The Return Of The Great Questions

Don Cupitt contributed this talk to the 2004 SOF UK national conference.

Writing in the late 1880s, Nietzsche suddenly pauses and says to himself: 'What a lot of nineteenth centuries there are, waiting to be described by historians in the future!' He has recognized that modem society is so large-scale, so hugely productive and destructive, and containing so many conflicting forces, that many, many different interpretations of it are always possible. We never reach a final view of its worth, or in what direction it is all heading.

The ambiguity persists. There always have been, and there still are, both people for whom the Victorian age was a period of great moral assurance, energetic, confident and expansionist, and also people for whom the whole period was clouded by anxiety and depression over the loss of religious faith, 'the decline of the West', and looming nihilism.

Now that we are in a position to look back on it, the twentieth century presents us with all the same difficulties in even more acute form. On the one hand, it was by far the most productive period human beings have known. As average life-expectancy in a country such as this one rose during the nineteenth century from around 28 to 48 years, so during the twentieth century it rose again, from around 48 to 78 years, with enormous increases in the availability to all of easy access to cultural resources, and cheap transport and communications. Adding in great advances in medicine and public health, the average life has become far longer, more prosperous and culturally richer than ever before. Yet at the same time the twentieth was also much the most destructive century, ravaged by the decline of religion and the clash of violent secular political ideologies, and severely threatened by overpopulation and degradation of the environment. Even more than the nineteenth, the twentieth century has seen a constant storm of change, and a continuous controversy between optimistic and pessimistic interpretations of what's been happening and where we are all heading.

Some things in the late twentieth century were quite new. After about 1950, the whole of cultural life was increasingly guided by the mass media. After about 1960 the transmission of culture, faith and values through the family and religious institutions almost ceased, and instead young people came to draw their world-view and their values from the media in general, and from pop music in particular. The resulting 'detraditionalization' has accelerated the decline of traditional religion. During the early 1980s the ring of communications satellites around the world become complete and fully reliable, so that money, ideas, entertainment and talk began to be traded continuously in a single world-wide conversation of humanity. Everyone who travels widely notices that, especially in the great cities, the conversational agenda has become much the same everywhere.

Paradoxically, this continuous global exchange is not producing any unchallenged world- wide consensus. On the contrary, its most obvious effect so far has been to provoke a violent ethnonationalist and religious backlash from various groups of people who feel that they are not being invited to the party. Which brings me to another paradox: the flood of information that reaches all of us every day seems to be making us not more settled in our opinions but more volatile, and we must all of us be aware of having quietly abandoned views that only a few decades ago were accepted by everyone as obvious truths.

For example, thirty years ago everyone was still Malthusian. We were all threatened by a catastrophic population explosion: but today more than half the world is threatened by declining fertility, and most European countries are being told that they now face really alarming depopulation. Thirty years ago 'the secularization thesis' was still in the saddle, and people supposed that as knowledge grew and technology advanced the whole culture must become more secular, so that organized religion would fade away and generally cease "to be a problem. But to Clay religion is back with a vengeance, transformed into new and very militant political ideologies such as Sionism, Islamism, and BJP-Hinduism. No religion, not even Buddhism, is exempt from this extreme form of politicization: in Sri Lanka the national mythology of the Sinhala people assures them that the Buddha gave Ceylon to them, to be occupied by them alone, and - amazingly - Buddhist monks have endorsed their government's war against the Tamils. There can be little doubt that in this new form religion will cause quite as much mayhem in the twenty-first century as the secular political ideologies of fascism and communism caused in the twentieth century. What seems to have happened in that fascism and communism have bequeathed their aggressive messianism back to the religions from which they first drew it. By a horrible irony, modem religion has been back-poisoned by a corrupt version of itself. The long- term result will probably be that humanity in general will some day reject messianic fundamentalist religion just as decisively as we have already rejected fascism and communism.

