Christianity - of this world or not?

The title of this short piece was given to me in January 2013 by organiser of a small village church (Anglican) group in Suffolk who wished to have a conversation about how they might offer their wider community a contemporary, relevant and liberal kind of Christianity. One of the commonly perceived problems with the contemporary church is its unwillingness to allow from the pulpit open, frank admissions that today there are ways of talking about religion - and doing it - that don’t require from a person a belief in either a supernatural God or realm - hence the title I was given. I chose to lead into the nearly two hours of open conversation that followed with a short version of a story well-known in the kinds of theological and philosophical circles I move in. It's the story of how our culture got to the situation it is in with regard to faith and belief in God and of the reality, or not, of another world. I did it so as to put us clearly into the contemporary cultural context. What follows owes an enormous debt to the work of James C. Edwards in his lucid and helpful book called “The Plain Sense of Things - The Fate of Religion in an Age of Normal Nihilism” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997). His opening chapter “The City in a Dome: Living in an Age of Normal Nihilism” is, in my opinion, a must read text.

The text below is, of course, simply my full notes and not a finished piece. At many points in the text I added further thoughts and responded to immediate questions.

Once upon a time God was the kind of God spoken about in the stories we find in the Torah, the first five books of Moses. There God is presented as a literal being who walked in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve directly observing their growing relationship with the world and each other, one who wrestled hand to hand with Jacob one night dislocating his hip (Genesis 35:1-7), one who appeared on mountain-tops personally to deliver his commandments in the most physical of forms, the tablets of stone (Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:4–21) and one whose very presence (shekinah) dwelt in the tent of meeting and the Temple. (It's important to note that many forms of contemporary Judaism don't at all read these texts in a literal and fundamentalist way - there is strong liberal tradition in Judaism with which liberal Christians have and should maintain good relations.)

But our Western European culture did not inherit its conception of God solely or even directly from early forms of Judaism but through its complex intermingling with Greek culture. As it sometimes put, our own culture is a veritable mix of Athens and Jerusalem.

Turning then, for a moment to Greece we can see that at least from Plato on (424/423 BC–348/347BC) philosophers have proposed various conceptions of a transcendent supreme being who was the ground of existence and intelligibility of the world. It was only really in the works of St. Augustine that this Greek metaphysical conception of god became identified with the creator God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This ensured that we inherited, not a literal conception of a providential God, but rather a Christianised version of Platonic idealism in which ultimate reality is that of the ideal Forms. God was the Good, the True, the Beautiful, the world's ultimate ground, structure, purpose and meaning. True this God could come to this world - the story of Jesus as God's son is perhaps the example of most concern to us today - but this world was not God's permanent dwelling place and, as we know, in traditional understandings of the resurrection of Jesus, Jesus (who in traditional Trinitarian thought is God the Son) leaves this world by ascending or returning to God the Father’s right hand in another realm or another world. This world was, in contrast to the eternal heavenly one, merely passing, transient and flawed; even at its best it became thought of as merely shadow of God's eternal really real kingdom (cf. the allegory of the cave).

Various versions of this picture held the centre stage in our culture right through medieval times and on into the Reformation. But no culture stays still and ours moved inexorably on thanks to both the rise of the natural sciences and the sceptical thought of people like René Descartes (1596-1650). Descartes began to wonder how we could ever come to have secure knowledge that a transcendent God and the ideal Forms were, in fact, the basis for, or ground of, reality? After much worry and thought he came to the opinion that the only thing we could know for sure was, not God, not the ideal Forms but only ourselves as 'thinking things' (res cogitans). From out of this insight came his most famous words "Cogito ergo sum" (I think, therefore I am - Part IV of Discourse on the Method 1637 and §7 of part I of Principles of Philosophy 1644).

We see here our culture developing the feeling that God and the Forms were "known" to us only as representations upon the ground of our own ego-consciousness. To help grasp this idea, think of a seal and sealing wax. We could only know the seal (God) was real because of the impression it made upon us (the wax). Alas, although we felt that, yes, we did have an impression of God, we could nowhere produce the seal itself (God) in a way that made it’s existence as certain and tangible as, say the little metal seal that sat upon your desk. God was not like that at all. Anyway, in short all we could say for sure was something about impressions. If we could only know for sure "Cogito ergo sum" and, therefore only our own *representations* of reality, how could we know for sure that they were true *representations* of reality? As a culture we were discovering, rather disturbingly, that the once secure ground of God and the Forms was rapidly disappearing from under our feet.

Enter Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who came to the conclusion that our own views of the world as an individual 'thinking thing' were not some accurate, ultimately trustworthy mirror-image (impression) of reality itself but were, instead, simply a creation of our own will (to power).

