Beyond BeliefDon Cupitt
Sea of Faith Conference (NZ)
7 October 2000
In the year 1910 a great World Missionary Conference was held at Edinburgh in Scotland, at which much was made of the slogan: 'The World for Christ in this Generation'. The delegates were assured, and no doubt believed, that soon they would successfully evangelise the entire world, and Christianity would prevail everywhere. In the high summer of the European colonial empires it seemed as obvious that the Europeans must spread their religion all over the world as it was that they must build railways everywhere.
Less than a century later, there has been an extraordinary reversal of fortune. Christianity has typically been the most credal and the most highly organized of the great religious traditions: it is still the largest, and it is the tradition that gave birth to the modern world. But today the 'Western culture' that has triumphed everywhere is secular. It is liberal democratic politics, it is science-based industry, it is human rights and free tradebut it is not religion any more. The church is relatively weak and unpopular, and Christian doctrine is widely rejected. It has broken down under philosophical criticism, under biblical and historical criticism, and through the general shift of Western culture towards a this-worldly and libertarian view of life. And what is more, the same factors that have sapped Christian self-confidence are having very much the same effect upon the other major traditions. The decline of religion is a world-wide event that has in some measure affected the lives of most human beings, leaving many or most people with a sense of moral crisis and personal loss.
How are we to interpret this great event and what can be done about it? Just at the moment a number of people are posing this question by asking: Can there be a new reformation of Christianity? If so, what would it involve?
The answer I propose is that it is now too late for a liberal reformation of the type that proposed to renew the Church by simplifying and updating the system of Christian doctrine. We have to go much further than that: we have to think of pushing Christianity on to the next, long-awaited and final stage of its historical development. That means advancing from the traditional mediated kind of religiontaught in scriptures, controlled by priests, administered to us through sacramental rituals, and reaching its final fulfilment only beyond deathadvancing from that very long-termist and institutional kind of religion to the immediate kind of religion in which final fulfilment is found and lived in the here and now.
In theological terms, this means pushing on from Church to Kingdom, and from the menu to the actual meal.
Church-religion as we have known it is only a temporary stopgap. It developed to occupy the period of waiting for the (delayed) arrival of the Kingdom that Jesus had originally promised. The Church grew into a great and powerful disciplinary institution and system of symbols. Through its sacraments it seemed to give a real foretaste of a salvation that it nevertheless deferred, to the end of the world, or to the far side of death. Church religion makes much of authority and tradition, and of the guarantees thatit saysare attached to its promises. But what is behind the painted veil we never quite learn: it's faith, faith all the way, and never sight.
Today Church-religion, as a symbolic language and as a long-term disciplinary system is fading fast. It's too late for reform. We should be pressing on to develop the immediate, beliefless sort of religion that in the old Christian language was called 'the Kingdom of God'. At first people will find it hard to accept that just in a beliefless and immediately-lived religion they can find now the sort of indestructible happiness that the older church religion said we couldn't have till after death. But we must work it out.
Here is a brutally-sharp contrast: ecclesiastical religion was believed, but kingdom religion is simply lived.
Ecclesiastical religion was a state of waiting and readying yourself for a promised better world. It was highly reflective and credal: it was a matter of 'having faith', believing 'the Faith', and adhering faithfully to your Creed. Only God could actually bring in the better world, and the Creed was a supernatural story about how God had originally created the world and was presently at work redeeming it. Only the final denouement was still awaited, but it was very important that one should be vigilant in looking out for itwhich in practice meant preparing for death. For most of the ecclesiastical period it was supposed that the basic conditions of human life here below could not be radically changedas they needed to beby anything less than the promised return of Christ.
