Emeritus Professor Lloyd Geering
The Evolving Path of Faith
Keynote Speech at the annual Conference of The Sea of Faith Network (NZ) at Cambridge, New Zealand on 25 September 2004
Humankind today stands at a critical point in its long and complex history. Too few people realise this. We are moving into an increasingly global future. Not only are we becoming dependent on a global economy but the many diverse cultures of the past are being drawn into a cultural maelstrom. All this, coupled with the advanced state of our technology, means that humankind faces a common future or no future at all. These alternatives were well expressed in the Mosaic tradition in words, not written by Moses but by Jews some six hundred years later, trying to interpret the God of Moses for the critical times in which they lived.
But whoever would choose death and curse?
The words are really challenging us to become wise enough to know the path that leads to life.
The cultural paths that led us to the present were not only diverse but must now adapt themselves to the new global context. Just as our view of the universe has changed out of all recognition in the last four hundred years, so also has our understanding of culture, of religion and of the human condition itself. Far from the human species being created in its current form at the beginning of time, it took aeons for humanity and culture to evolve in tandem. By 'culture' I mean 'that complex whole which, grounded in a common language, includes the knowledge and beliefs which constitute a particular world-view, along with a set of customs, morals, skills, and arts, with which to respond to that world'.
From time immemorial our ancestors took their respective cultures for granted. Being immersed in culture from birth they were unaware of their dependence upon it. They took language for granted, much as we take for granted the air we breathe. People never thought of language as something humanly created. Language was assumed to have existed before the beginning of time; indeed, in the biblical myth of origins, it was the very instrument by which the world was created. God had only to say, 'Let there be light!' and there was light.
It is only since the time of Charles Darwin that all this has been turned upside down. We have come to realise that human languages and cultures have slowly evolved out of the primitive social life of our pre-human ancestors. They began more than a million years ago. Whether there ever was a proto-language and a proto-culture we do not know. What we do know is that, as the human species spread around the globe, it created thousands of languages, cultures and subcultures.
What made human culture possible was the human ability to create symbols; it is the symbolization of sounds that formed the basis of language. Culture is the man-made environment of thought and meaning by which we interpret our experience of reality. Culture differentiates us from the other higher animals even more than the genes which determine our physical form. We become human as we are shaped by the culture into which we are born. But we in turn help to shape the culture we pass on to the next generation.
Each culture is an ever evolving and developing continuum of words, stories, ideas, codes of behaviour and social practices. It flows through time like an ever-changing stream. Today the many cultural streams from the past are flowing into one global sea. They not only have to compete with one another but they are contributing to the formation of an (as yet incipient) global culture.
The coming global culture will be humanistic because all cultures, being human creations, have a common human base. It will also be secular. By 'secular' I mean 'this-worldly and natural' as opposed to 'other-worldly and supernatural'. The modern knowledge explosion has brought about the gradual dissolution of all world-views, which divided the universe into the dichotomous realms of natural/supernatural, earthly/heavenly, and material/spiritual. Those world-views have been replaced by one that sees reality as one vast physical universe of astronomic dimensions of space and time. This universe operates according to its own internal laws and is self-evolving. What our forbears took to be signs of supernatural forces turn out to be the products of primitive interpretation and human imagination.
'Secular' does not mean 'non-religious'. Religion is the depth dimension of every culture. It is that which provides culture with motivation and cohesion. It is not some thing that can be added to culture or taken away from it. Religion has been usefully defined as ‘a total mode of the interpreting and living of life’. Because the popular use of the word ‘religion’ is too often identified with supernatural beliefs, that distinguished scholar of world religions, W. Cantwell Smith proposed that we should replace the word 'religion' with two other terms the 'cumulative tradition' and 'faith'.
The term 'faith' refers to the internal attitude of trust in relation to life in the world. Christians have no monopoly of it, even though it has been one of their basic words. Faith of some kind is essential to human existence. We humans cannot live well without faith or trust. The absence of faith leads to depression, lack of motivation and despair. When Jesus said to the woman, 'Your faith has made you whole', he was not referring to her beliefs but to her trust and attitude to life. I shall return to this later.
