Easter and Spring are both early this year in England. This March issue of Sofia is about ‘newness of life’ and called All Change. From their distinct but overlapping points of view our first four writers discuss what is changing and what needs to change in humanity.
Don Cupitt, as a philosopher with a keen interest in the history of ideas, succinctly describes a vital shift he says has taken place. Until the late seventeenth century, ‘the really-important knowledge that people lived by all came down to them from God.’ Since then there has been ‘a progressive transfer of powers from God to man’. Thus ‘revealed Divine Law was gradually replaced by a new ethic based upon sympathetic human fellow-feeling.’ He describes this as ‘an extraordinary event which Christianity itself foresaw and described as the kenosis of God.’ The christian doctrines of ‘Incarnation and Trinity foresaw what has now happened As St Paul once put it: “all things are yours.” This is inspiring, tantalisingly brief, and incidentally, programmatic for one of the most exciting challenges to those who regard religion as a human creation: being literate in traditional theology, to mull over old themes and teachings for their human richness, in order – to use another Pauline term – to ‘recapitulate’ (anakephalaiosathai: Eph. 1:10) them in non-supernatural, human terms.
‘To live is to change,’ says Dominic Kirkham. Resistance to change is associated with fundamentalism – the desire to go back to authoritative figures of the past for guidance. The irony is, as he points out, is that such figures, including Jesus, were invariably prime examples of agents of change in their own times. He then discusses the way in which he thinks our attitude must change, if the ‘twilight of the gods’ is not to become merely a prelude to the ‘twilight of humanity’.
From El Salvador, liberation theologian Jon Sobrino describes ‘a very sick world’, in which vast wealth lives shamelessly side by side with the most wretched poverty. Quoting Karl Rahner, he says: ‘It can’t be like this!’ It has got to change.
That demand is echoed, from Bradford, in the Church of England, by Graham Carey, an active member of their diocesan synods. He criticises his ‘diminished and faltering church’. for its supine attitudes to grave problems. He is disgusted at the ‘cruel flaunting of wealth, in the eyes of the despairing homeless, on programmes such as Relocation, Relocation,’ that dominate prime time television. Especially as Bradford, he says, ‘has the largest number of bankruptcies and almost the largest number of house repossessions in the country.’ This morning the newspapers report that in 2007 in Britain 27,000 houses were repossessed, an anodyne term covering untold misery.
As a philosopher in the idealist – or as I heard it called recently ‘ideaist’ – tradition, Cupitt focuses on the shift in ideas. Perhaps that is why his view of the state of the world is the rosiest of these writers’. Jesuit Sobrino, who says he writes from the standpoint of ‘materialist humanism lit by Christian inspiration’, has a far bleaker view. However, they both agree on what should happen. Both want a new ethic based upon sympathetic human fellow-feeling. Though both are ordained Christian priests, neither of them says something must be done because it has ‘come down from God’. Both have a humanist agenda. Sobrino’s two major works of christology (which got him into trouble with the Vatican last year) are a prolonged meditation on the theology of the Incarnation, which has led – as Cupitt suggests in his article – to that humanist agenda.
There also seems to be agreement that there has been a vital shift. Cupitt’s ‘sympathetic human-fellow feeling’ is echoed by writers adduced by Sobrino, such as René Girard who believes ‘we are seeing the birth of a kinder humanity, that is more concerned for the victims: “No society has ever been as concerned about the victims as ours is.” This is ‘an unprecedented phenomenon. It could be something like what happened in the axial age, from the eighth to the sixth centuries BC.’ Sobrino quotes Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, who says that ‘humanity is “on the move” and turning towards truth and justice.’ Sobrino then goes on to describe the vast amount of ‘catching up’ with these humane trends that needs to happen in the reality of a suffering, ‘ very sick world’. So there is a common humanist agenda. It just needs to be carried out. And, as Kirkham stresses, carried out before we destroy our own world.
