Cupitt's measure

June 30, 1995

Gerard Kelly meets priest-philosopher Don Cupitt, a radical who discomforts the faithful. Don Cupitt, priest and philosopher of religion at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, is not complimentary about the level of freedom of thought in the Church of England: "Years and years of constantly being attacked have led me to believe that if we are to revive religion we might have to do it outside the church." Exponents of his ideas are attacked, he says, "while all manner of superstition and irrationality is cheerfully tolerated.

I'm fed up with theology being taught as law. I can't bear that type of restriction."

For those who regard the church as relatively broad, even dangerously liberal, his remarks may seem surprising. And his critics indeed deny he has in any way been hounded. But Cupitt, a former dean at Emmanuel, is a true radical. He has, says one Oxbridge colleague, gone far further than most theologians are prepared to dream of. "Mainstream theologians are very happy to embrace innovative ideas if in the long term they can be used to prop up the relics of the faith. But if you begin to say things that are not compatible with doctrine, as Don does, then they become very unhappy."

There is much in Cupitt's thought to discomfort the faithful. Over 15 years, in a cascade of 23 books, numerous articles and a TV series, Sea of Faith, he has dared to rethink all that is sacred - the nature of faith, the meaning of God, the role of religion - in an endearingly demotic style that has earned him an audience beyond academe and some disdain within it. For Cupitt, God is an ideal, a focus to live by, not a superbeing whose existence has to be proved; death is the end of life with no beyond attached to it; and religion should be a guide for living, not a preparation for dying.

"It is simply not the theologian's job," he writes, "to prove the objective existence of God, or even to ask what God is, but rather simply to ask what jobs the word 'God' does now, and in what ways we can use it in building our world and our lives." Humans, he believes, have evolved their gods, their religious rituals and their ethical values to help them live their biological lives.

"The hardest thing for people to get is that life is radically outsideless; there is nothing outside all of this. So talk of life after death is silly. And people find that hard because it compels them to see that their own world, the world, is as long as their lives. All attempts to break out of it merely enlarge it, much as all attempts to break out of Badger's underground house in the Wind in the Willows could only create an extra room. There is no outside to Badger's underground house as it were . . ."

Cupitt is 61 and married with children. He is a biologist by training and was ordained as a priest in 1959. But he took leave of orthodoxy some 20 years later, "partly in sharp reaction to an old schoolfriend of mine, Richard Swinburne, professor of religion at Oxford, who published a book which argued that the belief in God expresses the empirical hypothesis that there is a very powerful body behind the scenes. He really thought that and I was horrified a 20th-century philosopher should think in those terms. I thought it was barbaric."

His work has little to do with those well-known physicists who, as he puts it, "write theological-sounding best-sellers and are portrayed as star-gazing holy men". He has no difficulty reconciling the science that progressively discovers the laws of nature with a church that believes in an objective God because he believes they share a similar epistemological tradition. They both posit a reality independent of man, and consequently make similar mistakes, namely in their search for certainties and final answers. "The way in which the scientific establishment defends realism parallels the way in which the religious establishment defends realism. Neither of them is willing to accept a completely mobile, transient, world picture."

And that as far as Cupitt is concerned is a sin. "The cause of our unhappiness is the lust for certainty and objectivity. Realism is what the Buddhists call craziness, the longing for something fixed, something you can hold on to. Realism is the result of a fear of life."

Cupitt is a non-realist. He believes there is no world out there that has any meaning for humans that has not been constructed by humans. We order the world by the laws we invent, by the names we apply, by the theories of knowledge we construct. Crudely put, what is knowable determines what is. As he says in his new book, The Last Philosophy: "For the realist there are truths out there, beyond the range of the truth that human beings have so far determined. But for the anti-realist we are the only makers of meanings, truths and values, and our theoretical postulates, such as God, gravity and justice, have no being apart from the language in which we speak of them and the practical uses to which we put it."

Realism, according to Cupitt, has always been highly theological. "Scientific theory as it progresses is claimed to approximate more and more closely to being an exact replica of the structure of the physical world. Ever since Descartes the story has been that we are almost there: all that is required is a little more time, a little more faith and (of course) rather a lot more funding. Meanwhile critical historians and philosophers of science are required to keep a low profile and not rock the Ark of Salvation. Having aspired to emulate theology, Big Science is now reliving its history.

"The crowning absurdity is yet to come. Physics, the subject at the top of the academic pecking order, borrows the tattered finery of theology, the subject at the bottom of the pecking order, and then some theologians, flattered by this tribute, pander to the physicists and attempt to form alliances with them, often on the basis of a philosophical oxymoron called 'critical realism'."

John Polkinghorne, president of Queen's College, Cambridge, who is a priest and a physicist, remains unconvinced by Cupitt's arguments: "I don't find much of an engagement with science," he says,adding dryly, "Don is roughly as engaged with science as Paul Davies (professor of physics at Adelaide University and winner of the Templeton prize for progress in religion) is with theology."

What Cupitt does like about science is its methodology. "What I admire is not the dogmatic truth, but that it is sceptical and mobile . . . it's a running argument. The kind of pop science that trades in certainties is only for people who are not scientists. If you are a scientist yourself you know perfectly well that science is a running argument. Science or art can go on without an objective authority to lay down in advance what lines of thought to publish or not. So why can't the same be true of religion? There is no pope of science. The notion of the church as a policeman has to be given up. The only effective policeman is free debate "I hate the idea that religion entails some loss of freedom of thought. I hate the idea of a totalitarian ideology. That's not religion. For me religion has to be a purely free movement of one's emotions."

There have been suggestions that Cupitt's academic career has suffered because of the radical nature of his views and because he has committed the unpardonable sin of publishing too much and for too wide an audience. One sympathetic academic agrees that Cupitt had "met a wall of silence" from the theological establishment. But another is less charitable: "One of the things that holds Don back is a lack of dialogue with anybody else. He is a very poor listener. He writes these books, internal conversations with himself, but he doesn't listen to other people."

After years of pushing a radical agenda inside the church, Cupitt is pessimistic about the health of the institution, and although he remains a priest he no longer officiates. "Most of the gifted and able free-thinking people have already left the churches. There's only a small minority of people left who want to be sheep, guided by a wise and strong shepherd. It means the church survives by going further and further down market, until now it is really indistinguishable from the cults.

"The time must surely come when the fragments of belief left over from the past get to be so weak they will just collapse. The old ecclesiastical power structure could collapse as suddenly as communism. Within the lifetime of people now living, tourists will walk through the private apartments of the Vatican and wonder at the strange power structure that was once based there."

What role is left then for religion stripped of its objective God, its divinely inspired books and its eternal truths? A very important one, according to Cupitt, though its function "is not to give us metaphysical information, but to shape the way we live". And he resorts to the metaphors of which he is so fond: "I picture the world as a continuing outpouring process, like the sun, like a fountain, like a fire. The task of religious thought is to accept and rejoice in transience, to make people completely happy with transience."

Is he happy in his transience or afraid of death? "I had two brain haemorrhages in 1992, but even at the worst moments I wasn't afraid of death, which I was happy to discover. We come from the void, we dance over the void, we pass back into it, that's transience. I think you can be very happy when you accept that completely. I remember my father in his later years used to sit and watch the sun go down. That's a sensible way to approach death. In the end you have to let go, and religion should be about that, pouring out your life like the sun."

The Last Philosophy is published by SCM Press, Pounds 9.95.

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