This is the first of two books Nigel Leaves has written on the life and work of Don Cupitt, an Anglican theologian and for many years, a priest.
Don Cupitt is perhaps best known for his BBC2 series The Sea of Faith which considered what faith means for us today in our age of science, however he has been writing books on this theme for the last forty years (Cupitt's first book listed in the bibliography is Christ and the Hiddenness of God, published in 1971).
Through the 1970s Cupitt was a theologian in the negative and mystical tradition - we cannot say what God is, only what he is not, but in 1980 Cupitt "came out" and in this book Taking Leave of God (SCM Classics) proposed that when we use the word "God" we should not take it to mean some being "out there" but rather the sum of our religious ideals. This caused a huge fuss and he was accused of atheism and there were calls for the church to discipline him. He described his new religion as Christian Buddhism: "the content, the spirituality and the values, are Christian; the form is Buddhist" (p.28).
Cupitt the theme in his next book World to Come (1982) in which he makes extensive use of Nietzsche to propose a new autonomous faith and he continued this theme in his next two books The Sea of Faith (1984) and Only Human (1985).
Cupitt's next group of books - Life Lines (1986), Long-legged Fly: A Theology of Longing and Desire(1987), The New Christian Ethics(1988) and Radicals and the Future of the Church (1989) - look at a postmodern Christianity, with a self that is constructed out of many cultural sources, recognising that we make ethical choices out of socially constructed worldviews, improvising and combining traditions to create individual lifestyles and participating in a global civilization that crosses cultural borders. His influences are Derrida, Foucault, Baudrillard and Lacan, although he still includes references to Nietzsche and Buddhism.
It is at this time that the Sea of Faith network began. This was a network of individuals who wanted to meet and discuss further Cupitt's ideas, so validating his efforts - some critics had suggested that no one was interested in what Cupitt had to say, but the existence of the network proved otherwise (and at the time of writing this review it is still going strong, and a number of similar networks have been set up overseas).
It was also at this time that Cupitt became seriously exhausted - the strain of the establishment fighting against him took its toll, and by 1992 his health had deteriorated to such an extent that he suffered cerebral haemorrhages necessitating brain surgery.
Nevertheless he recovered enough to continue writing and produced a new wave of books, with a theme of `religious expressionism'. The books in this series are Creation Out of Nothing(1990), What is a Story? (1991), The Time Being(1992), After All: Religion without Alienation (1994), The Last Philosophy (1995), Solar Ethics (1995), After God: The Future of Religion (Master Minds)(1997) and Mysticism After Modernity (Religion and Spirituality in the Modern World) (1997). The problem as Cupitt saw it was that postmodernism presents us with this ceaseless flow of competing ideas - it is a cacophony of competing voices - and there is no 'outside' we can escape to. The answer is to embrace this flow, to say 'yes' to this effusion of life, to affirm transience and finitude. He writes "we should live as the sun does... it simply expends itself gloriously, and in so going gives life to us all" (p.70)
Cupitt's next two books - The Religion of Being (1998) and The Revelation of Being (also 1998) - address the question "what does it mean to be?" and uses the philosophy of the controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger to consider how someone can express the cosmic yearnings and feelings of love, worship and gratitude, who longs for personal wholeness and redemption but cannot find it while living under authority. This comes through the revelation of 'Be-ing', that which is. We can joyfully accept the way everything turns out, the way it is, we can have eternal happiness with the here and now. We should pay attention - rapturous attention - to the here and now, to the passing moment, when we acknowledge that this life is all there is, and we love it now.
The religion of being is a life slowed down - instead of looking forever into the future, it is loving the now. Cupitt says "and I truly believe that the Love of the transient, contingent Being which has come upon me in my later years is a religious advance upon the Love of God which so filled me from 1952 until 1978 or thereabouts" (p.90).
Cupitt's next group of books look at the religion of everyday speech. They are The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (1999), The Meaning of it All in Everyday Speech (1999) and Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech (2000). Cupitt makes the extraordinary discovery that if we analyse how the idioms of everyday speech use the word "life" we actually discover a new religious vocabulary that people use - for example "get a life", "quality of life", "love of life", "live my own life" and so on, shows that the focus of people today is in the here and now, not some future existence. Similarly looking at "it" and "it all" there is a pessimism and fatalism about being ("make the best of it"). Cupitt says that if we can say "yes" to life and "no" to the it-all then we are following the religion of a post-Christian Jesus.
The final group of books looked at are Philosophy's Own Religion (2000), Reforming Christianity (2001) and Emptiness and Brightness (2001). Cupitt calls these books a summary of his final outlook - however at the time of writing this review there are a further fourteen books listed on Don Cupitt's website that have been written since then! Nevertheless Cupitt here aims to bring together a summary of what he has been saying so far:
1. The religious/secular distinction has been erased, the whole of life is religious. 2. Life is outsideless, we should commit ourselves to our own transient lives. 3. Salvation is found in solar, expressive living. 4. Life and death are not opposites, but always mingled. 5. Humanitarian ethics express a new global religious way of life. 6. Denominational Christianity is to be replaced by informal religious associations. 7. There is no absolute religious object, but we can love Be-ing, the now.
Given the huge output of Don Cupitt, a book like this summarising what Cupitt is saying and showing the trajectory of his thought is invaluable. It certainly answers his critics who complain that Cupitt is just writing the same book over and over again. As we can see, Cupitt's writings, while following a consistent theme, nevertheless constantly cover new territory and provide new perspectives on what a postmodern, post-Christian religion may look like.
Regarding the other criticism that Cupitt is too intellectual - it can't be denied that Cupitt is writing with reference to some very difficult thinkers. There is a story that at one Sea of Faith conference, during a discussion, Cupitt said - with genuine incredulity - that apparently there were still people in the churches who had yet to come to terms with Derrida. However it isn't really necessary that Cupitt is able to write to accommodate every audience. Instead we can hope that his writings inspire other authors and artists to express this new faith in ways that are accessible to a wider audience.