Don Cupitt offers his opening words in his recent debate with Brian Hebblethwaite as ‘a very short and simple statement of my current views’.
Until the late seventeenth century West Europeans still lived in a traditional culture. Their world-view was religious. The really-important knowledge that people lived by all came down to them from God, via Tradition, by divine Revelation, or by direct illumination of the mind. To receive knowledge you had to purify yourself so that you could become morally fit to receive it. As for secular, man-made knowledge, it did exist but it was not highly esteemed, and the Middle Ages have left us no books about how to build cathedrals or warships. Of course not: that kind of knowledge was simply refined craft-skill, as indeed it was in other similar civilizations.
In the 1660s the last great literary works of the old Western Christian culture were published: the Book of Common Prayer, Paradise Lost, and The Pilgrim’s Progress. In 1678 appeared Ralph Cudworth’s True Intellectual System of the Universe, the last top-level attempt to defend the traditional Christian-Platonist philosophy of nature. Then in 1687 appeared Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, and everything began to change. It was now beyond doubt that the Moderns had surpassed the Ancients, and that unaided human reason could produce a system of mathematical physics far superior to anything previously available. The old religious cosmology immediately began to die, and the thinkers of the Enlightenment reconstructed Western culture around the human subject and the new secular and critical type of thinking. Instead of everything being seen as coming down from God, everything was henceforth to be seen from the point of view of the individual human being who uses his senses, his reason, his critical judgment, his creative imagination, and (of course) his conversation with others to build and to test out his own knowledge of the world – and indeed of himself, as well.
The resulting changes were very far-reaching. For example, the old ethics of obedience to revealed Divine Law was gradually replaced by a new ethic based upon sympathetic human fellow-feeling. Ethics has become steadily more humanitarian. Similarly the old Politics of absolute Monarchy, which subjects us all to a Super-person who is exalted over us begins to be replaced by liberal democratic Politics, a new Quakerish kind of politics in which Supreme Authority has come down from the world above and is dispersed into ordinary human beings. Gradually, the State itself has become humanitarian. In religious thought, God is increasingly replaced by human religious experience and the world religions are seen as local cultural formations. As it begins to be understood that we human beings have all by ourselves gradually developed our own language our own knowledge and our own world-view from within, and that we human beings are ourselves the only judges of truth, it begins to be possible to speak of the human mind as creative. We alone have made it all. We are the creators of our own world, we are the only judges. Where in the past God had been in effect the Lord of history, and therefore the only historical agent, human beings now begin especially after the French Revolution to see themselves as collectively the makers of their own history. We alone are responsible.
In these vast cultural changes we see a progressive transfer of powers from God to man, an extraordinary event which Christianity itself foresaw and described as the kenosis of God. God is content to become just mortal and human-in-the-world: God disperses himself into humans: God democratises himself. The Universe turns inside-out, and God dies into humankind. Thus the old Christian dogmas of the Incarnation and Trinity foresaw what has now happened. As St Paul once put it: ‘all things are yours.’
By today the upshot is this. Instead of a created Cosmos, made and upheld by God’s own supremely powerful Word of command, we now have only our world, an evolving improvisation formed and continually growing within our human conversation. Objective reality, and indeed all the old ‘absolutes’ and ‘timeless verities’ that people once lived by, are now gone. We live by continual improvisation We, our knowledge and our world are utterly transient, but life is still liveable on that basis, and our transient world is still beautiful.
In general philosophy we used to think in terms of three great entities, God, the World, and the human Soul. Today we need to give up that vocabulary and talk instead of only two great entities, Life and My Life. ‘Life’ is the going-on of things in the human life-world, which is an endless and outsideless (but of course finite) flowing process of exchange, exchange that is both physical and symbolic. Thus our world is a flowing process of energies-read-as-meanings. And within this process there is a cluster of goings-on that I identify as being me, my Life. I’m a chain of steps in the general dance of everything. I’m only small, but I can contribute something to the dance of the whole before I go.
Against this background the modern religious task is to forget the past, to learn to see and accept life for what it is, and to fling ourselves into the dance. This dance of language, all this, is all there is. As ordinary people nowadays put it, one should learn to live life to its fullest. And this new kind of religion is not quite as new as you may think because, according to the most recent reconstructions of his teaching, it was taught with admirable force and clarity by the original Jesus. The end of the old Christian metaphysics has helped to make possible the rediscovery of Jesus.
I conclude this lightning summary by saying that under today’s conditions it is still possible to live one’s life in the way that Jesus introduced, indeed, it’s better than that, because in many respects modern society is much more Christian than ever it was in the so-called ‘ages of faith’. Think of everyday institutions like the National Health Service, or the United Nations Organisation. Think of our worldwide humanitarian aid, and our concern for human rights. To a remarkable degree, the Christian ethic and spirituality – a spirituality of stringent self-examination and perpetual reform, and an ethic that seeks immediate commitment to life and to one’s fellow-humans – is still alive and still developing in Western culture.
So the world is much more Christian than it was in the past, but the situation of the Church is less happy. It is still stuck in a premodern, precritical world, living in denial and in rapid decline. This has happened for the reason that Dostoyevsky gives in his famous chapter in which Christ comes to Rome and is rejected by the Grand Inquisitor. The Church has forgotten that it was only a temporary formation and is intended to yield, when the time comes, to the greater reality that it is preparing us for. The Church has made an idol of itself, its way to salvation, and its own structures. It does not know how to let go – even though its own members know in their hearts that the Church’s vision of the cosmos and its entire doctrine-system is now a write-off. Blustering, embittered, living in denial and retreating into fundamentalism, the Church simply has not got the strength any more to be honest with itself.
Here is one example of the galloping collapse of traditional faith that is now going on: in the last twenty years funerals and memorial services in our culture have entirely given up the traditional Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. The laity have largely taken over the design and the content of funerary rites, and have re-described them as a ‘Thanksgiving for the life’ and a ‘Celebration of the life’ of the dead person. The whole occasion has thus been transformed into the ritual closure of a life. And that is all. So it is that every funeral we attend now confirms that the disappearance of the supernatural world has already taken place. The clergy, and in particular the Bishops, haven’t had the strength, or even the will, to stop it.
In my travels I have seen how around the world people in many cultures try to cling to a few shreds and tatters of their traditional beliefs alongside the advancing global culture that they cannot resist. I have experienced for example in China the way bits and pieces of the traditional herbal medicine are still kept going in corners where they won’t do much harm, alongside the new science-based Western medicine. We in the West ourselves do the same. We can scarcely deny the overwhelming superiority of real, science-based Western medicine, but we somehow want to keep little bits of magical, pre-scientific ‘alternative’ medicine as well. It is a thoroughly inconsistent and silly thing to do, but most of us Westerners do something like that. It was we who gave birth to modern culture: it is our child, but somehow even we cannot yet bring ourselves to love it.
Such is the position that Brian Hebblethwaite is in. He is a (sort-of) modern. But he’s living in denial, fighting to keep alive a vision of the world that died over 300 years ago, and that now doesn’t work at all. I can’t say he’s flatly wrong, because on my view there is no objective truth. People can, and undoubtedly do, live in and by all sorts of strange visions of the world. But I do say that if the conversation goes on long enough my vision of the human condition will eventually be found to be far more intellectually consistent and far more productive of lasting human happiness. If there goes on being a human race at all, I’ll eventually be found to be in the right. But Brian and I will both of us be long gone by then, so we personally will never know which of us was right.
Don Cupitt made the original BBC 1984 television series Sea of Faith, from which SoF Network takes its name. He has published many books, the latest of which is Impossible Loves (Polebridge, USA 2007).