(The first in a series of three articles focusing on aspects of contemporary religion)
Recently, I was captivated by reading the comments of someone who had re-read George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “But in revisiting Middlemarch in middle age, the melancholy I experience in reading its final pages is augmented by a strange glimmer of hope, even optimism. I see in it now what I could not see as a young person: that wisdom is always being acquired, and is never fully accomplished.”
The above words from Middlemarch suggested to me that, even as we get older, our own limited lives might perchance contain the possibility of acquiring further wisdom. Surely it is only a child who believes that a grown-up has stopped growing. It has been one of the privileges of retirement from formal work that more time is available for reading, writing, conversation and correspondence with others, reflection and working-on further personal growth.
When I taught secondary school philosophy and ethics, I occasionally referred my sixth form students to the work and words of the late American writer Ronald Dworkin. He sometimes featured on a series of educational DVD’s that I used with my students. Even though Dworkin’s prime focus was on legal philosophy and, therefore, possibly more useful for law studies than religious philosophy and ethics, he obviously has major relevance to the question of human rights and, within that, the matter of values and religious experience.
This reiterates the role that religion and religious values (both ideas – philosophy; and ethics – practices) has played in human affairs.
Ronald Dworkin’s focus, of course, is not on traditional or systemic religion but on how he conceives and expresses the “meaning of life” and what has been called “the sublimity of nature”, as well as those values which transcend individual religious preferences (universal values?). These ideas, in my view, go beyond the traditional religious expressions that incorporate belief and obedience to a god or gods.
It seems to me that he is saying that we come to an understanding of objective values (those that have meaning and practical value) and then compare our ideas about god(s) with a divine being we then seek to worship as an extension of those ideas.
On this, he would echo philosophers such as Daniel C. Dennett, who consider, as I do, that religion is part of that branch of learning known as “Phenomenology” – religion is a human phenomenon, a construct of the human mind, and has developed with human social evolution.
One of Dworkin’s conclusions is, therefore, that if there is any “religious” basis at the foundation of ethics (human moral behaviour and practice), then that basis is a “religion without god”, a religion without creed, chapels, worship or salvation/redemption.
My further personal view of Dworkin’s philosophy is that he would share my scepticism of a Christianity that simply casts-off the belief in a cosmic or personal god but continues with the practices and allegiances that derive from such a belief. This is a form of religious faith wherein we discard belief in a “real” god (the god of the theists, or the “realists”), but continue to hold an allegiance to the infrastructure and institutions established by that belief and the practices developed by and within it.
By extension, this would mean that a “godless Christianity”, or a Christianity that wishes to retain the Christian church without its fundamental and historical belief in a god who is “real” (and, of course, the ritualistic and ethical practices essentially based on this belief), is a form of false consciousness.
Readers of this article will be aware that in previous articles I have written about the Sea of Faith movement (refer to Surfing the Sea of Faith, 30.10.2015, and Is God back?, 15.01.2015).
In the past few years, through the reading of Sofia and Portholes, the magazine and newsletter respectively of the Sea of Faith movement, as well as attendance at regional group meetings and conferences of the movement, I have become aware that some members of the movement have expressed their disbelief in a cosmic or personal god whilst, at the same time, they have retained their office within, membership of, or simply regular attendance at, a Christian Church.
So too, such writers and conversationalists seem quite comfortable with the language, liturgy, music, worship, architecture and “religious spaces” of a Christian church. By implication, that would suggest a church of the more established variety where “keeping the rumour of god alive” is accompanied by a “leap of faith” rather than any specific belief – an existential wrestle without the possibility of providing an answer which could be regarded as smug, or making a decision that could be interpreted as dogmatic, or signalling a change of direction in life and career that could be threatening.
The initial impetus for the development of the Sea of Faith movement was provided by the publication in 1984 of the book of the same name and written by Dr Don Cupitt, a Cambridge University philosopher of religion. Dr Cupitt recently completed his fiftieth book in the general areas of religion, theology, philosophy and ethics. Much of Don Cupitt’s writing has a literary foundation in what is termed a “non-realist” understanding of god, that is, a supernatural, objective god does not actually exist but is an evolved construction of the human imagination.
Don Cupitt’s literary output has ranged wide and gone deep. In the process, however, he seems to have diverged somewhat from his original thesis and gone in search of ways to change the traditional understanding of Christianity so that the latter fits a different mould. In the process, the initial ideas behind the Sea of Faith movement have been inexorably stretched.
This would suggest that, in order to retain a relevance for Christianity, and a place of being for those persons who have lived much of their lives within its cloisters, Dr Cupitt has sought to re-vision, re-adapt and re-formulate the Christian message and tradition in order to try to retain a basically Christian outlook that could be incorporated into the Sea of Faith movement.
My hope would be that this will not be seen as compromising Don Cupitt’s theological position as that of one who has been a ground-breaking advocate of theistic non-realism.
Presently, I am wondering as to where, if anywhere, the Sea of Faith movement can legitimately go in order to further pursue its more or less original intentions – even though I am aware that there would be those who would question that the Sea of Faith has, or had, pronounced intentions of any kind. The latter might well include those persons who are of a mind to be satisfied with a gentle meander through the green and pleasant pastures of selective doubt about religion, faith or spirituality, without seriously questioning this doubt or seeking to settle in any one place, or putting down roots in the brown fields of non-realism.
But, like the person who re-read Eliot’s Middlemarch, those who have the courage and endurance to sail on the Sea of Faith might experience a form of melancholia for the things that once seemed the very stuff of life, but a melancholy that is “augmented by a strange glimmer of hope.”
“Every limit is a beginning as a well as ending.” (George Eliot, at the end of Middlemarch)