Smith’s term 'cumulative tradition' refers to the objective products which accumulate as a particular society walks its path of faith such as stories, Holy Scriptures, temples, and sacred practices. The cumulative tradition marks out the path of faith and gives identity to a culture. It is the product of faith, and though it serves to nurture the faith of later generations it is not to be confused with faith itself. Where this confusion does unfortunately happen, faith is replaced by idolatry. Most cumulative traditions become strewn with fallen idols. In a vibrant culture the inner experience of faith is continually manifesting itself in new creations as it evolves to meet the new circumstances of its time. As Smith said, "One’s beliefs belong to the century one lives in, but what endures from generation to generation is the inner experience of faith".
Now let us turn to the path of faith that is often referred to today as the Judeo-Christian tradition. It has always been manifesting some change; there have been innumerable examples of both continuity and discontinuity in its four thousand year history. But there have been two major periods of quite radical cultural change. The first was when it came to birth during what is now called the First Axial Period.
The year 500 BCE marks the approximate centre of the First Axial Period. It divided the cultural evolution of humankind much more distinctively than did the Christian division of time into BC and AD. During the First Axial period, and for the first time in known human history, many great cultural traditions came under critical examination. Courageous new steps were taken by thinkers and charismatic teachers. They are known today as the prophets of Israel, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster, the Buddha, Mahavira, the Hindu seers, the Chinese teachers Confucius and Lao Tzu, and the philosophers of ancient Greece.
Out of the First Axial Period emerged the new cultural traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism in the Far East; in the Middle East they were chiefly Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Platonism and Stoicism. You will have noticed that I did not mention Jesus and Muhammad among the Axial pioneers. That is because Judaism preceded Christianity and Islam. Christianity claimed Jesus was the fulfilment of Judaism, while Islam saw itself as the affirmation of all that is true in Judaism and Christianity. These three form one triple-stranded monotheistic tradition. All these traditions which evolved out of the Axial Period increasingly replaced or absorbed the cultural traditions that had preceded them; those earlier traditions had been based both on ethnic ties and the veneration of the forces of nature. A good example is found in Maori culture, prior to contact with the West.
The term Second Axial Age refers to the cultural and religious change by which the Western world gave birth to the modern global, secular and humanistic world, which is now spreading round the globe. The Second Axial Age emerged out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, just as the First Axial Age arose out of the ethnic and nature cultures that had preceded it. We can trace it in part to the philosophy of William of Ockham, already labelled the Via Moderna. That and other seeds began to germinate in the Renaissance humanists, the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment. No one of its pioneering figures, such as Erasmus, Luther, John Locke, ever thought of himself as departing from the Christian tradition.
Yet it became clear, as time went on, that the emerging secular and humanistic world is not Christian in the way pre-modern Christendom was. But neither is it anti-Christian. It is best described as post-Christian, for it still reflects the values and customs of the tradition that gave it birth.
Too few recognise the continuity between the modern secular world and the Christian world out of which it emerged. Fundamentalists, both Christian and Muslim, treat the coming of the humanistic and secular world as the spread of the domain of Satan and hence an enemy to fought. This is because they identify their respective traditions with doctrines formulated to fit the supernaturalistic world-view of the past. Even the main line churches, struggling to retain their identity, too often fall into the same superficial judgment.
Those Christians who treat past creeds, and even the Bible itself, as containing absolute and unchangeable truths, not only replace genuine faith with idolatry and blind superstition but they impede the legitimate evolution of the Judeo-Christian path of faith. Instead of being the promoters of faith, as they claim to be, they become the defenders of idolatry and superstition. I define superstition as any belief or practice that has outlived the now obsolete cultural context in which it was appropriate.
