Tuesday, 24 February 2009

God the Cosmic Joker

As well as watching Peter Owen Jones race around some eighty branches of faiths on the BBC, I have tried to watch Christianity: A History on Channel 4. Channel 4's idea of scheduling a programme about Christianity is to put it on when some of its audience is at church in the evenings. So I'd come back from evening worship and put on the remainder of the programme, and then watch it from the start on the Channel 4 plus 1 (I always think it should be minus 1 but my brain may not be mathematical) - that's if the logo doesn't irritate the content (and if it does it goes off). It's why I skip dramas on BBC 4 etc. unless desperate. Anyway the programme has website video clips, and a time-limited page of watch again programmes and the actual edition.

Colin Blakemore's programme in the series looked at science, first encouraged by Christianity and then clashing with Christian authorities, and then major scientific outlooks undermining the Christian explanation for the world and universe. I noticed how Richard Dawkins does allow for a more sophisticated God view around actual evolution, though it is a more limited view.

However, I was more interested in Colin Blakemore interviewing someone I've met on a number of occasions, once one of the radical priests in the Loughborough area and now it seems he has moved to Oxford. I understand that another of the Loughborough area radical priests I knew has also gone elsewhere; there was always a thought at the time that they would be stuck where they are but obviously not so. A number of East Midlands incumbents occupied Emmanuel College livings and thus were connected with Don Cupitt.

The programme itself arrives at a point where the Hebrew Bible creation stories have been as much superseded, but Colin Blakemore makes the point about a far more limited effect of science upon the New Testament. He is interviewing his Roman Catholic ordained scientist guide again, before he comes to Rev. David Paterson.

From 21:37
Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican Astronomer, is explaining to Professor Colin Blakemore that with Christ "all bets are off" and God is inserted into human history and we can't expect that to ever occur again. He agrees with Blakemore that it is an assertion and as a scientist he has no evidence. He cannot disprove it until there is a time machine. It is an assertion based on faith but also the evidence we have that is the recorded evidence of the people at the time. The Church never taught biblical literal creation as central to its faith: it's not a core belief, not in the creed, and different from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

30:41 Caption: St Michael and All Angels Oxford [New Marston: Marston Road B4150 and Jack Straws Lane]

Colin Blakemore narration: But science has led a few Christians to question even these fundamental tenets of Christianity. I was brought up an Anglican and there's a lot I still like about churches: the hymns, contemplation, the sense of community. I'm here to meet an Anglican priest, David Paterson, who belongs to a group of Christians called the Sea of Faith. Many of them doubt the divinity of Jesus Christ and even whether God really exists.

CB: So, er, let's just be clear, I mean God didn't make - literally make the universe.
David Paterson: No.
Caption: Father David Paterson
CB: And er, God didn't engineer the virgin birth of Jesus.
DP: No.
CB: And Jesus perhaps didn't really exist as a person at all.
DP: Mmmm. I think he probably did, actually, yes. Yes I think, I think he did.
CB: Then can I just explore that a bit more. I mean what - what then is God to you?
DP: Em, what I fell in love with; what I wanted to give my life to. [Edit?] And its ingredients were a lot about the natural world, a lot about making relationships with people.
CB: Well I empathise with all of those things but I haven't found any necessity to see God reflected in those things. The existence of life is extraordinary, but why any more? Is there any more, really?
DP: No there isn't any more. There is actually no difference between the theist and the atheist: it's only the terminology that's different. Some people have this - this deep understanding of the spiritual nature of reality - of everything - and they want to personify it and call it God, or a God, or a particular name of God or something. Some don't want to do that.

CB narration: David thinks that the Bible was never meant to be taken literally.

DP: All the religious stories are mythological stories where asking 'Did it Happen?' or 'Where did it happen?' or 'What date did it happen?' is all completely irrelevant. It's actually all about this being a story that helps you understand what life is all about.

CB narration: So according to David all these fundamental tenets of Christianity - virgin birth, the resurrection, life after death - didn't happen at all. Seems to me that David's version of Christianity is virtually atheism: science provides the facts about the world; religion gives us the music and the pictures and tells us stories about human nature.

Caption: Pays de Gex, France.

CB narration: For me it is science not religion that provides out best understanding of the workings of our universe.

This was one of the better programmes in the series. I was disappointed with a number of them and Michael Portillo's was basically shallow. Incidentally, Colin Blakemore is not one of the scientists at the next 2009 Sea of Faith Conference, Science, Religion and Meaning.

