A Kingdom-Theology

The opening speech of the 1994 conference was given by Don Cupitt, Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

An ancient myth found all over the Old World relates that in the beginning human beings and the gods lived together on earth. These gods were just like us humans, but a notch or two bigger, more beautiful and more powerful, and so blue-blooded that in India they are remembered to this day as being blue-skinned, all over. That did not make them unattractive to our women. Far from it, because quite apart from the business of Krishna and all those cowgirls, both the Hebrew Bible (genesis 6: 2-4) and the Greeks have preserved traditions of extensive crossbreeding, the offspring of which include giants, Titans and Titanesses, demigods, heroes and sacred kings. This reveals that very interesting fact that in the days when the gods were closest to us humans they were thought of - and in the most convincing manner proved themselves to actually be - members of the same biological species. The only difference was that while the gods were immortal (and often blue), humans were mortal and the hybrid beings were mostly males, large, powerful and unusually long-lived. Biologists call this "hybrid vigour".

It is very noticeable that the gods were not in the least abashed by their own sexual irregularities, but continued graciously handing out advice and admonitions to us humans. In this respect they resembled our royalty rather than our politicians: there was a tacit understanding that one was expected to emulate them in some ways and not others. In their personal behaviour they were a law unto themselves and did exactly as they pleased, but when they were consciously setting the fashion and giving an example to us mortals, then their way of doing something was the right way, and would be so forever.

Those were the good days; that was the Age of Gold. But somehow a chill developed in the relations between humans and gods, and the gods began to withdraw, at first to the upper slopes of the Holy Mountain, and then to Heaven. Some say that we had offended them by our sinfulness. But however that may be, the departure of the gods was gradual. For a while they would occasionally reappear on this earth in person, and then for a further period they spoke to us through the mouths of the oracles and prophets. But eventually appearances and voices ceased altogether.

During this period of gradual withdrawal two distinct religious systems overlapped, and it was possible one day to be offering sacrifices as if the gods were now far off up in Heaven, and then only a short while later to find yourself actually talking to the same god in person. Both Homer and the book of Genesis describe such a mixed period. But as the gods withdrew finally, their role in superintending us was taken over by the apparatus of organized religion. The priests control the cult, including the sacrificial system and the annual cycle of festivals, and they administer religious law. In due course the priests also came to control the Scriptures and the standards of right belief.

This system—hierarchy and the apparatus of mediated religion—does three jobs. First, the priests are like bailiffs or stewards, responsible for managing the gods' estates during the time of their absence. Secondly, the priests are also responsible for maintaining and controlling the approved channels of communication between humans and gods. And thirdly, the disciplinary apparatus of mediated religion is so effective that it makes civilization possible. It teaches the people memory, patience and hope. They are to cherish their communal past, to think long-term, and to live peacefully under the sacred Law that the gods delivered to us upon the Holy Mountain before they finally left.

Thus it was the withdrawal of the gods which led to the first creation of the disciplinary instruments that have fitted people for historical, civilized life. The historical human being lives under the Law, in a state of sin, and waiting for redemption. But a disciplinary civilization can't help but also remind people that this is the only second best. It inevitably encourages nostalgia for the lost innocence and happiness of Paradise, and what Mircea Eliade has called "the desire to be always, effortlessly, at the heart of the world, of reality, of the sacred" (Patterns in Comparative Religion, 1958, 146).

How are humans beings to get back to the old longed-for divine heart and centre of things? To some extent they can achieve it by ritual, as when they go on pilgrimage to a holy place such as Rome, Jerusalem or Mecca, that they see as being the Centre of the world. Indeed, such is the curious character of religious thought that there are many Centres, including the holy mountain, the axis of the world, the Cathedral, the local parish church and even the roof-tree of one's own house. Symbolic ways of thinking are very hospitable, and there is also a seasonal Centre, for people believe that through the annual cycle of feasts, and especially at Christmas, they are returning again and again into their own lost Origin.

Underlying all this, the strongest hope of all is the hope that the gods will one day come back to earth, and resume control from the priests and kings who have been managing their affairs in their absence. People hope for a return of the old innocent intimacy. They even hope that God will be born of a woman, born in our hearts, and establish his permanent residence within and amongst us. This is called the Kingship or Reign of God, much hoped for in the Bible and always associated with talk of the heart or spirit. The language used for the return of the divine into the human is remarkably strong, so strong that religious believers themselves don't see how strong it is. It's language of union and of reciprocal indwelling, we in God's heart and he in ours, his spirit and ours conjoined and concentric. This con-fusion of God and humans is sometimes called by theologians "deification". It may seem remarkable, but I hinted earlier that in the beginning gods and humans were more-or-less of the same species anyway.