Today’s secular culture evolved out of Christian culture in much the same way as Christian culture evolved out of Jewish culture. Just as the Christian tradition claimed to be the legitimate fulfilment of Judaism, so the modern, secular and humanistic world is the legitimate flowering of some basic Christian affirmations, such as the incarnation. The enfleshment of the divine within the human condition can be expressed in today’s terminology as the humanisation of God, the secularisation of the divine, and the earthing of heaven. Indeed, the post-Christian culture of the West should now be called the Judeo-Christian-secular tradition, in order to specify the chief phases through which it has passed.
In each of the Axial transitions there has been both continuity and discontinuity. The old and the new exist in tension alongside of each other for quite some time, giving rise often to bitter antagonism. Only when viewed from a distance does the continuity become apparent. That is why, living as close as we do to the Second Axial Period, we are much more aware of the discontinuity than of the continuity. On the other hand, we are so used to affirming the continuity in the Judeo-Christian tradition that we often fail to see the discontinuity that occurred at the First Axial Period.
Up until then, all human cultures explained the phenomena of nature as acts performed by a plethora of gods and spirits. These gods were the creation of the symbol-making capacity of the human imagination. Each god had his or her own proper name and was allotted a particular function to perform. The word 'god' was a generic term referring to a class of spiritual beings.
In the sixth century BCE the Greek philosopher Xenophanes subjected the gods to critical examination. He condemned them for their immorality and poked fun at their anthropomorphic character. In India Gautama the Buddha took a different approach. He judged the gods to be irrelevant to the religious quest for human fulfilment; the gods were marginalized, and eventually faded from Buddhist terminology.
The Israelite prophets pioneered the Judeo-Christian tradition by openly attacking the gods of the other nations, warning their people not "to go after other gods to their own hurt". In the sixth century BCE they went much further, poking fun at all the gods, scornfully dismissing them as having no reality; gods were simply human creations. Here was radical discontinuity with the past. But, unlike the Buddhists, the Israelites retained the Hebrew word for 'the gods' – elohim (plural in form). Here was continuity. But the word received a new meaning. The word elohim, which once denoted a class of beings, now came to be treated as a personal name. For the Jews, henceforth, all divine power became concentrated into one unseeable spiritual force. Thus was born monotheism.
There was further discontinuity. Before the Babylonian Exile the people of Israel, like all other peoples, had a land of their own, and the gods had their own dwelling-places, called temples. During and after the Exile the Jewish people ceased to be united by a dynasty and land possession and, eventually, they learned to do without a Temple. They became a community held together only by their faith in their cultural tradition. It was then that Judaism came to birth. Thus, in the process of this birth, a radical religious transition had taken took place, to be summarised this way.
These same radical reforms carried through into the two derivative forms of monotheism – Christian and Islamic. All three were monotheistic, all three had their respective Holy Scriptures, and the non-priestly institution of the synagogue became the prototype of church and mosque. Unfortunately, as the three separate cumulative traditions subsequently developed their own elaborate complexities, Jew, Christian and Muslim lost sight of what all three had in common, including the radical nature of the religious transition that had taken place in the Axial Period.
Jew, Christian and Muslim all claim to worship one God. But is it the same God? The God of monotheism, being invisible, can be known only by appeal to divine revelation; and here lies the problem. The Jewish God revealed his will in the Torah. The Christian God revealed himself in Jesus Christ. The Muslim God revealed his final will in the Qur’an. It is impossible to reconcile these three forms of revelation. Since two of them must be in error, appeal to divine revelation must be fallible. It was only going to be a matter of time before the concept of divine revelation would fall into disrepute. This occurred with the critical rational enquiry that gave rise to the Second Axial Period.
At the First Axial Period the gods were declared to be unreal, being the created products of human imagination. In the Second Axial Period the God of classical monotheism has lost reality as a divine person and has come to be seen as a humanly created symbol, referring to a cluster of supreme values. During the last five hundred years our understanding of origins has been turned upside down. We humans used to see ourselves as the creation of a supernatural deity; now we find it is we who created such verbal symbols as 'God'. We can even write a history of God, as Karen Armstrong has done so brilliantly.