Religion was oddly pessimistic and passive: you valued correct belief, belief that God was changing things, so highly because there was very little that you could do yourself. Matters were largely out of our hands, as is shown by the striking fact that a 'Christian ethics', actively concerned for the betterment of society in the present age, scarcely developed at all before about 1770. As it developed it found itself to be chiefly if not entirely concerned with certain very specific humanitarian causes, and then in early Victorian times with the idealization of marriage and the familywith women and children, and with the worlds of domestic and private life. The Christianiation of economic and political life, and of foreign relations, has in more recent times been more talked-about than achieved. Thus although since the Enlightenment there has been a gradual turning of Christianity towards this world, progress has been slow and today it would still be fair to say that the practical side of ecclesiastical religion consists largely of 'observances'. Until 'in his own good time' God actually brings in the better worldor takes us to itreligion in the eyes of most people is going to remain an institution that is respected, a Faith that is to be believed, and a set of prescribed 'duties' that 'observant' believers fulfil. And that is it.
In summary, then, Church-religion is believed and 'observed', but people have seldom thought it possible to live it out in full. By contrast, Kingdom-religion really is simply a way of living, which is popularly described as living life to the full, or to its fullest. In Church religion you very consciously are not one hundred per cent committ to life. No, because half of you is always a little detached, secretive, keeping your hands clean, thinking of eternity and preparing for death; whereas Kingdom-religion is all-out solar, one hundred per cent, reckless. In its contemporary form it passionately loves what is living and only transient, just for being transient. Church religion is ulterior, long-termist and thinking ahead, whereas Kingdom-religion is intensively focussed upon the Moment, the here and now, and is oblivious of everything else. It hasn't time even to think about cosmology: it lives at the end of the world. Church-religion thinks and waits patiently. Kingdom-religion burns: it is in a hurry because it understands that we are already in our last days. There is not much time left.
The contrast is extraordinary, and even more extraordinary is the co-existence of the two very different religions, side-by-side in the Sermon on the Mount and also in the wider tradition of Jesus' teaching. Sometimes Jesus urges his followers not to be anxious about the future but to live entirely in the present; yet at other times he says that you should be prudent and calculating, building your house upon a rock. Sometimes he says that believers should be solar, making an exhibition of themselves, as conspicuous as shining lights or hilltop towns; but at other times he says that all our religious duties, traditionally summed up as prayer, fasting and almsgiving, should be perforrned secretly. Sometimes Jesus talks Kingdom religion, as when he urges people not to hesitate nor to he self-concerned, but to plunge straight into moral action on behalf of others; but at other times he talks proto-Catholicism and says that our first concern should be for our own self-purification. We need to get the plank out of our own eyes before we can see clearly what's wrong with other people.(1)
In sum, almost every verse in the Sermon on the Mount either says Think!, like Church religion, or Don't think!, like Kingdom religion. The command Think! tells us to sort out our priorities, worry, reflect, recollect ourselves, cultivate self-awareness and plan ahead. The command Don't think! says that only the Now exists: live by the heart, trust life, plunge in, don't dither, give it all you've got, put on a good show, live as the Sun does. The contrast between the two character-types and philosophies of existence is very great, so why are both outlooks attributed to Jesusand why is the contradiction so rarely noticed?
The best answer we can give is that in the circles that preserved the tradition of Jesus' teaching, people were already debating the issue between the two lifestyles. The 'Kingdom' people were more quakerish or existentialist in outlook: they wanted to continue to live in the Kingdom way and they 'heard' the sayings of Jesus as confirming their point of view. But the 'Church' party, closer to Paul, were conscious that the Kingdom had not yet fully come. In the waiting-period it was necessary to come to some sort of accommodation with the old, violent social order and its institutions. People of this turn of mind, who urged reflection and calculation, also 'heard' the tradition of Jesus' sayingsbut they heard it as confirming their point of view. So it came about that when all the sayings where collected and written down, they came to include both Kingdom-sayings that said Go the whole hog: be conspicuous, and Church-sayings that said Work quietly and unobtrusively, like the yeast in the dough. It is reasonable to suppose that Jesus himself had been an all-out Kingdom person, with a very intense sense of eschatological urgency. He was ardent, vehement and disputatious, a man in a hurry. But after his death, how was his teaching to be preserved? Some people picked up on the 'Kingdom' sayings, and translated his eschatology into 'solarity', and other people picked up on the churchier sayings and translated his eschatology into 'inwardness'. What the world now calls The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, cc.5-7) reflects both points of view, so that when we read it we are not listening to Jesus, but overhearing a dispute amongst his followers.