Well, I agree with David Paterson. Recently it was suggested to me that because I have been invited to preach on Easter Sunday at the Hull Unitarian Church that this adds to Anselm's proofs of God - one he'd missed - that God has a sense of humour. Thus I might proclaim there, "Christ is risen, no he isn't."

I thought about this a lot afterwards, and I thought this is just a bizarre way of thinking. First of all it assumes that God is a Cosmic Joker, which would be one explanation for some of the biblical myths compared with scientific findings. Indeed, either could be jokes - an appearance of an old earth while it is young, or the biblical narration of a young earth and quick creation when the earth is actually old. On any such account, though, God the Cosmic Joker leaves nothing but unreliability, that we all might be wasting our time investigating or thinking and looking busy.

Perhaps then this God has acted like this throughout my own biography, but if so it's less God the Cosmic Joker and more God the Fuck-Up Merchant: setting up trivial co-incidences, trip-ups, failures and such the like and all centred around my ego.

And then you think along such logic: what a waste of God's own God-activity. It makes the tragedies of the world all the more obscene while the God is making jokes and fucking up lives in relatively trivial ways.

This is rubbish. It is the mentality of this form of thinking that I object to, in the end, and it has to be dismissed. It certainly is no proof of God, but is a proof of the decline in the credibility of God-thought.

Recently there was a ridiculous debate in the Church of England General Synod about affirming the uniqueness of Christ. Eight people voted against. I can just imagine the mindsets of some people voting for who don't actually believe in Christ's uniqueness. They do it in the pulpit; they vote. At least they avoided Peter Ould's investigatory witchhunt, who listed and made value judgments about those who voted no, as he parades his self-righteous narrow orthodoxy. I made a quick comment on Thinking Anglicans but couldn't be bothered to blog on it because it was pathetic, as if such can be voted upon (rather why I dislike part of the Jesus Seminar approach). I'd have voted no because I don't believe it: there is the absence of historical evidence and means of such evidence (and lack of evidence of absence is not equal in reply), there is the mythic community based construction of the texts that is visible in interpretation by reading them, and there is the anti-science involved in such as a reconstituted transformed body or in giving birth without a father. So I'll be agreeing with David Paterson: and to repeat Colin Blakemore:

religion gives us the music and the pictures and tells us stories about human nature.


john said...

Haven't watched any of them. On the other hand, the arguments on all sides are well rehearsed and one learns nothing new. Or at least this is true at this rather simple level. What might be more useful would be if in a context like this someone like Blakemore went up against someone like K Ward (which of course now happens pretty regularly in Oxford public debates).

One thing does give me pleasure: the evident affection of such as Blakemore (and still more so, Martin Rees) for the C of E. If Christianity is to make any sort of fight-back against this scientific atheism (and I hope it does) it will be through Liberal Christianity and especially through Anglicanism, not - obviously - through the orthodoxies of the RC or Orthodox churches.

Erika Baker said...

"There is actually no difference between the theist and the atheist: it's only the terminology that's different."


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

On this I wish the C of E didn't fall between two stools, in that it retains so much dogma whilst it has a friendly, cultural and enriching atmosphere.

Keith Ward is debating in a church in those parts for Lent, I believe.

I don't know. I've been sat around and moving about without a stitch on, looking at all this about 'Jonathan Bloke' and some Buddhist Bishop and it's gone dark outside and so its time I became respectable before the lights go on.

john said...

'On this I wish the C of E didn't fall between two stools, in that it retains so much dogma whilst it has a friendly, cultural and enriching atmosphere.'

It does retain it, but the degree to which it preaches it varies enormously, as does the degree to which in any sense it tries to enforce it. In practice (choose your church) there is enormous space here.

I recall an occasion a few weeks ago in our church. Our alternative celebrant (Australian, doing doctorate in systematic theology, fantastic singing voice, highly 'Evangelical' manner) preached extremely 'liberal' sermon, to the general effect that Chrisianity did not consist in specific doctrines. I turned to gay)ex-Reader and said: 'Wonder how he's going to handle the transition to the CREED?'. The preacher finished, sat down for several minutes, then said: 'Now let us recite the words of the Nicene Creed'. Pick and mix. No one in this small but theologically diverse congregation was in the least offended. In my experience, this sort of thing goes on in the C of E (OK in certain churches, certain cathedrals,with certain preachers) all the time. There can be a benevolent and utterly sensible plasticity: do the ritual, interpret it freely.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Some are braver than others! Yes there is a broad range, but you also notice the amount of steering that goes on through sermons in some cases.