Jun 26 2008

Leaving Port on the Sea of Faith

Published by under Talks


Leaving port on the Sea of Faith.
Bruce Spittle
Dunedin Sea of Faith Group, 26 June 2008.

I would like to introduce for discussion the difficulties involved with leaving port on the Sea of Faith.
In his 1867 poem, Dover Beach, Matthew Arnold noted:

The Sea of Faith was once, too, at the full,
and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
to the breath of the night-wind,
down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Arnold was alluding, in Don Cupitt’s words, to the fact that “the ancient supernatural world of gods and spirits which had surrounded humankind since the first dawn of consciousness, was at last inexorably slipping away.”

One can imagine that in the safety of the port at Dover, in the security of the harbour, nestled below the white cliffs and enclosed by protective breakwaters, one could sense the presence of a supernatural theistic God, omnipotent, caring for each individual, and able to be worshipped and approached in prayer.

In contrast, on the Sea of Faith, God has gone, non-realism reigns, and it is the world of Christianity without a theistic God, where God, if the term has any meaning, represents that which is most highly valued by the individual. In the abstract God lacks meaning but one can speak of the God of John Smith and understand that it refers to what John Smith holds dear. The focus in the Sea of Faith is on this world, on how to live wisely in it and preserving it for generations to come. The idea of life after death is seen to be illusory.

Leaving port on the Sea of Faith involves leaving behind the world of a supernatural realist God and embracing the world of non-realism with no supernatural theistic being. We can look at why anyone would want to make such a journey, what obstacles might be encountered, and what might be the costs and the rewards.

Gregory Dawes spoke on 22 May of some of the reasons why some might like to live in port with a supernatural God. For him the religion that he was interested in had a supernatural God in a central position. He noted that there may be good reasons to believe in God which might be distinct from the reasons why many people did, in fact, believe in God. He did not find supernatural reasons for believing in God to be convincing and preferred natural theories of religion. He felt the theories of religious belief offered by Marx, Durkheim and Freud fell short of the standards of science and could not be tested as it was not possible to falsify them. He noted the recent development of evolutionary and cognitive theories of religion. The evolutionary theories suggested that religious belief could be the product of natural selection and the cognitive theories attributed thinking about gods to the way our minds worked. One idea was the presence of a hypersensitive agency detection device in which humans were seen to have a tendency to interpret what they saw or heard as the work of beings like themselves with beliefs and desires and acting for a reason. This type of thinking was seen to come naturally to children. Because it is difficult to imagine not existing we are predisposed to believe in life after death. Gregory Dawes noted that the development of cognitive theories for understanding the development of a belief in a supernatural God did not mean that the belief in such a God was a false belief. He wondered if the apparent ebbing of the tide on the Sea of Faith was an indicator that a tsunami was coming.

Thus Gregory Dawes suggests that there is a natural tendency to believe in the supernatural, particularly when we are children. Perhaps, under conditions of stress or with advancing age, we also become more childlike and find at these times that supernatural beliefs are easier to have. Gregory Dawes noted that there were people who heard voices but did not regard themselves as having a mental illness or have any wish to have the attention of psychiatrists.

The processes by which we develop our sense of self are complex and a tripartite model of self has been proposed, by Russell Meares in his book Intimacy and Alienation, with I, me, and myself having slightly different meanings. For some the development of a sense of self is difficult and ideas, thoughts, visual images, and voices can originate within the person but be experienced as coming from outside and sometimes be interpreted as coming from a God. When such a God plays an important role in a person’s development and emerging sense of self it would be inappropriate to suddenly leave the relationship behind and leave port.

For many believing in a theistic God is likely to be the result of growing up in a particular culture and accepting the beliefs that are common in that culture. For most people it is sufficient to accept on trust what the authorities in a particular culture say.

Don Feist shared some ideas on authority at the February Sea of Faith meeting. He expressed the view that trust in authorities was being increasingly questioned. The Bible and the Church were seen to have less influence for many than they previously had. The idea that a God existed who was an absolute, unquestionable authority was seen to be unacceptable to many. He considered that those who continued to accept the traditional view, by singing with heartfelt enthusiasm, Sunday by Sunday, about the majesty, glory and power of a God who was Lord of lords and King of kings, were engaged in a desperate rearguard action. He saw no lasting future in Western culture for the authoritative God of old and wondered if it would be possible to create a God who embodied our highest ideals such as love and justice and then give this God some real authority. He wondered if consciously creating this God, as a concrete embodiment of our highest values, would provide a focus for these values and lead to a better world than it would be if there was no God at all.

