Real. Objective knowledge was priced high, with top standards of certainity, evidence, and lucidity; and the Real, in the sense of something other than ourselves and overwhelmingly bigger than ourselves, was something very powerful, beyond time and change.” (pp 39-40)
Of course, the most Real is God, but with the enlightenment and the work of “…critical philosophers, (Descartes, Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Derrida), the old assumptions of Western or ‘platonic’ metaphysics have been brought to light and have crumbled away, so the credibility and even the very intelligibility of God have steadily faded away.” (p 62)
The platonic God has faded away in modern life because, as these philosophers made clear, our “real” God is a product of our language. It is our language that is “real” to us. Given that, Cupitt puts forward a new linguistic theory of religious practice and religious objects, as follows:
1. “As both philosophy and religion have in the past taught, there is indeed an unseen intelligible world, or spirit world, about us and within us.
2. The invisible world is the world of words and other symbols.
3. The entire supernatural world of religion is a mythical representation of the world of language.
4. Through the practice of its religion, a society represents to itself, and confirms, the varied ways in which its language builds its world.” (p XV)

But the major religious traditions are coming to an end. Some religious art may survive but not the doctrine. As Cupitt points out, most of Christian theology has been lost. Today, who can explain how Christ’s death made atonement for our sins or the nature of doctrine of the Trinity? (p 81) Most people haven’t got this vocabulary, and they certainly can’t use it to explain these ideas. Cupitt suggests that religion can still be useful, however, if we pick out certain religious concepts that we can use to express our religious ideas and feelings. He discusses three ideas that may be helpful: the eye of God, the blissful void, and solar living.
The belief in God can survive and can be defended if it is seen as involving a certain form of consciousness and practice of selfhood. The eye of God idea is the practice of looking at oneself and one’s world as if through the eye of God – that is, from the universal and ideal standpoint. Doing this heightens consciousness, provides a conscience, and helps in seeing oneself and others with a greater clarity of moral vision. (p 85) It’s a God’s eye view of the Golden Rule, and, as such, may help us make our behavior more humane and kinder.
In discussing the blissful void, Cupitt calls our attention to the cool sublime as exemplified by Barnett Newman’s “Day One” (1951-52) in the collection of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York. It is an unframed plain scarlet rectangle about twelve feet tall and four feet wide, like a swimming pool. The eye dives in and the painting swallows the viewer up. As Newman declared, “The Sublime is Now.” Cupitt writes that it is “…the disappearance of the self into immanence, objectivity, and nothingness.” (p 88) He suggests that we use “…the Discipline of the void, the meditation upon the underlying universal emptiness and nothingness, as a background against which to set and see the flux of our life.” (p 89)
Solar living calls for an awareness of this continual flux. We are to live like the sun, giving our all all the time. The sun gives life by dying all the time, heedless of its own existence in the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. “Solar ethics is a radically emotivist and expressionist reading of the ethics of Jesus.” (p 90)
These three ideas, Cupitt maintains, are “…what is most worth preserving from the old religions, and perhaps offer a starting point for the religion of the future. We give up the notion of religion as a system of reassuring supernatural beliefs; and we adopt instead the idea of religion as a toolkit.” (p 90)
This is, of course, just the barest outline of Cupitt’s engaging take on the state of religion today. I hope you seek out this short book (128 pages) and read for yourself. I have an extra copy that I will give to anyone who wants it. Just let me know.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Body Language: Jesus and Benedict XVI

In today’s “Times,” Frank Bruni concludes his article about the sex abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church by writing, “The persistence of the child sexual abuse crisis, intensifying once again, suggests that the church’s defensive posture may in fact be a self-defeating one.” Today is Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy week. The first reading for today describes a figure, from Isaiah’s Servant Songs, who does not assume a defensive posture: “I gave my back to those who stuck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6). The note in the insert containing this reading notes that “…Christians have often recognized the figure of Christ in these poems.” And indeed, the Gospel writers portray Jesus in his passion as being open to everything his accusers and tormenters heaped upon him. He went to his death without assuming a defensive posture.
Even as the church has lost credibility, the figure of Jesus still attracts many. They see in the Gospel portraits of him, a man who turns the other cheek, who is not violent in the face of hatred. We say this is not realistic, we must defend ourselves. And yet his example still beckons from our warfields and our torture chambers and in our hearts, even as we turn sorrowfully away from his example.
Mark Twain wrote that Christianity is the greatest religion; too bad it’s never been tried. Too bad for us; too bad for Benedict XVI.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

