Christianity after the Church

Plenary talk by Don Cupitt, SoF UK national conference, 2000

With the new millennium at the beginning of this year came a series of sharp reminders of the accelerating decline of religion, not only in the West but around the world.

The first reminder was given by the sheer unanimity with which press commentators asserted that the human future will henceforth be shaped, for good and ill, by two factors only – technology, and the harsh logic of capitalism. The idea that technological change is the main driving-force for historical change generally is little over a century old, and the sudden collapse of confidence in Marxism and other political ideologies is more recent still; but now it seems that nobody can foresee a world reshaped by either religious faith or political conviction. It is as if the old ‘Arts’ subjects – theology, philosophy, ethics and politics – are no longer seen as capable of making a big difference to the way things go in the real world. They have recently died; or if they survive at all, it appears that religion and radical politics will survive only as protest movements. They will not be taking charge again.

The second reminder was a batch of statistics from various sources indicating that the old mainstream Christian denominations in the West are now contracting at a rate of over 20% per decade. Despite claimed exceptions of one sort and another, much the same is happening elsewhere, and to other faiths.

Why? The third reminder is the most savage of all: in early January 2000 the London Sunday Times published the results of a survey of the outlook of 500 18-year-olds, conducted by the National Opinion Polls. 77% of them professed to have no religious beliefs. This was a shock, because until recently opinion polls were showing that at least the most basic Christian beliefs were still very widely held amongst the general population. Amongst the population as a whole, some 70% still profess some sort of belief in God. But now it seems that a radically non-religious younger generation has appeared. Religious belief is no longer being transmitted successfully within the family, and as part of the culture – which means that the long centuries of national churches and mass religious conformity have now come to an end. A rupture has occurred. This explains how a country like the Irish Republic could become secularised so quickly, and why around the world all the great surviving monuments of the old religious culture of the past are now being taken over by the Heritage industry, which will lovingly restore and preserve them, unchanging and dead.

How do the religions themselves interpret what is happening to them? If you are a theological realist, you must surely be asking yourself: Why is God allowing his church to die? No very detailed and well-argued answer is forthcoming. A few leaders will claim, rather too hopefully, that the statistics of decline have already bottomed-out, or will soon do so. Evangelical types will claim that their own sect or movement is making converts rapidly. But very few people actually have a theory of religious decline.

There was a traditional theory: it was held that the decay of faith was to be one of the chief signs that the end of the world was imminent. Faith’s darkest hour would come just before the new dawn. People quoted Jesus: ‘When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’1 But although there are many self-styled traditionalists around, I am not hearing any of them saying that the End must be near. The likeliest reason for this is that, especially in the West, the church has for so long believed that the revelation on which it is founded is final, that its dogma is immutable and that its authority is divinely guaranteed. From which it surely follows that any apparently bad news can be safely ignored. Nothing can change, and there can be no Reformation. Church leaders must hold the line, and must never admit weakness, because to do so might precipitate a sudden and final collapse. In England, at least, this line is held both in the church and in the leading university faculties of theology. Reform is simply not allowed on the agenda. The voice of liberal theology is falling silent, because for many years the up-and-coming young have understood that on the day when they cross the line the glass ceiling will suddenly come down to touch their heads, and their ‘careers’ will stop. The result is that morale is poor: the church and the theological world are depressed, immobilized and slowly sinking.

Why? Because we are now paying the price for a major historical mistake. Established, allied with the State and controlled by the hierarchy, the church forgot its own merely transitional character, and began (as we have just noted) to teach its own indefectibility, its own divine authority, and the immutability of its dogmas. In effect, the church made an idol of itself, and is now dying because it is stuck with claims on its own behalf that it should never have made in the first place.

The main points are familiar to readers of the New Testament. It has long been agreed that Jesus’ mission was not to ‘found the church’, and still less to furnish the Papacy with its credentials. Jesus did not see himself as having come in order to make bishops important. He was not that kind of figure at all: he was in fact a prophet of the Kingdom of God. That is, he expected the imminent coming of a major world upheaval. There would be a final battle between the forces of good and evil, out of which would come the establishment of a whole new world order, an age of universal well-being or salvation. But he died without seeing the new age that he hoped for, and because it was delayed the church evolved as a stop-gap. Its historical task was to gather together a large band of people, ‘elect from every nation’, and keep them in an orderly disciplined, expectant posture, ready to more in and take over when the New World finally came. Sometimes the church would compare itself with an army on the march, like ancient Israel marching through the wilderness towards the Promised Land. In this army the clergy were the officer class, and the laity were the foot-soldiers.

