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The Sea of Faith at 40: Philosopher who dared to stare into the void

28 June 2024

Catherine Pickstock celebrates Don Cupitt and his legacy

Rosie Dawson

Don Cupitt in 2019

Don Cupitt in 2019

IN SOME ways, Don Cupitt is like an ecclesiastical version of Tony Benn. Neither man preserved a realist belief in a Protestant religious inheritance, but both can be seen as “daring to be a Daniel”, in a way that suggests that they felt they were being truer to God by cleaving to divine moral and political standards, even after his possible demise — as if they are all the more witnesses to God in his absolute absence.

Physically, they both stood tall, like lone pinnacles of rock in the retreating tide of faith, of humanism, socialism, and decency. Cupitt, especially, sustains an enigma of commitment peculiar to himself, in such a way that his writings have become the basis of a cult that seems to fuse with his personality.

WHAT is his legacy today? In a first sentence, Cupitt broke with the musty hypocrisy of most Anglican liberal theology by pushing it to an extreme, thus exposing an elite agnosticism that was keeping its half-belief to itself and not letting the masses into the secret, as if out of an apparently persistent fear that they might then misbehave.

Thus, his Sea of Faith television series had a public impact, not just because of the force of his personality, or because it was so well-wrought, presented, and argued, but also because it put forward succinctly the standard account of modernity and the decline of religion was well-known to academics but not, at the time, to the general public, or to churchgoers, who may have been bewildered by the decline of Christian practice.

This account presented successively the rise of scientific mechanism, the impact of Darwin, of the new awareness of non-Christian belief systems, of scepticism regarding the historical truth of the Bible, the suspicions of the origins of religion found in Marx and Freud, and, finally, the impact of linguistic constructivism after Wittgenstein.

At this stage of his theological career, Cupitt combined a Buddhist-sounding talk of the void with an insistence that we must accordingly will our own ethical good with a religious indifference as to our own personal fate and happiness. The practice of actual religion obscurely suggested that this self-legislation was not simply arbitrary. Otherwise, religious belief and practice had no real supernatural reference.

Many, including a young Rowan Williams, pointed out the apparent tension that pertained between cosmic passivity and humanist self-assertion. And yet there were hints that — despite the refusal of any normal religious reference — our upright, stoic behaviour might somehow align with an “ineffable” that could still be mystically invoked.

Even the voices of a rising anti-liberal return to orthodoxy, like that of Williams, acknowledged that Don Cupitt had helpfully reminded the British of religious apophaticism, the non-literal character of religious language (often more naïvely invoked by analytic philosophers than by ordinary believers), the importance of not seeing God as a subject in a story exactly like our own subjectivity, and of the difference of religion from therapy.

IN A later phase of his work, however, Cupitt moved away from a simple humanist assault on religious realism towards a more radical embrace of philosophical non-realism in every field. If God was not real outside our language, then neither was nature, nor were the conclusions of science. In a flux that was at one with the void (rather akin to a manoeuvre from Theravada to Mahayana Buddhism), every human construction of religion, knowledge, and culture is equally desperate, and as equally untrue as it is true.

This post-modern turn might seem to move even further away from Christian orthodoxy. Yet it also has the effect of levelling religion with all other practices and understandings. It has the effect (perhaps under the impact of Williams’s critique) of no longer opposing passivity towards the void with human activism, and seeming to suggest deviation from nature — and mastery of nature — as a legitimate ethical goal. Rather, we are at one with nature in a ceaseless emergence and self-construction, in which reception and self-making and giving are as one.

This vision can open up to nihilism, and a trivial vision of everything as a mille-feuille of masks and ironic play. And, indeed, part of the Cupitt mystique is an occasional dissolution of the granite into playful irony, only to be later recuperated as a sterner obeisance before a cosmos with no apparent given meaning. Yet even the post-modern turn was, in Cupitt’s case, inflected with a sort of absolute apophatic reserve concerning an ultimate unknown that the flux might still conceal.

AT THIS juncture, he had unintentionally opened the way for a more “poetic” turn of the orthodox revival, with Radical Orthodoxy and kindred movements. All may be constructed, but construction itself can trust in the partially given, and can have faith that the formations of language, art, and culture do indeed convey the inspiration of the divine, as well as anticipate the building upwards, and yet descent from heaven, of the Jerusalem to come.

In this way, a different realism, more attentive to the most unavoidable aspect of modernity — which is, after all, natural and historical metamorphosis and construction — had arrived.

The new turn inherited Cupitt’s anti-realist levelling of everything else with religion, albeit, one might suggest, in a neo-realist guise. Now, beyond the feeble apologetics of liberal humanist theology, or the lingering humanism of a more “passive” realism, it becomes possible to see religion and theology as the very place where “real” truth in all its modes can be glimpsed, or salvaged, along with religious humanism.

Without Cupitt’s indomitable intervention, Anglo-Saxon theology would not be what it is today.

Dr Catherine Pickstock is Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity in the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

Read our other articles marking the 40th anniversary of The Sea of Faith here and here

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