(The second in a series of three articles focusing on aspects of contemporary religion)
I recently tuned-in to an episode of the BBC Television programme “Sunday Morning Live – religious, moral and ethical questions”. I squirmed as I listened to the discussion on the question, “Is there an afterlife?”The protagonists said nothing that was particularly original or newly challenging or exciting. It was evangelically bereft. The antagonists said little that could genuinely enter the discussion at a level that would mean very much. It was intellectually moribund.
It seemed to me that this was an aspect of the gap that the Sea of Faith was envisaged, by some at least, including this writer, to fill – not a gap necessarily in belief, faith, moral and social outlook, but a space in the conversation that meant sense, if not intellectual liberation, to 21st century non-realists (those who no longer literally believe, or may have never believed, in god).
So too, I adhere to the view that it has become somewhat passe to simply speak of “spirituality” as a replacement for belief in god and all of the rituals, paraphernalia (personal and organisational) and writings that appear to enter easily into the conversation about matters that once seemed to be the very life’s blood of those who saw – may still see – in the Sea of Faith a supportive way forward into a godless future.
Furthermore, I am persuaded that that the Sea of Faith movement is presently at that in-between “rumouring” and “leaping” stage described above (see the first article in this series, “A strange glimmer of hope” – 17.08.2015).
I am somewhat perplexed, therefore, as to whether the Sea of Faith movement is an ending looking for a new beginning, or a new beginning that is unsure where to go. Does the movement possess a melancholy for what is perceived as being left behind, or apprehensive about the new wisdom it may discover? Is the Sea of Faith circumscribed by the limits of its non-realist imagination?
Or, perhaps there is the need to face-up to the challenge presented by Richard Dawkins: “There is deep refreshment to be had from standing up and facing straight into the strong keen wind of understanding: Yeat’s ‘Winds that blow through the starry ways’” (The God Delusion, p.355). Perhaps it is inevitable that those who sail on the sea of faith are susceptible to the winds that blow.
One thing seems incontrovertible, namely, that the history and traditions of the Christian church, no matter what branch, pre-supposes a belief in a god who is regarded by the faithful as real and active in human affairs. The traditional narrative is meant to be understood in a “realist” way. This is axiomatic in each of the great monotheistic world religions and the religious world from which these faith systems derived.
This belief in a supreme divinity has had profound influence on the thinking, development and practices of the Christian Church. It follows, therefore, that to adopt but one atheistic philosophical viewpoint, that is, the rather radical notion that there is no god – that belief in god is “un-real” – is to adopt a situation-in-life that will have equally radical consequences for the adoptees.
Further, it is a “revisionism in extremis” to suggest, as seems increasingly to be the present-day case, that Jesus was simply an apocalyptic (a word that affords revelatory or prophetic powers to whomever it is applied) teacher of a humanitarian ethic that needed to be practiced in the “new age” that was imminent.
This view requires qualification in terms of the “humanitarian” nature (a relatively modern and convenient term) of the ethics, its genesis within the life and experience of Jesus and a critical appraisal of the practicality and consequences of its mass adoption (something that is not confined to ancient societies). So too, the “humanitarian ethic” that is being put forward as the intention of the teaching of Jesus does not appear to have been original.
Apart from the teaching of the Noble Eightfold Path, the core ethical teaching of the Buddha (India), other great philosophers/teachers of what has been termed the First Axial Age (800-200 BCE) conveyed similar and complementary ethical ideas. Zoroaster (Persia), being concerned to maintain truth, considered that this was achieved through participation in life and the exercise of constructive thoughts, words and deeds. Still earlier, the ethical philosophy of Confucius (China) emphasized personal and governmental morality, correctness of social relationships, justice and sincerity.
Of course, these teachers, including Jesus, were embedded within a particular context. They were not universal figures. This tends to be conveniently ignored, especially in the case of Jesus, by those theologians and teachers of philosophy and ethics who have been immersed in the western traditions of these disciplines.
Jesus was a Jew (not a Christian as many of the faithful appear to believe), thoroughly schooled in the Jewish Law and conversant, at least, with the Jewish prophets. The latter, themselves active during of the First Axial Age, were likely the pre-cursors of the apocalyptic events about which Jesus is reported to have preached.
Amongst other responses to his radical message, there was the requirement to practice a new ethical life-style, what the Cambridge philosopher of religion, Don Cupitt, has called “solar ethics” (See Solar Ethics, SCM Press, 2000). The description may seem a little “strange and furious”, but the writer advocates the view that “This is a religious ethic to fit the truth about the world and our own life as we now understand it.”
However, it cannot simply be accepted that Jesus was a Rabbi, who instructed in what we could term a “new age” ethic, without also accepting that he was a Jewish Rabbi, with all the nuances that such an office implied – no matter what accretions have been loaded on Jesus by subsequent Christian Church history and dogma, or what have been taken away by critical philosophical and scholarly biblical speculation.
Therefore, this raises the issue as to from where ethics are acquired – ancient or modern, and the developing debate over the question as to what comes first, ethics or beliefs, and the inter-relationship between the two? This is a conversation in itself, but it does seem to be a rather “chicken and the egg” situation – debateable, but probably irresolvable.
Furthermore, it surely cannot be countenanced to say that the Jesus movement which developed in consequence of the community of the Jewish followers of Jesus, as well as the parallel formation that could be identified as the “Paulinist” approach to the Jesus legacy, had no belief in a personal and institutional god. Both of these, the Jewish Jesus movement and the all-pervasive influence of the Apostle Paul and his acolytes, with their tentacles into Jewish Law and Greek philosophy, are the major factors in the genesis and growth of the Christian religion.
The Jesus movement had to deal with internal divisions as it sought an identity that was distinctive from its Jewish origins. The theology of the Apostle Paul is riddled with other-worldly, mythical ideas of existence, divine figures and events almost beyond human understanding – what Ronald Dworkin calls “a Sistine God” and “extensions of the human imagination”.
From such beginnings came the Christian Church. The rest, as they say, is history.
We live at a time when the Christian Church’s vast system of sacred law and order, belief in divine beings and the prescribed institutional and personal behaviours that eventuate from such belief, is seriously being called into question. Indeed, the critique of this way of life has been under increasingly severe scrutiny ever since the Enlightenment, at least. The Sea of Faith movement is one contemporary strand of this critique.
However, this critique has not been without its hesitations. There seems to be the idea abroad that the Christian Church can be rescued from the god-believers and be turned into something other – overturning nearly 2000 years of what the New Testament historian, Bart D. Erhman, has called the victory of “proto-orthodox church history, teaching and tradition”.
The whole enterprise of “rescuing” the Christian Church from its historical and theistic owners seems to me to be an attempt, in words purportedly spoken by Jesus, to put “new wine into old wineskins”. Why bother!?