Sofia #70 - Editorial by Dinah Livingstone

We humans belong to a single Earth ecosystem and are fellow creatures with all Earth’s other life forms. We have a special responsibility because of our consciousness and capacity for making moral choices, combined with our enormous and increasing technological power to nurture or destroy.

In this issue Margaret Ogden starts from the recent discovery of one metre tall homo floresiensis on the Indonesian island of Ebu and goes on to consider what it is to be human, that has developed out of a long process of evolution. She stresses the urgency of our present situation and that our capacity to drift into our own destruction is very insapiens human behaviour. She ends with an open question about the future.

Dominic Kirkham’s article We’re All Animals Now traces the fascinating story of the discovery of the age of the Universe and the time span of evolution. We are ‘bacterial froth’, ‘star-dust’. His subtitle is The Advent of Post-Biblical Thinking: the biblical paradigm is far too small to accommodate what we now know. David Lee’s article The Biblical God as a Human Creation proposes that much in the Bible accords with an understanding of the existence of God as the product of human imagination.

Religions were invented as ways of thinking about how to live wisely on Earth (or telling other people how to live). Catastrophes, like the recent tsunami, (described by the Archbishop of Canterbury as ‘a test of people’s faith’), make it impossible to believe that God, who promised in the Bible there would never be another flood, is both all-loving and omnipotent. But because we humans got here by accident, does not mean that we no longer need to think about how to live wisely.. We need to think even harder because there is no one ‘out there’ or ‘above’ to tell us the answer.

We must look after the Earth, our common habitat. It was recently reported (Guardian 27.01.05) that lobby groups funded by the US oil industry are targeting Britain in a bid to play down the threat of climate change and derail action to cut greenhouse gas emissions. A month earlier, the George C. Marshall Group, funded by Exxon Mobil, published a report claiming to ‘undermine theories of climate change’. The US government, under pressure from the oil industry, still has not even ratified the minimum provisions of the Kyoto Protocol. Neither has Australia.

We must look after each other, and as Ogden stresses, expand our concern and capacity for reciprocity beyond our tribe to embrace our whole species. A crusading Christian US President, backed by powerful Christian fundamentalist sects, is pursuing an illegal war, with the supine agreement of our own government. This war has killed more than 100,000 civilians, among others, destroyed priceless treasures in Babylon and elsewhere, an irreplaceable part of our common human heritage. Prisoners are abused and tortured both in Iraq and Guantánamo.

In his book Life, Life Cupitt contrasts ‘world people’ and ‘life people’. ‘World people,’ he says disparagingly , ‘see us as being set in a ready-made, ready-ordered physical world, which must be studied closely if we are to act effectively. For life people, by contrast, knowledge and the physical world are relatively unimportant. Consider how rarely Shakespeare’s characters pay close attention to their physical environment.’ (This is not true of Shakespeare’s characters, see Under the Greenwood Tree on page 19.) ‘Life people,’ says Cupitt, ‘scarcely notice their physical environment, because they are so absorbed by the varied ways in which people interact... Life people are non-realists. They are not interested in the idea of an intelligible, real, non-human “it” world.’

I love the Earth. Apart from the pleasure of going to the country or abroad, at home in London on a warm day I love to swim with my fellow creatures, the ducks and moorhens, in the Ladies’ Pond on Hampstead Heath, see the turquoise dragonflies resting on the water-lily pads, catch a matching turquoise kingfisher streaking over the water, or watch a heron flap by in his pre-historic-looking way. (There was a petition about the Ponds recently to the Corporation of London, which attracted thousands of signatures, so clearly many people feel the same.) After a swim, the hot soup in the garden at Kenwood is delicious and the walk home is through a meadow where we quite often see a green woodpecker, sometimes a pair, as well as rabbits, perhaps a fox.. Over the brow of the hill, which has a fine view of London, on the descent towards the Men’s Pond, a hawk may be hovering. I like to see how the trees are coming on and enjoy knowing most of their names.

I think we must care about our physical world, the Earth itself and the lives of those who live on it. Paul Overend made the same criticism of Life, Life in his review of the book in sof 64. Given the choice between non-realist life people and world people, I’d opt for being among the world people, who are concerned about the real world, but a better name for what we are and must be is Earth people.

