from Signs of the Times No. 73 - April 2019
It is now 30 years since the debate about non-realist Christianity was prominent in the media. It was widely and popularly communicated through the BBC Television series where Don Cupitt put forward his arguments in an accessible and appealing way. In the intervening period there have been substantial developments in science, particularly cosmology and evolutionary biology, and a relatively strong reactionary movement in theology, notably in the developments following the logic of advanced by John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock.
In an attempt to reintroduce or revive the debate about non-realist theology, this essay will suggest that religious language does not need to satisfy both the correspondence and the coherence concepts of truth to enable an individual beneficially, satisfyingly and logically to adopt a confession of Christian faith. It suggests that the word ‘god’ is used by Christians to encompass the arguments which attempt to explain why there is something rather than nothing, and the terms ‘salvation’ and ‘life after death’ to encompass the arguments underlying the hope that there is some purpose for self-conscious individual existence, and the term ‘eternal life’ to indicate the experience of a quality of life in which individuals find themselves satisfyingly unaware of the passage of time.
Concepts of Truth
It is colloquially accepted that for a statement to be considered true it should correspond to some verifiable objective ‘fact’ or event. Differently, but more rigorously, it is expected that any set of true statements must logically be mutually consistent, providing a coherent whole. These two expectations of true statements may be coined respectively ‘the correspondence’ and ‘the coherence’ notions of truth. The most satisfactory understanding of a true statement is one which satisfies both notions simultaneously, but it may be argued that any set of statements that satisfies only one of the notions may be regarded as true.
Quantum mechanics suggests to us that universes spring into and out of existence, apparently spontaneously. When this happens both space and time appear or disappear. These universes seem to come from and disappear to nothing. From within a universe it will probably be impossible to ascertain either the context of that universe or any existence outside that universe.
While it may not be possible explain why the generation of a universe happens, it is clear, probabilistically, that such occurrences are possible: and if possible, then highly likely to occur over a sufficiently long period or a sufficiently large number of attempts.
The ‘Big Bang’ explanation of the origins of the universe fits within this likelihood and accounts for the continuous present.
Within the cosmic universe it is possible for various life forms to emerge, including the human. Each life-form seems programmed to work for its own continued existence within the universe (c.f. Richard Dawkins’ argument in The Selfish Gene). Thus, where consciousness or self-consciousness has emerged, it may be inferred that this is beneficial to the goal of that life-form’s continued existence, and will be used to work towards that aim.
There can be both advantages and disadvantages for particular life-forms in cooperation and in competition with other life-forms at both the individual and corporate level. Hence, limited cooperation with some other life-forms in order to enhance successful competition against other life-forms becomes explicable.
Observation suggests that a belief that existence has a significance and purpose beyond immediate survival seems to confer motivational advantages in exerting the necessary effort for maintaining continued existence.
Satisfying, or more colloquially pleasurable, experiences appear to be one of the ways by which (self-) conscious life forms are motivated to act by default (instinct?) to promote their continued existence.
Thus, for human beings the instinctive experiences of reproduction through sexual intercourse, gaining sustenance through food, securing warmth and shelter - and even appreciating distant views that provide surety against the covert attack of enemies and aesthetic art forms that give relaxation to the mind - make utilitarian existential sense.
For many people, while experiencing these satisfying feelings, there can be a sense of detachment from the passage of time - for example when totally immersed in a pleasurable or satisfying activity.
Thus, it can be argued that satisfying experiences are generally associated with, and help to inspire, forms of action that contribute to the sustenance and potential flourishing of the existing life-form, and that these experiences can enable an individual to enter a state of knowing that seems to be outside time (in strict definitional terms ‘eternal’).
For human society, religion has very successfully played a part in the sustenance of existence within the universe.
It has provided:
a description of a purpose for existence, a rationale for groups of individuals to combine and cooperate in order the better to compete with other individuals and groups;
a common set of agreed acceptable actions (generally codified as ritual and ethics);
a basis for cooperation; and
a means of identifying the set of individuals choosing to cooperate.
Given human (self-) consciousness, it has been found beneficial to locate the source of authority for the acceptable actions as coming from outside the group which has adopted them: both enhancing the cohesion and minimising the likelihood of fracture or fragmentation of the group.
One of the most significant religious agreements (termed ‘covenants’, ‘contracts’ or ‘truths’) for human beings is about purpose for the individual and for the universe. Members of religious organisations tend to ground their satisfying experiences and their sense of timelessness in this concept of purpose.
A brief summary of these aspects of religious culture suggests an acceptance that the universe purposively came into being and that for every (self-) conscious individual there is a purpose which transcends temporal existence.
Non-Realist Christian Theology
From this understanding of the drive for life-form salience in a potentially randomly generated universe, it is a relatively small step to suggest:
that the assumed purpose of the existence of the universe (as opposed to its non-existence) can be expressed by the use of the word ‘god’;
that the immersive experience of satisfying actions such that the individual loses consciousness of the passage of time can be expressed by the adjective ‘eternal’ (to indicate a quality of life); and
that the inevitable influence of the actions of an individual on successive generations (through memory, reproduction and changed physical conditions) can be expressed by the monikers ‘vocation’/’individual purpose’ and ‘life after death’.
Used in this way, these terms form a coherent argument which does not logically require the existence of an objective external correlative in order to be considered ‘true’ – a non-realist theology.
The whole gamut of Christian theology (a single divine self who is creator of the universe and authority for all that is found within it, divine self-revelation in a particular human being, a particular set of texts at particular historical times, divine imperative to undertake apparently altruistic action, the potential to experience life which seems to transcend time, and so on) may be seen as an internally consistent logical pattern developed over centuries of debate which can be recognised as having been beneficial to the sustenance of at least one part of human existence within the universe.
Individuals may be seen as choosing to adopt, and associate with others adopting, that particular worldview commonly described as ‘Christian’: a theological paradigm within which the individuals gain satisfying/pleasurable experiences which assist the sustenance of the (self-) conscious life-form. At a minimum, members of such groups will use the language of:
- god (creator, father) to refer to a purposeful generation of a universe and as an authority for the cultic practices of the group;
- of salvation (‘life after death’, anointed one, saviour or christ) as guarantor of purposive of individual existence.
They will locate present concepts of ‘right’ behaviour (that is the behaviour that will enhance the likelihood of continued existence of the life-form) in authoritative literature and practices from the past (scripture and tradition). They will advocate life enhancing actions which lead to experiences where time seems irrelevant or absent (seeking eternal life - the eternal quality of life).
Such an understanding of Christianity would be true, in the sense that it has logical coherence, despite not being shown to have a direct correspondence with the literal sense of the language through which the group expresses its rituals, ethics and identity. It can logically, satisfyingly and beneficially be professed by (self-) conscious individuals - and may validly be described as ‘non-realist’ Christian theology