The church was thus marching towards a great future Event, for which it was preparing its members. Doctrine was about that event, and the certainly of its coming was thought to justify the authority of the clergy and the strict discipline they imposed. But the whole apparatus of the clergy, church law and doctrine, and the great distinction between sacred things (things to do with the church and the new age of final salvation), and the profane world around – all that apparatus would remain in force during the period of transition only, and would vanish when the new age actually arrived. Intellectual and social conditions in the new age would be very different from what they had been in the church. The church and its ways of thinking would then happily pass away.

Unfortunately, the Kingdom did not come. It was delayed and delayed, until finally its realization was deferred into the heavenly world after death. Now it began to look as if the era of the church ‘militant here on earth’ would continue for as long as human life continued. In which case the church’s job was now to get people ready, not for the Kingdom of God on earth, but for Judgement after death. The church had the authority to give you a valid ticket to heaven, an enormous power to hold. Thus the dictatorship of the church over its members became established in perpetuity, very much as in the history of the Communist party the period of absolute government and ideological tyranny, ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, seemed to become permanent as the hoped-for communist society on earth receded further and further into the future.

In effect, I am saying, the Church came to believe that its own authority was absolute and perpetual as it ceased to believe that it would ever have to hand over to the coming Kingdom. So what was originally to be only a transient state of discipline became a permanent yoke, and belief in church dogma became in perpetuity ‘necessary for salvation.’

In which case, why the decline in religion? In the case of the collapse of communism what happened was that people stopped believing in the eschatological promise: that is, they didn’t believe that the hugely-powerful state apparatus would ever voluntarily dissolve itself and allow the ideal world of the communist society to come into being. Suddenly they discovered the real saving truth, which is that the whole horrible tyranny is only as strong as your own belief in it. You have only to withhold your assert – and it will collapse. So it did.

The case of the church is rather different, because the justification of the church’s claims and its authority has come to lie on the far side of death. Surely, as long as people continue to die and to be fearful abut what may await them after death, the church’s claims cannot be decisively falsified? Surely, people will go on indefinitely fearing that it might all be true, and they will go on calling in the priest as death approaches?

In order now to move the argument forward, and to show from a Sea of Faith perspective what is the real meaning of the so-called ‘decline of religion’, we must go back to the beginning of the argument and cast the net wider. We have to go back about 3000 years, to the period when the Zoroastrian or Mazdaist theology was taking shape.

It was apparently the Zoroastrian priests of ancient Persia who first developed the idea of world history as a history of salvation, a drama in several acts of Fall and Redemption. They saw the good god, Ahura Mazda, as having created the world to be the stage on which he would fight his long battle against the powers of evil, and they held that his final victory would be seen on earth:

The last days will be marked by increasing wretchedness and cosmic calamities. Then the World Saviour, the Saoshyant, will come in glory. He is to be born of the seed of the prophet, miraculously preserved within a lake, and a virgin mother. There will be a great battle between... good men and bad, ending in victory for the good. The bodies of those who have died earlier will be resurrected and united with their souls, and the Last Judgement will take place... the saved will be given ambrosia to eat, and their bodies will become as immortal as their souls. The kingdom of Ahura Mazda will come on an earth made perfect again, and the blessed will rejoice everlastingly in his presence.

Such is perhaps the original eschatological myth, the story of the last days, the last battle, the last Trump, the Last Judgement and the establishment of a millennial kingdom of universal bliss and salvation here on a renewed earth. It has had a huge influence on the Jews, who perhaps picked it up during their Babylonian captivity. Modern Zionism is a late outworking of the ancient hope. Through the Israelite prophets it passed to Jesus and to Christianity, to Islam and then more recently to Western historicism and political utopianism. It even influenced the eschatologies of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is prominent in the early history of North America, itself ‘the new world’, and was central to the hopes of the anarchists and communists. The last famous expressions of it were Martin Luther King’s statement of the American dream in the 1960s, and John Lennon’s lyric ‘Imagine’ in the 1970s.