One last example of the way long-held assumptions are nowadays liable to sudden reversal: since the Enlightenment we have believed that the historical process in which we are caught up is generally characterized by a steady long-term advance, both of knowledge and of personal freedom. An educated and fully-participant liberal democracy is the End of history, at least in the sense of being the Telos, the goal of history. But a decade ago the sudden debate about the ideas of Francis Fukuyama may have marked the beginning of a sharp reversal. In an article called 'Post-democracy'(1) the leading liberal philosopher Richard Rorty has said regretfully that he fears that the golden age of bourgeois liberal democracy is now coming to an end. It lasted two hundred years, and it was good while it lasted, but we cannot afford it any longer. People are nowadays being easily persuaded to surrender their freedoms in the interests of 'homeland security'. Thoroughgoing, magnificently 'easy', American-style liberal democracy is no longer practicable in the new age of suicide bombers, economic vulnerability, and the looming spectre of the breakdown of the state. The model for the future will be the limited and centrally 'guided' democracy of Putin's Russian Federation, and of countries like, perhaps, China and Singapore. Real democratic freedom we can't afford any more: it's too vulnerable to attack. But most of us will doubtless be perfectly content with homeland security and 'guided' democracy rather than freedom—even in America.

All these alarming reversals and new ideas have emerged only during the last few years, and they show us how difficult the task of the religious thinker has recently become. It is harder than ever to reach and to hold any settled view of the rapidly-shifting times in which we live—times in which there is no stable truth, and the prevailing consensus about the direction in which we are all going is liable to such sudden and unexpected reversals. For about 200 years (that is, since about the time of Schopenhauer) people have made the point by remarking that the basic facts of life and the current state of the world may be the same for the optimist and the pessimist. But without falsifying or denying any of the facts the two end up by producing wildly different interpretations of what it all means, for them, and for us; and often we can't find any simple test that will help us to decide which of them is right.

Do you see how acute the problem is? The optimist and the pessimist both take account of all the facts, and both are rational. But they produce flatly opposed visions of the overall human condition, and we cannot find any agreed and reliable criterion for deciding which of them is right. This is very bad for religious thought, because traditionally religious thought has always needed and has always started from just such a big, overall, global picture and diagnosis of the human situation. In times as unstable and ambivalent as ours, I am saying, how can religious thought hope to find an agreed starting-point? Until we can form a settled view about where we are and where things are heading, religious thought cannot show us why and how we should re- orient our lives. Anyway, there is a case for saying that 'the state of the world' and 'the human condition' are simply too ambiguous and vague for it to be possible to make true general statements about them.

I used to think I could deal with this problem. During the 1980s I still felt pretty confident of the permanent and in-all-situations goodness and religious efficacy of Christian myths, symbols and moral values. It seemed enough simply to argue for the legitimacy of a non-realist interpretation of them. Otherwise, things could go on after the end of metaphysics without any very painful change; and indeed during the 1980s people did often remark with surprise that in my practice I remained a rather traditional Anglican Christian. But by the mid-l 990s I had come to feel that I must give up officiating in the Church, and must move to a much more radical position.

It is this recent move to a much more radical outlook that I have to discuss today. I shall summarize the change in three slogans. The first is as follows: The decline of dogmatic belief leads to the return of the great questions.

The traditional religious believer usually lived in a very full world, and felt himself to be at the centre of cosmic attention. To put the point in environmental terms, places like the Canadian Arctic and the Australian outback seem to a modern Westerner to be fearsomely empty and barren: but to their native inhabitants, the Inuit and the Aborigine, the same places are teeming with spirits and stories. Their respective worlds are to them rich and homely, and they know just what to do and how to live there. The Inuit is at home in the Arctic, and getting plenty of help and guidance. The Aborigine can survive in places where white men die of thirst. And now to make the same point in psychological terms: the conservative evangelical Protestant who reads ' Scripture every day and communes with the Lord all the time also lives in a very rich and busy mental world. His head is full of thoughts about what God is, what God has done for him, what is God's will for his life, how he can bear witness to God's saving grace, and so on. For him, all the Great Questions of Life are simply solved. He's quite convinced that he knows all the answers. Historically, Jews, Christians and Muslims have often claimed that a really good education in their Scriptures is a complete education. It is all one needs; and I suggest that the explanation for this seemingly extravagant claim lies in the way that strong dogmatic religious faith seems to fill one's head, fill one's world, and answer all questions. The believer thinks that the entire supernatural world is gathered in a big circle above him, looking down at what he's doing with intense interest, and giving him non-stop commentary, support and advice. He is in the centre. He just couldn't be more important. When you are in that position, of course you are confident that you do understand what life is all about. It's about your ;moral action, and your journey to salvation.

