Tuesday, February 8, 2011

“A New Great Story”

Humans are story-telling apes. We tell each other stories to share our “world” with one another. Sharing our stories and experiencing others’ helps us understand, explain, and change our stories, which are our realities, our lives. The most useful stories are those that take our existing narratives and re-tell them with new information and new insights so that we are compelled to re-examine our old stories and to change them to accommodate the new material. In making these changes, our “world” changes, and we experience it in new ways. Leaving our old “world” behind may be painful, but if we are to move forward with life, we must accept the pain and let the new insights create a new “world” for us.
I’ve recently read two “stories” that have caused me to re-examine my “world” and to begin to create a new story and a new “world” for myself. One is “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, which I discussed in my posts on December 11 and 18, 2010 and on January 18 and 25, 2011. The other “story” is “A New Great Story” (Salem, Ore: Polebridge Press 2010) by Don Cupitt who writes: “In this book I aim to set before the general reader a fully-modern alternative to the traditional “Grand Narrative” theology of Latin or “Western,” Christianity…” (p1) This traditional narrative, which guided the West from the time of Constantine in the 4th century to the Enlightenment in the 18th, was set forth most notably in Augustine’s (CE 354-430) “The City of God.” It was “… a huge story of Everything that began and ended in eternity…” (p1) It tells of God’s creation of our world, our fall and redemption, the Last Judgment, and the triumph of the blessed. The Creeds summarize this story.
However, with Newton, Galileo, and Darwin we have new stories that, as the mathematician LaPlace said to Napoleon, have no need of God as a hypothesis. We are still coping with these new stories. Cupitt writes: “… the West found it extremely painful to relinquish its old faith, and extremely difficult to state its new faith with full philosophical clarity. Even yet, we have still not been able to settle into a lucid, confident and paradox-free secular-humanist world-view.” (p5) A major reason for this is our loss of “Objective Truth.” These new stories, specifically Darwinism tell us that “…our cognitive abilities are just survival-skills…” “…we cannot distinguish between ‘real’ truths and biologically useful fictions.” “All our knowledge is practical or ‘applied,’ and none is ‘pure.’” (p5) We are painfully learning that “There is no ready-made Real World, out there and fully independent of our language. There is only the historical succession of world-views, and of understandings of human nature, within the ceaseless motion of our language.” (p75)
Cupitt’s new grand narrative is based on these ideas. It “…will be a secular story about the whole process by which we have come to be what we are now are.” It will try to show how the world in our heads “…is made up of linguistic usages, myths, deep cultural assumptions, Gods, spirits, saints, our parents and our mentors, commandments prohibitions and valuations.” (p8) For most of human history our stories were predominantly religious, and they guided our progressive development. However, with the Enlightenment and the new scientific narratives, “…how are we to understand the queer fact that in the modern period religion seems to have led us beyond itself and become redundant?” (p9) As a result of this strange situation, Cupitt wants “a Christian narrative, and a story that makes religious sense, about the birth, the life, the death, and the afterlife of God.” (p9)
This new story is not about Fall and Redemption “… but the strangely-roundabout story of how we have become ourselves. It starts in the violent chaos of animal experience. Language irrupts, lighting up the chaos and beginning to make things intelligible and to shape life. The history of religion then develops as the story of how through language a world can be built, its law laid down, values posited, and long-term plans of action devised and carried out. Everything is first worked out at the supernatural level: the gods pioneered everything for us. Eventually, the fully developed Bronze-Age religious system produces a new breed of ‘enlightened’ individual critics – prophets, philosophers – who criticize it all and bring it all back down into the human beings for whose sake the whole process has been going on. The Grand Narrative then culminates in the Galilean preaching of Jesus, and the launch of a new divine-human way of living. The whole story is then surprisingly repeated into the history of Christianity, which also goes out into mediaeval elaboration, and then through its criticism in the Reformation and the Enlightenment gradually returns into the individual modern human being who at last feels able to accept contingency and to build a life of love without any remaining fear or bitterness.” (p9)
This progression of human religious development parallels to a remarkable extent the evolution of our sexuality described in “Sex at Dawn,” which outlines the evolution of our ancestors over the millions of years when they lived in foraging bands with multiple sexual partners. The rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago led to, at least for women, monogamy. Monogamy grew out of agriculture, because a farmer wanted to be sure that his son, who was to inherit the farm, is indeed his son. To ensure this, the son’s mother had to have only the son’s father as a sexual partner. She must be kept from other men and to accomplish this, the father takes her as closely guarded property.
