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How celebrating Life displaces celebrating God

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 21 November 2002


I heard the English theologian Don Cupitt on the radio remarking on how the word "God" had been displaced by the word "life". At funerals it is said of the deceased not that he or she loved God but that they loved life. This is a significant shift in the use of language and is further evidence that for many the concept of God is an empty concept. So instead of worshiping God we celebrate life. The sacredness of life displaces the sacredness of God. Likewise trust is not invested in God but in life as if whatever happens in life may be trusted. On the face of it this is a tempting switch because it does away with the problematic of God, immanent, transcendent, almighty whatever, and replaces Him with a warm breathing human being. We can do away with a God who is associated with judgment and an old fashioned sexual ethic and replace him with vivacity.

This is a religion without the hard bit. No one needs to die or do battle with the powers of the world or expose our brokenness. All we have to do is to affirm life, how hard is that? An even superficial inspection reveals that this is just another kind of paganism. That is, the natural world is worshipped in the place of God. We trust the processes of life, but what are these processes but the never-ending cycle of birth, decay and death? As with all kinds of natural theology we must be selective in the bits of life that we worship because nature carries with it no values, it is ambivalent to our concerns. Therefore we must choose to affirm the healthy child and ignore the one with a terminal diagnosis in a desperate effort to comfort ourselves that life may be trusted. Such effort can only result in fatalism, the baptizing of whatever happens.

The worship of life is the most basic of idolatries because it is really nothing else but the worship of the self. We have become God. There can be no word spoken to us from outside of ourselves. This accounts for the extreme subjectivism of our time in which only the personal experience carries weight. One of the results of such a faith is the unbridled hedonism of the "good time". For what is the "good time" but the celebration of life? Such a faith, instead of calling us to an as-yet unseen reality can only celebrate the present moment. It rests in the assumption that the affirmation of life will keep us from harm and guide us along right pathways. Furthermore, death becomes the absolute enemy and is never incorporated into the scheme of things. Surely this is one reason for the blow-out of our health budgets.

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Michael Leunig published a cartoon after the Bali bombing entitled "The collapse of an entire belief system". It showed a dejected figure, stubby in hand, wearing a T shirt with the word "Bali" on the front. Strewn around him were signs bearing the words "relaxed and comfortable", "Chill out", "She’ll be right", "No worries", "Party", "Not a problem" and "Comfortably numb". The young men and women who went to the Sari club that night were out for a good time, they were out to celebrate life. And that is such a playful and innocuous thing that it is very difficult to criticize. What could be more innocent than being young and out for a good time? But Leunig’s cartoon has something of the prophetic about it. Indeed the Islamic terrorists who no doubt planted and detonated the bomb understood themselves as carrying out the purifying work of God. The West was corrupt, its young people cared only about having a good time. Although we deplore their actions, they may have a point about the hedonism of our youth, their lack of direction in life and their shallow aspirations. This is, of course, dangerous talk not only because there are many serious-minded young who are not seduced by the narrative of the good time, but also because it is the nature of youth to flirt, be self obsessed and to be attracted to enjoyment. It is also dangerous because it may be seen as blaming the victims and giving comfort to the perpetrators. However, with the above qualifications, there is something profound about Leunig’s cartoon.

There is a sense in which the hand of God has moved against a soft and complacent society that has lost its direction. The fact that Islamic terrorists did the killing does not rule out this conclusion. By saying the hand of God has moved I am not referring to a mechanistic explanation that frames God as a physical force among other forces, but to an interpretation of an event. Surely this is what Leunig’s cartoon points to. Life is more serious and dark than its celebration would suggest. A superficial understanding of life as being directed towards the good time is bound to come unstuck when tragedy strikes. The celebration of life, the displacement of a thick description of what it is to deal with the living God, with the selective affirmation of the good things that happen in life, is an inadequate description of our situation. For the situation of human life is fraught with contingency and dark forces that will not be vanquished by an idealism. Evil will come, lives will be torn apart. In the face of the realities of life, the mere celebration of life is absurd.

Any religious attitude that does not deal with the hazardous nature of life and the darkness of our own and other hearts will leave us unprepared for what life may throw at us. The survivors of the Bali outrage have had the biggest shock of their lives and they will be indelibly marked and changed by it. In ancient times this experience would have been likened to an encounter with God, shocking, life threatening and transforming. Of course we may no longer think in terms of this event being the consequence of divine action, but nevertheless, there is a sense in which the survivors encountered God in the blast in that the true nature of life was revealed to them. Thus Leunig’s "death of an entire belief system". For what does God do but to destroy our idolatries and ground us in the real?

There has been talk since Sept 11 that the terrorism carried out by Islamic extremists is not about Islam. How can it not be about Islam? How could the crusades and the inquisitions not have been about Christianity or the 12 million deaths in the holocaust not be about fascism or the 20 million deaths under Stalin not be about Communism? While the politics of the left and the right have left their millions of dead, so too have the world religions. This raises the question about the nature of religion. It has entered the popular consciousness that all that religion produces is murder and war. It is much better, they say, to live a purely secular life with no religious basis at all. This is the only way to stop the appalling violence committed in the name of religion. The critics of religion are partly right. Religion is the culprit. It is religion that objectifies the other believer so that they may be killed. The pagan and the infidel may be disposed of with a clear conscience.

All religions come under this criticism, do they nurture life in freedom or do they suffocate and cripple and de-humanise believers and unbelievers. We must question the liberal assumption that all religions are the same and all are to be respected. We must also examine the assumption that all religion is good. That is patently not true, some religions distort life horribly as we learn all too readily be reading some church history.

We must also question the assumption that Jesus was for religion or that he was the founder of a new religion. Jesus was not for religion, rather he was for the end of all religion when that religion enslaves us, blinds us to our neighbour, and closes the future to us. He was against the religion of his time that accepted the elite while abandoning the sick and the alienated and the sinful. He desired that the temple in Jerusalem be pulled down and deplored the temple cult of sacrifice. He was killed primarily by the religious authorities of his day. This is but one of the messages of the cross, that the good religious people kill love. That means, in the strange theology of the cross, religion is put to death, the tables are turned.

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When we think about the events of this last year in the USA and now so close to home, we have no option but to think about the death dealing power of religion. Hundreds of years of religious wars in Europe taught us that when we kill the person we do not kill the belief. The belief remains in the minds of others, it is only the person of flesh and blood and bone and love and joy and sadness and hope that is killed. And this is where war becomes very very difficult. For it is usual in the waging of war to dehumanize the enemy so that when we kill them we are not killing a human being. But this is made impossible by Christian faith. The crucified Jesus remained a man on the cross. He was not made into a criminal or a traitor and therefore less than human. The passion narratives show him to be a frail man who mourns the loss of his life and finds the dying difficult, agonizing. His suffering and death is representative of all suffering and death which cannot be transformed into something else. This is what happens even when the one dying is guilty of terrible deeds.

While whoever detonated the bombs in Bali may abstract those killed as degenerate Westerners and thus escape the reality of what it means to kill another human being, we cannot take the same attitude towards them. They can never be robbed of their humanity even though they have done inhuman things. They remain, like us, refugees from the love of God. Having said all of this, what do you do when another person is bent on murder?

The decision is agonized but, I think, clear: you pull the trigger.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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