Then in the seventeenth century there was a violent revolution in the world-picture of Western people. The rich complicated spirit-filled Universe of Dante's Divine Comedy --which is still around in, for example, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice,(2) and which even Milton has not given up(3)—has suddenly been threatened by the work of Galileo and Descartes. A new empty mechanical universe is replacing the old religious cosmology, and in this new Universe it seems there are to be no spirits, no meaning, no purposes, no values. Human beings are to lose forever the old friendly and supportive cosmologies. We will no longer be able to assume that the world and life are ready-made to make sense to us. This, in the 1650s or so, was a foretaste of what would eventually come to be called The Death of God; and the first person to say what it felt like was Blaise Pascal: 'The eternal silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me’.(4) Suddenly the angels are gone, and the cosmos is an endless barren desert. One feels clear-headed and beliefless, in a silent, empty world.

Apart from a number of passages in Shakespeare's principal tragedies, Pascal is the best early example of the general rule that we are presently discussing. The sudden and very thoroughgoing disenchantment of the world during the seventeenth century inevitably left many gifted individuals feeling that we have become aliens in our own world, and so led to the beginnings of a big revival of the traditional Great Questions. Hence my slogan: the decline of dogmatic belief leads to the return of the great questions. The universe doesn't talk to us any more. It has become cold and enigmatic. The human being feels himself naked and alone before the mysteries of existence.

In later thought, the return of the great questions is particularly apparent in those philosophers who are the most conscious of wanting to return to the beginnings of Western thought, and who best articulate the awe, wonder and dread that the lay person feels in the face of the mystery of existence and the universal human condition: Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Heidegger. The great questions are also very prominent in the writers who articulate the great nineteenth-century loss of faith: George Eliot, Mark Rutherford, Thomas Hardy, and A.E. Housman. Here it will be enough to mention two visual artists - Paul Gauguin and Damien Hirst.

In the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston, Massachusetts, is Gauguin's largest painting, done in 1897 towards the end of his troubled, restless life. On the top left hand comer of the canvas Gauguin has written three short sentences in French: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?—sentences which give the work its usual title, and show that Gauguin saw his whole life as an artist as having been an attempt to find a satisfactory way of responding to and dealing with the great questions that haunted him. He was a wanderer because there was nowhere in the world that really felt like home to him.

In a recent interview Damien Hirst refers to Gauguin's painting, and identifies himself strongly with what Gauguin says: "There's only ever been one idea in art. You know, the Gauguin questions: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? What's it all about, Alfie?"(5)

At first sight the generation of young British artists who came to prominence during the early 1990s, and who included Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread, Angus Fairhurst, Ron Mueck, Sarah Lucas, Gary Hume and many others, were aggressively secular. Their work seemed to the public to be anti-beauty, anti-'good taste', and anti-historical. It seemed to be loud, knowing, punk and in-your-face: coarse, confrontational and intimidating. But by now we have become aware of the prominence of traditional religious themes in their work - and by that I mean not only the traditional topics of Latin theology, Eden, the Fall, sinful human nature, the struggle for redemption through suffering, the person of the Redeemer and so on, but also the older and more universal great questions: memory, transience, loss, sickness, decline and death—especially death. These are the issues that are said to have driven the young Buddha to begin his quest. Their pedigree in modem art goes back through Gilbert and George and Francis Bacon to German Expressionism, the Fauves, and ultimately Gauguin and Van Gogh; a tradition which like Hardy and Sartre remains obviously religious in one sense even while it is anti-religious in another. By that I mean that an atheistic existentialist who is deeply concerned with the tragedy of the human condition may still be a recognisably religious person, and even a very strongly religious person, despite the fact that he rejects Christian theology outright and is militantly atheist. One might cite here the film director Luis Bunuel's famous saying: 'I am an atheist still, thank God!’(6)