With agriculture, religion also changed. It became centralized and mediated by priests. Before agriculture, foragers and hunters moved about looking for food, with no fixed abode. Their gods moved before them, leading them into the future. In contrast, farmers settled down and needed markets for their produce. Markets developed into cities with the god’s temple on one side of the marketplace and the palace of the King, anointed by the god, on the other side. “By the priests, agriculture, religious cult, and culture were all woven together. And in particular, God invented markets, money and fair trade. God invented ‘centred’ life, and the city-state: politics, routine, law, and taxation. The first taxes, tithes, were paid to God the first landlord.” (p35)
The rigid hierarchy of this state religion could not completely eliminate the “…older type of religious professional – the charismatic, imaginative individual shaman or prophet …” (p61) We know best Israel’s prophets, who “…looked back to the simplicity and freedom of the old nomadic way of life…” (p63) These prophets sought “… a return of some form of religious immediacy. This in turn required democratization: God must decentre himself, coming down from heaven and distributing himself as spirit into human hearts…” (p64), as in hunter-gatherer times. This movement of our perception of God “…from the external socially-constructed world…” (p65) into ourselves comes to be known as “the Kingdom of God…”, and “…the old mystical yearning for union with God was also a demand for the disappearance of God as objective being, as Other. Instead, God becomes at last fully and completely internalized.” (p65)
Of course, this is the core message of Jesus: “… ‘the Kingdom of God’ was near, or had already arrived. The ancient prophetic hope was fulfilled. The divine world and the human life-world were at last coming together and becoming one.” “…God ceased to be an objective being. He had emptied himself out into human hearts. God and the human self were no longer two; they were now concentric. It followed that the difference between the pure and the impure, and between good and evil, was no longer imposed upon human beings ‘heteronomously’ – that is, in the form of a code of divine laws revealed to Moses and received thenceforth from tradition – but depended solely upon the autonomous human heart. Living well was not a matter of keeping rules: on the contrary, rule-morality does not produce and never could produce the kind of person Jesus wanted to see. No: for Jesus – who in moral philosophy was a straight emotivist and expressivist – you live well if you live in a ‘solar’ way, out from the heart, without any duplicity, so that your expressive life pours out upon a current of open, direct, generous and affirmative feeling. Jesus makes his point here by insisting that law-morality makes us mean-spirited. We are forever looking sideways at our neighbors, and feeling aggrieved if they are doing better than we think they deserve. He insists, paradoxically but brilliantly, that unless you are ready to go beyond mere justice and perform acts of ecstatic, excessive generosity, you are not a truly moral person at all.” (p68) In at least some of the sayings of Jesus, we can see: “…The superior human being (who) lives without resentiment or reactive feeling: he is purely affirmative. He does not nurse any kind of grudge or ill-feeling.” (p69) My post of Sept. 15, 2009 on Cupitt’s “Jesus & Philosophy” discusses this further.
Some of those who heard Jesus must have liked his message. “Otherwise, his memory and some of his words would not have reached us at all.” (p69) Of course, the synoptic gospels also preserve much sharp criticism: He was crazy, in league with the devil, kept bad company, lax about ritual purity and keeping the Sabbath, and he enjoyed feasting. He was eventually charged with being an all-out blasphemer and executed by the state. Cupitt thinks that the charges are historical; no one would have a motive for inventing them. He also thinks them justified. “Jesus was after all announcing the end of (his hearers’) world, and in many cases their livelihoods. St. Matthew tries, rather absurdly, to claim that Jesus endorsed the Mosaic Law in full (Matthew 5:17-19), but the fact is that not long after Jesus’ death the early Jewish Church did resolve not to impose the Law upon Gentile converts.” (p70)
“…the ethical teaching of Jesus in Galilee, approximately – and perhaps best preserved in Q/Luke … is Act Four of our new Grand Narrative theology and completes the main story. The plot is complete: everything has come together and there is only the endless, purely-contingent flow of things in our language-formed human life-world. … After Galilee there is no further or greater reality for us to aspire to.” The 1980 years since Jesus have seen repeated circular movements: a going out into catholic elaboration and the return into immediacy. “So, in a certain sense, we made God, and then God made us, completing his work by dying into us. Religious thought has been a laborious business, but it has somehow brought us a very long way. We are only a lot of dumb apes who have somehow been able to dream strange dreams that have lifted us out of the relative darkness of animal life, and made it at last possible for us moderns to say a whole-hearted Amen to our world, and to our own lives in it.” (p 75)