Since God is spirit, his Spirit is his very self, his presence and power, and even his own knowledge of himself. So that when God's very own Spirit is poured out like water into human hearts, there to speak in and with our spirit and to inspire the living of a new and supernatural form of life, the divine is no longer alienated from the human. They flow together like two liquids mingling, as is one way and another so often said in the metaphors of religion. They amalgamate. Brahman and the Atman, God and the soul, the core of the human self and the ground of the Universe, the Lover and the Beloved, simply coincide. They become One, and there is no longer a separate God. The language really is as strong as that. Reciprocal indwelling, for example, with God in my heart and me in his, is a geometrical feat imaginable only if we become concentric and identical. The later development of church doctrine, which chose to literalize some metaphors and not others, rather conspicuously chose not to literalize this one, because it implies the Death of God.

In later Christian language, therefore, only God's Grace was like a liquid injected into us, and not God's own Spirit. The Spirit is usually spoken of as a light, shed in our hearts and illuminating our minds. This avoids the suggestion of commingling. But the early Kingdom-hope was nevertheless a hope that religious alienation would soon come to an end. God would return into the human heart, human beings would be liberated, and the oppressive discipline of organized religion would disappear because it was no longer needed. As the Rabbis said, if all Israel were to keep the Law fully for one day, the Kingdom would come - meaning, that the Law is not an end in itself. When we can fully keep the Law, we'll no longer need the Law and it can fall away. A man whose broken leg is mended hardly notices himself dropping his crutches and his stick. So the external supportive apparatus would no longer be required. The elaborate cult would go, leaving only "the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving" (sacrificium laudis, the Eucharist). In the Kingdom of God there would be no objective God, only the god in one's heart, the subjective experience of one's own recovered divinity.

All this was briefly glimpsed as coming to pass in the New Testament period. Jesus of Nazareth preached that the long historical period of waiting was over. The divine was coming back into the human realm, and organized religion - especially, Temple religion - was coming to an end. It is because Jesus is such bad news for organized religion that he appears in the Temple or at the synagogue only to cause trouble, every single time. One simply cannot imagine him sitting quiet and docile in the midst of a congregation. Every time he appears, he starts an argument. But he does not plan to be King in the Kingdom of God himself, nor does he speak of God as becoming an objectively and visible reigning Monarch on earth; for the God of Jesus lives in the human heart and is known only in secret. Returning to reign on earth, God takes up his throne in the human heart; hidden. The divine is no longer objectified in a great disciplinary institution, but instead becomes dispersed into human subjectivity. God thus dies in order to set us free: or, to put it another way, Jesus' view of what God will show himself to be is non-realist.

Now we see a whole cluster of ideas beginning to click together in the early Christian period. The first idea is the idea of history as the schooldays of the human race, the disciplinary period, dominated by the power-structures of the "organized" type of religion that lasts from the withdrawal of the gods until their return. Historical time is thus linear eschatological time, the time of waiting under discipline for Redemption, and the End of History is the same event as the coming of the Kingdom of God and the Death of God. When God is absent, he seems to be an objective being who lives in Heaven. So God is objectified only in his absence. When present, he is just people's own charisma, their creativity, their freedom.

So the End of History, the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Death of God, the outpouring of God's spirit in human hearts, and the final liberation of humanity are ideas all interlinked and briefly glimpsed in the first 40 years or so of Christian history. Jesus understands them, and they can still be read in Paul; but then they were lost, and it is not easy to say why.

Here, briefly, is an hypothesis to explain what may have happened: in the first half century the infant Church was not clearly distinguished from the Synagogue. When Jerusalem fell in AD 70 and the Temple was destroyed, the shock to the Jewish Diaspora was profound. Not surprisingly, Judaism, set about creating itself by codifying itself as a new Book-centred (rather than place-centred) religious system, governed by occasional Councils or Synods of Rabbis, meeting as need arose. This obliged the Universal Church similarly to create itself, codifying and defining itself as a new religious system distinct from Judaism. Thus the destruction of the Temple, instead of being interpreted as confirmation of Jesus' original message, became instead the starting-point for the creation of two new religions, codified autonomous synagogue-Judaism, and the Catholic Church. In the first generation or two God was fully dispersed into human lives, human bodies, so that each individual believer's own body was a Temple, and there was no objectified God. The individual human body was the Temple. But now first the whole organised Church community (Eph. 2,1 Peter 2), and then increasingly the objectified Church-system, began to be called a new Temple. The Catholic and Apostolic Church, with its powerful hierarchy, its sacraments, its Law and its religion of divine absence thus became a thundering reinstatement of exactly the mediated institutional type of religion that Jesus had said was coming to an end. Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple, but the Church rebuilt Temple-religion on a much larger scale in his name.

