The Sea of Faith

Late to this party, I know, but I finished reading Don Cupitt’s Sea of Faith, his argument for a non-realism in religion. I found it rather underwhelming, I have to say. The introduction was excellent, and the last chapter was also cogent, but most of it was actually a riff on the history of thought, rather than a impassioned argument for the validity of his position. It was almost as if his argument was “look we’ve been loosing our faith in a literal God for a while, let’s give in to the inevitable”. Which is fine and dandy, but rather intellectually dull, I thought.

Still, I think the fundamental thesis is right. God is a human construction.

I was irked when Don shows his hand as a postmodernist at the end. In a particular kind of pomo non-realism. He concludes that God is not objectively real, because nothing is. God is as real as anything, because everything is a construction of human conception and language. Of course this is complete bollocks. And rather undermines his argument. Why bother going on about God for a whole book then, when what you basically want to say is everything is imaginary? I’ve no time for that kind of pomo.

But that may be just a paragraph’s woolly thinking. My biggest problem with the book is that, if God were really a personally constructed myth, that each of us is free to construct or reconstruct according to our personal religious needs, why on earth would one want to construct a God-concept at all? The notion of a private God myth is hardly very useful.

Mythology is a group activity. God is useful to the extent that the mythology is shared, because it gives rise to patterns of behavior. And so it seems to me that the effect of taking on board Don’s ideas is to fall into the trap of de-mythologising the doctrines yet remaining loyal to Christianity (or some other particular religion of one’s context). Which in turn is to miss out on anything useful that the reforming can do for you (since you reformed what you destroyed back to its original shape). To understand that there isn’t an objective creator of the universe who will damn you for disobedience, and then to knowingly recite that very same being in myth form is surely somewhat perverse in its futility?

And that in turn means that The Sea of Faith basically reads as nothing more than a way of saying “you lost your faith? Never mind, its okay, keep doing what you were doing”. Fine and dandy, but rather dull.

Am I missing something really profound here… Or is it because I start from an atheist perspective I don’t have the existing emotional investment in these doctrines? The only reason I’d want to go anywhere near believing or acting as if I believed in a large chunk of Christian doctrine is if they were actually true. Voluntarily adopting them as myth seems simply insane to me.

Advertisements

18 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

18 responses to “The Sea of Faith

  1. John Clavin

    “My biggest problem with the book is that, if God were really a personally constructed myth, that each of us is free to construct or reconstruct according to our personal religious needs, why on earth would one want to construct a God-concept at all? The notion of a private God myth is hardly very useful.”
    Let me bore everyone again with my stories of alcohol and drug recovery.
    When one is caught up in compulsive alcohol and drug use, they sometimes need to get their mind off themselves and focus on something else, usually referred to as something bigger than them self. The religious paradigm works perfectly for this process. One will imagine a god that is all good and takes care of things. Even if you die things will be OK because you go to heaven, although I am not sure if drinking is allowed in heaven.
    Atheists like myself in recovery will use the same process, but with thoughts of distant galaxies, atomic particles, or the collective consciousness of humans, as something bigger than me that I can focus on.
    But the vast majority of people in recovery are somewhere in between the two concepts. They logically don’t believe in the literal concepts that religion puts forth, and they feel that an atheist position is too radical or too confusing. Often they don’t even care about either extreme, they are just happy to be sober, and even though they may feel that religion is a myth, it works for them. People will conjure up Charlton Heston, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Bruce, or “The Force” from Star Wars, to be the image of their god. often mixing that with bits from the bible. creating their own private god myth. Seeing many people use this method to stay sober I think that it can be very useful.
    “If you just believe, Jesus will be in your heart.” Said by a guy that I used to argue with about religion. Now I know what he meant.

  2. Ian

    Hmmm… good point. Okay, I’ll withdraw that. I can see in some cases there can be use for a private mythology.

    I do find it a little difficult to imagine how, if I was really trying to believe in a higher power, the Force would work for me. I would be behind the curtain, and so I can’t fathom how the myth would have power. But I’ll defer to your experience there.

  3. John Clavin

    “I can’t fathom how the myth would have power.”

    The power comes from the inner self of the individual. The myth, or the imagined power greater than oneself, is only a point of reflection.