Instead of believing ourselves to have been made in the image of a divine being, we find we are earthly organisms who have evolved on this planet. And, like all other planetary organisms, we live a finite existence between conception and death. Compared with the time span of the earth, and even with the life of any particular species, the life of us individual persons seems infinitesimally short. All this and more is what we mean when we speak of the modern world-view as secular or this-worldly.
In this secular view of the universe, God, along with his heavenly dwelling-place, has lost any objective reality. The concept of divine revelation has proved to be faulty. There is no need to postulate a supernatural creator to explain natural phenomena. Neither do we now expect divine providence to deliver us from our misfortunes. That is why, as theologian John Macquarrie observed, "among educated people throughout the world, the traditional kind of God-talk has virtually ceased". Here lies the discontinuity. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed, "People can no longer be religious in the traditional way". The traditional way was dependent on the dualistic world-view that has now become obsolete.
But a new kind of god-talk is taking the place of the old. Here lies the continuity. Just as the Jews retained their word for god but gave it a new meaning, so at this Second Axial Period, god-talk now plays a different role. This had its roots in the biblical tradition itself when it spoke of 'the god of Israel', 'the god of Abraham', 'my god', and 'your god'. The 'god of Abraham' was unseeable; so if one were to ask, "How can I learn about the god of Abraham?" the appropriate answer would be, "Watch how Abraham lives his life. Try to understand what motivates him at the deepest level. That is all you will ever know of the god of Abraham." So, by god-talk in the secular world, one is referring to the values we live by and the goals we aspire to.
In the modern secular world the supernatural forces and the objective personal God have lost their reality. What survives from the Christian past are its human values and motivating aspirations. Some of these, such as love, compassion, and justice, were long treated as the attributes of God. "God is love", says the New Testament. Jesus exhorted us to live like God "You must be as completely good as is your Father in heaven". The fact that we can now refer to them as human values, and find some of them highly honoured in other cultural traditions also, does not make them any the less important.
Other values, such as freedom, were long prominent in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The pursuit of human freedom started when Moses led the Israelites out of slavery. It went further when Jesus freed people from religious legalism. That is why Paul exclaimed to his Galatian converts, "You were called to freedom" and the Fourth Evangelist put into the mouth of Jesus, "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you free".
With the coming of the modern world, however, the pursuit of freedom has flourished as never before, starting with the freedom to think for oneself. It was quickly followed by the freedom to speak and to publish. This led to a whole series of emancipations – the democratic emancipation from absolute monarchy, the emancipation of the slaves, the emancipation of women from male domination, and, currently, the emancipation of homosexuals from homophobia. Sadly, the churches have often been initially opposed to these emancipations, just as they now fail to see the signs of the kingdom of God in the coming of the secular world.
The values most highly prized in the secular world are the continuation and expansion of values in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These values, such as love, justice, and freedom, convince us by their own inherent worth. They do not need the support of divine authority. The authority their worth exerts over us has replaced that of the now departing deity. Those persons who love their fellows because they are convinced of the value of love are more morally mature than those who love because they are commanded by a higher authority.
That is why this new cultural age has been called 'Humankind’s coming of age'. Just as an individual, on attaining adulthood, must leave behind the security of parental control, and take responsibility for his or her own actions, so the human race must now learn how to practice love, justice and peaceful co-existence because it recognises their inherent value and not out of fear of Hell or the reward of Heaven.
But 'humankind’s coming of age' also means that individuals are freer to choose their way of life or path of faith. This is why we have come to value diversity more than conformity. The conformity of belief and practice so dominant in the past made 'heresy' the most heinous of sins. 'Heresy' is derived from a Greek word that means 'choice'; it is used in the New Testament to refer to those who have the audacity to choose their own way of life in contrast with that of the majority. As Peter Berger pointed out in his book The Heretical Imperative, modernity has brought to human life an extraordinary expansion in the choices to be made. This is not only in the supermarket; much more importantly it is in the area of religious belief and practice. We are now free to choose our personal way of life; we do so from a veritable smorgasbord of options. In the free and open society of today the exercise of personal choice is not merely permitted but has become a necessity. We are all forced to be choosers, that is heretics!
