Where can wisdom be found; where can religion find its true roots?
In extolling the principle that “Wisdom is not supernaturally dispensed from on high”, but “can only be sought by humans at home on earth, and it is inseparable from human kindness”, the Sea of Faith (SoF) network, of which I am a member, also advances the view that “religion is a human creation”. Therefore, in rejecting the supernatural, the SoF network favours the idea that wisdom and religion are “for humanity with its questing imagination and enabling dreams”.
The British cultural critic Terry Eagleton, commenting on “the contradictions, difficulties and significance of the modern search for a replacement for God”, also speaks of the “unsatisfactory surrogates for the Almighty invented in the post-Enlightenment era”. Another reviewer, the SoF network’s Dominic Kirkham, says that “religion remains the most distinctive expression of the human spirit….it is not going to disappear.”
In the introduction to his seminal work, The Sea of Faith (SCM, 1984), the Cambridge philosopher of religion, Don Cupitt, said: “If nothing can be prior to the acts of choice by which values and life-policies are adopted, then we see that religion is completely human, bound up with the cultures and histories that it creates…Religion has to be human; it could not be otherwise, for it would not work as religion unless it were simply human.”
Don Cupitt’s view of religion is anthropocentric and voluntarist. This interpretation, as he himself states, “will clearly involve drastic revision of the popular understanding of religious belief”. It follows that Dr Cupitt’s view of God could be termed “non-realist”.
With all of the foregoing in mind, therefore, it seems appropriate to contemplate what is going on today with “God-believing religion”, especially when it is considered that, in the opinion of many, such religion is growing. The view of God held by this approach could be termed “realist”.
Two researchers who firmly believe in the growth of “God religion”, that “God is back”, are John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. Their co-authored book, God is back: how the global rise of faith is changing the world (Allen Lane, 2009), seeks to persuade its readers to share this conviction (many of whom, of course, would be convinced that God has never been away!).
In seeking to highlight a world-wide contemporary comeback of conservative/fundamentalist religion (something not exclusive to Christianity), this book, unsurprisingly, is inspired by and seeks its most positive evidence in a powerful North American approach to Christian religious faith and practice. Specifically, a form of the Christian religion that is attended by certain recognisable moral, social, economic and even political outlooks and qualities – sometimes referred to as “the American way”.
In relation to the foregoing, therefore, what should be the approach adopted by the non-realist position, for example, the SoF network, with respect to the suggested reinvigoration of a literalistic, God-believing Christian religion?
Interestingly, if not disconcertingly, within the SoF network there seems to be a perceptible and ongoing legacy of the institutional Christian Church. This would suggest that, even when the concept of, and belief in, the realist God is no longer acceptable, there is much within the institutional church, particularly the Anglican Church, which retains loyalties of a peculiar kind – inclusive of the liturgy, the cultural sitz-em-leben and social status of the Established Church.
Further, the existence of the Established Church (the Church of England), which covets its central role within worldwide Anglicanism, suggests other connotations. These would include the formal link with the British monarchy, significant financial investments in capital markets, a role in the parliamentary system (bishops in the House of Lords), and the ubiquitous presence of church buildings and parish references throughout the land. Perhaps it is not a new understanding of religion that is called for, but a renewed secularism that dispenses with all of the presuppositions, pretensions, privileges and predicaments of historical and traditional religion.
The foregoing is recognised by that outspoken critic of “God religion” and its various institutional manifestations, Richard Dawkins. In his provocative and challenging book The God Delusion (Bantam, 2006), Dawkins comments: “And, of course, we can retain a sentimental loyalty to the cultural and literary traditions of, say, Judaism, Anglicanism, or Islam, and even participate in religious rituals such as marriages and funerals, without buying into the supernatural beliefs that historically went along with those traditions. We can give up belief whilst not losing touch with a treasured heritage.” (p.344). However, to what extent is that heritage dependent on the beliefs that gave it birth?
Books such as that by Micklethwait and Wooldridge, present a challenge to the non-realist movement in religion, as well as being a timely reminder for the SoF network to reappraise its ongoing thinking and development. Of course, it is to be recognised and accepted that the SoF network is not necessarily homogenous in its approach and that there are a variety of “diggers and seekers” with their “questing imaginations and enabling dreams”.
Furthermore, there is an insistent presence in SoF network publications, at conferences and in discussion groups, of the theological perspective known variously as the “social gospel”, the “Christ of the powerless”, a “Gospel for the poor” and, of course, “Liberation theology”.
The foregoing was the vogue in radical Christian circles 40-50 years ago, when theologians, such as Altizer and Robinson, were speaking of the “death of God” but addressing an audience that, generally speaking, was pre-occupied with looking for alternatives within a realist approach to God-believing Christianity and, therefore, was unable or unwilling to recognise and appreciate the implications of a non-realist perspective and understanding of the concept of “God”.
The alternative realist approaches identified in the above masked the need to face-up to what Christianity had become or what it was never meant to be. How could it when it is based on perhaps the most divisive, if not subversive, idea in human history (that the existence of God is literally true), and the appropriation into orthodox Christian doctrine of a gross intellectual misunderstanding (that Jesus actually was/is God). Both of these dynamic and far-reaching concepts were outcomes of what the church historian Bart D. Erhmann has called “the victory of proto-orthodox church history, teaching and tradition”.
It is intriguing, if not inconsistent, that some in the SoF network seem to find the contemporary expressions of this way of being the church, but not the radical missiology that accompanies it, as a repository for, or an ally of, some non-realist view of continuing to be the “church without God”!
The “Jesus of the poor in the apocalyptic age”, a perspective shared, if not popularised, by the writings of Don Cupitt, is a favoured way in the SoF network of understanding the role of Jesus in a non-realist view of religion. This perspective resembles a “God of the gaps” type of theology; it looks for a relevant place and role for Jesus when any assumption of his divinity, or messianic role, has been removed – as it must be in any non-realist understanding of Christianity.
Where, then, can wisdom be found; where can religion find its true roots? From where and when is that vital paradigm shift to take place that will project the SoF movement to the next level of wisdom or unbelief? Is either extant in a perplexing God-less Christianity, or in a simple form of religions-less atheism that obliterates gods of any kind and enables a truly this-world sensibility and genuinely human form of living and believing?