Twenty years on — Christianity reformed

or a smorgasbord of therapeutic spiritualities?
by Nigel Leaves, author of a two-volume biography of Don Cupitt, and Dean of Studies of John Wollaston Anglican Theological College, Perth, Western Australia.

Firstly, I would like to thank the Organizing committee, and especially Patti Whaley, for inviting me to speak at this Conference. Some of you may be thinking, to use the immortal words of Bart Simpson: "Who the hell are you?" when they were expecting the renowned Huston Smith. My claim to fame is that I have written a book on Don Cupitt — Odyssey on the Sea of Faith: the life and writings of Don Cupitt. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at American accents and having spent my adulthood living in different parts of the world you will have to put up with my accent that is, to use a popular catchphrase: "more global than local."

There are two themes for the Conference this year. The first theme, as the main Conference title suggests, is to explore the impact of Don Cupitt’s TV series – Sea of Faith – twenty years after it was broadcast in 1984. The second theme, which is to be examined at the Saturday market-place, is to determine whether spirituality needs religion? These two themes may appear to be separate, but in my talk today I want to propose that in fact they are much more intertwined than you might imagine. Indeed, I will suggest that (what I will call) Don Cupitt’s "original vision" twenty years ago is met head-on by a populist spirituality revolution of the new millennium that both disturbs and challenges that vision. It also forces us in Sea of Faith to "contemplate the next twenty years" and to analyse where we are going and what is our purpose. Hence the title of my talk "Twenty years on — Christianity reformed or a smorgasbord of therapeutic spiritualities?" pits Don Cupitt’s original vision against the many populist forms of spirituality that have emerged in postmodernity

So let me begin with the first part of my title and explore Don Cupitt’s "original vision."

I wonder how many of you here today watched the initial TV series Sea of Faith in 1984. For some of you it might have been the catalyst to organise this very network that now has spread its sphere of influence to many parts of the globe, including my own country Australia. Some of you may have been prompted to write to Don Cupitt himself, who after the programmes received sixty or so letters a day ("to that most unnatural of animals, an academic clergyman," as he was described by one of his correspondents). You may be surprised to know that even the late and celebrated British anti-pornography and Christian moral crusader Mary Whitehouse criticised the series — not for any salacious content (apart from a brief mention in the thought of Schopenhauer sex didn’t get a look-in), but because of its radical Christian bias — and she demanded a "right of reply of equal stature." The BBC wasn’t forthcoming in producing a conservative Christian response, though Brian Hebblethwaite championed the Traditionalist Christian cause by writing The Ocean of Truth: A defence of objective theism (1998) in a bid to counter Cupitt. It was, as they say, "hot stuff", and it is good that you can now purchase copies of the original series on DVD.

If there is one incident in the six one-hour episodes that I think sums up what Don Cupitt was attempting to do, I would refer you to the closing scene of Episode 1 ("The Mechanical Universe"). Here, he recounts how in the early 1960s as Curate of St Philip’s Anglican Church, Salford, one of his tasks was to be an Assistant Chaplain at the local hospital. It was during those visits to patients in his capacity as an ecclesiastical representative that he admits to the religious difficulties that he faced in having to endorse supernatural explanations of their medical problems. How could he possibly repeat the prescribed prayers from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer to those who were sick? How could he tell a man dying of cancer that this devastating sickness had been sent by God? Could he bite his tongue and agree that the birth of a handicapped child was a sign of God’s displeasure, or should he insist on a secular medical interpretation? On most occasions Don Cupitt reports that he summoned up the courage to offer the "natural causes" explanation — that their medical condition was best described and managed by Western medicine, rather than by any supernatural causation or divine intervention. Indeed, religion was not some kind of "auxiliary technology" to be wheeled in when all else (or the surgeons) had failed. As a result of these encounters Cupitt was forced to redefine the task of religion in humanistic terms. At the very end of that first programme he declares:

...religion was a way of affirming the value of human life, from the first breath to the very last. It is up to us to give it that value: to affirm human dignity in the face of the indifferent universe.

