The last few years I’ve been acquainting myself with the writings of a British religious philosopher named Don Cupitt. An ordained Anglican priest, Cupitt was once known as a theologian, but following his drift away from conventional Christianity, he now regards himself as a more of a religious philosopher.
I’ve formulated views about God and faith that conform somewhat closely with his. After many years of struggling with faith, I have reached a few conclusions. First, I believe that God represents the deepest yearnings of many human beings for something beyond themselves — what is commonly described as transcendence. As I see it, God also expresses the human yearning for certitude, rootedness and permanence.
The Embedded God
But I’ve also concluded that most of us, actually, the vast majority of us, fail to see what God truly is: a human projection, one that is both transactional and intersectional. By this I mean that God was formed by and lives within the day-to-day transaction of language and also through the cultural intersections forged across five millennia.
God is also embedded within a vast ecosystem — an immense network that encompasses not only language and culture but also science and technology. All of these facets are closely interconnected and, consequently, undergo constant change. I have come to describe this vast network as the Networked Human Exoskeleton. In a very real sense, this network, this vast interconnectedness, has sustained and protected us through the ages, much as corporeal exoskeletons — shells — have protected a number of species, such as turtles and crustaceans.
Virtually all of us on earth are connected to this network to one degree or another, although we in the West are products of an unusually deep, vast and highly generative expression of this network that extends back thousands of years. And particularly within the West, we are afforded the added advantage of being tied to the rapidly expanding digital facet of this network, which affords us virtually instantaneous access to acquired knowledge associated with 5,000 years of human learning and striving.
As this network changes over time, so does our understanding of God.
Our Evolving Understanding of God
Indeed, I’m struck with how rapidly our perceptions of God have changed even within my lifetime.
As a boy growing up in northwest Alabama, I recall that many older adults still subscribed to a vengeful, wrathful Old Testament and Calvinistic God. Now, to an increasing degree, God is perceived as a benign, loving parent. Many no longer consider him a father figure at all but a genderless entity who, far from imposing a kingdom of God on humanity, encourages humans to build a secular kingdom of their own.
Many adults who grew up in faith traditions very similar to my own childhood tradition have rejected conventional conceptions of God entirely.
I relate all of this with no intention of minimizing or denigrating the importance of God to the fortunes of the West and to humanity in general. But the fact remains that in recent decades, quantum leaps in technological advancement, particularly digital technology, have contributed to an immense expansion of our network, our human exoskeleton. And one effect of this has been reflected in the profound changes in our understanding of God. Among many of us, our views of God and transcendence have grown too large and complex to be contained within and expressed by the traditional creeds and liturgies of the church.
Our Mutating Exoskeleton — and Its Implications
But this is really nothing new. Over the last 500 years of history, beginning with the Reformation and the advent of the printing press, our mutating network — our exoskeleton — has afforded an enhanced number of ways to interpret God. The advent of the Digital Revolution has only accelerated these processes.
Moreover, advances in textual criticism of the Bible and evolutionary science — two advances that left many of the world’s leading theologians and philosophers deeply troubled beginning roughly 200 years ago — are no longer the exclusive domain of academic specialists. These insights are no longer confined to musty library books but are now available literally at the fingertips of ordinary seekers.
And as these discoveries have increasingly become accessible and popularized, the matter of interpreting and worshipping God becomes only more challenging and problematic. Perhaps even the Quaker’s traditionally open, informal approach to worship is no longer big enough.
We Are All Nietzscheans Now
In a sense, we are all Nietzscheans now. We have been liberated, however unwittingly, through our own technological advances. Ordinary spiritual travelers, not just professionally trained theologians and clergy, are now being challenged as never before to look beyond the historically prescribed notions of good and evil, to search for grains of truth within an immense, radically flattened information landscape.
To be sure, there will always be spiritual versions of those whom the Objectivist Ayn Rand disparagingly and rather unjustly characterized as second-handers — people who are afraid to take a leap into the dark and who are content to follow prefabricated expressions of faith: Catholicism or one of the numerous iterations of Protestantism.
They will likely represent the overwhelming majority of seekers for the foreseeable future.
Curating and Creating Our Own Sacred Spaces
However, for the rest of us, an embattled but growing minority, it would seem that the only alternative is to become as imbued as possible with the attributes our civilization has historically associated with God and, over the course of the time, to serve as a beacon to others — in other words, to curate our faith — to become curators on behalf of others.
In carving out our own niches within this vast world in the course of our own solitary walks we create our own sacred spaces. And as we reflect on these experiences, these personal acts of creation, many of us feel compelled to share them with others in the hope that this sharing will enhance their own walks. We will learn to curate our life experiences, much as a museum curator arranges art or historical relics to educate their clients.
I’ve was reminded of this just today reading a splendid book by Lloyd Geering, who anticipated Cupitt’s views on God by a full decade. As Geering observes, each of us is born into and cultivates over the course of a lifetime his or her own womb of culture. He appropriately cites a memorable quote by by the Austrian scholar, writer and inventor Josef Popper-Lykeus: “Every time a man dies, a whole universe is destroyed” – all the more reason why we should feel compelled to curate the experiences of our lifetime journeys on behalf of others.
By curating what we learn and discover on our own, we not only conceive and create our own sacred spaces but also open these up to other spiritual wayfarers.
To view it another way, the advances in digital media and the tidal wave of information that has followed have transformed not only into unwitting Nietzscheans but also Martin Luthers. Many of us, secularist and believer alike, have undergone our own transformational Tower Experiences, some spiritual, others entirely secular in nature. These have not only placed us on a moral and ethical path but have also, in many instances, proven so compelling that we are driven to share them with others.
Yet, in the midst of this spiritual or secular transformation, many of us have been confronted with a measure of moral and ethical disruption wrought by the Digital Revolution, one that has sown far more disorder and anomie than any previous social and cultural revolution.
Cupitt has observed this disruption in the course of his own efforts to impart his radical understanding of faith. Many of his admirers — followers would be too strong a word in this context — have improvised a series of loose networks in Britain and the Antipodes, known as the Sea of Faith Networks, to discuss and debate the implications of his writings.
Yet, from the beginning, these networks have evinced highly innovative and even fissiparous tendencies. They are yet another testimony to the difficulty of creating a faith community in the midst of a technological revolution, one in which knowledge is expanding at such volumes and speeds that human beings lack the ability to improvise new modes of thinking and social structures fast enough to accommodate these rapid changes.
Improvising Our Own Solitary Treks
We are being challenged — perhaps forced would be a choice of words in this context — to improvise our own solitary treks through life. We are being forced to undertake Kierkegaardian leaps into our own tailormade faiths.
And to be fair, what we are talking about isn’t so much a leap of faith as a solitary walk through the vicissitudes of life.
All we really have in the end is our own personal fortitude and courage to travel through this mortal existence and to follow the bread crumbs dropped by earlier generations of wanderers — that and the freedom to reflect on our own experiences and to leave behind bread crumbs for future generations of wayfarers.