Sofia #74 - Editorial by Dinah Livingstone

This pre-Christmas issue of the magazine is called Down with God because the Christmas message is:

He came down to Earth from Heaven
who is God and Lord of all.
And his shelter was a stable
and his cradle was a stall.

Traditionally, Jesus, who is God, is born in a stable and dies on the cross, but remains God, Lord of all, omnipotent, eternal and unchanged.

The history of Christian theology has been a struggle to resolve this contradiction. We can read the Christian story as thrusting towards bringing God back down to Earth, because he never existed anywhere else, except as an idea, in the first place.

The first article in this issue looks at the work of the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo. Vattimo draws on Christian language of incarnation and salvation but says that this language must now take into account all the implications of the death of God. Vattimo conjugates this Christian language with the language of continental philosophy, Heidegger’s ‘history of being’. Vattimo reads this as a ‘history of weakening,’ ‘weakening of the structures of being’. Of course, in ordinary conversation, rather than philosophical jargon, if I say ‘I feel a weakening of being’ it sounds rather like saying ‘I think I’m coming down with the flu’.

Philip Knight’s article on Vattimo, The Kenosis of God gives an introductory explanation of what Vattimo means by ‘weakening of being’. One thing it clearly does mean is: ‘If one believes in God, this God will be a non-realist God’, the God of the book ‘who does not exist as an objective reality’. So ‘weakening of being’ and ‘a non-realist God’ both mean that God ‘does not exist as an objective reality’, that is, in SoF language, God is a human creation. In my judgment and, I think, most members of the SoF Network, that is true. However, I don’t think that the philosophical insight into God’s non-existence afforded by the technical terms ‘weakening of being’ or ‘non-realist’ necessarily lead to any conclusions about the weakness or strength, the reality or non-reality of the Earth and its inhabitants.

However, Philip Knight shows Vattimo’s forte as the combining of this technical philosophical language philosophy with the more familiar (to many of us) Christian language of incarnation and salvation. In particular, Vattimo uses the New Testament idea of ‘kenosis (God’s own self-emptying and dissolution)’. In Philippians 2: 6-11, we have what was probably an early Christian hymn:

Though he was in the form of God
he did not count equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself,
became obedient to death,
death on a cross.
Therefore God raised him high
and gave him the name
which is above all other names;
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth
and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord
(to the glory of God the Father).

In this hymn God comes down and becomes wholly human. He ‘empties himself’ into the wholly human. Then the wholly human, represented by Jesus, rises to take ‘the name which is above all other names’. All that is God is assumed by the wholly human – the human form divine.

The last line of this early Christian hymn – ‘to the glory of God the Father’ – keeps it within the bounds of orthodoxy. God the Father remains ‘on high’ and supernatural. But the whole thrust of the poem is the triumph of the ‘risen conquering son’(here representing humanity). In life and in many other stories and myths the son usually takes over from the father, may depose him. If we follow that pattern and regard the last line of the poem ‘to the glory of God the Father’ as merely formulaic, then Jesus the Son, supersedes the Father. In Blake’s illustration to Paradise Lost, ‘The Son Offers to Redeem Man’, reproduced on the back cover of this issue, the Son is a beautiful rising young man, full of energy, and the Father is a crouching, faceless figure.

So we can read the Christian story as humanity coming into its own, growing up and no longer needing a supernatural father. After all, we usually regard it as ‘unnatural’ for ordinary adult humans to remain dependent on their father. Paul also has the theme of Jesus as the prototype. It is a vision of possibility. Humanity has not yet fully come into its own. The story is not yet finished. In this sense the Christian story is programmatic, and ‘salvation’ can be seen as humanity fulfilling itself – becoming ‘mature, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13) – and bringing justice and peace on Earth, bringing heaven down to Earth, as in the book of Revelation.

Following Peter Knight’s article on the philosopher Vattimo, we have Peter Lumsden’s Eucharist, inspired by a theology of kenosis. At its conclusion he says:

So through this meal, we see that God resides only in humanity. We declare the heavens empty, the Lord reigns only in the human heart.God has become human, so that the human can become divine.