To take the argument further now calls for a brief digression. The world of human life is tumultuous, excessive, unpredictable and many-sided. Not even the very greatest of writers, not even Shakespeare can quite compass all of human life, and still less can any moral theorist systematize it satisfactorily. As a result, every moral theory and every body of moral teaching is likely to be found partial and incomplete. It prompts somebody to produce a counter-theory or the contrary teaching, by way of protest or correction. An example of this that everyone has noticed is the way in which in popular morality over the generations the pendulum swings back and forth between rigorism and laxity, long skirts and short skirts, order and freedom, rule-morality and welfare morality, long-termism and short-termism, moralism and liberalism. When one of any of these pairs is pressed too hard, it is likely to trigger a reaction on behalf of its counterpart or 'Other'. And more generally, there is a case for saying that almost every moral theory and every important body of moral teaching functions as a corrective. Against what?look at it in its original context. For example, Jesus' extreme emphasis upon religious immediacy, the imminent coming of the Kingdom of God, was expressly directed against an equally-extreme form of religious mediation, namely the minute regulation of Jewish religious life by armies of scribes, lawyers, pharisees, sadducees, chief priests and the rest of them.
The dispute has often been repeated. In the Latin West the decline of the Roman Empire left something of a cultural and 'management' vacuum, which the Church filled. It took over almost the whole business of managing life, structuring time and space, teaching society's official world-view, collecting a wide range of dues and inventing an even wider range of duties. An army of cleric/clerks found ways minutely to organize not just other people's lives, but even more, their own. If you doubt me, examine a Missal and Breviary and trace all the prayers that every Roman Catholic priest has been expected to recite every day. Similarly, the clerks found ways to bureaucratize the penitential system, prayers for the dead, and the efficacy of the Mass. There are always hapless souls who want life to be given 'meaning', and toiling away to win days off Purgatory certainly gives people something meaningful to do; but too much bureaucratization of religion was bound to trigger protest from a whole line of mystics and would-be Reformers. A surfeit of wearisome repetition eventually makes people quite desperate for religious immediacy. I know.
There is a further twist to this story: until the seventeenth century the great bureaucrats were clerics, and especially canon lawyers. But in the later seventeenth century we can see the last great ecclesiastic-bureaucratspeople like J.B. Colbert, finance minister to Louis XIVbeginning to turn into the pioneers of modern social administration. Great advances in the efficiency of filing-systems were made in Napoleonic times, but it has been above all the computer which in very recent years has begun to make us the most minutely and efficiently supervised people who have ever lived. Life in the prosperous Western countries is becoming more closely and carefully structured, managed, regulated and optimized than ever before. It's becoming suffocating. We should not be surprised that people are not clamouring to have their lives further regulated, by the relatively-archaic and inefficient religious systems that have come down to us from the past. On the contrary, in our time people prefer to engage in an independent religious quest: they seek religious freedom, personal experience, immediacy and even ecstasy. Religion is called upon to give us a break from our over-regulated lives.
It is against this background that I argue that a reformed Christianity must now make the corrective move from discipline to freedom, from Church to Kingdom, and from 'organized religion' to pure religious immediacy. But we have no consolation to offer to those who seek to escape from this world into some 'spiritual' or supernatural 'realm' or 'dimension'. On the contrary, because of the way science, philosophy and modern culture have developed, the world of our life is now an outsideless continuum. There is nothing else but all this around us, of which we are integrally part. There is no distinct religious, or supernatural, or spiritual realm. Talk of other worlds or dimensions is tosh. That is why our contemporary culture is rapidly becoming the most 'total' and all-inclusive that there has ever been. Its only weakness is its secret terror of that which it cannot completely manage, namely the sheer contingency and transience of everythingand it is precisely that which Kingdom religion embraces most ardently. Kingdom religion attends to the gentle moment-by-moment pure givenness of all existence, the Be-ing of everything. It loves the meeting of Be-ing and language that makes the world of our experience so extraordinarily glowing and brightly-lit in consciousness. It follows and it feels the passing of everything, recognizing that life is finite. Our love for life and our determination to make the most of it is tuned up and intensified by our knowledge that we have only so much of it left.