Here in an illustrated form is what I believe is the "original vision" of Sea of Faith. The vision is to free Christianity of its supernatural underpinning and replace it with a non-realist understanding of the Christian faith. Don Cupitt put forward the notion that people must give up the realist idea of an all-powerful God "out-there" who sustains and creates the universe. The word "God" need not be abandoned, however, for it was still a helpful fiction that could be put to profitable use. He proposed that when people used the word "God" they referred to a spiritual ideal: the word did not name a metaphysical Being, but the concept could help people live religiously. Such a way of living would blend the ethics of Christianity with the spirituality of Buddhism and could be described (to use the title of one of Richard Holloway’s book) as a kind of "godless morality." Don Cupitt was at this time close to existentialist theologians like Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich. Christian doctrines were not to be understood literally, but interpreted in terms of the way of life that they recommended. To believe in God as Creator, for example, was to understand one’s existence as pure and gracious gift; and to live a risen life was to proclaim: "Christ is risen — in me!" This non-realist position is best expressed in the words of Anthony Freeman: "I do believe in God, and one of the things I believe about God is that he does not exist."(1) You can retain the Christian language but you must strip away the objectivity of God, denude the Church of its supernatural teachings and there will emerge a non-supernatural form of Christianity that is more in tune with modern scientific thinking. This reformed Christianity can provide a framework for spirituality and ethics for humans who have (to use the radical catchphrase) "come of age." Don Cupitt describes it as Christian Buddhism: "the content, the spirituality and the values, are Christian; the form is Buddhist."(2) Revising The Sea of Faith for a reissue in 1994 he reiterated his central thesis, arguing that:

we might view a religious belief-system, not as a summary description of objective realities, but as a guiding vision and a programme for building a communal world.(3)

Such a reinterpretation of the Christian faith met stiff resistance. In 1989 David Edwards in Tradition and Truth described Don Cupitt as having undergone something similar to a "Victorian clergyman’s ‘loss of faith’" and called for his resignation from the Anglican Church.(4) Don Cupitt replied that Edwards has missed the point of his writings, which is not to eradicate the Church but to reform it. The best place for reforming that institution is from inside. Moreover he is able to stay within the Church as a non-realist because "Anglican formularies nowhere say either that the Church is infallible or irreformable, or that priests have got to be metaphysical realists."(5) It is a bold assertion, and surprisingly one that the Church authorities have never challenged Cupitt on, though sadly Torquil Paterson in South Africa(6), Anthony Freeman in UK and recently Thorkild Grosbøll in Denmark have been put to the sword over writing similar sentiments. It also shows that revision of the Church is a major component of his original vision. This was reinforced five years later in his book Radicals and the Future of the Church. (Indeed, if you want to uncover the original vision of Cupitt then I would suggest that you only read these two books).

In Radicals and the Future of the Church Don Cupitt’s aim is to answer the question of how in postmodernity the Church is still possible. He identifies a conflict that many of us who are (or have been members) of the Church might have experienced. It is the clash between our individual beliefs and the doctrines of the Church and the way that these doctrines are interpreted by those in authority within the Church. He asks whether the person in the pew who comes to the realisation that the Church has become an enemy of "truth and freedom" should leave, or just keep silently doing one’s own thing, or let everyone know just how they feel.(7) At one moment he is pessimistic; noting that all one can do is stay and attempt to reform the Church whilst not really expecting to have much success. Then he becomes up-beat, latching on to the notion that the American a/theologian Mark C. Taylor espouses in his book Altarity of a religious thought that exults in différance. There emerges a vision of "a church that will rejoice in being highly pluralistic, a tapestry of diverse Christianities all adding up to an aesthetically beautiful, morally-variegated and ever-changing whole. Why shouldn’t the faith mean something different to each Christian?"(8)

In 1989 Don Cupitt’s proposal for remaining in the Church and reforming it from within has two main components — ethics and human relationships. Ethically speaking, the Church is needed because "it is a theatre in which we solemnly enact our deepest feelings about the human condition."(9) Furthermore, the churches have in the past served as a useful corrective to the power of the State, which historically has often been a cruel and oppressive institution. They have exercised their prophetic role in defending humanitarian priorities and individual human rights; their agapeistic values can counterbalance the selfish utilitarianism of the state. Thus, lacking a powerful objective God, Don Cupitt resorts to an argument from antiquity: the churches are ancient organisations that have stood the test of time as fraternities embodying communitarian values that can challenge oppressive State legislation. The obvious retort to this is that the churches have exhibited just as much authoritarianism as the State, and have often themselves embodied the very power that one criticizes the state for employing. Indeed my own Church — the Anglican Church in Australia — is straining under cries of injustice in that it blatantly "covered up" many cases of paedophilia over a long period of time.