Over a very long period most of humanity, and especially the Western half of it, have been influenced by this great story. It first gave us the idea that the future might be, could be, would be better than the past. Instead of being forever confined to standards and patterns of behaviour laid down in a past Golden Age, people could look forward in hope to a better world yet to come. More than that, they are invited to imagine what a better world might be like. It becomes, not just an object of aspiration, but also perhaps a goal of action. By the way you lived you could do a little more than just ready yourself for the new world: you could actually expedite its coming. At least you could begin to realize its values. This invites the new thought that religion may come to be seen as our human way of first imagining new values and a better world, and then actually working to bring them into being. Religion: our communal way of reimagining and reinventing ourselves, and projecting our values.

This process of re-creation takes a long time – or at least has taken a long time, hitherto. To see why, consider the fact that most of the principal structural features of the better world have been surprisingly constant, if not quite from Zoroaster to John Lennon, then certainly from the Old Testament to Karl Marx and modern times. I shall simply set out the leading features, in the hope that for the most part I do not need to give more than the briefest biblical references.

First, in the better world (of the Kingdom of Heaven, or the communist society), religion no longer exists as a separate institution and sphere of life because its task in that role has been completed. Instead, all of life becomes a sacred continuum. God is scattered into everyone, and politically, monarchy is replaced by democracy. All hierarchy and distinctions of social rank disappear, just as the distinction between the sacred and the profane disappears.4

Secondly, and in close connection with the changes, because there is no longer any value outside life, all value in life becomes intrinsic. When we come to the last world, the world at the end of the world, the world at the end of history, then there is no further reality beyond the here and now, and therefore there is no instrumental value. Everything is valued and affirmed and loved and done just for its own sake, and in the here and now: no ethical theory is needed, because we feel no need to justify our valuations. And as there is no instrumentality, so there is no concealment or deception. You can’t have ulterior motives, when nothing is ulterior any more. All communication becomes completely open and transparent; daylight is perpetual and fills everything.5

Thirdly, in the new world people will not be under the yoke of any eternal authority or written law. Instead, everything flows from the heart. There is no moral realism (that is, there is no real external moral standard), and instead the only basis for ethics will be our co-humanity. In effect, ethics becomes purely humanitarian. All life becomes a flow of exchange, called in religious language ‘communion’, and in modern language ‘communication’.6

And fourthly, as human beings become fully reconciled to each other and to their world, the world becomes fully appropriated to humans. St Paul makes the point by saying simply: All things are yours. The physical world and the human social world coincide. Human consciousness becomes fully globalised. The misunderstanding caused by language differences and the conflict caused by ethnic differences disappears. There is a hint of some form of world government.7

To repeat these four main points, in the new era all of life becomes a single sacred continuum, all value in life becomes intrinsic, ethics becomes purely humanitarian, and human consciousness becomes fully globalised. And these four points can very easily be illustrated in detail from the Israelite prophets, from the teaching of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels, and from other New Testament books such as the Acts of the Apostles, and the Revelation of John. And the same themes are still being appealed to by twentieth-century people.

How far have the churches as we know them actually sought to create the new world as thus described? The early church is reported to have tried: it broke out of the ancient Jewish sacrificial system, tried to overcome the received clean/unclean distinction, sought to create a fully reciprocally-transparent society, welcomed gentile members, and sought to practise humanitarian ethics by redistribution to the poor.8 But the original impulse faded, as the church gradually turned into a salvation-machine dispensing sacramental Grace to people who were preparing their souls for death. Then, in much later times, certain radical groups which emerged at the Reformation made a fresh effort to put the original programme into effect. The Quakers are the outstanding example: they abolished the whole religious sphere of life (the church, the clergy and the sacraments); they affirmed the value of life, to the point of being strict practitioners of non-violence; they were the chief pioneers of our modern humanitarian ethics; and they sought to be politically supranational. The conclusion is unavoidable: if in the original logic of Western religious thought all religious action is ultimately aimed at bringing in the new world, then the Quakers are almost the only serious Christians.

