Journeys, Stories and the Meaning of Life

Don Cupitt comments on faith odysseys for the 2001 conference.

The theme of this year's Conference, 2001: A Faith Odyssey, borrows from the title of Stanley Kubrick's famous film, and from Homer's epic poem. In so doing it not only invokes the ever-popular image of life as a journey, but also reminds us that journeys are of several different kinds. someone who goes on a pilgrimage is usually quite clear about the route and the destination: she knows where she's going, why she's going there, where it is, and the route she must take. A pilgrimage is a very regular sort of journey, often taken amidst a big crowd of other people all with their eyes on the same goal. By contrast, someone who is going on a quest may know what he's looking for. It might be something like the Holy Grail, or it might be the solution to some very difficult problem. But he does not know the route; he does not know exactly where he's going to find what he is looking for, so he has to cast about, make enquiries, and look out for news, or rumours or hints that may help him. He wanders alone. For long periods he may make no progress at all; indeed, he may never come to the end of this quest, and may perhaps be forced to conclude that the search was itself the point. Maybe nobody has ever found the desired object and returned to tell the tale.

Whereas a pilgrimage has a definite and public destination, a quest is usually personal, and may be endless. In Stanley Kubrick's film, various journeys seem to be going on, but the characters seem none too clear about where they are going or what they are looking for; and the film as a whole seems to be pregnant with a significance that is never actually delivered. It is visionary but objectless, and perhaps there are lives that are like that, the lives of restless people who seem to be looking for something—but they don't really know what it is, and they never find it anyway. They were troubled all their lives by a nameless dissatisfaction and a yearning for they never hew what.

The journey of Odysseus is in some ways even vaguer. We know that he is supposed to be on his way home to his family and his kingdom after the end of the Trojan War. But the war has been over for almost ten years, and Odysseus is still not home. We learn that he has had various strange adventures, but in addition he has repeatedly been becalmed, often for years at a time, the captive of a nymph or an enchantress such as Calypso or Circe. On each occasion he seems to need a divine intervention, or a bit of luck, or some other stimulus to get him on his way again. Odysseus is a lucky man: he keeps on getting stuck, but eventually something always happens to kickstart him and he's back on his way again. And when he does finally get home, he has the sort of wife—rare nowadays, I think—who doesn't ask him why it has taken him so many years to get home, and who he's been spending his time with.

Modern journeys are usually highly preplanned, like pilgrimages: when you travel, you set off with all your tickets and accommodation booked in advance. You've had the injections, you are carrying the pills, and you are fully insured. For the next two weeks you will be following a carefully prearranged schedule.

Against that background, what are we to make of the old, much-loved metaphor of our life as a journey? Can we regard our own lives, and can we regard our own developing religious outlook, as predestined in detail for us by God or Fate? Does our life move—does anybody's life move—steadily and progressively on towards a final consummation? Are we going somewhere? Does our life have a single true story that gives its true meaning?

At one time we felt able to answer a confident Yes to this question. Following Plato, we looked forward to blessedness in the heavenly world after death. We believed in objective Truth out there, and in an Absolute God out there. We saw our entire life as having been divinely scripted in advance; it would be a steady walk home to the final beatitude for which we had been created. There might be difficult periods, during which we might seem to be going backwards; but it was believed that God's over-ruling Providence was sure to straighten out the story and bring good out of evil. Thus in the Genesis story of Joseph and his brothers, Joseph, now a powerful man in Egypt, says to the brothers who had betrayed him decades before: "Fear meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Genesis 50:20; cf. 45:4-8). So whatever the sort-term misadventures, God ensures that in the end his will is done, his promises are kept, and all is well. At the furthest development of this idea, every detail of our life can be told as the story of a divinely-guided pilgrimage through time and into our final home in eternity.

The same story is also told at the macro level. The whole Church Militant here on earth marches on through history, until it joins the Church already Expectant in Purgatory, and finally the Church Triumphant in Heaven. At a wider level still, the entire history of the visible Creation is related as a great story of cosmic Creation, Fall and Redemption.

Now, when today people talk about our life as having "meaning" and as being a journey, they are referring nostalgically to these old ideas. Life has meaning and really is a journey when the whole of universal history can be told as a great story of Creation, Fall, Redemption and final Beatitude, a Grand Narrative which also includes a special little script already written for you personally to live out as your own life-story. Your own life's meaning is laid on for you, not just as a personal story, but also as part of a grander, cosmic Story of Everything. That is what traditional Western theology used to provide, especially in the puritan or Reformed tradition that made so much of it, and was still lively until the nineteenth century. The Victorian believer still sang: "Nightly pitch I my moving tent / A day's march nearer home." They played the tune as the Titanic went down.

