Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Message

"The whole is untrue."
Theodor Adorno

Today being today, I thought I'd cut the God Squad some slack, or at least one particular member of it, a clergyman and radical theologian called Don Cupitt, whose approach to belief makes him seem even more an atheist than I am.

This is because Cupitt's non-realism about God seems to preclude any kind of metaphysical curiosity. The only stuff that's real to Cupitt is the stuff we can observe and discuss; we humans are the world-makers. Existence is thus essentially contingent and ephimeral, he claims, echoing the famous observation of Adorno (above) about the tentative, transcient nature of the cosmos.

We can dispense with the story of Genesis, Cupitt argues, because it is surely clear that man was not created and duly dumped into a "fully-furnished home". Everything we can say about God is subject to renegotiation along with the rest of our cultural values, which take shape and become fixed as part of the human conversation. In this scheme God should be our omega, but not our alpha, a spiritual guide
"not the ontological foundation of life." We should look to God as a personification of certain transcendent ideals, such as Love.

People should pursue their values for their own sakes, Cupitt advises, not because of some kind of external guarantor, or indeed because of a promised pay-off of eternal life. He feels sure that Jesus himself was a humanist thinker who fought against the oppressive nature of religious tradition: "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" etc.

Against this backdrop of fundamental impermanence it is our job to 'jaw jaw' ourselves towards spiritual consensus - and clearly Cupitt feels that the best kind of omega we can aim for is a Christian love for our fellow man; Human kindness and a commitment to life. To illustrate his point, Cupitt quotes Pierre in War and Peace:

"To love life is to love God"

Cupitt's ideas have led me to consider whether some sort of formal religious tradition is indeed necessary in order that the majority of people, regardless of education level, have a handy set of cultural tools for contemplation, consolation etc. and for expressing the better, spiritual side to their biological natures.

It's a more tolerant approach to belief than Dawkins's, but it's not without its problems. Cupitt clearly decries the attitude of fundamentalists, but isn't some sort of fundamentalism inevitable with every kind of scriptural faith? I heard today that more people have gathered at Bethlehem than on previous years and I find it hard not to consider this apparently harmless bunch as fundamentalist in their own way, for if there is one part of the story of Christ's life which is clearly subject to factual revision it is the 'traditional' story of his Nativity - almost certainly tacked on by gospel-scribblers generations later in order to enforce an agreement with existing Jewish Messianic myth.

Is it really possible to make use of the literature of belief without incurring all the difficulties that inevitably arise when it is believed literally? And, as Cupitt himself notes, these problems will only worsen as the modern worldview distances itself to an ever greater extent from that of the wise but ignorant men who wrote those sacred texts.

No comments: