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Angela Tilby: Don Cupitt — a spiritual sceptic

15 March 2019


Emmanuel College, Cambridge

Emmanuel College, Cambridge

I MET Don Cupitt in 1969, when he was the Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. To my 19-year-old undergraduate self, he was the epitome of intellectual sophistication: mild-mannered, laid-back, and devastatingly sharp. He had an unusually shaped head, which could make him look like either a monk or an eagle. He was a bit like both, having the detachment of an ascetic and the acute vision of one who sees from above the fray.

I was not entirely surprised when he began to publish sceptical thoughts about key Christian doctrines: academic theology was highly critical of church tradition at the time. For a period, he embraced a kind of transcendentalist theism, which was a bit reminiscent of Barth and echoed aspects of Islam.

The shock came in 1980, when he published Taking Leave of God. I was not so much surprised by his having become an atheist as by his transformation of theology into spirituality. I had not expected this, and it baffled me, although in time I began to understand how plausible his thesis was.

It came down to this: “God” is a cultural construct. We now know that there is no God outside ourselves, and no afterlife; so we must create our own religion. This means that we can still follow Jesus, if we so choose, and attempt to live the life of the Beatitudes. While belief is a dead end, spiritual and ethical practice leads to a joyful life.

Some of his peers derided him as “Telly Don” for his broadcasting. Some thought that this was the reason that he was never offered a chair in theology. But, even before The Sea of Faith, Don had moved away from purely academic interests and was devoting his time to developing his ideas for wider audiences. I remember being present at a meeting in Cambridge when he described his initial Christian conversion, which took place, as I recall, in the Henry Martyn Hall under the auspices of the Christian Union.

Although he abandoned God, he retained something of the missionary instinct. His writing connects well with a world that is unable to believe in anything beyond itself. I often find myself moved by his clarity and mystical insight, although I remain unconvinced by the dissolution of God into spirituality. For me, the question why there is something rather than nothing still demands a serious response, and what Don offers can sometimes seem no more than flip condescension.

Curiously, his blend of spirituality and scepticism has brought at least two people I know to a serious and orthodox faith. Given permission to practise something like prayer, they finally found themselves in the presence of the One-Who-Is. I wonder whether he regards this as success or failure.


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