Christianity's resulting self-falsification is absurd, but we take it for granted. In a way we know that Jesus and his followers were a group of lay people who had no institutional standing or authority, but at the same time we are somehow persuaded to accept the received idea that Jesus is a King and a cosmic High Priest, that he more-or-less appointed Peter to be Pope and the other disciples to be Apostles and (later) Bishops, and that Jesus therefore personally founded the Church, commissioned the Sacred Ministry, and instituted the Sacraments. Carrying on the good work, the Apostles between them compiled the Creed and wrote the New Testament. Thus the entire system of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church was all established by the very first generation.

This remarkable transfiguration of Jesus and his untidy band of New Age travellers in effect squeezed out their original Kingdom-religion, and it was forgotten. Jesus' own message played almost no part in the Catholic Christianity, which through various historical upheavals and schisms ran its course until the year 1500 or so. Then with the arrival of the modern age there began a long series of attempts to re-discover an original Christian message prior to the development of Catholic Christianity.

It has proved extraordinarily difficult. The New Testament text is already rather highly edited, and in addition our reading of what had reached us is so very constrained by tradition, by power-interests and by old psychological demands and habits. If you doubt this, try asking people to name Jesus' four brothers. They are listed twice in the Gospels, but for all sorts of tradition and psychological reasons we simply don't want to know about Jesus' brothers. We just cannot bear the thought that younger siblings edged him out of first place in his Mother's affections. So we all of us forget their names; and a similar partial blindness and amnesia affect the whole of the rest of our reading of the New Testament.

The truth is that we read badly because we are so scarred by Church History. But the struggle for a new post-ecclesiastical Kingdom-theology has been going on irregularly since the Reformation. Thomas Munzer himself was already looking for something of the sort. The Quakers and other of the Reformation Left sought to bring spiritual Power down from Heaven and disperse it into human hearts. Muggleton, Reeve and others in the Commonwealth period declared that all Three Persons of the Trinity had been incarnate in Jesus and in him had died. The Swedenborgians and Blake thought of Jesus Christ as "the only God", meaning that a new "divine humanism" must replace the old pyramid of Powers above us. Both Kant and Hegel set out to demythologize God, Kant making god into the guiding moral Ideal that is immanent in our reason, and Hegel making God into Geist, Spirit or Mind, our historically evolving communal consciousness - perhaps (you might say) our culture. And then amongst the Young Hegelians the transformation of orthodox theology into religious humanism was completed by the 1840's, and reached even benighted Britain in the same decade.

In these movements we see a new religious outlook struggling to be born. Because our old language is breaking down, and a new vocabulary has not yet become established, there is no single name for this post-ecclesiastical or post-Catholic religion. I have used several. Thinking of the Quakers, I have on occasion called it Christian humanism. Thinking of Nietzsche's phrase, "active nihilism", I have called it active non-realism. Recently, I have used the phrase post-Christianity. Others call it simply Christian atheism, and here by calling it Kingdom-theology I am reminding myself of the work of Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer.

In 1893 Weiss published a short book called Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God. His thesis, later taken up by Albert Schweitzer, was that Jesus' whole message had revolved around one topic only, the imminent end of history and the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Schweitzer adds the very important idea that in the first generation or two people were trying to realize the Kingdom by anticipation, seizing in advance the features and the powers of the Kingdom-world, bit by bit. Weiss and Schweitzer between them have persuaded many or most theologians that the original Jesus was not a bit like the Divine Christ of the Church. He was purely Jewish figure, a prophet of the Kingdom of God. He hoped he would be vindicated, but when he was arraigned, condemned and martyred for his "blasphemy" against the Temple he died in despair, abandoned by God.

