Living in the Story: Understanding the World’s Story I
(This sermon makes use of Tom Wright’s Surprised by Scripture).
Swimming was one of the things that was a big part of my childhood. Our holidays were often at Henley Beach, and we’d spend most of the day in the water, but even more so was after school, Saturdays and holidays in the swimming pool near our house. The upshot of that is that I much prefer swimming in pools rather than the sea or river. I like to see what’s under me! I don’t like bitey things or really big fish with sharp teeth.
Today is the first of two sermons I’m doing on some underlying thinking that shapes western culture. It seems to me that if we’re saying we want to be shaped by the biblical story instead of the culture, it will be helpful to have some understanding of the water in which we’re swimming, being able to see what’s under us so to speak. Today we’re considering Epicureanism and in a couple of weeks we’ll look at Neo-liberalism.
It’s a little bit hard finding a bible passage about Epicureanism. We read the Ephesians passage to emphasise the importance of maturing in the faith in order to be better able to discern what’s under us in the western culture water and be less likely to be tossed to and from by the winds of culture. I want us to be like the men of Issachar! It’s said of them that they had an understanding of the times.
1 Chronicles 12:32 (NRSV) 32 Of Issachar, those who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do….
I make no claim to being an expert or widely read on either issue. I’m relying on the expertise of others: Tom Wright for Epicureanism and George Monbiot for neo-liberalism, both of whom I believe have a good understanding of the issues. We won’t be going into the topic at any depth; it’s just an overview. I also understand there will be many counter arguments and views, none of which I’ll be covering.
What is Epicureanism?
Epicurus was born in 341 BC and was an atomist and materialist. He believed the whole universe, including any gods if they existed, was made up of atoms and there wasn’t anything that existed that wasn’t made of something physical. Later development of the thinking argued that physical objects were formed through the crashing together of the atoms that were flying through void space in the cosmos. Because everything is physical, whatever soul people have will disappear when they die. All the atoms simply dissolve into nothingness. That meant there wasn’t any reason to fear the judgement of the gods after death, because there was nothing. There was no need to fear them while on earth either, because they weren’t in the slightest bit interested in what happened on earth. They had no interest in intervening in any way and the physical world went along quite happily on its own without any outside help. (https://www.compellingtruth.org/Epicureanism-Epicurean.html)
Because the gods weren’t involved, people were in charge of their own lives, and because death and judgement weren’t to be feared, the main purpose in life was to find a way to be happy and get on with it. He argued that pleasure was the absence or avoidance of pain, and not having a troubled soul. (http://philosophy.lander.edu/ethics/epicurus.html) Epicurus has been tagged as being a hedonist, which is true to an extent. However, he also realised that bodily pleasures didn’t last and often produced undesirable after effects, so it was a qualified hedonism.
Middle Ages and Enlightenment
Epicurean philosophy got a leg up in the Middle Ages. Many people were fed up with the bullying theology and scare tactics of the church at the time, so the idea of a removed and disinterested God who wasn’t a judge was quite appealing.
Not only that, the thought of life as a party and without pain was always appealing.
The imperative to dispense with the big boss in the sky gathered momentum through Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes, Hume, Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson. A further key event was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 in which tens of thousands of people were killed, as well as significant damage being done through the associated tsunami. The familiar argument was that if there really was a God running things, surely he wouldn’t have allowed something like that to happen.
Epicureanism is alive and well today! It’s not left the building. People of our day see ourselves as quite learned and knowledgeable, having dispensed with religious superstition because we now have science to explain life. But a modern day example of a 2300 year old philosophy was seen when Richard Dawkins ran an advertising campaign on the side of London buses that said: There’s probably not a God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.
Two Key things
Epicurus’s idea of atoms randomly colliding as the cause for everything, left no room for a divine being. This was a very convenient basis for things like Darwin’s evolutionary theory which sought to explain people and life as we know it without the need to revert to a divine cause. The period of the Enlightenment elevated human reason as the answer to everything, one result of which is the tension between science and faith. Faith is seen to be a modern day anachronism based on foolish superstition, while science is seen as objective and offering proof. Science has no room for mystery or the possibility of divine cause, essentially saying that if something can’t be proven then it doesn’t exist. This approach also appealed to innate human pride in our power of reasoning to be able to deal with any issue which might be faced. While the language and terms we use to describe it are now modern, the reality is that the epicurean philosophy is alive and well and living in our world.
One of the other reasons for its appeal and success as an underlying philosophy was its political implications. If things in the world happened simply as a result of colliding atoms, and without outside control or intervention, then there was no reason for people to accept the received political ideology of the times i.e. kings and nobles are the only ones suited to rule and the plebs simply have to put up with it. This led to the rejection of the divine right of kings, and to the rise of liberal democracy. It also led to the thinking that God and the world don’t mix; faith belongs in the private realm.
Further, social Darwinism—”the strong survive,” which was used to promote the idea that the white European race was superior to others, and therefore, destined to rule over them (http://www.allaboutscience.org/what-is-social-darwinism-faq.htm)—is reflected in the thinking that the fittest will survive the economic jungle. That carries the corollary that if you’re not surviving, you need to get out there and earn a living. Might is also right, as seen in world politics.
What do we do with all this?
It is fitting that we have a good handle on a genuinely Christian worldview. Creation began as a world where earth and heaven were one. God’s space and ours were mutually permeable. While things changed as a result of Genesis 3, there is still a degree of overlap of the two spaces i.e. God is directly involved in this world. That’s what we see all through the Scriptures:
Psalm 65:6-8 (NRSV) 6 By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might. 7 You silence the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, the tumult of the peoples. 8 Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
Praise goes to the creator even from inanimate creation as the heavens and earth declare his glory.
God’s Grandeur By Gerard Manley Hopkins
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Not only that, the time is coming when the full glory of God’s presence will be revealed for all to see and once again his space and ours will be one.
Isaiah 11:9 (NRSV) 9 They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
That has already started in Jesus, through who his people are called to become fully human and carry forward God’s plan for the new creation when God’s space and ours will once again be one. God did not wind up the world and let it go for the laws of nature to take their course while he watches from a distance. The biblical worldview is that God is not removed, but is intimately connected to this world, a fact that looks forward to the future God has prepared for it and his children. That’s also something that gives us hope in a world where humanity left to its own devices is an extremely scary prospect.