Through his second concern, human relationships, Don Cupitt seeks to address this issue. He argues that a new order of personal relationships is needed, and he looks to Romantics and anarchists to supply inspiration. We fight not for a new creed but to discover a new basis for human relationships. So far, religion may have been disciplinary and repressive; but now there must be another form of religion. Citing feminism as one of many forces leading a revolt against patriarchal rationality, its structures of authority, and its hierarchy, he envisages the new churches being the same as the postmodern world: "a living horizontal network, a multicellular ferment of communication."(10) The religion of the future is "dispersing God into people, people into their own communicative activities, and the cosmos into an unceasing, endlessly self-renewing process of communal artistic production. Our work of art."(11)

Don Cupitt reiterates that no advantage is to be gained by breaking away from ecclesiastical structures. One should try to reinterpret one’s own inherited vocabulary in mainstream Christianity rather than in the "thinner and artificial language of some new and smaller group."(12) People might dream of solving the problems of the universe in some group with the supposedly correct creed, but Don Cupitt doubts that there is such a group — or such a creed. And such a dream likely leads to idolatry of the group. Rather, he advocates that we should remain in the Church, but keep our eyes wide open!

That original vision was slightly modified in 2001 with his book Reforming Christianity. He berates the Church for being "stuck up its own cul-de-sac" unable and unlikely to reform itself; and considers that it is consigning itself to the heritage industry, which will lovingly restore and preserve it, unchanging and dead. He sees the immense progress that has been achieved by those organisations and individuals who are outside the Church yet who have been influenced by Christianity, in particular "human emancipation, human rights, humanitarian ethics."(13) This is the reformation of Christianity — a desupernaturalized, secular, Kingdom religion. The crucial point to note is not that humanism has developed by itself out of a reaction to Christianity, but that secular humanism is "Christianity’s own struggle to advance from its relatively warped ecclesiastical to its final, ‘kingdom,’ stage of development."(14) The demise of the Church is not the end of Christianity, for Christianity is still unfolding in secular humanism. What we are now witnessing is a change of dispensation, as the Church’s own inner logic brings it to an end and Christianity becomes its long-awaited, post-ecclesiastical, Kingdom form. Cupitt can even see small signs that the Church itself is changing, in the way that it has altered the emphasis in its rites of passage (baptism, confirmation, marriage and death) from another world to affirming this life. For example, in a funeral service the sermon which used to centre on the eternal destiny of the soul of the deceased is replaced by a homily which recalls the life that the deceased led. The future life is traded for this life. However, the thrust of his argument is that the Church’s downfall although gradual is assured; and he is not too distressed at its passing because Kingdom Christianity is replacing it. He identifies the core teaching of Kingdom Christianity:

It can be seen, then, that Cupitt’s flowing project has brought him to a point where he looks beyond the churches for the religion of the future. The new note that is sounded post-2000 is his admission that his writing is "not addressed to the church (but is) for me and others who think as I do."(15) Cupitt thinks that ecclesiastical Christianity will be replaced by informal religious associations and networks such as Sea of Faith. Indeed he has lays down the gauntlet for Sea of Faith to be the Church of the future. People should move on from Church Christianity, which is in terminal decline, to Kingdom religion, which is what secularism and globalization are pointing towards.

For Cupitt, this also is a way of recovering the message of the historical Jesus which, as Albert Schweitzer recognized so well, was lost once ecclesiastical religion became established. Cupitt follows Schweitzer in viewing Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet who looked for a new realm to be established on this earth. Rather than carry out his message of an earthly kingdom, the Church deferred its realization to a heavenly world after death. In Schweitzer, Cupitt returns to one of the prominent "saints" of The Sea of Faith, one whom he labelled as "the first post-Christian Christian." Cupitt too proclaims himself to be "post-Christian," pointing towards that religion of the future based on the dream of a Kingdom that is this-worldly; that shows the way to religious fulfilment in this (and only this) life, and which secular culture has (much more than the churches) begun to realize.