“The Ghostwriter”: Polanski’s Thumb in the U.S.’s Eye

Last night, we saw Roman Polanski’s new film, “The Ghostwriter.” It operates on two levels, as an exciting, scary thriller, and as Polanski’s indictment of U.S. foreign policy, particularly the Iraq war, and the C.I.A.’s role as enabler of torture.
Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a recent British Prime Minister, has retired to Martha’s Vineyard with his American wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). The ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is hired to revise and finish Lang’s memoirs after the unexpected drowning off the ferry of the first ghost, who was also one of Lang’s employees and a confidant. Lang is clearly meant to be seen as a Tony Blair stand-in, and his troubles and those of the ghostwriter soon increase as Lang is targeted by the International Court of Justice as a possible war criminal for aiding the C.I.A. in its rendition and torture of terrorism suspects. The ghostwriter soon finds that his predecessor had acquired damning evidence of the C.I.A.’s connection to Lang, but, of course, as soon as the ghostwriter learns this, his life is endangered by the C.I.A.’s shadowy thugs, who, on orders from higher-ups, wish to keep Lang’s nefarious activities secret.
Polanski’s unhappiness with America has, of course, been much in the news lately with his resistance to returning to the U.S. to be sentenced for his guilty plea of “unlawful sexual intercourse” with a 13-year-old girl. This movie seems to be his reaction to this experience of “the American Way of Life.” The movie indicates that the U.S.’s leading role on the world stage is enabled by war, murder, and torture. After watching this all-too-believable thriller, it’s hard not to agree with him. Indeed, even paranoids have enemies.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Emmaus: Key to the Church before Paul

I had a dream a while back about the Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35), where the disciples meet a stranger on the road as they walk to this village on Easter afternoon. When the stranger, whom they don’t recognize, asks them what they’re talking about, they sadly tell of the death of Jesus who they believed would redeem Israel. My dream was in the context of my talking to people about a fundamentalist tract that came in the mail addressed to me or “Current Resident.” The tract presented literal interpretations of Bible passages and was fishing for new adherents. I wouldn’t be one because, as I asked the people in the dream, “Why do people take the Bible literally?” The Emmaus story is certainly one that shouldn’t be taken literally. It’s too important for such a reductive interpretation. It seems to me that in shorthand it’s the history of the Church before Paul who was the first to write a part of the New Testament probably in the early 50s C.E. So for about 20 years from the death of Jesus in about 33 C.E. to I Thessalonians, Paul’s first letter, we have no written records from the Church.
So what was happening with the followers of Jesus during these 20 plus years? Most likely, they were trying to understand their experience of him and going through the process of grieving, which has a number of stages, including, to start shock and denial, then pain and guilt, the stage apparently the disciples are in as the Emmaus story opens. The disciples’ sadness is a sign that they were probably moving beyond shock and denial into painful sadness about what didn’t happen, namely, Jesus’ political salvation of Israel from the Romans. So they remain under Roman rule, which is not good.
In the Emmaus story, after the disciples tell the stranger about the women’s tale of the empty tomb, he chides them for not understanding what the prophets have declared, namely, “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” The passage continues: “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (verses 26 and 27). This interpretation attributed to Jesus is what the late Michael Goulder pointed out was "haggadic midrash." Bishop Spong in his essay of March 18th pays tribute to Goulder and his work, particularly in two books, “Midrash and Lection in Matthew” and “The Evangelists' Calendar.” In these, Goulder argues that haggadic midrash took place over the many years after the crucifixion when the followers of Jesus spent time in the synagogue searching the Hebrew Scriptures to find Jewish stories about other people that could be retold about Jesus. Thus, Jesus’ followers felt that his spirit was guiding them to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death by interpreting the Scriptures in a new way. This is how the stranger was guiding them through scripture in the Emmaus story, which can be read as an illustration of haggadic midrash.
The revelation of Jesus to the disciples in the Emmaus meal is a sign of the central importance that the Eucharist must have had from early on as a way of experiencing the resurrected Jesus. As Jon D. Levenson has pointed out in “Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life,” resurrection is a deeply Jewish idea that permeates the Hebrew Scriptures and the commentaries. It is through resurrection that the disciples shaped the last stage of their grief: acceptance and hope. So, just as death brings us sorrow, the recollection of the Resurrection can bring us acceptance and hope. Happy Easter!