Bliss in the drab house of life

After God
October 10, 1997

In this opinionated essay, Don Cupitt offers "a theory of the history, and the future, of religious meaning". He renews his attack on the regime of metaphysical realism, Plato's dream of a transcendent world. Nietzsche and the secular prophets awoke us to the truth, says Cupitt. There is only us; there is only this world. We are animals who have discovered language, suicide and humour. Language is the master, not servant of reality. Let us have a no-bull**** Christianity that rejoices in these liberating discoveries. There is a consistent direction to Cupitt's inquiry: he follows all his prejudices meticulously.

He welcomes the eclipse of traditional religion after the second world war. In 1952, he entered Cambridge University to read natural sciences. Within a fortnight he had given his life to Christ. Seven years later he became a priest. It was the fashionable thing to do, he explains: "We still felt religious."

Cupitt finds language magical. The Jews survived as a race, he writes, because they are good with words: "bookish, talkative, and intelligent". So is Cupitt: moreover, handsome and photogenic. One might rewrite Genesis: "In the beginning, the Word created the heavens and the earth. Without words, the earth was desolation and emptiness."

The book is self-consciously stylish. The charm of the prose carries us further than its rigour. There is a Cambridge-style condescension too: many words are italicised unnecessarily as though readers need to be told how to distribute emphasis. Admittedly, every writer is a preacher who needs the equivalent of the pulpit under his or her strong hands. The spoken word has the backing of the raised voice; in print the passion is inaudible.

Nothing surprises Cupitt. "Nothing is deep, and nothing can be kept hidden for long," he claims, commenting on the omnipotence of the media and the omnipresence of western culture. Yet two pages earlier we read of "the mysterious business of fashion". "Mysterious" is too religious an adjective to describe so secular, so transparent a reality. Let us use "sin", "mystery", and "faith" with their original and intended significances.

Cupitt answers: "Everything floats: not only money and prices but also linguistic meanings, religious truths, and moral and aesthetic values." Again, there are no longer any essences, only signs and symbols. There is no inner life. To have a concept is to be able to use a word; to have a mastery of concepts is to be able to use a language: Cupitt admires that mercurial genius Ludwig Wittgenstein.

What about sin? It does not matter, replies Cupitt. "Nothing matters" occurs as a complete sentence although Cupitt must mean that nothing matters to us any longer. The Christian reader would say in oblique disagreement: if sin does not matter, nothing matters. Cupitt reverses the direction of the inference: Nothing matters therefore sin does not matter.

But language matters. For Cupitt, language determines reality. There is no language-free standpoint from which we can survey the world. All reality is description-relative, culture-dependent. Nothing out there makes our beliefs true or false. Language does not represent the world; nothing extralinguistic corresponds to our thoughts. Knowledge is not a matter of getting reality right. Rather, it is a set of tools for coping with life. The language of modern science is no closer to reality than any other language. Science and religion are both human responses to the human problems of our time.

Cupitt's antirealism is partly mistaken. Language enables thought, not existence. Experiences and objects can exist unnamed but, admittedly, naming them is a precondition of thinking about them in a public way. Notwithstanding Cupitt, we need some way of contrasting the world as it is with what it appears as to us. Similarly, this empirical world may be all we can know. Why should it be all there is?

Cupitt is theoretically committed to a naturalistic view of language: strings of marks and noises used by organisms to negotiate with their world. Yet at times he speaks of language as if it were something as mysterious and intangible as the God of supernatural religion.

There is one reality that precedes not only religion, philosophy and science but even language: art. We must first notice the world and interest ourselves in it before we can wonder about the causes of natural phenomena, the origin of our species, or the names of objects. Art is the pioneer of language. It works ahead of language, minting for us, by exaggeration and hint, sensations for which we have as yet no name. These sensations that are not biologically necessary to life. Only poets invent the right words for them.

Christianity has been thus far a creed of asceticism, decorum and inhibition, declares Cupitt. We need a God of freedom, not of fire. Once upon a time, our duty was supplied by life; that was medieval. Today we choose our lifestyles, our jobs and marriage partners. Our modern God has to suit us. No theology can reconcile the medieval conception of God with contemporary knowledge.

All major religions, Cupitt continues, are now dying just as the religions of ancient Greece and Egypt once died. The Christian God is dead but art in his honour survives. We salvage some "forms and practices of selfhood". "A religion of the future shall be "an experiment in selfhood". Out of the repertoire of beliefs and tools, we may take what we please. Experience, not dogma, shall guide us.

Three therapeutic techniques survive the demise of the Hebrew monotheisms. First, "the eye of God". We should live as if there were an impartial judge watching us even though we know that "God" is only the symbol of our highest human values. Second, to cope with the irrational fear of extinction, Cupitt offers "the blissful void", a state similar to dreamless sleep. We must learn to cultivate surrender to the inevitability of ageing and death. Finally, "solar living" is the secular analogue of a life marked by Christian agape: we pour out the self in the service of others. Jesus is the best guide here - minus the supernatural claptrap that encased the message for two millennia.

For Cupitt, Christian theology is a field in which one can write whatever one likes without being detained by historical facts. His version of Christianity bears no relation to the real article. It is a psychological condition with no cognitive content. It offers us merely emotional decor for the drab house of life. Besides, the gruel is too thin. Only a few intellectuals could survive on that diet. The atheists, drawing secular conclusions from secular premises, have long claimed Cupitt as one of their men. His loquacious denial of the charge is unconvincing. It is wiser to confess the truth.

His reductionism is a protective mask for incredulity. Who can believe all those dogmas? Fair enough: atheism is not an indefensible view. But nothing is gained by linguistic legerdemain, except confusion. Everything is what it is. Either we say the same old things in new words or we secretly alter the substance. If the former, the atheist knows we are warming up yesterday's stew; if the latter, we have changed the subject and gathered a congregation of the confused.

Cupitt reduces the scandal of Christianity to a secular moral policy and advises us to endorse it without faith in its metaphysical foundations. But the command is: "Love one another because God loves you." Cupitt's Christianity of the future replaces the western pilgrim's confrontation with an unjust world with the eastern guru's search for inner peace. Jeremiah and Hosea were troubled men with many domestic problems and little time for meditation: they were not Buddhists.

Cupitt calls himself a Buddhist. Buddhism, the Christianity of the East, was described by Nietzsche as "spiritual hygiene". It is warmer and suitably vague, a relaxed, redemptive mysticism. We can understand an ex-Christian's regard for it. But can a westerner succeed in being a Buddhist? We risk alienation and insanity if we try to transcend too completely the culture that shaped us. Ironically, Cupitt does not note that Buddhism is a product of eastern culture and suits easterners. No one lays aside the particularities of culture and language to enter a religion solely as a human being.

Culturally, there is an English intellectual quality to Cupitt's relentless scepticism and his call for a mobile method. "Thou shalt think deeply! Think things through," preaches Cupitt, "and the truth shall set you free." The book is in the self-help genre, meant to reach all. But doubt does not seduce; no faith was founded on doubt. The English are too tentative and cautious to have given a religion to the world - and have had difficulties believing in the one the Jews gave them. But the English gave their language to the world; and that should, if Cupitt is a prophet of a new religion, redeem them.

Shabbir Akhtar is writing a biography of St Paul.

After God: The Future of Religion

Author - Don Cupitt
ISBN - 0 297 81952 6
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £11.99
Pages - 143

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