I was reading about the Levellers in the seventeenth-century English Revolution, that perhaps their vision of a just society without masters and servants and ‘underlings’ was impossible to realise at that time, because the technology was not there to have any kind of civilised society without servants. Today we do have the wealth and the technology to ensure a decent life for all; we merely need to make it happen.
Another Christian theme to be mulled over in non-supernatural terms is the ‘kingdom of God’ or ‘kingdom of heaven’, as Matthew also calls it. As has often been pointed out a better way to translate ‘kingdom’ might be ‘reign’ or ‘rule’ . For example, we might say ‘the rule of law’ does not operate in Guantánamo Bay’ – the prisoners there are not protected by the Geneva Convention; some are known to have been tortured.
At the beginning of his ministry Jesus goes into the synagogue at Nazareth and reads from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
for he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
The ‘good news to the poor’ is of the coming ‘reign’ in which those who are oppressed will be set free. Later in what has come to be known as the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ (Sermon on the Mount in Matthew), Jesus begins by saying:
Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
This kingdom or reign is first and foremost ‘good news for the poor’. Poverty and injustice will be over. It is ‘good news’ because the poor won’t be poor any more; they will have a decent life. That is a humanist agenda.
Jesus goes on to say: ‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on Earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’ (Mt 6:19) The ‘reign’ of heaven is something that is going to happen on Earth. First and foremost ‘good news for the poor’, it is a just society where kindness rules.
Jesus preferred the poor and chose them first. He also said how hard it is for a rich man to enter this kingdom. ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Mt 19:23). So the ‘reign of heaven’ is not only first and foremost ‘good news for the poor’ but something that it is very difficult for the rich to enter. The disciples were ‘greatly astonished’ at this ‘hard saying’. Indeed, nowadays the large Christian churches themselves are colossally rich, and in Dostoievsky’s story the Grand Inquisitor tells the returning Christ that the Church no longer needs him.
It is a ‘hard saying’ for most of us too. Most of us don’t ‘sell what we have and give to the poor’. I haven’t. Even to sustain the minimum, which is to support that humanist agenda, a decent life for all on Earth is a considerable ongoing commitment. . Jesus’ message is counter-cultural, especially in our world where wealth is worshipped. To say ‘having enough is enough’ is subversive. I think it’s good to struggle to support our families, make a comfortable home and have some jolly times. I don’t know if Jesus would agree. Of course, he himself got ticked off by Pharisees for being too convivial. But then we are encouraged to want more. And more. In a world where so many have no home, is it right for some to own not one house, but two or three or more, to ‘add field to field’? The whole thrust of our society urges us to lay up treasure which thieves can break into and steal. There is talk of ‘achieving’ a second car or a ‘property portfolio’, as if multiple house owners were artists..
As Dominic Kirkham points out, some sense of moderation is even more urgent now that the Earth is in danger. Our cult of more and more has over-exploited the Earth and ‘we are now confronted by a remarkable sense of apocalypse of our own making.’ So: ‘Our survival is now in our own hands and depends on the cultivation of a new attitude of regard for Life in all its forms.’ He thinks that: ‘In Western culture man (yes, it’s always ‘man’!) has traditionally defined himself against nature rather than as inseparable from it; a patriarchal view which regards the Earth as threateningly feminine.’ This dualism has been reinforced by Monotheistic supernaturalism. The idea of God as ‘supernatural Top Man’ has hindered a humanist agenda. God’s kenosis is necessary and, Kirkham thinks, a kenosis of humanity is now also necessary ‘in the face of potential disaster’. I don’t agree with the idea that it would not matter if humanity became extinct as long as Life went on . I think of the Earth as one life, worded by humanity, its voice. If humanity became extinct there would be no one to articulate the songs and poems of the Earth. But I do agree that we need to take care of the Earth, as of ourselves. In the words of the great Philippians hymn, we don’t have to regard ever more and more as ‘a thing to be grasped’. It is a race against time, whether we destroy the Earth or whether the vision of ‘kingdom come’, a reign or rule of kindness which will be good news for the poor
1. I agree with John Nurser (see review on page 22) in disliking the Jesus Seminar translation ‘imperial domain’. Can they really talk like that in California?