He demonstrates how that ancient religious dream has been pursued through the United Nations, international law, democratic politics, ceaseless global communication and humanitarian ethics. It is a world now committed to the struggle for the emancipation of women and the reconciliation of ethnic and religious differences. It was left to the secular world, especially in such "events" as Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech and John Lennon’s "Imagine," to tell the story of a "new world" in which people would live together in harmony and hope would be re-ignited.(16) This is the nihilism that John Milbank and other "radical orthodox" school of theologians regard as so dangerous and that needs to be rescued by theology. On the contrary, declares Cupitt — this nihilism is ethical humanitarianism that helps others solely on the basis of our co-humanity "regardless of race, colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, doctrinal soundness and moral desert."(17) Unlike radical orthodoxy, which reinforces the distinctions between God and man, master and servants, light and darkness, nihilism promotes a world in which everything is on the same level and everything is open and explicit. This is the anti-realist, nihilist, Kingdom vision of postmodern secularism and early Christianity. This "new" world of ours represents a much more highly developed version of the original Christian programme than anything available from the churches.

To summarize this first section. I have sketched Cupitt’s reformation of Christianity from desupernaturalising ecclesiastical theology (the original vision) to realizing the ethical message of Jesus in creating kingdom religion in the here-and-now. We are the religious artists creating better worlds in which to inhabit. It should be emphasised (and is often overlooked by many of his detractors) that Cupitt’s vision has social as well as existential implications.

What I have given you so far is nothing new (although hopefully in a form that you can easily understand): a Cupitt scholar dispensing Cupitt. But Cupitt declares in his books, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra told his followers, to "forget me," to go beyond him, to be post-Cupittian. So, in true discipleship — here is post-Cupitt. Or, perhaps, better — here is what I see as a challenge that faces us twenty years on, and my challenge, like that of Cupitt is addressed to those of us (and I include myself) in the Sea of Faith.

The challenge is that people in the Western world have not become irreligious, but on the contrary, have become even more religious, or as the terminology now puts it: "they are spiritual." Simply put, the "death of God", the secularization of religion has not reduced the number of spiritual options, but rather has resulted in their proliferation. Apart from living in the greatest sporting nation in the world, I also live in a country which claims to be the "most irreligious place on earth." That assertion has been called into question by many, especially the Australian sociologist David Tacey. He argues in a series of books (Edge of the Sacred, ReEnchantment, The Spirituality Revolution) that today there is "a spirituality revolution" taking place. It is being fuelled (to adopt Robert Forman’s phrase) by those at the "grassroots." Ordinary folk are moving away from the historic religions and forging a multitude of spiritual paths. It seems that people are already creative religious performers with a corresponding array of "artistic" spiritualities helping to guide them through life.

In this next section let me give you some evidence and some snapshots of this spirituality revolution within Australia.

In a very revealing anecdote in his best-selling book, ReEnchantment, Tacey says: "After reading my first book, Edge of the Sacred, a cleric phoned me to ask why the new spirituality in Australia was not putting bums on pews."(18) The unspoken assumption of this question — that the churches still have a monopoly on spirituality — shows how little understanding there is about the spiritual/religious preferences of the vast majority of the population. People in Australia are opting for what I would describe as a "smorgasbord of therapeutic spiritualities" (hence the second part of my title to this talk). Spiritual options (note the plural!) are chosen by participants to aid their own personal well-being. The rationale from people is that they choose their spiritualities in much the same way that they would the wide variety of dishes one finds on a smorgasbord in a restaurant. If it tastes nice and promotes good health and well-being, then they will buy it. If it works (i.e. has therapeutic value) then they will use it. If it doesn’t work then they will discard it or will try another brand. There is a consumer, buy the product from the supermarket shelf approach to spirituality. Moreover, it is not a matter of buying only one product. As the Australian Anglican sociologist Gary Bouma observes:

Australians are likely to dabble in a wide variety of spiritual activities and not be bothered by what in an earlier time would have been seen as inconsistent or conflicting involvements. I know of Anglicans who consult their horoscopes, Catholics who do Tai Chi, Atheists who wear crosses, Baptists who meditate, Vietnamese immigrants who see no conflict in being Catholic and Buddhist at the same time, and Jews who seriously practice witchcraft. Spirituality has become an area of self-directed and self-assessed activity...Brand loyalty is in free-fall decline, product sampling is rampant and vast amounts of advice on how to do it are available on the web, in bookstores and newsagents.(19)

