Shuck and Jive

Monday, February 19, 2007

1973: The Year the Kingdom Died

I just finished Don Cupitt's little book, The Great Questions of Life. Cupitt writes philosophy/theology from a non-realist perspective and from the perspective of ordinary people. He listens for phrases that people make in ordinary conversations about the meaning of life. He suggests that the word Life has replaced God for ultimate meaning.

He talks about this in particular in his book, Life, Life. That book is a compilation of the phrases regarding life that people use. Here are a few examples:

That's Life. Life is what you make it. Live your life. Life sucks. Life is good. Get a life.
He has catalogued 250 of these phrases we use that have replaced the language formerly in the domain of religious traditions. His ethic is to devote oneself to Life--to this Life in all of its contingency, suffering, and joy. Live your life.

In The Great Questions of Life he tackles the great questions of philosophy and religion. He writes:

"I have here attempted something that, I think, has not been done before: I have tried to list and classify all the great questions of life, citing them in the formulations that you are most likely to have heard people use. Please write and tell me of any glaring omissions or errors that strike you." (p, 95)
These are listed in his appendix:

A. Questions about the meaning point, purpose, or worth of It All

1) Why are we here?
Why were we put on this Earth?
What are we here for?

2) What is the meaning of life?
What is the point of it all?
What's it all supposed to mean?
What's it all about?

3) Does it matter?
What's the point?
Does anything matter?
What does it all matter?
'In the long run we are all dead'. (J.M. Keynes)
'If Darwin's right, we are just accidental by-products of a meaningless universe, and nothing we do makes any real difference'. (Popular evangelical apologetics)

B. Speculative questions in metaphysics and cosmology

4) Is there a God?
Does God exist?

5) Is death the end?
Are we, or do we have, souls?

6) How did everything begin?
How did life begin?
Who are we? Who made us?
How did consciousness begin? 'Can machines think?'

C. Questions about Be-ing, or finite being: questions, that is, about coming-to-be and passing-away; about temporality, contingency and finitude

7) Why is it that anything at all exists: why is there not just nothing?
It is not how things are in the world that is mystical, but that it exists. (Wittgenstein, TLP 6.44)

8) Is the past real?
Where are the snows of yesteryear?

9) What does it all mean?
It doesn't mean anything in particular, it just happens.
What am I meant to be doing/What am I cut out for?
If it has go your number on it, that's it.
That's it. (But see 13, below)

D. Supplementaries

10) What is ultimately real?
What is the nature of ultimate reality?

11) Who am I?
What is the great question of my life?/ 'What has been my own personal take on the great questions of life?'

12) Are we alone?
Is there anybody out there?
'The truth is out there'.

13) Is that it?
Is that all?
Was that it?

14) ...till kingdom come
Where will it all end?
Where are we going?
What will become of us?
What is the world coming to?

15) Whence is evil?
Where has evil come from?
Why do we suffer?

16) How can I know for sure whether I am awake or dreaming?
Are we all dreaming?
Is someone else--God, perhaps--dreaming us?

He provides his own answer to each of them. I would not answer all of these questions in the same way. I am not sure I wholeheartedly agree with non-realism. But you don't need to in order to benefit from this book. That is I think, part of the point. Each of us has to answer them for ourselves. We can ignore them or defer them. But we are faced with them. He suggests, and I agree, that each of us does need to wrestle with them and to find our answers to them for the purpose of finding our own peace with them and with Life.

I found his answer to question 14 the most disturbing of all. Perhaps that is because question 14 is the one that most haunts me. It is the question I have asked since I was an adolescent and probably the question that led me into the ministry and is the guiding force for what I worry about and do.

14) ...till kingdom come
Where will it all end?

Where are we going?

What will become of us?

What is the world coming to?

Cupitt writes that this question is one that no longer concerns us. He offers a date at which we stopped asking it, 1973:

"I have mentioned the year 1973 because I recall that it was in the mid-seventies that I first noticed that the belief in progress and 'the perfectibility of man' had just died, and because 1973 is sometimes cited as the year when the standard of living of American blue-collar workers finally stopped rising. The year 1973 was the year when the tide turned. It was also, of course, the year when Western consumers were forcefully reminded of the finitude of the earth's natural resources, such as oil. Today, the picture of a future glorious consummation of the whole world-historical process has finally faded from people's minds. The question of human destiny has ceased to be one of the great questions." p. 90

He writes further:

"We face instead a dull prospect: in a few centuries we will very probably have the earth uninhabitable, and we will die out. It might be possible to avert this fate if we could find and cultivate some motive or value strong enough to override the competitive nationalism and the concern for economic growth that rule us at present, but there seems little likelihood of that. The big coming nations, China, India, Russia, and Brazil, will simply race on unstoppably until global disaster overtakes us all. Predictively, the future is death; and as a topic of serious religious thought, the future is dead." p. 90

Wow. The kingdom is still a great question for me. When I sent out my Personal Information Form for congregations to see if I was a match for them, I wrote in answer to the most pressing theological questions facing us, the following:

“I am 42 and my great-nephew, Hunter, is 1. The biggest theological issue for me is this: what will the world be like for Hunter when he is 42?”
I am not ready to give up on the kingdom. I am not ready to say, the hell with it all, let's just get stoned, play video games, and follow the advice of Job's wife, "Curse God and die." Nor am I interested in retreating into the dangerous fundamentalist world-denying philosophy of waiting (and even seeking to bring on) an apocalyptic Armageddon that concludes with Jesus the Divine Superman magically returning to save the true believers.

Nope. None of that. I see some small signs of hope. The movement to end the Iraqi war is one. The movement (by some evangelicals) to preserve the environment is another. I also have a hope in the creativity of the human spirit, the phoenix that rises from the ashes, the intensity of the desire for Life as seen in Evolution itself to motivate us and to turn us toward a sustainable, hopeful, future. I am not ready to give up on the kingdom. I am not sure that Cupitt is either. He writes, perhaps wistfully:

"Such is the present position: but it leaves me with a doubt. Is it possible, at this very late date, to talk about reviving a religious concern for the course and outcome of the human project as a whole? It has proved possible to persuade people to take a great deal of trouble and pay a substantial premium in order to rescue and preserve portions of the natural envionment and some animal species. Might it be possible along similar lines to get people interested in a hugely costly effort to preserve the environment as a whole, and the human species?" p. 90

Might it be possible?
What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. It seems that Dr. Cuppitt is one of the most provincial thinkers you read, consumed with the thoroughly continental enterprise of post-enlightenment deconstruction. To think that the question of life after life ended in 1973 could only be done in the vacuum of Western hemisphere academia.

    Millions of people in China, Africa, and South America are daily making declarations of faith in Jesus (the Jesus of historic, catholic-orthodox, Christian faith). Even if that weren't the case, he ignores the fact that Salafi Islam is driven by a belief in a literal paradise for faithful Muslims.

    The question isn't asked in European-influenced academic circles, but it's very much alive in hospital rooms across the country where families gather around a dying loved one. And it's certainly alive within the Islamic world.