November 2003

Jesus said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” They replied “You are the eschatalogical manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.” And Jesus said “What?”

Matthew 16 and Anon.

When discussing the views of Bishop John Spong, I once said that I hoped if I ever reached a position similar to his, I’d have the courage to stop calling myself a Christian. Well, whaddya know…

But I also said that it’d be nice to have the community you get from a church, without the obsession with blood, sin, sex and death. So Don Cupitt’s book The Sea of Faith was of interest to me, because in it Cupitt advances what he calls a “non-realist” Christianity, while maintaining that this is not just humanist atheism by another name.

<lj-cut> The book opens with the text of Dover Beach, the poem by Matthew Arnold from which the title of the book comes. The tide of Christianity in this country has been going out for some time, says Cupitt. The book takes us on a tour of the history of thought about Christianity since about the time of Galileo, arguing that the “realist” concept of an external, personal God is no longer believable for people living with the discoveries of science. The special place of humans in the Biblical worldview is destroyed by advances in physics which make us realise that we are a small part of a very large universe, and by the advent of Darwinism which forces us to acknowledge that we evolved just like other animals.

Meanwhile, Biblical criticism was slowly accepted in this country, coming in from Germany. Writing in 1983, Cupitt says that

… Schweitezer’s view of historical knowledge was over-simple. He talked as if it was in principle possible to discover the real Jesus, Jesus as he really was, Jesus independent of the theologizing and mythicizing process which he underwent in the minds of his followers. But a human being does not exist independently of his or her social setting and interaction with people. Necessarily, the only Jesus the historian can in principle ever hope to reach is Jesus as seen by his contemporaries, Jesus in the context of what he meant to others; in short, a Jesus already highly theologized (for such was the age he lived in), and seen for a variety of points of view.

(By Cupitt’s own admission, he later moved into “all-out postmodernism”. I’m no literary theorist, but I think I can see the start of that here).

In the chapter “Prometheus Unbound”, Cupitt argues that believers in conventional religion are simultaneously attracted and repelled by God. God lives above stairs and we below stairs. God sees to the running of the cosmic house, and we serve him, but neither of us welcomes too much attention from the other. We know our place, and if we should attract the attention of God by our presumption, we need to do something to purge our sin and show our devotion. As I’ve said about evangelical Christianity, the essence of such faith is admitting your own helplessness, and so the very essence of sin is human pride and self will. To illustrate the point, Cupitt provides a brief history of Satan from the Morning Star which pridefully steals the march on the Sun, through to Isaiah, the Church Fathers and Milton (I suppose Philip Pullman might get a mention today!) Conventional Christianity tells us we are part of a universal version of the class system, says Cupitt. As individualist ideas become more and more important, it becomes less and less easy for most people to accept such a position.

It was about here my head started to ache as he sped through Descartes, Hegel, Kant, Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Jung, Nietzsche and Wittegenstein (not for nothing was there much rehearsal of The Philosopher’s Drinking Song in Rome). I can’t possibly precis all that here, but I was interested particularly in Kierkegaard, who, according to Cupitt, would have us hold the contradictions of the spiritual life in tension, with the aim of forcing ourselves into practical action rather than striving for a settled synthesis which enables us to sit back and feel our job is done.

Where does all this end up? To Cupitt, it seems, God is just the language we use to describe something, not an external entity. And what we’re describing is something active:

The relinquishment of the old illusions about God at last allows the religious ideal to function properly. Religion is an activity: it postulates a goal and seeks to attain it. Realist theologies claim that the religious ideal is already actual… They ask no more of us than receptivity. Their day is over. From now on, your god is your star, your ideal, your aim, your hope, your goal. And that’s it.

One question that struck me was why we would bother with such philosophical gymnastics in order to be able to call our belief Christianity. Going back to my posting on Spong, why not just give up? Cupitt attempts to answer by saying that even when our material needs are met, people feel that their lives are aimless and worthless without a religion of some sort. And what would make us choose something calling itself Christianity rather than anything else? Exploring it from within and seeing that it works, he says. Cupitt expresses his hope that Nietzchean humanism and Buddhism might be combined into a Christian spirtuality. He admits there is a tightrope to be walked between this and plain humanism of the atheist variety.

