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The Sea of Faith at 40: Vanguard of critical theology

28 June 2024

Forty years after The Sea of Faith was first broadcast, Elaine Graham examines its impact

Anglia Television

ON SATURDAY 12 September 1984, BBC television began screening a six-part series, The Sea of Faith. Written and presented by the Cambridge philosopher and theologian the Revd Don Cupitt, the programmes examined the impact on traditional Christian belief of a selection of modern critics of religion. They included Galileo, Blaise Pascal, David Friedrich Strauss, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all of whom, Cupitt believed, had contributed to a significant intellectual crisis of faith in the churches.

Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach” (1867), which featured in the opening sequence of the first episode, established the mood of the series as a whole. The “long slow withdrawing roar” of the tides of traditional religious certainty — the “Sea of Faith” — had retreated, leaving only flux and turmoil. For Cupitt, this symbolised the gradual decline of Christianity in the West over the past 300 years, occasioned by the advent of modern science and philosophy. Our culture was now witnessing what Cupitt called “the withdrawal of gods and spirits” in favour of “a man-made world of ceaseless change and movement”.

Cupitt’s main preoccupation was the emergence of a new, secular mentality within Western culture and society, as exemplified by the writings of his main representative figures. According to the narrative of the series, modern science and cosmology undermined the intellectual and cultural credibility of religious metaphysics; 19th-century historical criticism challenged the literal authority of the Bible as a sacred text; humanitarian and democratic movements overthrew traditional autocratic powers such as Church and State; and religious pluralism called into question the pre-eminence of Western Christianity. Human agency rather than divine will determined the course of history, and was the only source of meaning.

Cupitt, had, therefore set himself the task of discovering whether religion could still be relevant when science, technology, and medicine appeared to provide all the answers.

BBCDon Cupitt in a scene from the 1985 BBC television series The Sea of Faith

He concluded that faith could still uphold human dignity and the value of life “in the face of an indifferent universe”. Yet his central message was that the Churches needed to revise and adapt their teaching to address these challenges, or face a substantial loss of credibility followed by an inevitable decline into irrelevance. The choice was clear: “The claims of theological realism and of religious seriousness now pull in opposite directions. Either you can claim to have an objective God . . . or you can have an authentic Christian faith.”

In place of a belief in an objective, all-powerful, and supernatural reality who intervenes in human history, Cupitt invited his audience to embrace a “non-realist” theology which challenged the notion that language about God refers directly to an objective, transcendent, supernatural Being. Instead, we should regard God as a spiritual ideal, the ultimate reality towards which we orientate ourselves. It follows then, that contemporary religious belief must be focused not on a preoccupation with the existence of God, but instead on the meaning and practical efficacy of the idea of God.

Cupitt concluded that the future of Christianity lay in a humanly constructed faith which emphasised this same spiritual quest for meaning and authenticity. Religion, he argued, was not a matter of propositional belief in metaphysical truth, but a matter of inward integrity. In the face of radical doubt, we must embrace the uncertainties of our existence and embrace life to the full, and to allow personal authenticity to serve as one’s moral compass.

AT THIS point, Cupitt’s project is revealed as not just a disinterested, academic exercise but something deeply personal and autobiographical. “When I look into the void of the modern situation and I see that it’s entirely up to me what I make of myself and my life, I find I need religion to give me a path, to give my soul shape, to give me categories to live by, goals to pursue.

“I’m a priest in the Church of England and I practise in a rather traditional way; but when I say the creed, I regard it not as giving me supernatural information but as showing me a way to walk in.”

The series attracted huge interest, and generated considerable public controversy. Some were horrified by what looked like a rejection of the most important beliefs of the Christian faith. Others found his ideas prescient and an inspiration. The series led to the formation of the Sea of Faith Movement, which held its first national meeting in 1988, and which continues to this day with an annual conference, meetings of both local and international groups, and a regular newsletter, schools work, publications, and website.

The 40th anniversary of the series offers a further opportunity to revisit the series and bring fresh perspectives to bear. Looking back, one is struck by how little of the excitement and controversy generated by The Sea of Faith has endured, and the cost to Cupitt himself of his media fame — but above all, perhaps, the extraordinary response on the part of viewers.

BBCDon Cupitt in a scene from the 1985 BBC television series The Sea of Faith

Such a fresh evaluation of audience reactions to The Sea of Faith is made possible through the availability of a resource associated with the TV series that has only recently come into the public domain. This is the “Sea of Faith Archive”, now held at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden: a repository of Cupitt’s published and unpublished works, which also includes a substantial collection of the original correspondence received by Cupitt in response to the broadcasts (Feature, 15 March 2019).

This provides a unique snapshot of the public’s engagement with the series, which reveals more than simply viewers’ reactions to the content of the programmes themselves. The framing of the series in terms of Cupitt’s own spiritual and intellectual odyssey seems also to have provoked a rich outpouring of correspondents’ own narratives, which present us with a fascinating overview of their highly diverse — often highly heterodox — religious beliefs.

The sheer range and breadth of opinions voiced in these letters to Cupitt offers important clues to the wider state of religious observance and popular spirituality in the last two decades of the 20th century. While many held fast to traditional beliefs, many others identified strongly with Cupitt’s personal spiritual journey, and were only too willing to share with him, in their correspondence, their own comparable experiences.

For many, the institutional Church had lost its authority and ability to dictate their beliefs. People were not afraid to make their own decisions about what constituted credible and functional beliefs. Alongside this loss of church control, people’s attention had turned to what worked for them in terms of their personal faith commitments.

THE main achievement of the Sea of Faith series lay in its attempt to present an intellectually serious treatment of the relationship between religious faith and the modern world to a mass television audience, as well as its willingness to speak to the Zeitgeist of the changing religious landscape in the last quarter of the 20th century.

It was unique in its presentation of non-realist theology — probably the first exposure to such ideas for many viewers (including committed churchgoers). It established Cupitt’s reputation as a controversial and non-conformist theological thinker, and a leading proponent of radical Christianity, but also placed him beyond the pale for many church leaders and fellow academics.

Even so, both the series itself and Cupitt’s broader work challenge any easy assumption that he was a controversialist for controversy’s sake. Instead, we can perhaps regard him as someone who was making an important and genuine attempt to protect the future of the Churches. In other words, Cupitt was more of a missionary than an iconoclast, even if his efforts led in more radical directions. Looking back, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the Churches still need to be discussing the questions raised by Cupitt’s thinking.

Despite its controversial nature, there is much of lasting significance to be found in revisiting The Sea of Faith after 40 years. It reminds us of a breadth and diversity of religious experience both within the Church and beyond which, even today, is seldom acknowledged.

BBCDon Cupitt in a scene from the 1985 BBC television series The Sea of Faith

Nor is it the case that Cupitt was simply presenting the religious alternatives as a straightforward dichotomy between fundamentalism and atheism. Rather, the series amounts to an apologia for the view that critical thinking and intelligent questioning might still be compatible with a credible and positive religious commitment.

It stands as an important attempt to present contemporary theological and philosophical thinking which responds sympathetically and constructively to modern and postmodern intellectual trends.

Finally, the wealth of responses to the series reveals much to us about the transitions already under way in mid-20th-century British society. We can discern a shift from an audience identifying largely with Western Christianity (however heterodox their beliefs might be) towards a far more religiously diverse and institutionally disaffiliated population.

That legacy of the series itself, the scale of the audience response, not to mention Cupitt’s own unstinting commitment to religious authenticity, should encourage those who continue to look for opportunities today to engage in open, critical, and honest discussion about the existence of God, the nature of faith, and the future of the Church.

Elaine Graham is Professor Emerita of Practical Theology at the University of Chester and chair of trustees of Modern Church. Details of 40th-anniversary events can be found here: doncupitt.chi.ac.uk/40th-anniversary-conferences, together with more information about the Sea of Faith archive at Gladstone’s Library.

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

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