    I saw “Tron Legacy” today hoping for a spiritual experience, but it didn’t quite take me there.

  4. Ian, I’m kinda with you on the deep visceral abreaction to post-modernist bullshit. I haven’t read SoF, but I have listened to a few interviews with Don Cupitt & read some of his articles; I agree with him part of the way, but would be a bit more emphatic in calling a spade a spade. There is an objective reality out there, but certain barriers to how we can say meaningful stuff about it. The scientific enterprise has been The vast sparkling example of how we really *can* break that barrier, and I very much take the view that it is True that “god” is non-existent in the traditional theistic sense of something (at the very least) external to and prior to humans who collectively built the concepts.

    However, I still think a very basic form of Christianity (to me anyway) has an aesthetic charm, and provides a useful group narrative for getting things done. Secular humanism hasn’t got there yet (probably by the very nature of secular humanists – freethinkers who reject authority are difficult to herd, which is a good thing of course).

    That’s not to say that we can simply slump back in the pews as Atheistic Christians and leave the minister to prattle on as if he was saying something useful. One reason I tend to label myself as an Atheistic Christian is to try to engage with and challenge (and be challenged) by other Christians; I also quite like the idea of there being an escape slide that allows Christians who have twigged that theism is probably not all it’s cracked up to be to abandon the beliefs without necessarily (at this point) abandoning their *lives* – because that’s how wrapped up a lot of people are.

    I appreciate that this isn’t perhaps an *entirely* coherent set of concepts 🙂

  5. Ian

    However, I still think a very basic form of Christianity (to me anyway) has an aesthetic charm

    I guess that was what I was inelegantly trying to say too. That if you are going to adopt the mythology, it is because the mythology is shared and has social and cultural connections. There’s no point in building your own mythology, and if there were, why would you want to build it like Christianity? Of course, John’s point is well made – there may be good reasons to build your own mythology – as a was to personify and externalise your own strength. I guess I just haven’t thought this all through enough.

  6. “I’ve no time for that kind of pomo.”

    Just out of curiosity, but what kind of pomo do you have time for? 🙂

    I wouldn’t say you are missing something terribly profound, but maybe just not allowing for lowered expectations when it comes to human beings. Especially in terms of incoherence and inconsistency. We’ve built entire histories from people claiming one set of beliefs but acting on another.

    Personally I believe we do build personal mythologies all the time in order to self-identify and come to understandings of the group(s) we align or don’t align with. (Like suggested above)

    “The only reason I’d want to go anywhere near believing or acting as if I believed in a large chunk of Christian doctrine is if they were actually true. Voluntarily adopting them as myth seems simply insane to me.”

    This maybe says something about you, but may not hold for large chunks of the population. What reasons do any of the last 10-20 presidents of the US have for believing/acting as if they believed in Christian doctrine? Other than they might have been (in)sane…

    Sabio has a couple of great posts on the contradictory beliefs people mash together.

  7. Ian

    @Andrew – I’m beginning to think that this post was quite ill thought out.

    ” What reasons do any of the last 10-20 presidents of the US have for believing/acting as if they believed in Christian doctrine? ”

    Another great defeater. Thanks!

    “I’ve no time for that kind of pomo.”
    “Just out of curiosity, but what kind of pomo do you have time for? ”

    I think objective and subjective concerns are both valuable, and they relate in interesting ways. I am not sympathetic to the idea of giving objectivity hegemony, and I think issues around interpretation and shared meaning systems are crucial. I see objectivity and subjectivity in what I’ve previous called a ‘mutual supervenience’ – a relationship where both are reliant on another – where both can be explained (and should be explained) in terms of the other. To the extent that some post-modern thought agrees with that, I have time for it 🙂

  8. weird quick timing — you must have been online? Very neat.

    Thanks for the response to the pomo question. It surprises me how much scoffing and guff pomo gets. I mean, what else would follow after modernism? 🙂 It’s not like academics would stop and say “well it’s a good thing we have all that figured out now…”

    I like your explanation a lot and have a lot more thinking to do now.