Hence, the spiritual search for many Australians can take place with or without reference to the Christian churches; or even by a combination of both. The former spiritual myopia that presented faith as a Kierkegaardian either/or scenario and resulted in people only being allowed to do it "this way" has failed. People in the spirituality revolution of the New Millennium will if told that "this is the only way," as they have done in the last few years, simply jump in their car and go elsewhere. There is a new religious attitude that accepts walking labyrinths, meditating, yoga, the use of colour therapy, the Enneagram, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, spiritual healing, creation and eco-centred spirituality — the list is endless. Moreover, numerous and supposedly ‘doctrinally orthodox’ Christians are participants in this new wave of spiritual enquiry. Many mix this heady spiritual cocktail with more traditional forms expressed by ancient sources such as Benedict, Ignatius and Julian of Norwich. The postmodern return to the third person of the Trinity — the Spirit — is a return to a new respect for the sacred in everything. And, as we know, the spirit leads wherever it will. Thus it is commonplace for people to "pick and mix" their spiritual paths. It seems that many are not following the advice of either the churches or secularism, but are boldly finding their own spiritual way from many differing sources, some of which might have once been thought to be contradictory.

I have had an eye-opener to what has been happening in the spirituality revolution since taking up the reins as Director of Wollaston College in Perth, Western Australia in 2000. Operated by the Anglican Diocese of Perth it was originally built as a residential theological college in the 1960s for the training of Anglican priests (and even tried [unsuccessfully] to lure a young Don Cupitt to teach there). Due to monetary constraints and a changed ministry model the students are now non-residential and only attend the college one day a week for what is termed "priestly formation." Confronted with a thirty-bedroom building the Diocese invested heavily to expand the complex with new Conference facilities. Overlooking the Indian Ocean and adjoining a national park it is in the ideal location. But who would come to use its facilities?

I have been staggered by the number of what may be loosely be called "spiritual groups" in a small city like Perth (population 1.2million) who have come to use our facilities. The addition of a labyrinth has aided our appeal. Here is a sample of those who use Wollaston to explore their spirituality. This list is not exhaustive...Power Energetics, shayagriva (buddhism), Core Energetics, Hills relationship "truth about love" ("warm fuzzy hill"), Innerglow, Infinite choice, Reiki , Therapeutic massage, Pilates, Mindful heart, heartful mind, Yoga (of many different sorts), Shivalabalayogi, Impersonal Enlightenment foundation, Siddhayoga, Essential Oils, Sound healing, Band of Angels, Colour therapy, Homeopathy, Creative dance, Dumiya meditation, Creative memories, Sacred Space, sacred mind, Conscious living, Totally alive, Healing touch, Sacred healing, Bush flower essences.

What I have experienced at Wollaston accords with much that Robert Forman writes in Grassroots Spirituality and what David Tacey argues is happening in the spirituality revolution. Here are three snapshots to give you an inkling of the current spirituality scene.

Snapshot 1: A. is the founder and main practitioner of a spiritual institute called Power Energetics. Her spirituality is a mixture of yoga with aerobics. She describes it as a "workout for the soul": a healing journey of Energy Movement and Self Transformation and aligning one’s consciousness with an inner presence of Harmony, Power and Vitality. The underlying principle is that everything that has occurred in our existence is stored on an energetic level in and around our body and is explored to its depths. The Power Energetics movement exercises encourage and support the body on all levels to release and integrate blocked energy, tension and stress. The Power Energetics courses and "Energy Fitness" classes are designed to move energy, inspire authentic self expression and increase the flow of vital life-force throughout the body on all levels. Classes of thirty people turn up each Wednesday for their "workout for the soul."

Snapshot 2: B. is an ordained School Chaplain, employed in a private school for girls She has two permanent tattoos. On her left shoulder is an angel; on her right leg is the Buddhist yin/yang. She wears a stud in her nose. Her sermons for School Chapel are taken from the New York Times bestseller on popular spirituality Chicken Soup for the Soul. Her Religious Education classes tend towards guided meditation and reflective silence. She is considered "cool" by her students and fellow-teachers.