The path of faith, along with the moral life associated with it, have become personalised as never before. We are now challenged to make new moral decisions and to work out our own solutions to the problems of life. Of course this new freedom has its negative side. It brings no guarantee that we shall make wise choices. Just as many an adolescent goes off the rails on reaching adulthood, this danger becomes greatly magnified when the whole human species comes of age, and becomes free from the cultural restraints of the past. Too often people selfishly engage in anti-social behaviour. Too often people abandon one form of superstition only to adopt another one. Too often people abandon the traditional God only to make idols out of material objects.
What is the answer to these unfortunate consequences of the new freedom? Some opt to return to the apparent security of the cultural womb from which we all emerged. That is the attraction of the widespread rise of fundamentalism. In so far as this brings seems to bring immediate relief and spiritual satisfaction, fundamentalists receive their reward, as Jesus might have said. But the fundamentalist response requires one, in ostrich like fashion, to shut one’s eyes and close one’s mind to everything that is in conflict with its beliefs.
But though fundamentalism provides no lasting solution, there is one thing we can learn from this modern religious phenomenon. If we are going to find a satisfactory path of faith into the global future, we need to study our cultural past to understand who we are, how we got to where we are, and how we came to discern the supreme human values which still lay a claim upon us. The study of the past illuminates the present but it does not dictate the future. That is why the Bible remains an invaluable set of documents. We learn much from it but we are not bound by it.
To exemplify this I now take three themes from it, which are basic to the Judeo-Christian tradition, and yet universal to the human condition.
The first is faith. Every cultural tradition is an evolving path of faith. The Bible itself emphasizes this when that narrates a history of faith, starting with the figure of Abraham. In these days of increasing contact between the Christian and Islamic worlds it is salutary to remember that the figure of Abraham is equally important to the faith traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Jews honour Abraham as the father of their nation. Christians honour Abraham as a model man of faith. Muslims honour Abraham as the first Muslim.
But what made Abraham a model man of faith? It was because he heeded the voice he heard within him and, as the New Testament says, went out not knowing where he was to go. He had no map. He had no Torah, no Bible, and no Qur’an to guide him. The Midrashic Jewish legends even tell how Abraham smashed his father’s idols before setting on his journey. Faith requires us to surrender attachment to all tangibles. For the journey of faith we must be free of all excess baggage.
The Judeo-Christian tradition has on many occasions found itself so weighed down by its accumulating tradition that it has had to jettison its excess baggage. The Protestant Reformers abandoned a great deal of what had accumulated in mediaeval Christianity, including the belief in Purgatory. The Second Axial Period requires us to jettison a great deal more than the Protestant Reformers did heaven and hell, a divine saviour, an objective personal deity, and the whole system of dogma constructed around them. Important as these doctrines may have been in the past as the expression of faith, they have now become a hindrance to faith.
Faith is not dependent on belief in a personal God or in any particular object. In common human experience faith is multi-faceted and operates at a variety of levels. That is why, in various secular contexts, we may be exhorted to put faith in ourselves, in our ideas, in other people, in the natural world. It is over to us to clarify for ourselves just what we put our faith in; for, whatever that is, it has become our god. That remarkable Christian visionary and scientist, Teilhard de Chardin, was so awestruck by what he had learned of the self-evolving universe that he once said,
"If, as the result of some interior revolution, I were to lose in succession my faith in Christ, my faith in a personal God, and my faith in spirit, I feel that I should continue to believe invincibly in the world. The world…is the first, the last and the only thing in which I believe. It is by this faith that I live."
In this ecologically sensitive age, that is a good place to begin. The evolution of life on this planet is an awe-inspiring mystery and was what Teilhard had come to understand as God. The capacity of life both to diversify and to renew itself is more breath-taking than any of the incidental events that were traditionally called miracles. The creativity manifested by the human species in its evolving cultures more than compensates for the vandalizing and destructive tendencies it also possesses. All these observable facts are sufficient to generate faith even though they provide no guarantees. Dispensing with all of the supposed certainties of the past we have to walk into the future depending on faith alone. Faith is a matter of saying ‘Yes!’ to life and all that it offers.
