Give us faith, in something: Unless He can come up with something big, God is on the way out. But can we manage without Him?

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The Independent Online
GOD is notoriously reluctant to come clean on the vexed issue of His own existence. He persistently refuses to supply the kind of evidence required by the post-Newtonian, post-Darwinian, post-everything modern mind. Like O J Simpson cruising down the LA freeways, He seems to go out of his way to provide the court with spectacularly incriminating material.

So the Turin shroud is a medieval fake, weeping statues of the Virgin are no more than hysterical disorders in peasant communities, quantum theory is not that weird and the miraculous precision of the bat's echo-location is a testament to the power of time and blind evolution. All the explanations of the sceptics are easier to believe than those of the faithful. Consequently, most people feel pretty confident that anything remaining in the in- tray labelled 'inexplicable' will, in time, be removed or found to be trivial. Unless He comes up with something big, and soon, God is on the way out.

The truth is, of course, that He has been on the slide for some time. Western science has been eating into the physical, cosmological and biological foundations of Western faith for almost 500 years. For the intellectually alert it has been clear from the middle of the 18th century that the safest bet for the believer was to assert that there could be no evidence for God in this world - faith or a mystical inner awareness was the key. Christianity, said Kierkegaard, the greatest theologian of the modern era, is not plausible, you must become a Christian. Nobody said it was meant to be easy. But we don't want difficulty, we want sunshine and laughter, sex and fun, so, lacking the hard evidence, the characteristic contemporary response is: why bother?

It is at this point that the Rev Anthony Freeman, formerly of St Mary's church, Staplefield, West Sussex, enters the big picture. He has been sacked for writing a book - God in Us - in which he appeared to say he did not believe in God. As far as he was concerned this did not disqualify him from being a Church of England priest; as far as his bishop and part of his congregation - including, strangely, Lord Snowdon - were concerned, it did.

In thus becoming the first parish priest this century to be dismissed for his theological views, the mild, hesitant, amiable and symbolically named Freeman finds himself uncomfortably projected into the historical role of great dissident, an English village version of Giordano Bruno or Martin Luther. It all feels slightly absurd and so, unsurprisingly, the affair has been treated as a rather dim pastoral comedy or as yet further evidence of the irremediable decline into fatuous liberalism of the Church of England. No wonder, it will be said, they are all turning to Rome - at least the Pope believes in something.

And yet Freeman was saying nothing new. Indeed, he told me that his book was simply intended as a more accessible, less philosophically technical version of the teachings of Don Cupitt. Cupitt is also an Anglican priest and used to be Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In the early Eighties he produced a BBC television series and a book. Cupitt is now the leading light of an interdenominational movement named, after the book and the series, Sea of Faith.

Cupitt is a good man, an honest thinker and a fine writer, three things that cannot necessarily be said about those who sneer at his work. The dense and rather beautiful five-page conclusion of his book, published in 1984, makes all the points that have put Freeman out of a job.

He turns traditional religious understanding on its head. It is not a case of religion coming first and then being followed by values. Rather the values come first and then these are embodied in religion. Religion is thus man-made - 'wholly of this world, wholly human and wholly our own responsibility'. God is the sum of these values, representing their 'ideal unity' and Christ is our ideal 'true Self'. The old realistic, objective God is 'an oppressive pagan notion - in fact, the Devil'. The after-life is a way of telling us 'to live now a new life that has left the fear of death behind'.

Cupitt's God is Freeman's God. They are both thoroughly and devoutly faithful, but they do not 'believe' in Him in the way that word is commonly understood. Religion, writes Cupitt, 'will perform all the better after the painted veil of illusion, that has hitherto hidden its workings, has finally dropped away'.

All of this, it should be said, is far more radical than anything proposed by the excoriated and lampooned former Bishop of Durham. David Jenkins is a relatively conventional heir of 19th-century theological liberalism, he 'believes' in an essentially traditional sense. Cupitt and Freeman do not.

But, leaving the rights or wrongs of the theology aside, this raises two distinct questions: does the Church of England need a 'real' God? And, since Cupitt and Freeman are clearly determined to preserve a central role and identity for their deity, does Western society need any kind of God?

For the church the issue is one of survival. A tough, narrow, exclusive realism about God might satisfy the conservatives but might also marginalise Anglicanism as just one Christian cult among many. Equally, an utterly dilute liberalism that embraced Cupitt, the Anglo-Catholics and the happy-clappies might reasonably be seen as more of a well-meaning talking shop than a faith to live and die by.

On balance, since the church is doing such a spectacularly poor job of persuading people of the virtues of even its current level of liberalism, it is almost certainly true to say that, for the moment, it needs a realistic God. While many may be philosophically sympathetic to the anti-realism of Cupitt, few can see why that should involve the existence of an established, or even a disestablished church. You can be, as it were, an anti-realist in the privacy of your own home - the Prayer Book and the great architecture should be left to the true believers.

The point seems to be that, in choosing to be an Anglican, you must be choosing something and that something needs to be recognisable as traditional faith in a transcendent reality. For the church to accept this might be seen by some as acceptance of political reality rather than pursuit of truth. But that, for now, is the way it is.

But what about the Western God? Here, the Cupitt-Freeman case becomes a genuinely urgent matter. Two things are clear: first, monotheism has been the defining force of Western civilisation; second, monotheism is in potentially terminal decline. I take the strange and frightening carnival that is American religion to be evidence for rather than refutation of the second. The same can be said of the colourful fantasies of New Ageism - when people stop believing in their own God, they will start believing in almost anybody's.

This means that we are in the process of abandoning that which made us what we are, and we are showing no signs of replacing it with anything equally substantial - various economically reductive ideologies from Marxism to the free market seem to be all that is on offer.

Many will say: so what? Look at Japan, a spectacularly successful, cohesive and effectively godless society. And, besides, Europe has been secularising itself for a long time now and the heavens have not fallen.

Well, Japan may be godless but its history, social organisation and what the Japanese themselves call their 'ethical strength' are, if not religious, then something pretty close. And perhaps the heavens are falling on Europe. The continent is being overtaken by the East. This is assumed to be a matter of economics, but it is not. It is a matter of cultural cohesion and self- belief, a matter, you might say, of faith.

So perhaps Europe needs its monotheism as much as Japan needs its communal, quasi-feudal commitments. But nobody is in any position to impose a straightforward theological realism at this stage. Belief in the literal reality of the faith is scarce and growing scarcer. Perhaps belief in its symbolic truth - the belief of Cupitt and Freeman - is the way out.

Whatever you might think of this faith, at least it shows an awareness of history and tradition that is completely lacking from all the other ideologies around which the West has tried to organise itself. It convinces its adherents that the culture as it is and has been is worth sustaining rather than mindlessly rejecting. These days, even the Labour Party is in the cultural sustenance business.

This might be all another joke or puzzle from the Almighty, one more in His long line of rib-ticklers and brain-teasers. In this life we shall never be sure - but, then again, what can I possibly mean by 'this'?

(Photograph omitted)