Dreaming the Dream
I laughed aloud when I read it! It was in an article by Val Webb, the story of the absent minded professor who gave the final exam paper to his secretary to type and she reminded him that they were the same questions he set the year before. “Ah yes” he replied “but this time I have changed the answers.”
I thought of the story again when I picked up Don Cupitt’s latest book “Creative Faith – Religion as a way to World Making”. It is his fiftieth book . I confess to having read none of them. My reading of Cupitt is limited to reading articles asserting that the doctrinal and supernatural Church has taken us on a two thousand year detour and at long last we are rejoining the main road. It is a stance with which I largely agree. As Alfred Loisy pointed out, Jesus came preaching the Kingdom and what we got was the Church – a huge salvation machine preparing the faithful for eternal blessedness after death. In his latest book, written in a simple and clear style, Cupitt comes up with different answers to age old questions.
One of them is with respect to the increasing abandonment of belief in personal life after death. We are at the moment in a state of flux as far as life after death is concerned. Read the death notices in the newspaper and you will find the most weird and wonderful assumptions as far as life after death is concerned. On the other hand many people today talk in terms of “When I’m gone” rather than “where I’ll be”. As Cupitt puts it “Increasingly we see ourselves as woven into nature ….life after death has ceased to be a live issue”. It remains true that many people try and cheat death (Cryogenics is now old hat. Downloading the brain on to a computer is the new possibility) but everyone knows you cannot really cheat death. Cupitt’s point is that the removal of belief in any personal life after death should have the effect of precipitating us into life right now.
It is the same point that Etty Hillesum made in the nineteen forties “ I can sense a new confidence growing stronger inside me day to day, for I know now that life and death make a meaningful whole. I have come to terms with life. By coming to terms with life I mean the reality of death has become a definite part of my life. My life so to speak has been extended by death – by looking death in the eye and accepting it, by accepting death as a part of my life and no longer wasting my energies on the fear of death or refusing to acknowledge its inevitability. It sounds paradoxical but by excluding death from our life we cannot live a full life, and by admitting death into our life we enlarge and enrich it…I have looked death straight in the eye, accepted it into my life, and my love of life has not been diminished.” The fact that Etty died aged 29 in the Auschwitz Concentration Camp makes her words all the more relevant.
There is nothing new in what Cupitt is suggesting. Simone Weil said something the same “Salvation is consenting to die”. Life is a demand upon us to which we are called to consent. The same is true of death. Death is not a tragedy. Death is generative. It leads to new creation. As Keith Rowe says “The continuing creative work of God is far more significant than the continuation of me as an individual”.
My problem with the “life after death” type of salvation (be it “Hillsong” or “Hellsong”) is that in the end it is glorified self centredness. To do something for the sake of a heavenly reward makes the Christian Faith very selfish – and I don’t see it that way at all. I agree with my learned friend Cupitt. “No reward! Definitely no reward …. I am going to be extinct for all eternity rather soon now… I am only a passer by. And so are you!” The fact that he is eighty one years of age and I am four years older makes the statement all the more poignant.
There is much that I differ with in Cupitt’s book. He narrows the gospel down to a matter of ethics and stands in awe of Pope Francis. “I am startled and shocked to see how little Francis differs from me”. Cupitt sees Francis
as being “entirely ethical” and one who has dropped the “traditional metaphorical and dogmatic realism of the past “.
There is much in what he says but the Christian Faith is far more than a matter of ethics. It is about living at the edge of time – a subject which Augustine confessed is not an easy one to get one’s head around. “ What is time?’ Augustine asked. “If no one asks me, I know. If I am asked to explain it, I know not.” Centuries earlier the Greeks experienced the same problem and spoke in terms of Chronos and Kairos, Chronos being quantative and Kairos being qualitative. Martin Heidegger picked up the idea last century and maintained that we are not stuck in sequential time but can remember the past and anticipate the future. He then blotted his copybook and joined the Nazis in their oppression of the Jews.
Be all this as it may, all of us know what time is because we live in it and through it. We are also aware of the disconnect between what has been, what is, and what could be.
Indeed I would be bold enough to suggest that this is what the Christian faith is all about. We should be more concerned about what could be in the light of what has been, and what is now. We need what might be described as “an arrow approach to time”. Einstein has considered the measurement of time. Stephen Hawking has given us a history of time. “The weird thing about the arrow of time” says Sean Carroll, “is that it is not to be found in the laws of physics.” Whether he is right or not, I am not qualified to say but it seems pretty obvious to me that the arrow of time has to be a matter of consciousness and that this is evidenced by the “nihilism” which abounds both philosophically and evidentially in our “pointless” society where we are going nowhere, and where sensual pleasure is the criteria and methamphetamine the method.
In this context, there are those of us who have a dream, a dream based on the life and death of a guy who both lived and spoke of what human life might become.
In fairness to Cupitt, he does have a chapter on this theme where he says that “too many people’s aspirations are set too low. We need the dream to give us and perpetually to raise, our expectations and our hopes”. Sounds as if he has been reading our humble little blog!
I commenced this blog by referring to me laughing aloud. Let me conclude by saying that I almost cried when I read Don Cupitt’s words ”Not even the most assured Islamist really supposes that we could go back to an early medieval world view”. Notwithstanding all the statements of President Obama and others this is precisely what Islamic State is all about!
This needs to be said and said loudly. I have started a blog on it and hope to share it with you in the near future in a series of installments. So far it is 10 pages and counting!