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.

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