Matters Eternal

This article by Don Cupitt, recalling one of his first "nonrealist" rereadings of a traditional text, first appeared in the Financial Times in its "Rereadings" series on 22/23 June 1996.

In 1978 my life was changed by an experimental rereading of Kierkegaard's Purity of Heart, but whether the change was a significant advance or a disastrous fall I don't know, and you must judge.

During the years of his most intense productivity in the 1840s, Kierkegaard, in addition to his steady stream of "aesthetic" works written under various pseudonyms, also wrote some 20 "edifying discourses" under his own name. These are unpreached sermons addressed to "the solitary individual" who is advised to read them slowly aloud to himself. The texts are designed to prompt the reader into becoming an individual self before God.

Purity of Heart, an exercise in Lenten self-examination, was published in 1847. The date indicates why Kierkegaard remains so very important to someone like me. He was the last traditional western Christian thinker and writer of the very highest rank, and he was also a member of the first modern generation, the first generation of people who could read at their breakfast table a newspaper printed the previous evening on a steam press in the capital city, and distributed around the kingdom by steam train during the night. The 1840s was the decade of the masses and of revolutionary atheistic humanism, and Kierkegaard is setting out to oppose it by holding out for the unconditional primacy of individual selfhood before God.

After the second world war Kierkegaard's concerns suddenly seemed relevant, even in the English-speaking world. Translations appeared, and were widely read. My American paperback of Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing is dated 1956, and I well remember reading it as a devotional work in my student days.

Like everyone else at that time, I took Kierkegaard to be an orthodox western Christian - the last and the best, the one from whom there was most to be learnt.

Twenty years later, however, the situation had become very different. The fully developed media society had arrived. The old metaphysics of God and the old religious selfhood had suddenly faded. At the end of the 1960s I heard the best of the new "secular Christians", the American radical theologian Paul van Buren, say that the idea of God might work just as well and might have all the same effects in human life if we thought of God not as a personal being, but simply as an ideal.

That remark stuck in my mind, as did also Ninian Smart's observation that many of the things that are said about God might equally well have been said about faith in God. It is not so much God himself, but rather simply faith that is comforting and powerful, that moves mountains and is central to our life, and that is such a consolation in adversity.

Thoughts such as these grew stronger during the 1970s, and finally prompted a reading experiment. Kierkegaard is after all a modern writer. He has no metaphysics of God, and Purity of Heart is not in fact a book about God but an exercise in religious subjectivity. Perhaps for Kierkegaard God is not an active personal Being, but simply an ideal? Perhaps when I look at God I am like Rembrandt looking into his mirror: I learn to look at myself as if from the standpoint of eternity, and to see myself as I really am? Perhaps God is not, never was, a Being, but rather is something more like a standard by which to examine oneself and a mirror in which to see and become oneself?

So in 1978 I read Kierkegaard's text afresh in the light of this idea. I was doing something very like a scientific experiment, trying out a theory against the textual facts. I was checking whether a great text really made sense, better sense, in the light of a new "non-realist" theory of God.

And it worked, with a bang. I felt that scales had fallen from my eyes. I understood better than ever before how Kierkegaard's text actually works to create its own fit reader, and how it might be possible to continue to be a religious person in a secular humanist world. In Kierkegaard's text God is not an active Being, but is "the Eternal". God is like one who is dead but is still venerated. The dead person is constantly, silently present with us, acting as a reference-point and as a standard to be lived up to.

I was changed. Over the next few years I began to elaborate and to publish the new point of view. The results were pretty disastrous, on the whole, because religious truth is so very highly political. Ideas are not and cannot be appraised on their merits, but are simply classified as being conservative, liberal or radical, and then reacted to accordingly. There was little hope of getting my ideas discussed, or even understood, for many years. The church authorities, and the journals, rejected them out of hand.

Almost 20 years on, I would not now try to argue that I have found the "correct" interpretation of Kierkegaard. The best texts can be and are read in a variety of ways, and from many different points of view. But I am still grateful to Kierkegaard. He may be dead, but his texts are still alive, still changing.

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