Hershey J. said...

Pete, thanks or your summary of A New Great Story and your reflctions on it.
This book led me to new insights about t he Hebrew scriptures. I leaned some time ago that composition of most of them was late (post-exilic), but I didn't know how late until note 21, page 93, led me to Thomas L. Thompson, The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), which I am now reading.
Something new to me that I learned from Thompson is the rationale for the longevity of the ante-deluvian patriarchs: Adam, 930 years; Methuselah, 969 years; et.al. I long ago realized that those figures were mythical, but I had no idea of the reason for them. Thompson shows them to be needed as part of biblical chronology, pp. 73-75. Extracts from these pages follow:
p. 73. "The chronology that we find used in the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible is based on a very simple system, yet it has little to do with what we would nomally understand as either chronology or history, and much more to do with highlighting and emphasizing the importance of events. The system is a construction based on a chronological scheme using the Hellenistic motif of a 'great year' of 4,000 years' duration."
p. 75. "Adam................................................................1 AM (Anno Mundi)
Birth of Abraham........................................ 1946 AM
Call of Abraham .........................................2021 AM
Entrance into Egypt.....................................2236 AM
Exodus from Egypt .....................................2666 AM
Solomon's Temple ......................................3146 AM
Exile to Babylon .........................................3576 AM
Edict of Cyrus .........................3626 AM = 538 BCE
Rededication of Temple.............4000 AM = 164 BCE"
I will copy pp. 73-75 to send to you by post. Needless to say, I commend this book to you. It is not in my Sunnyvale Library, but they got it for me on interlibrary loan from Azusa Pacific University. Perhaps you can borrow it similarly.
Grace and Peace, Hershey

Franklyn said...

The first section of your blog was helpful. I found the latter parts obscure, perhaps because I don’t understand theological language and thought. My own explanation of the development of religion is less complex. Originally man had no way of explaining the world around him, so he invented a narrative that would explain it. Since he knew he could not control the dangerous events around him he created a story of gods who could control them, if they wanted to. In order to get such gods to do what man wanted men turned to a group of men claiming to have the ear of the gods. Such men, priests and sages, knew a good thing when they saw it, and built a mystic and expensive edifice to propitiate the gods and in the process accumulated considerable prestige and wealth. Possibly some believed their own propaganda, some were just scoundrels. As time went on man learned many things, but most of the important things in life still could not be controlled, as well as the discomfort caused by man’s sense of injustice and the unfairness of life. Religion offered various solutions, usually not testable (the next life, god thinks you are really better than the rich guy, one day you will be happy and he will be not happy, etc). What religion did offer was certainty (at a price) and an explanation. The terrible anxiety of uncertainty was reduced and the world did not seem to be as chaotic as indeed it was. Periodically developing new thoughts challenged the priests and sages, who defended their privileged positions. This resulted and currently still results in war and killing.
This brings us to the current times. Men still cannot accept a world which by its nature is chaotic, unpredictable, unfair, and one in which he cannot control anything which is really important such as dying. But the bromides and explanations of religion don’t really do it as well as they used to, and in the west fewer people are buying it. The religions try harder and harder, make their rules stricter and more demanding, and in so doing loss more prestige.
What is to become of us? We either grow up and accept reality and our limitations and learn to live with uncertainly and reject a fallacious narrative or we will turn to progressively more restrictive religious who will then fight for supremacy. Stay tuned…it should be interesting.