In his piece SoF International in this issue, David Boulton reports on his speaker tour to SoF groups overseas and sister organisations. As he was a guest speaker, Boulton naturally writes in a mainly positive tone, even at times with a certain insider cosiness, which make his occasional restrained, laconic criticisms all the more devastating, particularly of the Westar Institute in the USA. The ‘star-studded cast’ of radical theologians, including Cupitt, met ‘in the swanky Marriott Marquis Hotel on Times Square’, New York. ‘In all four days there was scarcely a reference to the real world outside... [where] Christian US America was knocking the hell into Iraq...’ In the same city as the headquarters of the UN, whose Secretary General has condemned the war as illegal, this seems incredible. And it appears that ‘Don’t mention the war!’ was not in order to avoid upsetting the punters, like Basil Fawlty, but simply because they were not concerned and preferred talking and talking in ‘learned expositions about the meaning of the Second Axial Age’ (which apparently means now).

Westar is , ‘best known for its Jesus Seminar’ that investigates the historical Jesus. I could not help thinking of one of Jesus’ jokes. ‘You strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.’ ‘But,’ he says, ‘you have neglected the more important matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness’ (Mt 23:23 ). Fortunately, there are radical theologians in the world, usually called liberation theologians, who like Jesus, are prepared to speak truth to power.

Boulton’s other criticism (also voiced by Patti Whaley in her report of the Westar Conference in sof 65) was that ‘there was little room for participation by the floor. The platform talked, we listened.’ I remembered the scene in The Marx Brothers at the Circus where Monsieur Jardinet and his orchestra’s bandstand is cut loose from its moorings and floats off out to sea while they continue to play on regardless. Cupitt praises multinational companies for being rootless, so perhaps the Marriott Hotel, part of a large multinational chain, was not such an odd venue after all! Radical or rootless? Ronald Pearse criticises Cupitt’s Solar Ethics in sof 60 for advocating rootlessness. He warns of its hubristic dangers.

Boulton also reports on the very different atmosphere of the Snowstar Institute in Canada, with audience participation and two speakers, one a Muslim feminist theologian and the other from Amnesty International, both campaigners for human rights (the latter for the prisoners in Guantánamo Bay).

At SoF New Zealand Boulton shared a platform with the courageous radical Muslim woman Ghazala Anwar, the first Muslim he had met who sees Islam as a human creation. But on the whole, he says, both at home and abroad, SoF ‘continues to sidestep’ the attempt to relate radical theology to radical politics. We are rooted in Earth, which is our home and the home of our fellow creatures. The fact that we no longer accept a supernatural cosmology does not mean that we no longer need to seek to how live wisely, both individually and collectively. Inevitably, that also means thinking and acting politically. It has never been feasible to separate religion from politics.

SoF in Britain agrees that God is a human creation, a fiction. We should not behave like those stock comic figures, members of a society devoted to a fictional character (for example, the Sherlock Holmes Society), who become so obsessed with their fictional hero that they disregard anything else that is going on in the real world. A letter in sof 68 reminds us how relevant is SoF’s agenda in opposing conflicts driven by a fundamentalist, ‘realist understanding of a sacred story’. That is true and important. God is not real: it makes sense to adopt a non-realist position towards him and stop killing people in his name. But the Earth and its inhabitants, including ourselves, are real. It is unwise be non-realist about our physical reality, to discount it as unimportant. If we feel superior to what is going on in the real world and can’t be bothered to concern ourselves, we may act very unwisely or fail to do what we should and become complicit by default.

Those giving birth or laying out their dead are realists, those who look after other people or animals are realists, as are those doing gardening, cooking, cleaning, knitting, mending at all effectively. Jesus had good advice about mending (Mk 2:21) and John tells us that Jesus’ robe, for which the soldiers cast lots, was seamless (Jn 19:23). I wonder who made it? If it had been knitted, she would have used four needles, as I did for the sleeves of the jacket I recently knitted for my grandson. Bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, plasterers, traffic cops at crossroads and lollipop ladies must be realists to cope with our physical reality. Yes, we are and must be Earth people.

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