At the very end of the book, Cupitt holds out the hope that, while there is an initial sense of loss with his approach, everything soon returns. Given his development, and that he later left Christian ministry (though remaining in the Church of England as a layperson), it seems a forlorn hope. It’s too easy to fall off the tightrope. While Cupitt criticises the misplaced nostalgia of some people who cling to the old ways of understanding Christianity (and it’s easy to see who he might have in mind, these days), I can’t help but wonder whether the book shows he had some similar attachment to the very idea of being a Christian. (Although it’s possible I’m reflecting my own feelings and those of other people who spent a long time in a church, rather than those of Cupitt).

The book lead to the formation of the Sea of Faith network, a group of people, some of them ordained, who identified with some of his vision. For my own part, I am right alongside his ideas in the first part of the book, on science, Biblical criticism and on the sin of pride. But the tightrope he later asks us to walk seems to go nowhere while requiring a lot of effort to keep our balance. Like the Sea of Faith members, I sometimes miss God (I would like to add another verse about missing belting out the hymns of Charles Wesley). But after reading the book one feels like telling him, as one sometimes has to do to friends who lose someone, that God’s not coming back and he should just move on. (And it sounds like he did, in fact, move on).

The book also seems a little dated in its portrayal of orthodox faith as dying out. Church attendance in this country has declined drastically over the last ten years. But, in a reversal of their fortunes in previous decades, the churches which are growing are the evangelical and charismatic churches, churches with highly orthodox theologies. I could argue that evangelicalism is hightly adapted it its environment and reproduces successfully because of that, that the success is partly because such churches provide a way to meet other nice, middle class people. I always was a bit of an armchair theologian, so maybe I’m overestimating the importance of theology to others. But I find it hard to believe that people are so indifferent to the theology of these churches that they go despite it, rather than giving at least tacit consent to it.

Perhaps the centre cannot hold, and we will all end up as either humanists or evangelicals. I’d be interested to see what Cupitt’s later books have to say, though, to see whether he found a more stable way of believing. Whatever the book’s flaws, it certainly made me think. I’d recommend it to anyone thinking about Christianity in the modern world.

I’m back. Rome was lovely. The weather was just about right. It rained a bit on some days but we had sunshine for the first couple of days. As suggested by S, who has more imagination than I do, here is the Slightly Sketchy Guide to Rome.

<lj-cut> Getting there Ryanair are doing dirt cheap flights to Rome Ciampino. We got into Rome on the bus they point you at from the airport, and, having missed that on the way back, took the Metro Line A out to the end at Anagnina and then taking the bus from there, which was much cheaper and got us there in time for Ciampino to close its airspace because of a security alert and surround an Air Berlin flight with machine gun wielding police. We never did find out what that was about. Got back an hour late, which wasn’t too bad.

Places to stay Hotel Colors was a good place to stay. It’s a tiny hotel/hostel about 5 minutes from St Peter’s. It has dorm rooms and private rooms (we had one with bathroom after I learned my lesson about specifying this in Barcelona), a kitchen with fridge, and a terrace to sit on. I did see one review on the web complaining it wasn’t a party all night sort of place (they lock the kitchen and terrace at 11pm), but that was all good from our point of view, as our room was next to the kitchen.

Things to see So much to see. To my ex-evangelical Protestant eyes, St Peter’s looks more like a palace than anything to do with religion, but is nonetheless spectactular inside and out (outside more so by night). The view from the dome is worth the climb. We made some attempts to translate the Latin stuff which is written in large and friendly letters around the inside, but these foundered because of fading memories of Latin (hers) and New Testament quotations (mine). There was some stuff about rocks and Churches, anyway.

The Colosseum was suitably colossal. The approach to it is a bit spoilt by the noise and fumes from the traffic. You can get to it via the Forum during the day. The Forum itself is a crazy mixture of triumphal arches, temples and other slightly crumbled, very very old buildings.