But what of all this survives today? At first sight it seems that almost nothing survives. At the cosmic level, the modern Universe has grown so greatly in size that nobody can suppose that billions of galaxies, each containing billions of stars, were created merely to provide a picturesque backdrop for the drama of our human fall and Redemption. So far as personal and ethical values are concerned, the Universe is neutral and indifferent. As for its history, the story of the Big Bang is pretty well established, and the Universe is now seen as a great slow-motion explosion: but we remain undecided whether it will expand forever and just peter out, whether it will rebound back against into a Final Crunch, or whether it should be seen either as oscillating, or as in a closed loop of time. As for history, nobody today is likely to think either that the whole of human history can be totalized in a single great theological drama, or that individual lives have to follow a script already written, whether by God, or by the Fates, or in the stars, or in our genes. Most of us will allow that to some extent our lives are shaped for us, by the circumstances into which we were born, by our initial endowment, by our own habits, by established social institutions, by other people, and just by chance. When we look back on our lives, we are often unsure whether these various factors have combined and pushed us around to make us what we are today, or whether we ourselves chose to become what we are now. Certainly, with reference to my own case, I have now decided that it is best not to blame other people or bad luck for the way one's life has turned out: it is best if we can find the courage to say: "I do not complain. I chose my own fate and I regret nothing. I take nothing back." In which case we are nowadays abandoning the idea that the meaning of our lives is already scripted for us, and we are trying to give up the habit of blaming other people or bad luck for the way our lives have turned out. It is best to be able to feel able to take responsibility for one's own life story—to own and accept one's own life as one's own, without regret. it is best also to be honest about the fact that in recent years our life-expectancy has been extended by so much that most people now outlive themselves. Professional ballet dancers and athletes are reduced by their mid-30s to living off their past glories, an absurd situation to be in. But nowadays many or most of us are likely eventually to spend our last years in the condition of being "past it". And perhaps we can learn to affirm and be "solar" about that last stage of life too.

All this suggests to me that we must now give up the hope of being able to read the whole of our life as a single, ready-made, meaningful story that rises steadily to a climax of revelation and blessedness at the end of life. It is better to look for the meaning of life in the way one can always say Yes to life and find joy in life in the present moment. Even amidst the ups and downs of life, and even in the decline of life, there can be moments of eternal happiness that make it all worthwhile. I shall say more about this later: but for the moment there's something more that needs to be said about the way our life can be meaningful, and can be a story of progress and achievement, even for non-realists.

Remember: I am emphatic that the way things go in the world at large, the way things go in society, and the way things go for the individual is not in any "realistic" sense benevolently predestined or pre-planned. There is far too much evidence of randomness and, of course, of terrible large-scale suffering for such a view to be tenable. But there is a non-realist sense in which religious and political values and hopes for the future may turn out to be self-fulfilling, and may thereby help to make our life meaningful.

How does this happen? I'll answer the question in relation to our own tradition, which is rooted in the Jewish Bible—or, as Christians call it, "the Old Testament". The crucial starting point for biblical ethics is the fact that Adam, "the man", is not just a tribal ancestor, but the ancestor of all humankind. Many other peoples around the world do not have a clear picture of the original unity of humankind: they prefer to make a sharp ethnocentric division between Greeks and barbarians, Chinese and "foreign devils", or "human beings" (i.e. Cheyenne Indians) and others. but the Jews believed that the fragmentation of the human race into many different nations and languages was a punishment, and they hoped that in the far future it would be reversed. There would be a universal ethnic reconciliation at the end of history. So Pentecost reverses Babel (e.g. Isaiah 2:2-4; Micah 4:1-3; Zechariah 8:22f.). And these ancient hopes are still influential amongst us, leading us for example to establish a League of Nations, and then a United Nations Organisation, and leading us also to go on struggling for ethnic reconciliation and peaceful multicultural societies around the world.

That is but one example of the way ancient Jewish and Christian ethical values and eschatological hopes still shape our aspirations, and still provide the criteria by which we judge the modern secular world. Other examples can be multiplied: the kingdom-world to which the biblical writers look forward will be a world in which people are politically equal (Jeremiah 31:31-34), and we today are still battling to spread liberal democracy around the world. The kingdom-world is a world in which the hungry are fed, and the sick are healed (e.g. Isaiah 25:6-8; 65:17-25). The teacher Jesus himself feeds people and heals the sick, by way of demonstrating that the better world is possible and is near—and we through our great international humanitarian charities are still attempting to create the same better world today.

And so on. I make these points by way of saying that the historical unfolding of the Judeo-Christian tradition is still continuing in the secular culture of our own times. A non-realist can recognize that although Christianity is in steep decline in the Churches, the secular culture around us is still inspired by biblical values and is still struggling to bring in the kingdom-world. Furthermore, in places like Northern Ireland or Israel/Palestine we notice that although the most noisily "religious" people stand firmly for ethnic and religious exclusivism, it is the secular liberals who strive for reconciliation and thereby are doing to most to fulfil ancient religious hopes. Hence the paradox that has got me into trouble more than once this last few years: it is our secular tradition that is battling hardest to make Christianity come true at last by actually bringing the kingdom-world into being on this earth!

From this I conclude that a Christian non-realist who lives by Christian values and stories can do something to make a meaningful story out of her own life insofar as she contributes to the slow historical unfolding and eventual fulfilment of faith's ancient dream of a better world here on earth.