To return now to today’s church and to the decline of religion, how are we to interpret the present situation in the West? I hope that my conclusion will already have occurred to you. It is that since the Enlightenment secular culture in the West has continued to move steadily onwards towards the historical realization of the ancient religious dream. It has gone very much farther than the church. For example, secular culture is much more egalitarian and democratic than the church, and more consistent in its respect for human rights. Secular culture has become much more globalised and supranational, while the church too often has become merely national and lost in admiration for its own past. Very strikingly, secular culture has recently ceased to believe in progress and has effectively ceased to believe in life after death. It therefore knows that we already live in the last world, and that there will not be any further world beyond this one. Secular culture is therefore already committing itself to the here and now, to the value of life and to the new religion of life.9 Thus religion becomes more serious when we stop believing in life after death. In addition, the ‘ecumenical’ attempt to build a new and globalised world-order, a United Nations, and a range of international institutions, has gone much further in the secular sphere than it has in the churches. Humanitarian ethics of the ‘Kingdom’ type is much more developed in an organization like Medecins sans Frontieres than it is anywhere in the churches. And finally, secular culture is becoming intensely communicative on a global scale, and is much more committed to freedom of speech than is the church.

I conclude from all this that in the Western tradition secular culture has since the Enlightenment continued to pursue the ancient religious dream of a new world at the end of historical time, and with considerable success. The world it has been building, the world of the United Nations, international law, democratic politics, ceaseless global communication and humanitarian ethics, a world now committed to the struggle for the emancipation of women and the reconciliation of ethnic and religious differences – this new world of ours represents a very much further-developed version of the original Christian programme than anything available from the churches.

And that is the reason for the so-called ‘decline of religion’. It might be better called, the redundancy of the church, if it is indeed the case that by the church’s own criteria what it thinks of as ‘the world’ is now becoming much more truly Christian than is the church itself. The church has been left in the past, as Christianity has moved out of it and has continued to develop in the larger world outside.

All this raises in a very pointed way the question of just what it is that religion is for. In the modern West religion for the average lay person seems to be about two things, creedal belief and churchgoing. One assents and adheres to a system of supernatural beliefs, and one joins with the church in observing the annual liturgical cycle through which the beliefs are enacted and celebrated. But why? None of this nowadays makes any very conspicuous difference to the way people live, and all the facts about the world and life and death and culture are just the same for believers and unbelievers alike. So what is the point of the ecclesiastical type of religion? What do people get from it?

It is hard to avoid Schopenhauer’s view that ecclesiastical faith is about the fear of death. The presumption must be that very many people continue to be afraid of dying and of what they think may be in store for them beyond death. For Roman Catholics in particular, it seems to be the church’s ministrations at the time of death that are the most highly valued.

There are however some very uncomfortable corollaries of this view of religion. The chief is that when people finally give up belief in any sort of life after death, they will begin to see this present life as final, and as religiously precious. They will being to disdain death-oriented religion, and look instead for a kind of religion that will enable them to make the most of this life while we have it. And it is exactly this switch of religious interest towards this present life that characterizes the modern religious scene. In Britain, for example, even death itself is now approached in a life-centred way: the funeral service is increasingly called A Thanksgiving for the Life of... and the memorial service is called A Celebration of the Life of...

The alternative view of the purpose of religion goes back, as we have seen, to ancient eschatological belief. Religious thought was imaginative and utopian. People saw the practice of religion as a way of preparing for, and perhaps as a way of actually expediting, the final earthly conflict between the powers of good and evil and the coming of a new age on earth at the end of historical time. Religion is primarily not about supernatural belief, but about hope. It is our communal way of generating dreams of how we and our life and our world might be made better. We prepare ourselves for the dream, and we start to think about how we might actually start to make it all come true.

My suggestion in this lecture has been that the so-called ‘decline of religion’ is people’s abandonment en masse of the kind of ecclesiastical religion that promised comfort and reassurance in the face of death. Instead, we should see religious thought and practice as imaginative and utopian. Religion is a communal way of reimagining and remaking the self and the world. It is about what we are to live by and what we are to live for. At a time when political thought is very unadventurous, and when the world is becoming overwhelmingly dominated by technology, we need religion as much as ever. We need it as a human, value-creating activity.

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