Snapshot 3: During the last three months I have been teaching a Diploma Course on Australian Spirituality and theology. One of the assignments I set was for the students to research a contemporary spirituality and compare its teachings with the Anglican faith. C’s study was especially illuminating in that it is an example of a growing trend towards syncretism. C researched her own two faith systems. She is both a Christian and a follower of an international spiritual organisation named Subud, founded by an Indonesian Muslim in the 1950s. Subuds believe, following the apophatic tradition, that God is Ultimate mystery, but by using the prescribed meditative techniques we can be the recipients of God’s grace. Interestingly, C. described it as experiencing what Paul Tillich calls "the Ground of Our Being." Subud has no clergy and is bound by few rules and dogmas. It is non-hierarchical, democratic and people are encouraged not to see Subud as the religion, but also to be members of mainstream faiths in whichever country they live. Thus they connect this sense of the Ultimate mystery by being also part of a larger worshipping community and experience God in Christ or Allah etc. My student had been urged by other Subud members to belong to a mainstream religious tradition. She finds no contradiction between being an Anglican and a Subud.(20)

My three snapshots confirm Robert Forman’s central thesis and definition in Grassroots Spirituality that "Grassroots spirituality involves a vaguely panentheist ultimate that is indwelling, sometimes bodily, as the deepest self and accessed through not-strictly-rational means of self-transformation and group process that becomes the holistic organisation for all life".(21)

It also reinforces David Tacey’s claim that "the one sacred reality manifests itself in different ways to different people...the Mysterious One can reveal itself only in and through the Many..." (22)

Of course, for students of world religions none of this will be new. The scholar John Hick has been preaching more or less this same pluralist paradigm for the last thirty years. In books like God and the Universe of Faiths (1973) and God Has Many Names (1980) he has argued for a theological Copernican revolution — God is the Centre — all religions serve and revolve around God. Religious experience of God is foundational to belief and religions are different human responses to the one divine Reality. Likewise, Bishop John Shelby Spong in his latest offering A New Christianity for a New World states:

"my hope is that my brothers and sisters who find Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism as their point of entry...will also explore their pathway into God in a similar manner...then each of us, clinging to the truth...that we have found in the spiritual wells from which we have drunk, can reach across the once insuperable barriers to share as both givers and receivers in the riches present in all human sacred traditions."(23)

This is not the vision of a new universal religion, but a way of dialogue for all those on the journey who have experienced "images of eternity" (Keith Ward) by following different religious paths. However, what is new is the fact that those world religions are now competing with a huge array of local "home-made" or grassroots spiritualities. The religious and spiritual backdrop has changed considerably. Don Cupitt has described this as the dawning of the Second Axial Age — a period when people are rethinking everything. It could be summed us as the shift from letting the great teachers of the world religions (Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Confucius etc) tell us what to believe to being confident enough to forge our own spiritual paths and invent our own religion!(24)

To sum up: I have presented you with what I think was Don Cupitt’s original rationale for the Sea of Faith and then mapped out the prevailing religious landscape — the spirituality revolution. The challenge for Sea of Faith is this: is its task to reform Christianity or to be part of a smorgasbord of therapeutic spiritualities? The question I wish you to ponder this weekend is: what is the agenda for Sea of Faith twenty years on?

To aid your deliberations: here are four issues that are raised by my paper. Firstly, what do we make of this smorgasbord of therapeutic spiritualities? If their emphasis, as all the evidence seems to suggest, is upon an "experience of something beyond" then does a network that has embraced non-realism and post-theism have anything to say to them? Has Nietzsche’s realisation that "God is dead" (like Nietzsche himself thought) come too early for those in the spirituality revolution? Instead of becoming gods and saints ourselves, even in 2004, people venerate something beyond — they still hanker after that sliver of objectivity: the feeling that we not alone and that there is something or someone "out there." Are we a network that is just too radical for others to embrace? Does non-realism strike a chord with people’s spiritual search?

Secondly, Cupitt himself says that he is unsure about the vast array of spiritualities that have entered the religious supermarket, for they have created formless anarchy and often commit the same error as traditional religions by producing dogmatic teachings dispensed by gurus and shamans.

The greatest and commonest mistake in religious thought is that made by millions of people who today embrace ‘spirituality’ and New Age thinking without first clearing their heads. They rush uncritically into a tiny jumble of ideas: they have not sufficiently purged themselves of Platonism...and instead of escaping from the horrors of the past, they merely repeat them. We need to train ourselves to be thoroughly sceptical and emptied out before we can think more clearly.(25)

Yet, if notions of the gods have become disseminated by language across and within cultures, then why limit oneself to universal humanism? It seems that people are already creative religious artists. It could be argued that many of the newer religious practices fulfil Don Cupitt’s undogmatic criteria better than the historic religions, although he still looks chiefly to Buddhism and Christianity for his inspiration.