In a world in which it is easy to become numbed and bored by the way almost everything in sight has been made so safe and predictable, Kingdom religion restores freshness and urgency to living. We live after metaphysics, and there is no prospect of our being able either to escape from the world of life into another parallel 'spiritual' world or to find ontological depth and mystery within life. There is no depth. Nowadays everything is literally mundane. But we can greatly intensify our feeling for life by attending to just the features of life that most people don't want to think about, namely its very contingency, its temporality, and its finitude. Doing this can prompt us to love life and commit ourselves to it in its very transience. It is profoundly liberating to say Yes to life in its lightness and contingency, and to give up trying either to combat, or to forget about, the passing of time.
I think I now love the givenness and the contingency of everything more intensely than I used to love God. To love and accept life and death as a package is something altogether different from the more common state of clutching at life and being afraid of death. And I think that what I call Kingdom religion makes the merely human historical Jesus a bigger and more interesting figure than the old divine Christ. Jesus is the prophet who first taught people that one could live and love life with a fierce burning end-of-the-world urgency. He frees us from Church-Christianity's curiously obsessive concern with cosmologywith describing and fitting us into a certain picture of the world-order. We don't want cosmology; what we want is end-of-the-world freedom.
To close this section and round off its thesis, I want to point out one respect in which Kingdom religion is like, and another respect in which it is unlike, Buddhism. They are like in that both are logically independent of their own historical origins: they can be verified in practice simply by being lived. Church-Christianity made itself vulnerable to historical refutation by pinning its own truth to certain very extravagant historical claimsin particular, about the resurrection of Christ. I think it clear by now that it was a mistake and is unnecessary to make your religion vulnerable in that way. Both Buddhism and Kingdom-Christianity can be and must be verified in practice, just by being lived.
But here there is a difference. For Buddhism the great liberating truth is the truth of universal contingency. When we understand everything's lightness and contingency, we understand that there is no self-identical or substantial being. There is therefore nothing for 'craving' or 'fixation' to attact itself toand we are free. Thus for Buddhism salvation is release from 'attachment'.
From the point of view of Kingdom religion Buddhism seems a little too unattached, cool and celibate. The Buddha is wise and compassionate: he does not experience suffering. Christ is furiously ardent: he loves and suffers greatly. Who do we choose to follow? It's up to you.
Without exception, Church-Christians have understood me as proposing not the reformation of Christianity but the abolition of Christianity. This is because it its declining years Church-Christianity has become so very weak and self-centred. It has long forgotten the greater things for the sake of which it exists, and for the sake of which it should at the right time be ready to die. Yet it should not have forgotten these things, for they are still legible by anyone who looks out for them.
A simple example is credal belief. Church-Christianity attaches the most enormous importance to correct credal belief. It is still instinctively felt both within the churches and outside them that a person who seriously impugns major items of belief should be swiftly and unceremoniously dumped. Yet at the same time it has always been known in the Church that credal belief is only an imperfect and transitional state of mind. It promises to transcend itself certainly after we die, and perhaps even in this life. When you have really worked through it, when your belief has become deep enoughthen you no longer believe! Faith has given way to sight, and mediation to immediacy. Thus Church-Christianity actually works by progressively conducting us beyond itself to a greater light on the far side of it.
The point was made with particular clarity in the Lutheran tradition, where Luther himself had taught that the believer should add a mental pro me (for me and on my behalf), after each clause of the Creed. Developing this idea, Kierkegaard speaks of the life of faith as 'an appropriation-process'(2). All the doctrinal themes are meant gradually to sink in and become part of one's own beingwhich gives rise to the paradox that when you have fully become a Christian, you aren't one any longer. When you have internalized all the beliefs and have appropriated them into your life and practice, then you no longer hold them as beliefs, spelled-out and with the brand-names conspicuous. You don't believe it because you have become it and no longer need to spell it out.