The Pantheon is a pagan temple converted into a Christian church. The hemispherical dome, equal in diameter to the height of the building, is pretty impressive for a building which is thousands of years old.

The catacombs along the Via Appia were an interesting place to spend an afternoon. The Via Appia Antica is closed to traffic on Sundays, so we chose that day to head out of Rome and along the shady cobbled road. After a few minutes walk, all was quiet save for birdsong. We found our way to the Catacombs of San Callisto and joined a tour of the second level underground, which was given by an little old American Catholic priest. We were told that nobody ever lived in the catacombs as it was too hot. The Christian Romans lived along side their non-Christian counterparts, although they would use the catacombs as an out of the way place to hold services during periods of persecution. The Christians would seal up the body on a shelf in the rock after covering it in quicklime to speed decomposition and get rid of some of the smell. There were no remains on the level which is open to the public, as the archeologists had moved them to prevent bits being taken as souvenirs.

The tour was all too brief, so we didn’t really have time to stop and look at anything beyond his organised stopping places. There were a few plugs for the church his talk, but even so, I found it more spiritually affecting than the Vatican itself. There were about a quarter of a million people buried in the catacombs, with tunnels extending for miles underground. The priest’s running gag was to pretend he might get lost, so the American mom in our group would constantly have to reassure her brood that he was joking.

Places to eat Anywhere but somewhere recommended by the Rough Guide, it seemed, as the couple of times we tried that the food was worse than in the places we just wandered into off our own bat. Trastevere was a good place to go for restaurants, though there were a couple of good ones in the area near the Vatican, too. Our favourites were Scaletta dei Sapori on Via Crescentia, Trattoria Romolo near Vatican and Castello, and Aristocampo in Trastevere.

What to read I took Don Cupitt’s “The Sea of Faith“, was hard going in places but provided much food for thought. Cupitt wants a version of Christianity which explicitly denies that God exists other than as an idea in the minds of people. I’ve reviewed the book here, if you’re interested. It caused much discussion over dinner. I also bombed through “The Lovely Bones” in the airport, so I’m not sure I did it justice.

The Rough Guide was OK, except for the restaurant reviews. It did come in handy for finding the hotel and for finding our way out to the Catacombs, though.

Overall Rome overwhelms you with its history. There’s almost too much to take in. It’s chaotic, fascinating and well worth a visit.

Cogito Ergo Sumana linked to me. Blimey, somebody’s actually reading this stuff? I have arrived, I tell you. Must finish that losing my religion article.

In other news, there’s a new version of URLBody out, which undoes more of the bad stuff those pesky spammers to do hide the real host names in their URLs. And the people causing the excitement on the Spampal board want me to collaborate on a DCC plugin. Have to see whether I’ve got time.

I seem to be dancing quite a lot lately. I’m enjoying Dancesport B lessons. Sadly had to give up on the Intermediates on a Monday night as I think 4 nights a week is just a little bit too much. The word on the CDC grapevine is that some people think the Dancesport classes are too easy. Not sure where that’s coming from. The web page reckons people with more than a few terms of medals should be going to the B classes, and Alf never did arms and whatnot in his Latin teaching. Possibly dancing one-upmanship going on? Who knows.

Off to Rome in a week or so, which should be fun. Anyone know any good restaurants and suchlike?

People on the SpamPal support forums are getting a bit excited over the idea that someone might commercialise the thing. This would probably involve producing a better installer so the average Windows user can use it without having to fiddle with Outlook Express settings and so on (note to Windows users: please stop using OE, I’m bored of getting copies of viruses. Try Thunderbird or something instead). James Farmer, the author, has licensed it under an open source licence, so he presumably doesn’t mind this. But some people who wrote plugins, manuals and foreign language support for it are up in arms about the evil megacorps appropriating their stuff. I’ve said that I don’t mind my meagre plugin going in to such an effort. I’m not convinced that it’d be a commercially viable venture anyway, but people have packaged up SpamAssassin in a similar way. If people want to trade money for time spent fiddling with it, I can’t really see the harm in it.

The company also want to make a free DCC plugin, which would be nice, as the chances of me getting off my arse and finishing mine seem quite small at the moment.

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