For myself, creating such a God and then acknowledging the authority of one’s creation seems a bit like melting down jewellery to make a Golden Calf and then worshipping it. However, Ian Harris has written about creating God in his book Creating God, recreating Christ: re-imagining the Christian way in a secular world. Karen Armstrong has seen value in regular disciplined behaviour focussed on something outside of one’s self and that, from this, compassion may emerge.

Ian Fleming, at the Sea of Faith meeting on 27 March noted that Karen Armstrong has studied the history of religion and in 2006 wrote The great transformation: the world in the time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah. She found that the nature of God was less important than being compassionate and thoughtful towards others. She noted Rabbi Hillel summarised his faith without mentioning God at all. “What is hateful to yourself, do not to your fellow man. That is the whole of the Torah and the remainder is but commentary. Go learn it.” She observed that Paul made Christianity a new religion and urged adoption of the compassion ethic by always considering the other person to be better than yourself, so that nobody thinks of his own interests first, but everybody thinks of other people’s interests instead. Similarly Muhammad brought the Qur’an in the 7th Century with a message of practical compassion. It was wrong to build a private fortune selfishly, at the expense of others, and good to share your wealth fairly and create a just and decent society where poor and vulnerable people were treated with respect.

Armstrong considered that the way sages found for people to change from being selfish and in the worst instances, brutal and tyrannical, was not by discovering a belief in God but by helping people make a disciplined effort to re-educate themselves. The very practice of disciplined sympathy would itself yield high experiences of transcendence. The test of true religiosity was whether the convictions helped the person to act compassionately and honour the stranger. Karen Armstrong saw a need for self-criticism and practical, effective action. She saw a similarity between the frightening, war torn societies in which the Axial sages developed their compassionate ethic and our current world, racked by terrorism and war.

Perhaps the difference between being in port and being on the Sea of Faith is not that great. In port, the focus could be seen to be on worshipping and interacting with a theistic God, or a God that we have fine-tuned to better match our times and to which we give authority, and that, as a consequence of these disciplined activities involving turning away from ourselves to an outside deity, we are spurred on to be compassionate to others. On the Sea of Faith, the focus may be more directly on how to be wise and compassionate in the world but possibly being at risk of being tossed about because of the more individualistic nature of the task and a relative lack of an organized regular discipline of turning outwards from oneself. The bell, warning of rocks or calling the people to worship, might toll near the harbour headland than on the open sea.

Thus looking at the questions raised earlier:

Why anyone would want to make the journey from the port, with a theistic God, the opportunity for regular worship and belonging to a social group with shared values, and with a leader who had authority, training in the field of theology and who appeared to be at ease in communicating with God? They might want to make the journey because they saw the idea of a theistic God as an anachronism. An example of this response might be that of John Thomas Looney, who was born in 1870, three years after Matthew Arnold wrote his poem Dover Beach. Looney wrote, “Being brought up in a religious and strongly evangelical environment I decided at the age of 16 to enter the Christian ministry, and began the necessary studies, taking up scholastic work as a temporary occupation. My studies for the ministry, however, brought me speedily up against grave and difficult problems which I did not hesitate to face, and by the age of 19 I found that I could not go forward under the conditions originally planned; and by the age of 22 I was obliged, as a consequence of the conclusion to which I had come, to abandon all thought of a religious vocation, though without any definite plans or prospects for the future, whilst continuing for a few years longer the special studies upon which I was engaged.”

Thus some might want to leave port because they could no longer accept acting as if a theistic God existed when they no longer believed in the concept.

2. What obstacles might be encountered in leaving port on the Sea of Faith? It can be very difficult to think differently to the way that is generally accepted in a culture. Cardinal Wolsey, who lived from 1473 to 1530, said “Be very careful what you put in that head, because you will never, ever get it out.” Once we have accepted for ourselves that something is true it can be hard to change our minds. When we are presented with evidence that might challenge our views, it is easy to find reasons to reject the conflicting data.

Leo Tolstoy expressed this idea in his book What is Art and Essays on Art: “I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic, problems—can seldom discern even the simplistic and most obvious truth if it be such as obliges them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty—conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives.”