There is, however, a problem: how can we tell that we have reached the post-missionary stage? When feminism, for example, as a missionary movement has fully made its point and when its message is fially assimilated into everybody's life and practice, then it is no longer necessaryindeed, it has become inappropriateto go on being an 'up-front' or salient feminist, and the trademark jargon can be dropped. Have we reached that stage yet?
It seems that we are betwixt and between, for on the one hand there are nowadays many women, especially in the West, whose acknowledged distinction is such that they do not need to be feminists. Their personal standing would if anything be compromised by an over-salient profession of feminism on their part. But on the other hand there are also billions of women, especially in Africa, in Islam, and in South and East Asia, who still suffer very serious social disadvantage just because of their sex. So in the contemporary world, feminism and post-feminism overlap: in some places salient missionary feminism remains the most appropriate posture, but in a few other places it is more fitting to ease off and be post-feminist. Feminism is after all meant to lead us beyond itself.
Then what about the case of Christianity? It is curiously complicated. In the West, Christianity evolved into radical humanism in the 1840s<(3). Since then the mainstream of Western culture has steadily moved over from 'Church' to 'Kingdom', with the full social establishment of liberal democracy, human rights, humanitarian ethics, environmentalism and modernism in the arts. This is a culture that in some ways has so fully assimilated Christianity that it no longer needs to be 'nominally' Christianwhich is why it is currently dropping the old passwords and brand-names. But religious conservatives are highly dissatisfied. They say that just as the state of Israel is a very unsatisfactory secular realization of Jewish religious hopes, so our comfortable Western consumerism and humanitarianism is a very unsatisfactory realization on earth of Christian eschatology. In reaction, conservative ultras both in Judaism and in Christianity therefore aggressively reassert the old supernaturalism and the old brand-names. This is ironical: the Church exists for the sake of the Kingdom, but when the Kingdom comes, the Church refuses to bow out gracefully, declares itself very disappointed, and fights back against the Kingdom! That is the very devil of a situation to sort out. But it's our present condition: several different ages overlap.
The same difficulty arises in relation to the Church. It knows perfectly well that it offers and teaches only mediate religion, and that mediate religion's only excuse for its own existence is that it is preparing us for the real thing, immediate religion, at some unspecified time in the filtureperhaps at the return of Christ, or perhaps (and more likely) after we die. So we put up with the present state of discipline and with religious authority, for the sake of jam tomorrow. Then at the Reformation some groups thought that the time for the immediate, post-ecclesiastical 'Kingdom' type of religion had at last come. The Quakers, more recently called the Society of Friends, are the most notable surviving group from that period: they stifl retain an impressive and consistently worked-out Kingdom theology, pattern of organization, and ethics. Through their very great contribution both to liberal democracy and to humanitarian ethics the Friends have been key figures in the making of the modem world. Ethically, the modern world is in many ways a Quaker world. Yet in Britain, where their spirit has been best preserved, they are now a tiny group, and the vast majority of Christians who remain are members of large episcopal Churches (Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and a few others) which are structurally unable ever to make the transition from Church to Kingdom. The theology of episcopacy sees a diocesan bishop as being in his own person the Church in his diocese, so that a Council of all the bishops is an Ecumenical Council of the whole Church. Every bishop feels like the absolute monarch who said 'L'Etat, c'est moi'; and someone whose whole reason for existence is that he says to himself 'L'Église, c'est moi' can never allow the Church to pass over into the Kingdom, because he cannot possibly vote for his own abolition. He is locked-in to keeping the Church in being by promising jam tomorrow, forever.
Hence the paradox that in our own society the Friends have been showing since the later eighteenth century that Kingdom-religion is now possible and does work, whilst at the same time the vast majority of Christians remain permanently stuck in the age of the Churchthe modern Papacy being the most extreme example of the way mediated, institutional religion has forced itself up a cul-de-sac from which it cannot deliver itself. Having made an absolute of itself it cannot transcend itself and therefore cannot actually function properly as religion.
I am saying that every episcopal church has a built-in and structural bias against ever allowing itself to pass over into the Kingdom-type of religionfor the sake of which it (notionally) exists! How did this paradoxical situation arise?