There has been something astonishing and richly ironical about the insouciance with which the orthodox Christian establishment has received all this. It is as if they were quietly saying to themselves: "Well, we never thought all that much of the man Jesus, anyway. Especially, we didn't much care for his attacks on people like us. So it's actually rather good news that the human Jesus did not know he was God Incarnate, and came to a sticky end. But as Jesus is proved wrong, God is proved right! In and through the life and death of Jesus, God was at work establishing a new and eternal Covenant, a way to salvation for the whole human race. And he had chosen us to manage it for him." Thus the orthodox Church establishment greets Schweitzer's picture of Jesus as a pre-Christian figure, a failed Jewish prophet, with a certain satisfaction. It not only gratifies their residual antisemitism, it also proves that Kingdom-religion is not yet a viable option anyway. Humankind were not ready for it then, and still aren't now. So they conclude, with the Grand Inquisitor, that Church- religion is still the best available compromise between Kingdom-religion and the facts of life.

I am suggesting, however, that the way things are going in the modern and post- modern periods indicates that people are now ready for Kingdom-religion. For consider its main features: the Kingdom-world is a world with no Beyond. People no longer need to look to another and better world after this life, and they no longer believe in progress. Rather, it is a time when people live in and for the present. They are content with, and reconciled to, the world about them.

Accordingly, the Kingdom-world is a world in which people no longer look-up. They simply don't see those above them as their betters. They have outgrown both deference and deferral. They don't want to spend their lives within disciplinary institutions that promise pie in the sky and jam tomorrow. They are radically democratic. They have grown up, and they want it now. They want to see human fulfilment and human happiness in this world.

Thirdly, the Kingdom world is a world in which people are no longer content to live permanently alienated from their own bodies, from Nature, and from God. In a word, modern human beings are no longer willing to be foreigners in their own world, and no longer willing to live in a state of servitude.

People are at last growing up. So what will their religion be like? Their God will be radically immanent and their philosophy expressionist. They will feel life as a stream of energies fountaining up within the self, becoming shaped by language, and flowing out to form and reform the world of experience. Thus they experience, day by day, the divine life coursing through them, and the creation of their world happening in and through their own activity. Such human beings live like gods. Objectified and absent, the old God was in effect Tradition deified. All creativity was abstracted from people and concentrated on him. He had fixed everything, and you simply fitted yourself into the order that he had established. But now when God returns into human hearts, people get their own creativity back again. A religion of creativity replaces the old religion of obedience.

The older ecclesiastical type of religion worked first by splitting the world and the self, and then by offering channels of grace and healing that would slowly join everything up again. So the divine was separated from the human, heaven from earth, reason from sensuousness, the long-term from the short-term, and the soul from the body. By thus splitting up everything, the ideology set us all longing for healing and redemption. The church's faith and her channels of grace were then offered to heal all the wounds; and they really did work. You were indeed on the way to full healing and salvation. But you would not see everything fully restored this side of the grave. You must spend you whole life under discipline, on the Way, and in a state of subjection to the authority of the Church (and the king).

It was a great system, designed to last forever because it postponed forever the salvation that it made you long for and led you onwards. What is short-circuiting it today is the fact that modern human beings, who live after Darwin, do not accept the dualism upon which it is all predicated. We can now do better than that.

When I say that we now need to spell out and to start living a Kingdom-religion people protest by bringing up the problem of evil. But in reply we can say that the doctrines of metaphysical evil and Original Sin, and the disciplinary apparatus that they are used to justify, combine to make things a lot worse than they need be. Indeed, I argue that when the self is melted down completely into the world, and the world is at the same time completely given to us, in the ways I have described, the outcome is unexpectedly blissful. Despite the persistence of conflict and suffering, I speak of the Kingdom as having come.

To say this - that the Kingdom has come - is doubtless to invite misunderstanding. People will hear me as having said something fatuously optimistic, and perhaps as claiming that a supernatural event has taken place. But that is not at all what I am saying. Rather, I am saying that we live after the death of God and the end of metaphysical realism: we live in the American century, the century of "the plain style" and the common man. In our time we all of us know in our hearts that there is no reality greater or more primal that the world and the place of creation. Ordinariness is ultimate and outsideless; that is it, and there is no Beyond.

To say that the Kingdom has come, then, is simply to say that we now recognize that everydayness is all there is. We need to give up the idea that our life waits to be given meaning from somewhere external to it. There is no man with a big hat, no expert, no celebrity who is more closely in touch with the heart and centre of things than we are already.

Thus a Kingdom-theology does not pretend to give us good news about external sources of support and help. Instead it seeks to return us to ourselves and to everyday life, in such a way that we are no longer fretful. Instead, we are content.

To indicate what Kingdom-religion might be like, let me end by retelling a well-known story about Henri Matisse. Asked whether he believed in God, the old man replied "Yes, when I'm working". Looking at his work, one knows what he meant. Piety, not as patient submission and devotion, but as the production of joy.

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