In his book on The structure of scientific revolutions, Thomas Kuhn described how it was difficult for people to take new ideas on board. Joseph Priestley was not able to accept the discovery of oxygen. Lord Kelvin pronounced X-rays to be an elaborate hoax and was never able to accept the electromagnetic theory. It was hard for the church to accept the findings of Galileo which supported the view of Copernicus that the earth was not the centre of the universe.

It is easier to look back at developments in retrospect. At the time when these various issues were in question it was harder to see the wood for the trees. At present there are a number of issues on which deeply divergent views are held passionately for which getting to grips with all the information requires extended study and is impractical for any but the very dedicated to get involved with. By their very nature any examples will necessarily be contentious but at present there are those that would take issue with the view of the Food Safety Authority that the non-sugar sweetener aspartame (Equal or 951) is safe or with the view of Bill Bryson in his book Shakespeare that the poet and dramatist who contributed in an incomparable manner to English literature was William Shakspeare of Stratford.

There is no shortage of religious belief systems that might be critically examined but Karen Armstrong suggests that we start with self-criticism. However, it is likely that progress will not come easily because of the problems of thinking for ourselves in this area rather than relying on what authorities have said. Sapere Aude, having the courage to think for oneself, the motto of the University of Otago, is easier said than done.

Although Nicolas Copernicus and Isaac Newton were correct in their observations on the nature of the universe, the force of gravity and the laws of motion, they were slow to make converts. Max Plank, a physicist commented: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because it opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” It has been said “Science advances funeral by funeral.” Galileo noted: “In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual.” The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer submitted: “All truth passes through three stages: first it is ridiculed, second it is violently opposed, third it is accepted as being self-evident.” George Bernard Shaw declared: “All great truths begin as blasphemies.” Albert Einstein asserted: “Great thinkers have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Howard Aitkin contended: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are that good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”

Embracing a new paradigm at an early stage must often be done on faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the older paradigm has failed with a few. Thomas Kuhn viewed the transfer of allegiance from a widely-held paradigm to one that contradicts it as a conversion experience that cannot be forced. An example of conversion is Saul of Tarsus belatedly seeing the light on the road to Damascus and changing from persecuting Christians to promoting Christianity. Kuhn considered that the techniques of persuasion were more important in changing paradigms than the documentation of proof and the demonstration of error.

3. What might be the costs of leaving port on the Sea of Faith? It can be lonely being outside a social group. Being sent to Coventry was seen to be effective in expressing displeasure. Solitary punishment is regarded as being very severe. It is easier to accept on trust what one has been given by persons in authority than to try to come to grips with all of the arguments and information oneself and risk ending up in an isolated position.

4. What might be the rewards for leaving port on the Sea of Faith? There can be the excitement of discovery, of understanding better how things really are, the freedom of being released from superstitious and supernatural beliefs, and of contributing to rational solutions. For John Thomas Looney, the man who would have been a minister, he went on to have a career as a school teacher. He was seen to have an inquiring and scientific mind, penetrating clarity of thought and expression, and a refreshing professional integrity which dictated to his conscience that it was a sin against a child to teach him an untruth. He wrote a book Shakespeare Identified which has been both highly praised and severely criticized. Bill Bryson noted that his name Looney, spelt LOONEY was inescapably noteworthy and that Looney steadfastly refused to adopt a pseudonym arguing, in Bryson’s view perhaps a touch desperately, that his name had nothing to do with insanity and was pronounced loney (LOW-NEY) rather than looney (LOU-NEY).

Semmelweiss was correct in his observation that puerperal fever was prevented by hand washing with chlorinated lime between autopsy work and the examination of women in labour during childbirth. However, his work was not accepted widely during his time.

Thus the rewards for sailing on the Sea of Faith may be more personal that public.

In summary, I have suggested that there are two broad positions one can be in: “in port” with a traditional theistic God or on “the Sea of Faith” with non-realism but no supernatural theistic being, On the Sea of Faith the term God does not have any objective meaning but has a subjective meaning such as what the individual regards as being their God or their highest values. The process of leaving the traditional Church, in mind or in body, has been called for the purpose of this presentation “leaving port on the Sea of Faith” and some of the obstacles to doing this, the difficulties of going against traditional authorities, the costs and the rewards have been outlined.

Some questions to discuss in small groups are:

1. Have you had the experience of being “in port” and, if so, how has it been for you?

2. Have you had the experience of being “leaving port on the Sea of Faith” and, if so, how has it been for you?

3. Have you had the experience of being “on the Sea of Faith” and, if so, how has it been for you?

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