Something similar might be said of socialism. Marxist realists used to maintain that the eventual triumph of socialism and the coming of the fully communist society was inevitable. The dialectic of historical development just had to go that way. But if it is inevitable, why should one have to work so hard to make it all happen? Why not just lie back and let history take its predestined course? But these questions suggest that the story about the inevitability of the revolution, the triumph of socialism and the eventual emergence of communism was only ever a myth, designed to encourage people so to act as to make it happen. And the same is perhaps true of the myth about the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. It's not a supernatural promise, but a myth intended to inspire us to action. We shouldn't just lie back and wait for it to happen. We should join in and help to create the new moral world.

These consideration suggest the proper retort to the question about the meaning of life, and about our life-stories. Our life can be meaningful and worthwhile insofar as we choose to make it so, by the causes to which we commit ourselves and the company we keep. The story that we make ourselves part of is the still-unfolding story of how a certain cluster of values and hopes is working itself out in history. Thus one doesn't need to believe in the old realistic way that God manipulates history: all one needs to believe is that a certain cluster of values and hopes is not going to be forgotten, and will prevail in the long run. If we can see our own lives as part of that story, then our lives are meaningful.

There is even a non-realist kind of historical inevitability. For example, I believe that when one has fully grasped the point of feminism, one cannot help but see that it is right and must in the end prevail—even in Islam, even in China. Some moral advances have a certain finality and irreversibility about them. I find that my old belief in divine providence has been replaced, not quite by Marx's historical materialism, but by the conviction that some values, some insights are inextinguishable. Once they have been properly launched upon the human scene, they are there, they will stick, and they will eventually work themselves out and prevail. That is a sort of faith in which one can find comfort: the belief that some of the causes one has cared most about are strong enough to look after themselves, and will go on and prosper without our help after we have left the scene.

I turn now to another problem raised by the story of Odysseus that has troubled me recently, and has perhaps bothered you too. Everybody nowadays is a religious pilgrim. We all have a story to tell of how our faith has changed over the years. But how do we know whether we are making any progress? Odysseus wanders, and has many strange adventures, but for books on end there is no indication of how he knows, or whether he does think, that through all these goings-on he is somehow getting nearer to his home. And I similarly wonder how, or whether, I know that I have made any progress through all the complicated shifts in my thinking over the past 25 years. A few months ago my Taking Leave of God (1980) was republished as a "classic", with a new introduction by Alison Webster. It appeared just as I was finishing Emptiness and Brightness, and I couldn't help but be struck by the difference between my outlook then and my outlook now. It is very great—but have I progressed? How can I tell? There is no truth out there. For years I have thought that all religious and philosophical systems are like works of art. Their truth is the truth of art. There isn't any objective standard by which I can judge that one of my books is good and another is way off-beam. Of course I'm always most enthusiastic about my latest ideas. We all of us construct our own biography as climaxing in the present day. But it doesn't have to look like that to other people. On the contrary, most writers end up being admired only for their earliest books. But that suggests that I've quite probably been going steadily downhill for over twenty years! Bad news: but I simply cannot know for sure. All I can say for sure is that like a painter or a novelist I just go on trying, because one has to. But I don't know and never will know for sure whether I peaked early, and am now going downhill or whether I am still coming to my best work, or whether my whole project has been a trivial and unimportant sideshow.

These considerations apply in just the same way to the personal faith-odyssey of everyone here, and they suggest to me that we can never be quite sure of the stories we tell ourselves about what our lives mean and where they are going. The conclusion I draw is that this uncertainty is a challenge and a call to disinterestedness. Each of us has to do her own thing, follow her own light, go her own way, and affirm her own faith and values unsupported. We used to believe that there were certain objective authorities and guarantees that we could look to for personal confirmation and validation. Now we suspect that we are on our own: there is no genuine validating authority, and there can't be. In the end there is nothing more for each of us to do than to launch out upon life, trust life, and affirm each his own project and values. Give up the neurotic search for certainty and learn just to float in life, trusting your own faith and values. Accept contingency and love it as freedom.

That brings me to a promise I made earlier to explain how there can be moments of eternal happiness amidst the uncertainties and the mundanity of life—if we accept and give ourselves to its transience, its contingency and its "brightness".

I find it easiest to explain this in terms of painting. There was a moment in mid-seventeenth-century Amsterdam when the leading painters caught and expressed, better than anyone had ever done before, a kind of stillness and perfection and rapture in the midst of ordinary secular life. A young woman stands by the window reading a letter; a maidservant bends over a child in the tiled courtyard behind a house; and a patient governess teaches a rather slow child to read. These are moments when just light fills us with rapture. There are times when the beauty of the visual field is overwhelming. And there are times when just ordinary life seems religiously ultimate and in no need of any external justification.

An insight of this kind comes to us now and again. Ordinariness is contingent and fleeting, and it is outsideless. Yet there are moments when it seems ultimate, and just right as it is. A good society, for me, is a society in which many, many people can frequently experience such moments. They help to make us feel able to say Yes to life.

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