(The third in a series of three articles focusing on aspects of contemporary religion)
In the second of this series of three articles on aspects of contemporary religion (see Winds that blow, 02.09.15) I concluded with the view that the whole enterprise of “rescuing” the Christian Church from its historical and theistic owners seems to me to be an attempt, in words reminiscent of Jesus, to put “new wine into old wineskins”. My conclusion was “why bother?”
There are those who would consider that, somewhat tenuously in my view, it is worth bothering about rescuing the Christian Church from its past and present state, so that its future may become more of what they further consider it was meant to be. Implicit in this rescue operation is the concern to redefine the concept of god.
Two approaches suggested for this process are Unitarianism and Quakerism.
The official website of the Unitarians states that “most Unitarians still affirm the oneness of God, but individual definitions of ‘God’ can vary from person to persons.” For some Unitarians, Christian language about god as “a loving, personal power” comes closest to their own belief. Others consider the concept of god to be “the human ideal against which we measure ourselves”. Some, on the other hand, avoid using the word god at all because they consider it to be a meaningless title.
Aspects of the foregoing approach would surely appeal, for instance, to many within the Sea of Faith (SoF) movement, those who are still trying to come to terms with what the concept of an “un-real god” actually means.
It would seem, however, that more important than labels is the general Unitarian confession that “humanity is one and the human person is one”. That “ultimate unifying principle or spirit” is what many Unitarians mean today when speaking of god. Not far, perhaps, from where a selection of members of the SoF movement already are at!
At the heart of Quakerism is worship. Quakers consider that: “We come together in stillness and silence to open our hearts and lives to God.” An intrinsic aspect of that coming together is “the joy derived from reflecting on God’s creation.” However, not every Quaker finds the word god helpful; some Quakers use a different image or concept such as “Spirit” or “Light”, but Quakerism generally “affirms the love of God for all people.” I have the distinct feeling that such beliefs would not strongly hold with the concept of an “un-real god”.
Therefore, Unitarianism and Quakerism seemingly would not offer the new wineskins into which we could pour the new wine. Neither would ultimately accept a “godless Christianity”.
Throughout their evolution, humankind has been most adept at inventing and developing new institutions. Indeed, this was the case with the historical Christian Church. This institution was not founded essentially on what Jesus, the radical rabbi of first century Judaism, taught, but, rather, on what certain followers of Jesus – particularly one very astute Roman citizen of Jewish extraction and Hellenistic learning, Paul of Tarsus – turned him and his ethical teaching into.
This being the case, care needs to be exercised in using anything of the contemporary Christian Church as a template for some new form of movement or institution.
The “Christ” of the New Testament – a theological, even mythological, interpretation of the teacher who taught and practised a humanitarian ethic in a very natural world – was developed as a literary construct by self-interested successors, as well as by a myriad of reformers from essentially the same schools of thinking. In consequence, we need to be wary of any attempt to transform the Christian Church into anything other than what it has been or currently is.
There is a view, if not hope, that something different can be developed for the Christian Church, a renewal if you please, by an actual return to what Jesus really was, said and did – as difficult as this may be (as evidenced by the historical and literary problems posed by the ongoing study of the “historical Jesus”). Perhaps this would include a specific focus on what is regarded as the “this-worldly”, rather than “other-worldly”, teachings of Jesus. I do not share this view.
My personal experience of the Christian Church, as well as my observations of the experiences of others, would convince me is that the institution, and those who control it, has an inbuilt antipathy towards renewal – for this might mean breaking with the accepted taboos of the past. As the philosopher of religion, Daniel C. Dennett, quipped: “O religious folk who fear to break the taboo: Let go! Let go! You’ll hardly notice the drop!”
Personally speaking, I feel that a more radical alternative would be wiser and more practical.
Leave the Christian Church to fade away as part of the detritus of the history of religions. As an alternative, seek to develop new institutions for the pursuit of community, justice and harmony – a task the Christian church has failed to do to any universally evident and acclaimed success, despite the claims and efforts of the various strands of liberation and political theology, or social gospel. In this, the Christian religion, as with any other religious faith and, it should be noted, many non-religious movements and organisations, has been an institutionally abject failure.
Therefore, this situation calls for a renewed emphasis on politics, sociology, psychology and the human sciences generally, as well as a focus on a scientifically grounded truth that does not involve religious dogma. This, rather than a religious philosophy that constantly attempts to re-invent or reform old religious concepts. What we need, it seems to me, is a “Star Trek” mentality.
If a movement such as the SoF categorically rejects the belief in a real god, then its individual members, as well as the movement per se, will seek out new structures and practices in order to support new concepts and beliefs – to boldly go where organised, systematised, institutionalised and internalised religion has not gone before, or doesn’t want to go, or can’t go!
It is nearly 30 years since the green shoots of SoF began sprouting in the concrete wilderness of theistic religion. There should now be signs of specific flowering – even maturity.
In the first of this series of three articles (see A strange glimmer of hope, 17.08.15), I referred to the writing of Ronald Dworkin and specifically his book, Religion without God. In the book, Dworkin focuses not on traditional or systemic religion but on how the “meaning of life” and what he calls “the sublimity of nature” can be conceived and expressed. He speaks of a world view incorporating universal values, “those values which transcend individual religious preferences”.
In a moving concluding passage to his latest publication, Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking, the Cambridge philosopher and inspiration behind the SoF movement, Don Cupitt, writes this about his world view: “A view that remains close to the original Jesus, and admires him without any cult of him. ‘Authority is dead’, ‘revelation is dead’, and the two-worlds, mediated kind of religion is dead too, now. So my remaining ‘faith’ is purely philosophical, with a dash of loyalty to Jesus, and to the ancient humanitarian strand in our own cultural tradition.”
These words, and the world view they convey, are poignant and most thought-provoking. They present a world view, a faith even, that I can understand and live with. They are the icing on the cake of “theistic non-realism”.
“Fred and Mary, are you ever coming in – or may I eat your cake?” (George Eliot, at the end of Middlemarch)