What this meant was that we were left not with 'indubitably true beliefs' but simply values. It is this recognition that allowed Nietzsche famously and notoriously to proclaim "God is dead." In his book "The Gay Science" (1882/1887) he says:

"God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"

As if this thought were not disturbing enough we began to see that this meant, as the contemporary Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, says in his recent book 'A Secular Age' (Harvard University Press 2007)

"We live in a condition where [now] we cannot help but be aware that there are a number of different construals, views which intelligent, reasonably undeluded people, of good will, can and do disagree on. We cannot help looking over our shoulder from time to time, looking sideways, living our faith also in a condition of doubt and anxiety" (p. 11).

The contemporary philosopher James C. Edwards succinctly sums up the consequence of this:

". . . we have left ourselves no intellectually respectable way to dismiss the disconcerting thought that other, and radically different, forms of life have just the same claim on some sacred ground as does ours; namely no such claim at all. Our 'highest values' compete with the 'highest values' of others on what is looked at philosophically, a perfectly level field of battle" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 47).

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) saw all this coming as early as the mid nineteenth-century) and imagined all these different sets of values being on sale together. A contemporary version of this is to think of a shopping-mall thronged with shoppers and bargain hunters at sale-time.

Edwards comments on this by saying:

"Prices have been cut to the bone. Crowds move through the market hall of European intellectual history, fingering the bargains displayed there. Yet the goods - [that is to say] the 'highest values' of European civilisation - are strangely slow to move. 'Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question of whether there is anyone who will make a bid' (Fear & Trembling). Why should anyone live or (more sharply) die for something that is, after all, only a value, only a structure of interpretation posited by some passing form of life?" (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 59-60).

As Kierkegaard put it, our culture has been busily been engaged in "ein wirklicher Ausverkauf" - a real clearance sale and, "of all the items currently selling at a discount" perhaps the showing the greatest price drop “is faith” (James C. Edwards, Plain Sense of Things p. 60). This condition Edwards calls "normal nihilism."

For many people involved in religion this was and is a terrible story to tell. It's undeniably an uncomfortable one especially to those of us who wish to see religion continue to play some meaningful role in, not only our own lives, but in the society in which we live.

One approach is to pretend that the story I have told is either not true or is one which can simply be ignored or side-stepped. All one has to do is reassert old, traditional beliefs and practices and all will be well. Many, many communities (especially those with conservative theologies) are today advocating and/or attempting just such an approach to the situation.

However, others - including myself - have decided to accept the situation of normal nihilism and, rather than harking back to an earlier "golden age", have decided to embrace the story and to set forth from where our culture actually seems to be. To work through (verwindung) the problem rather than seeking to overcome or defeat it (überwindung). One such thinker is Mark Wrathall who feels that:

". . . the loss of belief in a metaphysical god that is the ground of all existence and intelligibility, and even the loss of belief in a creator God who produced the heaven and the earth is not a disaster. [In fact the] absence of a foundational God [can] open up access to richer and more relevant ways for us to understand creation and for us to encounter the divine and the sacred. Thus, the death of the philosopher's God may have provided us with new and more authentic possibilities for understanding religion that we blocked by traditional metaphysical theology (or onto-theology)" (Mark W. Wrathall's introduction to "Religion after Metaphysics", Cambridge University Press 2003 p. 1).

In my own theology and ministry I have come to share this attitude and approach, one which has, at times, been given the controversial and not always helpful title of "Death of God theology".

Before concluding, born out of my experience of working through this with my own congregation and with various other groups, I need briefly to say one more thing. I need to give an indication of why one might bother keeping going an active involvement with religion if one finds oneself agreeing with and even positively embracing the story of the death of God I have just outlined?

There are two reasons. The first is that the God who is dead is the God of the philosophers and of post-Augustinian Christianity. With regard to this God who is understood as a being I am most certainly an atheist. But, thanks to the work of thinkers like Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Ernst Bloch and current thinkers like Edwards and Wrathall other non-theistic and non-supernatural conceptions of divinity do in fact begin to show up. (Here's a link to an address where I look at an understanding of God as an event rather than as a being.)

Secondly, I stay with religion because it offers certain practical ways to address two recurring and deeply problematic human tendencies pointed to by Edwards. The first is our addictive, individualist self-magnification and the second is our, equally addictive, tendency towards totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity (Fundamentalism, remember, is not the preserve of the religious only but also of groups such as the new atheists like Dawkins et. al.).

In our culture religion offered us some very practical responses to these two temptations and, albeit always imperfectly, it was able to keep them more or less in check. Religion still offers us practices that, again in the words of Edwards, can contain, concentrate, and transmit two key sacramental energies, namely: “limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency.”

Although I, personally, am very much a child of the story I have just told and find that I can no longer conceive of a being who is God nor of the existence of any other world, the post-modern theology of the kind of I hold to, most certainly does think there is *another* world, it is *this* world seen differently. The Christian tradition is, in my opinion, still capable of helping to bring about that other world, the kingdom of heaven that Jesus told us was always-already within or among us.

With that, far from final thought, the floor and the conversation is now yours . . .