I squirmed as I listened to the discussion on the BBC’s “Sunday Morning Live” programme. The question under discussion: “Is there an afterlife?” The protagonists said nothing that was particularly original, or newly challenging, or exciting. The antagonists said little that could genuinely enter the discussion at a meaningful level. It has seemed to me that the latter was an aspect of the gap that the Sea of Faith was envisaged, by some at least, to fill.
This gap is not necessarily one of belief, faith, moral and social outlook, but a space in the conversation that offers sensibility, if not intellectual liberation, to 21st century “non-realists” (those who no longer literally believe, or may have never believed, in the literal existence of God).
Further reflection suggests to me that it is becoming commonplace to speak of “spirituality” as a replacement for belief in God. This conversation includes all of the associated rituals, paraphernalia (personal and organisational) and writings that appear to enter easily into the concerns 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. As well as being commonplace and convenient, this view is now passe.
I am persuaded that that the Sea of Faith movement is presently at a stage in-between “rumouring” and “leaping”. Is the Sea of Faith movement 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 is it apprehensive about the new wisdom it may discover? Is the Sea of Faith circumscribed by the limits of its present 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”. (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-suppose 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 the (still) radical notion that there is no God 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) preacher/teacher of a humanitarian ethic that required to be practiced in the “new age” that was imminent.
This view requires qualification in terms of the genesis and “humanitarian” nature of these ethics within the life and experience of Jesus, as well as a critical contemporary appraisal of the practicality and consequences of its mass adoption. 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 in possession of a universal message. This fact cannot be conveniently ignored. Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian, was thoroughly schooled in the Jewish Law and conversant, at least, with the Jewish prophets. The latter were themselves active during the First Axial Age and were very 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. However, even though he instructed in what we could term a “new age” ethic, Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi and carried with him all of the nuances that such an office carried with it. Therefore, this raises the issue as to the sources of religious, and specifically Christian, ethics and the inter-relationship between ethics and beliefs.
Despite, perhaps in spite of, the influential views of some theologians and philosophers of religion, it is axiomatic that both the Jesus movement (the community of the Jewish followers of Jesus), and its parallel formation in the “Paulinist” approach to the Jesus legacy (with its tentacles into Jewish Law and Greek philosophy), possessed beliefs in a personal and institutional God. Each is a major factor 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.
Today, the Christian Church’s vast system of sacred law, order and dogma, its realist belief in a divine being and the prescribed institutional and personal ethics that eventuate from such belief, is seriously being called into question. The Sea of Faith movement is one outcome of this critique, even if significant numbers of its membership maintain institutional links with the assemblies of this church.
One strand of this critique is the idea that the Christian Church can be saved from the God-believers and be resurrected into some Christian “other” – something, it is tenuously suggested, more purely representing the historical intention of Jesus. It is further insinuated that, in the process, this “other” would facilitate the overturning of 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!?