The second theme is hope. This is as basic to the human condition as is faith. "Hope springs eternal in the human breast", said Alexander Pope. Where hope dies, faith grows weak, for the two are closely allied.
The experience of hope has played a dominant role in the long history of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Abraham looked forward to a city which has foundations. Moses looked to a land flowing with milk and honey. The Babylonian exiles hoped for the restoration of the Kingdom of David. Christians looked for the coming of the Kingdom of God, the very words becoming permanently captured in the Lord’s Prayer "Thy Kingdom come". In the course of time, however, this hope became transformed into a post-mortem personal destiny in heaven, which even became known theologically as the Christian Hope.
The coming of the secular world has brought us back to earth again where something like the original intention of the 'the Kingdom of God' is once more relevant. Our chief hopes for the future are much more this worldly. Individually, of course, we hope for a long and healthy life. Collectively, we hope for social harmony, for economic prosperity, and for international peace. More recently our hope has incorporated the conservation of the earth’s ecology.
Hope must not be confused with blind optimism. As I have tried to show in a book, The World to Come, the century we have entered is presenting us with so many frightening challenges that it is becoming quite difficult to hold out hope for a better world. Yet, as theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said,
"It is just because we cannot know whether humanity is going to survive or not, we have to act today as if the future of the whole of humanity were dependent on us".
My third theme from the Bible is love. There has always been general agreement that this is central to the Judeo-Christian tradition. Jesus named, as the two major commandments, injunctions selected from the Jewish Scriptures "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength", and "You shall love your neighbour as yourself".
But Jesus went further than anything in the Jewish tradition. He said, "Love your enemies". This is the most original dictum in all of his teaching. It is sadly ironic that through Christian history the exhortation most central to the teaching of Jesus is just what Christians have found most difficult to carry out. Not only have professing Christians been little better than anybody else in loving their enemies but even the centrality of love itself became obscured. The love for others that we were exhorted to fulfil was projected on to a divine Saviour so that his love for us would provide us with personal salvation. The original message of love, which exhorted us to save others, became distorted into one of exploiting it to secure our own salvation.
It is strange that so few have ever noticed the conflict between Christian dogma and the most authentic sayings of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount a sharp contrast is drawn between the wise builder who built his house on bedrock and the foolish builder who built his house on sand. We should note that it was not because of divine providence that the one house stood firm while the other perished. It was due to the wisdom of the man who built it. This, like so many of the exhortations of Jesus, manifests the moral philosophy expounded by the Christian monk Pelagius, which Christian orthodoxy judged to be heresy.
The deconstruction of Christian dogma has brought back to light the bare outlines of the original Jesus, the teacher, the man of wisdom, the one who, while sharing the tensions and uncertainties of human existence, also revitalised the path to freedom, the way to live life ‘more abundantly’. No wonder people are said to have heard him gladly. No wonder, after he was crucified, they came to assert, in the symbolic language of their time, that he was so alive himself, and brought so much new life to others, that it seemed that that not even death could conquer him.
Paul rightly said that the lasting values in life are faith, hope and love and the greatest of these is love.
I have tried to show that the secular, global world, far from being the enemy of Christianity is the legitimate continuation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It still honours its abiding values, while shedding much of its past symbols and creedal formulations. The more we acknowledge this relationship, and give due respect to the matrix out of which the modern world has emerged, the more it will continue to support us on our path into the future.
The traditional worship of God has now become the celebration of life. The wisdom to choose life lies in the exercise of those values which promote life in all of its planetary complexity. Chief among them is the moral imperative to love, coupled with justice, compassion and a host of others. Faith requires us to be free of all excess baggage. Hope requires us to be open to an ever-evolving future. Love requires us to be inclusive of all people and of all cultural traditions.
Lloyd Geering 2004