That leads me conveniently to my second maxim: In our age the religious life very often takes the form of a lifelong preoccupation with the Great Questions.. and many of us are best able to become ourselves and find ourselves by working out our own personal 'take' on the Great Questions. Damien Hirst has suggested something of the kind, by hinting that his own art represents his own personal struggle with the questions of the flesh, time, transience, sickness and mortality. He feels chronically and acutely insecure, and puts things in glass cases by way of trying to pin them down and preserve them. And one might say something similar about other people's hobbies and preoccupations. Thus a woman whose life is devoted to creating and maintaining a beautiful garden could by that means be saying something about her own image of Eden, the Earthly Paradise, and about the human struggle to order the world and keep decay, corruption and anarchy at bay. Certainly, for great numbers of English people their house and garden is their own religion, their consoling personal image of the way things ought to be.

More generally, people reveal their true selves - and as I would say, their deepest religious thoughts - in their ways of dealing with ageing and approaching death. This thought first struck me really forcibly in connection with a small group of literary men that includes Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin and John Betjeman. All were preoccupied with death, and approached it with the utmost dread and horror. Apparently, death as a religious problem was just the same for the atheist Amis, the agnostic/atheist Larkin, and the Christian Betjeman. They couldn't cope with it at all: and I'm bound to conclude that Betjeman's religion was of no use to him whatever when he finally needed it. Whether it ever occurred to him that there might be a better religious path than camp Anglo-Catholicism, I do not know. ; .

What I do know for sure is that ever since the Enlightenment there has been a gradual shifting of the focus of interest from the world above to this world, and from the next life to this life, and with that shift has come a growing preoccupation with transience and death. The loss of life's former eternal background makes us only the more aware of time—and in particular, our time—slipping away into oblivion. At this point there's a tendency to assume that the basic facts of life and death are the same for us all and ask the same question of us all, so that everyone gets more or less the same view of their own mortality. But that I think is not how it is: on the contrary, both the testimony of literature and my personal experience suggest that different people apprehend - or should we say, 'are gripped by'?—the great questions of finitude, transience, contingency, and ultimately, behind everything else, death, in very different ways.

Not to repeat what I have said (or will be saying) elsewhere, it may for example be that men and women face death in typically different ways. Thus if a woman has borne and raised several children, and has seen them off into independence, she may think that she has already played her part in creating and in handing over to the next generation, and so she may be content to become increasingly a spectator of a life from which she is now slowly withdrawing. For a man, however, the view is rather different. He is more likely to think of finishing his job and handing over to the next generation much later on, at the time when he makes his will and plans the disposition of his responsibilities and his property. Thus if we think of death first as the big handover, for a woman it is her whole life, all along; whereas for a man it is something he gets round to organising near the end of his life when he 'puts his affairs in order'. If she believes in life after death, a woman's first question is pretty sure to be: 'Will I see my dear ones again?', whereas a man is much more likely to wonder whether he will be remembered and what his legacy will be.

That is only one of the numerous ways in which the great question of time and death may present themselves very differently to different people. Thus Heidegger develops a thought that he has picked up from Nietzsche when, in Being and Time, he suggests that the sudden realization in middle age of our own mortality functions as an alarm call. I have only a finite time left and therefore must get moving if I am to complete an opus, or oeuvre, or life's work. What the- commentators fail to remark that this is surely a very masculinist view of the meaning of death. For many, many women the transmission of life and of culture to the next generation is their life's chief work. Relatively few women have the ambition to create an enduring oeuvre, in the way that so many men strive to do, because for them their enduring oeuvre is the next generation. Their work is to give life to others, and nurture life in others, rather than to erect any personal monument.

Another question: if death is a problem, whose death are we talking about? Philip Larkin was obsessively preoccupied with the subject of his own death. He thought of death as extinction, but hated the thought of being dead, as if after death he might still be hovering about, contemplating his own state of non-existence and perceiving it to be a very cold and lonely condition. But those who accept the young Wittgenstein' s arguments to the effect that we cannot ever actually go through the process of dying, or experience the state of being dead, Larkin's fears seem to be unfounded. There is nothing in death that I need worry about, or can prepare for. If I have learnt the art of solar living, then I am already living-by-dying all the time, and death' s sting is drawn. But I need to acknowledge that although my own death is no problem, there are certain other people who are also mortals, and the death of one of them would be a blow from which I could not recover. So my religion frees me from self-concern, but it does not protect me against the general contingency and vulnerability of all life. Nothing can.