  9. “I’ve no time for that kind of pomo.” Just out of curiosity, but what kind of pomo do you have time for? 🙂 I wouldn’t say you are missing something terribly profound, but maybe just not allowing for lowered expectations when it comes to human beings. Especially in terms of incoherence and inconsistency. We’ve built entire histories from people claiming one set of beliefs but acting on another. Personally I believe we do build personal mythologies all the time in order to self-identify and come to understandings of the group(s) we align or don’t align with. (Like suggested above) “The only reason I’d want to go anywhere near believing or acting as if I believed in a large chunk of Christian doctrine is if they were actually true. Voluntarily adopting them as myth seems simply insane to me.” This maybe says something about you, but may not hold for large chunks of the population. What reasons do any of the last 10-20 presidents of the US have for believing/acting as if they believed in Christian doctrine? Other than they might have been (in)sane… Sabio has a couple of great posts on the contradictory beliefs people mash together.

  10. Ian

    Luann, thanks for commenting and a warm welcome to the blog.

    Yes, I think the comment thread to this post make it clear that I was rash in some of my generalizations. I’m not sure I really stand by this now, after everyone’s good objections.

    “I’ve no time for that kind of pomo.” Just out of curiosity, but what kind of pomo do you have time for?

    Andrew asked the same exact thing above, so I’ll refer you to my answer for that 🙂

    maybe just not allowing for lowered expectations when it comes to human being

    Can you say a bit more about what you’re referring to specifically. Does this tie to the following bit about why one would choose the Christian mythology, or to the pomo bit still?

    Sabio has a couple of great posts on the contradictory beliefs people mash together.

    Yes, on an ordinary day I would usually agree with most of what he says. I think I was feeling a bit cranky when I wrote this.

  11. “I don’t have the existing emotional investment in these doctrines?”

    I think this is key. If you had an investment such mental gymnastics might be welcome so you can keep the benefits (wife, job, status, community …) and not give up too much integrity.

  12. I’ve been pondering this. I doubt you could find two humans who agree on every single point of theology, and I take it for granted that everyone has their own personal god myth.

    Growing up we used the shared one provided by our culture, and when(if?) we grow up we ‘demythologize the doctrines’. By that I take it you mean search and destroy the parts that are demonstrably untrue.

    Throwing the whole thing out is unsatisfactory because, as you say, we have personal religious needs–guidelines for how to relate to things outside our selves–and whatever replaces those original shared doctrines serves that function, like John’s examples.

    History seems to bear out that myth/metaphor is the currency of human cognition: Old Man River, Lady Luck, Jack Frost, Cthulhu, and the best way to replace those untrue metaphors is to build your own. Then interpret their metaphors on your own terms, rather than creating conflict with everyone.

    There may not be a bearded sky daddy who will strike me down, but there are definitely forces greater than me that will kick my ass if I stick my fingers in light sockets, or go sailing in a hurricane. Historically, that would be the Old Man of the Sea, or Neptune, and Odin? Thor? My personal god-myth just dresses them up in modern clothes.
    So, theology is mostly fashion news, and I feel it’s better to make your own clothes than to wear raggedy old hand-me-downs, but you gotta wear something.
    also, if you wear something outrageous, the Great Fashionista in the Sky — oh, please stop me.

  13. Ian

    Uzza, really sorry mate, I’ve no idea why your email got spammed. Just fished it out!

    Thanks for the pondering and the comments. I think you’re right, although I’m struggling to understand how the process of personal myth-making could work, outside of the very specific contexts such as the AA, that John points out. I’ve also decided I can’t really defend most of this post anymore, I obviously haven’t pondered it enough.

    So, theology is mostly fashion news

    I love that quote and the whole last paragraph is inspired. I’ll remember that!

  14. Since reading your response to my comment, I’ve been stewing with these ideas. I’m glad to see others have looked at the idea of integrity, something you touch on in the original post.

    Was that part of your problem with Cupitt? That there seemed a lack of integrity? Because there is something important there. If someone’s internal story is at odds with the world outside or the public version of the world, the tension or conflict doesn’t always go away by saying “This is my myth and that is reality”. I think we do want the two to align in some proper sense, or else we feel that pressure to change our story.

    When the subject and the object don’t agree, how can the story make sense or be meaningful?

    So it sounds like Cupitt might be offering some kind of middle ground for people? It’s not a final stand or anything, which maybe explains the blandness of his message, but rather a transitional message.

    (btw, I agree that Uzza’s “theology is mostly fashion news” is awesome. Nice work, U.)