To answer this question we have to look at the period of the later Roman Empire during which the Church became the official state religion. Accepting establishment, the Church found itself locked into endorsing the existing social order, sanctifying it and proclaiming its benevolence and general satisfactoriness. That much is obvious: it's the merest cliche. But what is not usually noticed is the fact that as the faith of the Church became the official ideology of the Empire, so the Church became locked-in to a very strongly realistic and cosmological understanding of its own faith.
This intensely cosmological orientation of Church-Christianity survives to this day. To this day the debate about 'science and religion', especially in the English-speaking world, focusses around attempts to weave together scientific theories about the origin of the Universe and of life, and theological doctrines about God's creation of the world, of life, and of the first human beings. Anglophone scientist-theologians have been arguing since Newton in favour of a condominium in which religious doctrine and scientific theory shall jointly provide the Establishment's world-picture and combine to assure the common people of the wisdom and benevolence of the cosmic and social order. They passionately desire to ensure that physics, chemistry, biology and religion shall continue to coexist harmoniously in school and in university syllabuses, and that the Church shall continue to have a voice in the counsels of the nationthat is, in the Upper House of Parliament. They want to sanctify the present world-order, and they entirely forget that Christianity claims to be founded on a man who said that we should live as if we think that the present world-order is going to pass away entirely very soon. Jesus wanted us to live without a cosmology, but we have got ourselves locked into living on the basis of a cosmology.
There is no doubt that the point here is curiously difficult for ecclesiastical Christians to grasp. So cosmologically-minded have they become, so convinced are they that there is a readymade sacred cosmos, an objectively-real and intelligible order of things out there which we are pre-designed to be able to understand and to live by, that they find it genuinely difficult to grasp anti-realist philosophy, and to grasp that there are major religious traditions which are not cosmological and do not regard the world as divinely-created.
Nevertheless, the truth is that any reformation of Christianity must break the emotional and political link with cosmology. Kingdom-religion is post-cosmological. You may perhaps only be able to learn this by having a really close brush with death, and learning how little the thought of the wisdom and benevolence of the established order of things means to you in that moment: but learn it you must. The totalizing notion of 'the Universe' may do a useful job in current physical theorizing, but it is of next to no religious or philosophical use. What has the Universe ever done for you? You should not try to found your own thinking on the idea of an immanent logos that pervades the present world-order, and you should not derive your moral values from the present world order. Our picture of the world order is only a human construct and not a very satisfactory one. To think clearly in religion you should see everything as passing away, really passing away. You have to radicalize the idea of universal transience, as in their different ways Jesus and the Buddha teach you to do.
Put it another way: Rene Descartes founded modern critical thinking by requiring us to pass through a moment of universal doubt. He did not do this entirely consistently: indeed, he expressly excluded revealed religion and some other matters about which it was in those days not safe to urge doubt. But what he did say was enough to launch the project of modern critically-tested empirical knowledge.
Then, two-and-a-half centuries later, Friedrich Nietzsche radicalizes Descartes by requiring people who want to think clearly about questions of philosophy, ethics and religion to have looked nihilism in the face. This requirement makes Nietzsche still the modern philosopher, who clears our heads of the idea of substance and of the idea that something out there decides our values for us and tells us how to live. He forces us to go back to the very beginning, and helps us grasp again the radicalism of Jesus and the Buddha.
Can Church-Christianity, seeking renewal and self-transcendence, really go back now to its own beginning by shedding all its structures and assumptions? It seems not. Yet it is true, as we noted earlier, that there are some 'Kingdom' elements within Church-Christianity. In particular, the Eucharist symbolizes the death of God and his distribution into the fellowship of believers; and Jesus expressly associates the Eucharist with the Kingdom. And secondly, Pentecost celebrates the empowering effect of God's ceasing to be Other and being instead poured out into human beings as Spirit. So both the Eucharist and Pentecost are about the coming of Kingdom-religion; and since they are both entrenched within the Church, might they not provide routes by which the Church could now seek to go beyond itself into the Kingdom?