In this surrender of supernatural power, this kenosis, we see what we must do.

In Asking Why Michael Senior challenges Richard Holloway for complaining that without God the universe lacks meaning. As he says: ‘You cannot blame a non-existent being for being absent.’ In the next article John MacDonald Smith reassesses the ‘anthropic’ argument for the existence of God. Peter Mavromatis thinks of God as a ventriloquist’s dummy, and following the recent reports that President Bush thinks God told him to invade Afghanistan and Iraq, sof is fortunate to have an original cartoon by Josh, drawn specially for this issue, on page 16.

This year I went on holiday to Sicily. We stayed near the beautiful little town of Cefalù, that stands on the island’s north coast at one end of a wide bay. Over the town looms a gigantic rock – really, a small mountain – which in the past was used as a fortress against the many invaders. Much to our surprise we discovered that this rock was a poet called Dafnis. He was the son of the god Mercury and a nymph, and he introduced the world to the joys of pastoral poetry. He would roam about writing poems praising the beauties of nature before his eyes. He married Echnaide and swore eternal love to her. But unfortunately, he got drunk and was seduced by a capricious queen. His mother-in-law was so incensed at his unfaithfulness that she blinded him, so that he wandered far and wide through the country, now unable to see its beauties or write about them.. At last, his father Mercury took pity on him and turned him into an enormous rock, so that he became part of the nature he had loved so much.

The mountains, rivers and whole landscape of Sicily are full of gods, heroes and poets. Mount Etna, which is still very active, was Vulcan’s forge. These stories, some very old, humanise the landscape, which acquires layer upon layer of meaning, a history in human consciousness that continues century after century.

Even though the Christian God is dead (in fact, never existed), he also continues to inhabit the physical and mental landscape of Europe and further afield, in buildings, stories, popular traditions, memories of battles long ago. This enriches the imaginative texture of people’s lives, making them not more divine but more fully human. Don Cupitt has suggested that we might think of our God as a dead person whom we remember affectionately or otherwise. In Paradise Lost Milton mentions Greek and Roman gods as well as telling the story of the Judaeo-Christian God, Satan and Adam and Eve. How does he differentiate the reality status of these gods? Presumably, he thought that the Christian God was real and the Greek and Roman gods were myths. But on the other hand, Milton is telling a story, which adds considerably to the biblical story, and so in that sense the Judaeo-Christian God is his creation, fictional too.

Stories and myths enrich our mental and physical landscape and so do dead people. Dead people from the distant past tend to become fuzzy and mythical if we do not know much about them. Like Sicily, London is full of myths, for example, Battlebridge Road near King’s Cross is called after the last battle between Queen Boadicea (now usually spelt Boudicca) and the Romans. Since it is rather doubtful whether that took place there; it has become mythical. But it is easier to find out more about people who lived closer to our time. For example, whenever I walk up Millfield Lane on Hampstead Heath, I always stop and remember at the spot where Keats and Coleridge met and had their famous conversation. I was fascinated to read Richard Holmes’[1] well-researched account into what actually happened. Likewise when I stand in Bunhill Fields and nod to Blake in his tomb, I’m glad to see that the tombstone also mentions his wife Catherine Sophia and to remember that, by all accounts, they were very happily married. Certainly, it matters whether these people really lived on Earth or not. I’d like to know more...

The historian’s job is an important one. It does matter whether people existed or not and what they were like and what they did. Yes, our gods, Greek, Roman Judaeo-Christian-Muslim are fictions, myths that are part of our heritage. Yes, we remember them rather like dead people. But the human beings who worshipped and fought over them, who struggled to make sense of their own lives, who inhabited the same spaces that we do now, were real and it is both interesting and respectful to care about the reality of their lives. But the dead are dead. Above all, let us believe in life before death, respect the living and enjoy being with each other and fellow creatures here and now.

[1] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Darker Reflections (Flamingo, London 1999).

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