Thirdly, if we dismiss this spirituality revolution as "hogwash", full of "weirdos" and a resurgence of the 1960s "hippy revolution" and instead reclaim the original vision of Sea of Faith of desupernaturalising Christianity, is it worth the effort? Ecclesiastical Christianity is in decline and our non-realist version has not met with much approval within its ranks. Should we not let the dead bury the dead? The Unitarians and Society of Friends have shown us the way with versions of creedless Christianity, so why try and reinvent the wheel? If you want a community based on a non-supernatural understanding of Christianity then join them.

This brings me to my fourth and crucial issue. Many within the Sea of Faith have walked out of the ecclesiastical doors and don’t want to go back. As one member of the Perth Sea of Faith group expressed it: "I haven’t set foot inside a church for ten years; and I feel so much better for it." They are all post-Christian now and want to expend their energy in inventing new religious thought. This was exactly the complaint by ex-Sea of Faith member — Clive Richards — in the Sea of Faith publication This is my Story: Voyages on the Sea of Faith (1998). His break with the Sea of Faith was due in part to "ideological discomfort" with its "Christian perspective."(26) Admitting that he "never really got much out of churchgoing," he targeted people within the Network who were labelled: "Non-church, ex-church, why-church?" His main complaint was that he felt hampered by the membership’s lack of energy in seeking to create new forms of religion. For Richards, the Network wasn’t prepared to be radical enough and throw off its Christian heritage. So, what new forms of religion can we invent?

These four issues, I think, go to heart of where Sea of Faith is twenty years on from the most ground-breaking series of religious programmes that have been aired by the BBC. Don Cupitt is to be applauded for outlining the task that in order to purify Christianity and make it free we must get rid of the notion of God’s objective, personal reality. Twenty years on Christianity is fighting even more of a rearguard action, pulling up the draw-bridge and becoming more conservative. Heresy trials are being debated for those who rock the boat. At the same time at the grassroots level people are opting for a huge variety of spiritual options — what I have called a "smorgasbord of therapeutic spiritualities." Indeed this Conference with its inclusion of the Saturday market-place acknowledges that trend and reinforces the distinction I have made between reforming Christianity and alternative spiritualities. It is at this interface between a non-realist radicalising of Christianity and those who have already created their own spiritual paths that we in Sea of Faith meet in 2004.


The question remains: which way will Sea of Faith go?

1 See Nigel Leaves, Odyssey on the Sea of Faith, 6.

2 Freeman, God in Us, 28.

3 Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, xii.

4 Don Cupitt, The Sea of Faith, 2.

5 Edwards, Tradition and Truth, 96.

6 Ibid., 286.

7 " Don Cupitt today, I contend that the only authentically modern way of conceiving God is as an abstract way of referring to all that is good in human life and community. Theology should be, therefore, the science of decoding traditional belief in a transcendent God in term of a secular humanism" (Unpublished paper by Torquil Paterson ).

8 Don Cupitt, Radicals and the Future of the Church, 7.

9 Ibid., 16.

10 Ibid., 29.

11 Ibid., 5.

12 Ibid., 97.

13 Ibid., 122.

14 Cupitt, Reforming Christianity, 128.

15 Ibid., 136.

16 Cupitt, Philosophy’s Own Religion, viii–ix.

17 Interestingly in the advertising for the Games of the XXV11th Olympiad (Sydney 2000) sport was portrayed as embodying democratic, communal values as people of all races, creeds and genders "celebrate humanity." This agrees with Pierre de Coubertin’s aim of the Olympics as "humanity’s superior religion."

18 Cupitt, Reforming Christianity, 123.

19 David Tacey, ReEnchantment: The New Australian Spirituality (Sydney: HarperCollins, 200), 52.

20 Peter H. Ballis and Gary D. Bouma eds, Religion in an Age of Change (Victoria: CRA, 1999), 8.

21 Forman, Grassroots Spirituality, 51.

22 Tacey, ReEnchantment, 262.

23 Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, 182.

24 Cupitt, Emptiness and Brightness, 7ff.

25 Cupitt, ibid, 23.

26 Richards, "A Ghost at the Feast," in This Is My Story: Voyages on the Sea of Faith, 31.

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