    Meh. Any more thinking about this and I might have to get the book…

  15. I was force-fed the cartoon version of catholicism, which I rejected early on, but wasn’t willing to assume everyone in the world but me was just stupid (well, once out of my teens). I saw the Church having a few deep thinkers with the time to delve into it, and a mass of uneducated rabble who really wouldn’t understand it even if they cared to try, so they needed simple, colorful metaphors.

    Everyone is different, so different parables work for different people, and each individual applies their own amount of literal-ness in reading the myth. I’ve heard the exact same event described as
    “the Lord told me”
    “an angel came to me”
    “my spirit guide appeared…”
    “it occurred to me”
    “I left my body and…”
    “I got a mental image of”
    “I thought”

    It doesn’t necessarily show a lack of integrity, or even conflict, just differing perspectives on the best way to frame what can only be described metaphorically. The “Jesus’ divinity” discussions strike me as holding up many different god myths for comparison. My own personal god-myth allows others to frame their personal myths with any of these metaphors, and me to understand them through the lens of my own. Of course, I gotta admit sometimes the other guy is just shit-smearing crazy.

  16. Ian

    @Andrew

    I didn’t get the sense that Cupitt lacked integrity. The bit about seeming the change the goalposts when it came to everything being a construct I just read as him using that kind of pomo as a crutch for his flagging argument at that point – as if he’d painted himself into a particular position, then realised the implications of that, and then not followed through on them. I’ve seen that argument rolled out before, particularly around science — it doesn’t tell us anything about the world because it is a human construct.

    I think you’re bit about Cupitt’s transitional stance is a really good one, yes. It felt that way to me. My being underwhelmed was a reaction to that, I think. By the end I was internally shouting at him “Don’t stop, keep going, just follow that thought through.” Because if you get to Cupitt, it seemed to me like only bloody-mindedness that would keep you tied to that particular mythology.

    But now, after the other responses in this thread, including yours, I’m not so sure that is true.

    @Uzza

    Okay, I’m getting you more now. So the personal myth-creation is about taking a smorgasbord of possible myths and picking and choosing those you find useful? Rather than creating them from scratch.

    I like that idea. And it does chime with what I’ve seen.

    “I thought”
    It doesn’t necessarily show a lack of integrity, or even conflict, just differing perspectives on the best way to frame what can only be described metaphorically.

    That was an interesting combination – can you say why you think that the ‘thought’ can only be described metaphorically? Isn’t the non-metaphoric version, just a thought? Or even ‘it occurred to me’ seems non-metaphoric to me.

  17. When one decides the myth is false, integrity affects the choice whether to reject it or continue to profess it hypocritically so as to reap the benefits; but there’s a third way. Not really picking and choosing myths from the smorgasbord so much as choosing how to interpret the myths chosen for us by our community.

    eg, Original Sin, as presented to me by Evil Nuns, is a terrible, unfair idea. Yet, every culture acknowledges that every human could theoretically be a better person than they actually are in practice, and the corollary that there exists a theoretically perfect ideal, one that they could strive toward. We inevitably fall short of that perfection, and one way to state that is that we all “sin”. No value judgment is made by dubbing something with a name.

    One can look at the half empty glass and say: “You’re a miserable sinner! Shame on you for not being perfect.” Or, look at the half-full glass and, knowing that being perfect is impossible by definition, say “You’re a pretty good person. Congratulations on being so far from the bottom of the barrel”.

    The basic notion is what can only be described via metaphor. Sure, you might devise some Cthulhuicly complex sentence that would be technically accurate, but it’ll never turn up on chyrons like “original sin”. (now that I think about it, that non-metaphoric “thought” would likely be some pattern of synaptic connections, if we even know)

    Language is metaphor, and we understand in terms of our own experiences. The nuns were dicks, but I’m free to view their “original sin” as normalcy—no shame attached—and just their dickish way of expressing the notion. I ‘demythologized’ it into a rewrite of Adapa, and their “original sin” as a fable saying what on the other side of the globe was being called imbalance in the Tao. Remythologized it, I guess? I suspect everyone does this, to some extent.

  18. Ian

    Brilliant, thanks Uzza. Makes perfect sense to me! Sorry I was a bit slow.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s