These general considerations are enough to indicate how it comes about that different people have very different 'takes' upon the great questions of life, love, work and death, and why I have put forward the view that today, for those of us who have left dogmatic religious belief behind, the religious life nowadays largely takes the form of an attempt to face up to the great questions of life, and to work out one's own personal 'take' on them. Your religion is your personally-worked-out and lived philosophy of life and death. At least part of our philosophy of life will consist of saying something like this: at least, no sensible person complains about being a person, and personal life isn't really thinkable at all except in a world of finite, temporal Be-ing, in which we are all of us vulnerable to chance and mischance. The best there is for us human beings is to say a wholehearted Yes to the only package deal that is on offer, and try to live life to the full for as long as we have it. That is what ordinary language says nowadays, and we cannot simply disregard it.(7)

On that basis, I build my third and last slogan, which is simply that solar living is the best religion. By that I mean that the more we think about the Great Questions and the challenge they present to us, the more we come to understand that there is no way of escaping from the basic conditions of life. The only option left is to say Yes to life as a whole and as a package deal: Yes to time, Yes to contingency, Yes to finitude, Yes even to death. Life has no Telos—that is, no ultimate Goal—and the practice of solar living attempts to achieve the final happiness by the way one says Yes to life in the here and now. The effort to live purely affirmatively involves giving up all the ressentiment, the complaining, the victim-psychology, the censoriousness, the anger, the bitterness, and the festering sense of grievance that poison so many lives, and seem increasingly to poison the whole world of human beings. Instead, we should try to live purely magnanimously and without any negation or discrimination, like the sun.

This purely-affirmative, magnanimous living is also expressive. One who lives truthfully lives out, and comes out. Solar ethics rejects ideas of 'inner' reality. It rejects talk of the soul and the inner life, and it rejects any suggestion that we should hold a bit of ourselves back and use it to refer all the time to a Higher World. No, the only 'real' self is the self that is lived out, acted, presented in our daily living, and solar living must reject all ideas of inwardness and instead go for 100% 'all out' expression.

I've said enough to make it clear that I am now less Buddhist and more Romantic and expressionist than I was until about 1992. I still find a place for meditation, but only as occasional therapy rather than as the daily bread of life. For me, now, Buddhism does not have a satisfactory view of the proper emotional basis of our living and our selfuood. The daily bread of life is a steady stream of outpouring biological (but also culturally-elicited and shaped) feeling. This feeling pours out, sustains our selfhood, colours up the world, gives value and is (in brief) what people call the joys of life, or simply joy. The young Wordsworth was as well able as anyone has ever been to articulate it: he called it. 'living by the heart', and I call it 'solar living'. I find something of its spirit cropping up in a great variety of teachers: in the original Jesus, in Blake, in Nietzsche, in Kazantzakis, even in someone like Stanley Spencer. It is my own religious response to our troubled, ambiguous times.


1 Richard Rorty, 'Post-Democracy', London Review of Books, 1 April 2004.

2 Merchant of Venice, Act V, Sc. 1: Lorenzo's speech, beginning at 'How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! '

3 Although Milton had met Galileo and sympathized strongly with his views, the cosmology of Paradise Lost (1667) differs from that of Dante only for scriptural, and not for scientific reasons. The new scientific theories are discussed in Bk VIII, but they have not yet radically changed Milton's whole world-view.

4 Blaise Pascal, Pensees 1670, trans. J.M. Cohen (Pelican Classics edition), §91. There are still confusingly-many different editions, translations and numberings of this text, of course. But every commentator notes the prominence of the theme of the Great Questions in Pascal's thought. Intensively Christian though he is, they worry him as much as they worry A.E. Housman.

5 London Daily Telegraph. 28 February 2004: from an interview conducted by Martin Gayford, whom I have consulted about the precise wording of my quotation.

6 The only source I have for this oft-quoted mot is Ado Kyrou, Luis Bunuel: An Introduction.

7 See my The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (London: SCM Press, 1999).

Click printer button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence