The Radical Christian World-View

Plenary talk by Don Cupitt, SoF UK national conference, 1999

This year's conference has posed the question: What is religion for? The question is raised against a background of relentless secularization, especially in Europe, Australia and New Zealand, where nowadays religion plays no visible part at all in the lives of the majority of the population, and the traditional religious institutions are in accelerating decline. The latest figures for the Church of England, for example, show baptisms, confirmations and Easter communions declining at the rate of about 25% per decade (Church Times, 14 May 1999). For various local reasons the statistics may vary somewhat from one country to another, and from one faith to another, but the overall trend is the same everywhere: religion is fading out.

Against that background, what is religion for—and is it still worth bothering with? I answer: religion should make our life seem to us to be intelligible and valuable. In religion we seek a picture of the world and of ourselves with which we can be content. We want to know what we are, how we fit into the scheme of things, how we should live and how we can be happy. Religion should give us a world-picture and a way of life that are attractive, and that make sense.

Because most of the old communal religions systems are currently breaking down, many people are trying to work out a personal religious outlook of their own. But only a great philosopher is likely to make much progress when working entirely alone in such a difficult area. We must hope that out of the present turmoil new communally-evolved religions systems that people can live by will develop.

I was recently asked to produce a short statement of my own current outlook for a planned book, and I'm offering it here as my answer to the question, What is religion for? The best I can do is offer my account of 'The Radical Christian World-View', as I call it, and say that this is how I currently think things are with us. Does it make sense, and is this a way one could live?

Let me begin by stating my own position, so that—as they say—you will know where I am coming from. Since 1960 I have been a priest in the Church of England, and I remain a priest in good standing. But though I still communicate with the Church, I no longer officiate in the Church. Traditionally, a priest has been an institutionally-accredited person who purveys a fixed body of knowledge, vocabulary, and set of rituals, and it is no longer in me to be such a person. I love freedom too much. I have spent almost all my career teaching the philosophy of religion and writing, and have come to think that none of our religious traditions can survive as it stands. All of them need reform, and the mainstream Christian tradition, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant, in particular urgently needs revolutionary transformation. Since the Enlightenment and the rise of critical thinking it has become almost a cliche that the Church's world-view is long obsolete, that the doctrine-system is badly wrong, and that the Church's hierarchical pattern of government encourages vanity and inhibits change. In effect, each of the old men says to himself: 'No, not in my time: the status quo will see me out.'—and he does nothing. So by small increments the situation has been allowed to grow steadily worse, to the point where it may already be too late to hope for reform and renewal.

From the Church's point of view I am only a marginal Christian now: I am someone who likes modern Western philosophy, who retains a strong devotion to Jesus Christ, who has an affinity with much in the Jewish and the Buddhist traditions, and who has been trying to build up a body of free and experimental religious writing which may or may not one day be of use to others.1

I am asked, first, to answer the question: What is your conception of God or the Ultimate?

I answer, briefly, that there is no Ultimate: everything is proximate. There is no Absolute: everything is relative. There is nothing primary and founding: everything is secondary. The human world around us is not beneath and subordinate to a Higher World above, because, on the contrary, 'Nothing is hidden', and all this is all there is. The human world—that is, the world as it is for us—is now effectively the only world, because we are, it seems the only beings who have a complete world. There is no other world but ours. The human world is outsideless, and is coextensive with the range of our language—which is finite but now very large. It includes the whole known Universe and all that is known of human history.

Traditional Jewish, Christian and Muslim ideas of God have been heavily dependent upon Greek philosophy, which was strongly realistic. The world was seen as preceding us; it was a readymade Cosmos, created by the imposition of form upon matter, law upon disorder, and intelligible meaning upon the sensuous flux. The Greeks saw these rational principles, by which the raw stuff of the world has been made a Cosmos, as really existing out-there in an objective Order of Reason, and ultimately in the Divine Mind. The Greeks thus grounded everything normative, and the whole world-order, in mind-stuff out-there. Their thinking was highly objectivist, and their philosophy gravitated steadily towards realistic metaphysical theism. Recent ideas about just when the books of the Hebrew Bible were written and compiled suggest that the most developed and universalistic ideas about God in the Old Testament (to be found in Isaiah, cc. 40-55) are already strongly influenced by Greek thought.2 Thus religious belief in God has since early times been locked into an important Greek philosophical doctrine—metaphysical realism. This doctrine pictures our thinking and our rationality as derived from and dependent upon an objective Logos that pervades the cosmos. Before ever we were, it was already out there. When we think aright, our thinking participates in and tracks the cosmic Divine Mind. To think Newtonian physics, for example, was to think God's thoughts after him—something that indeed we had been created by God to do, for it was believed that 'Man' had been specially created by God to be his vice-regent upon earth.

Thus belief in God was tied to an unhistorical and supernaturalist view of reason, and to a very exalted view of 'Man' as the crown of creation. It was sincerely believed that the human being )or, to be a little more explicit, the male human mind) was a finite copy of the infinite divine Mind, and that the concepts through which we think are little copies of the unchanging divine Ideas. God came first: he made the world to be a house for us to live in, and then he made us with minds like his, so that we would know how to live in it.

I don't want to retell here the story of how all these ways of thinking died, and died finally in the nineteenth century. I need only say that fully-orthodox realistic metaphysical belief in God has for a long time been quite impossible for an educated Westerner. We have come to see ourselves as products of an evolutionary process that has, and has to have, a lot of random in it and therefore cannot be God-directed. We have come to see that we ourselves have evolved all our own languages, knowledge-systems and visions of the world. Our religions too, exactly like all our other social institutions, are now seen as humanly-evolved products of history. That is how they are treated in textbooks of 'comparative religion', and that is how we know it is. We invented all the rational principles, all the world-views and all the religions.

But if all this has happened, what does a person like me do about belief in God? I find that as the old metaphysical idea of God has disintegrated, God-talk and religious feeling have become scattered and splashed over a variety of different aspects of our human life and experience. Instead of the old sort of dialogue-prayer, I practise 'the mysticism of secondariness' and 'moving-edge meditation'. God becomes an ideal standard of perfection by which I judge myself and am judged. God is the divinity of Love, which above all else makes our life worth living. Commitment to God becomes resolved down into commitment to and belief in life. The practice of the presence of God becomes attention to Be-ing. The old burning zeal has become what I call solar ethics.

Do I make myself clear? I am a post-dogmatic believer. None of the old dogmas is true any more. The old realistic metaphysics of God is dead, and I certainly do not believe in that God any longer. Nobody can, any more. But the Death of God has in effect scattered the divine across the human life-world, sacralizing many aspects of our experience, I have gained more than I have lost, because I now find the Holy in all that was once thought to be merely human, merely relative and (above all) merely transient. The death of God makes everything holy.

People who are in love with absolute monarchy will naturally regard the radical Christian point of view as 'atheism'. But that label is too crudely political. The old belief in God was highly authoritarian: it saw religion simply in terms of absolute monarchy, and thought that the only alternative to absolute monarchy must be pure nihilism. But the radical Christian is a religious democrat, for whom sovereignty is now dispersed across the whole body politic. I like religious immanence, and a widely-scattered Sacred. It makes possible a much more varied and richer piety, and it is quite free from the hysterical absolutism of the orthodox.

Secondly, I am asked: In what ways does your understanding of religion offer a means of human liberation?

Most of the world's major religious traditions developed during the Iron Age. Karl Jaspers dated what he called 'the Axial Period' from -800 to -200 C.E.3 Others may prefer to move the dates a few centuries later, but there is no great disagreement about the magnitude of the cultural changes that were taking place at that time. It was the period of the rise of philosophy and of the first attempts at systematic scientific and historical enquiry. It was the period of the first large empires, bringing conditions in which creative individuals could travel, write, speculate, teach and attract disciples, and experiment with new lifestyles such as those of the monk and the wandering philosopher.

Against this background, the emergent world religions naturally took the form of mass movements inspired by the teaching and example of a venerated founder. They were usually ascetical 'ways' or 'paths', by following which one could hope gradually to be liberated from all that is wrong with human nature and the human condition. And they were usually dualistic, making a clear contrast between the present unsatisfactory world of fleeting images, half-truths and disorderly passions, and an unchanging Better World of absolute contemplative knowledge and unalloyed bliss which was the goal of the religious quest.

There is a certain tendency nowadays to see religious doctrine-systems as picturesque and popular versions of systems of philosophy, or even as primitive scientific theories. But if the great Iron Age religions first arose as communal pathways to individual salvation, it is surely better to see their doctrine-systems as guides or handbooks for the traveller on the Way.

Now the question arises: Should religion today still be taking the form of a path to individual redemption or salvation?

I answer: with qualifications, Yes. But the qualifications are very substantial, because for some time now it has been very obvious that both monasticism and the Two Worlds picture of reality that goes with it have come to an end. There is only one world, this world, the human life-world, and there is no sense in the idea that we might come to live under wholly different conditions of existence, perhaps in another world altogether, while yet still being ourselves. But though our view of things is now naturalistic, it is not passive and quietistic. Radical Christians follow prophets like Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence in believing that human life, human nature and the human world are not what they might be. We do believe that individual human beings and the whole human world could be very much better and happier than they now are, and we seek to offer a new understanding of self, selves, and world in which one can find complete happiness. But we do not offer any sort of disciplinary doctrine-system or new creed. The religious society used to be compared with a ship's crew, a school or an army on the march. It was seen as needing to have a clearly-defined system of discipline and chain of command. But radical Christians reject the 'orthodoxy' in which truth is controlled by power, and dislike the mental numbness induced by canonical forms of words. In our view religious truth cannot be canonized in fixed doctrines or forms of words. It needs to be continually reminted by the invention of new metaphors. So we see religious liberation as very often taking the form of liberation from the tyranny of religion that has become old, objectified, oppressive and ugly. And although we do not look to any other world, we do look for a big change in the way we see our life in this world.

Radical Christianity is in my view a form of radical humanism, in which we find eternal happiness in being wholly given over to our world, a world which for its part is also wholly given to us. To say a wholehearted Yes to one's own, and the world's, lightness and transience is bliss. I have sometimes called this idea 'energetic Spinozism', but it is much misunderstood, and here I shall explain it by briefly arguing that it is the culmination of the history of religion.

Suppose we consider the questions: What is all this? What determines the way things go in it all? Who's running everything? Can we humans ever learn to influence it or them?

In the earliest world-views that we can hope to describe, reality was seen as a scrum, a ceaseless conflict of terrifying Powers who were of course entirely absorbed in their wrestling with each other and utterly indifferent to the helpless human spectator. There was no 'matter'; there were only the Powers. There was no unified human subject, because the conflict of the Powers reached deep into the region where we would now put human subjectivity. Human beings had very little knowledge of or control over nature, and human subjectivity was relatively undeveloped. The Powers raged as violently within us as they did around us.

Here in this most archaic of all world-views reality is seen at its most objective, sacred, violent and disorganized. And, thus described, it gives us a clue to the direction that the long struggle for human liberation must take. Religious ideology and religious practice must, first, over the long millennia gradually get the objective world organized and unified, for example by gradually moving from animism to polytheism, to henotheism and monotheism and then to naturalism. And then, secondly, they must also get the subjective world organized, for example by pulling the self back from the world and drawing a line between subjectivity and objectivity; and then by a long ascetical struggle gradually making the self more calm, unified and controlled. And thirdly, religion also needs ways of building up the strength of the human subject, so that there can be a better balance of power between subjectivity and objectivity. A Prometheus is needed, who will steal technical power from the divine world and give it to humans; a Moses, who by giving the divine Law to humans will help to persuade humans that they too can exercise legislative and world-ordering power and authority; and a Christ, who will bring pure Deity into the life of ordinary humanity.

In the beginning, humans were extremely weak and vulnerable. They were at the mercy of warring Powers of which they had almost no understanding or control. Only very gradually did they manage to gain some degree of technical control—for example, over fire; and then later, by domestication, over some species of animals and plants. And with that technical control came a growing ability to recognize regularities and causal connections in the skies and on earth. Gradually, we built up our own increasingly large-scale and complex world-picture—a world-picture from which the old Powers have vanished. Gradually, the old realism dies, as we come to recognize that our world—the complex world-picture that we have built up, the known world, which is to say, the world in our knowledge—is in effect the world. We are not in any position to compare the world in our knowledge with the world as it exists our there and independently of our knowledge. And what is more, we are the only beings who have a complete world-picture, in which everything is by now theorized. So our world has been comprehensively delivered to us and belongs to us. Apart from us, there is nothing but the ultralight flux of transient Be-ing. There is no rival to us, or threat to us, out there: it is all ours.

The sort of religious liberation that is available to us in our postmodern times combines anti-realism with radical humanism. It has been made accessible to us by the growing completeness of our theory. Knowledge has developed so far and so fast that we have thoroughly theorized almost everything around us, and within us too. We too are our own constructs. Everywhere we look we see a world that is already humanly appropriated, theorized, enhistorized and interpreted. Nothing quite non-human remains except the gentle forthcoming of Being, which is everything's utter contingency. It is a bit like Heaven, or 'the Kingdom of God'—but temporalized and without the gold. 'Solar ethics' is, all the time, to choose it as bliss. And it is, I say, a kind of fulfilment of the history of religion. Yes: we are at the end of history.

Thirdly, I am asked a question that will certainly be on the tip of the reader's tongue: How does your conception of religion deal with the problem of evil?

I reply that the question about evil (unde malum: whence is evil?) is formulated very variously in different religious traditions around the world, and a great variety of remedies—practical ways of dealing with it—are on offer. But I suggest that in this present context the problem is one of disappointed expectations. Orthodox theism says that nothing happens by chance: every event is willed by Almighty God, and plays its part in the fulfilment of his ethical purpose. This belief gives rise to a presumption that all the world will turn out to be governed like a state ruled by a very wise and powerful King who watches over his subjects and arranges for everyone to get their deserts, the virtuous being rewarded with prosperity and happiness and the wicked being duly punished. Then people ask: Why are things not as we felt entitled to expect? Why is there so much evil in the world? Why is there metaphysical evil—finitude, transience and death? Why is there so much moral evil—human wickedness, much of it going apparently unpunished? Why is there so much physical evil—innocent and undeserved suffering (including perhaps animal suffering)?

Why do bad things happen to good people? asked a popular US bestseller a few years ago—the general presumption being that bad things surely ought never to happen to good people like us. Why is it all so unfair?, people ask, their presumption being that they were entitled to expect life to be fair. They thought that the world would turn out to be like a well-run school, with an unseen Fatherly Eye watching over everyone's conduct and handing out rewards and punishments accordingly. When they discover that the world is not governed like an idealized patriarchal household, they are extremely shocked and distressed.

One may well wonder why people have such bizarre expectations. The answer is surely that people have always got their first idea of God and the way God runs things in their childhood, when their parents and other teachers were endeavouring to impress upon them the importance of morality. So they were taught to see the world as being run like a big family, presided over by a stern but wise and loving father; or like a boarding school run by a strict but fair Headmaster; or like a storybook kingdom ruled by a good and wise king. To a much larger degree than we care to admit, our religious ideas reflect a childhood vision of the world.

So I simply refuse 'the problem of evil' as it is usually presented. Orthodox belief in a good and almighty God pictures the world as a Cosmos, completely determinate and with all events predestined. But is now appears that at the micro level, and to a great extent, the world-process is indeterminate and random. Exactly which atom will decay next, which person will be the next to contract meningitis, and which mutation will occur next cannot be predicted. Large-scale outcomes can often be predicted, but at the micro level the world is simply not the fully-determined Cosmos that realistic theists believe in, and there is not the objective moral providence that they used to believe in.4 Today surely nobody seriously suggests that moral considerations help to determine just who is going to have an accident or fall ill. It seems that there is not an objective moral providence, and that the process of the world is simply contingent. Only human beings are wise or unwise, and moral or immoral. By the arrangements we make, we can reduce our own statistical liability to suffer various sorts of misfortune, and by the moral institutions we establish we can make things better or worse for other people and for ourselves. But the world as such and apart from us is unformed and innocent. Since commitment to God is commitment to the values of justice and love, belief in God may and should inspire people to try to make the world a better place, but is does not—and never did—offer any kind of magical protection against life's sheer contingency.

You may way that my refusal of the standard 'problem of evil' is unwarrantedly optimistic and 'fails to take evil really seriously'—as if it were true that nothing is being taken seriously unless it is being reified, a proposition that might lead to some very odd conclusions. I reply that my own ideas about evil, suffering and death were formed at a time when I was myself in extremis. Solar living, on the basis of a full acceptance of contingency, of our own vulnerability and mortality—and acceptance, too, of certain well-known facts about human beings—is the only effective 'answer' to evil. Nothing else works.

What we have to do is to give up 'realism'; that is, give up the belief in substances, including the belief that we are or have 'immortal souls'. So long as we think that a bit of us is not of this world and has to be preserved unsullied for another life elsewhere, we will fail to commit ourselves completely to this world and this life. Instead we need to recognize that there is only the language-formed flux that appears objectively as the world and subjectively as the self. We'll slowly begin to see that the world is all ours, and that we wholly belong to our world. In that complete unity of self and world lies the possibility of solar living and our eternal happiness. Practise it by practising any activity (philosophy, meditation, craftwork or whatever) that enables you to become fully absorbed and taken right out of yourself. Learn to live like that all the time, and you will be learning solar living, a way of living that forgets the past and the future and which simply burns, now.

Fourthly, I am asked: Do you believe in any form of the Afterlife?

The parameters for the answer to this question have already been set out. First, there is only one world, the human world, the life-world. The belief in a higher, eternal World Above can be seen finally fading out of Western thought in the philosophy of Kant. Since his time no thinker of note has been able to do anything to make 'life after death', as popularly understood, either credible or even intelligible. The desire to believe in life after death has remained so strong that even some first-rate minds—among them, Kant himself—have been willing to consider the alleged evidence from spiritualism and 'psychical research'. But for 200 years it has been getting less and less possible to revive belief in life after death, as we have more and more come to see how profoundly every aspect of our being is interwoven with this world of ours. Every last bit of us is situated in the here and now, biologically, historically, and culturally. We are not detachable from our world, and it comes as no surprise that those contemporary novelists who have wished to use the idea of Heaven have been obliged to picture it as being simply a fantasy-continuation of this life.5

However, and secondly, I have long argued that 'Christian life is life after life after death'.6 That is to say that when we abandon the popular notion of life after death, it becomes possible for us to understand the Christian idea of life after death. From the earliest times entry into Christianity was by undergoing ritual death and rebirth in union with Christ, so that the Christian's entire life henceforth was supposed to be a 'risen', post-mortem life. Liberated from fear, greed and attachment, the believer lived a dying life—like the sun, whose life is renewed all the time by the same thermonuclear process that keeps it dying all the time.

To live in this way is to live on the basis of complete acceptance of one's own, and everything else's, contingency and transience. One finds eternal happiness in being fully merged into 'the Fountain', the continual pouring-out and passing-away of everything.

People influenced by classical metaphysics see the transient world of Becoming as resting upon and supported by an unseen world of eternal Being. Religious existence is a matter of resting upon a Rock. But on my account religious existence is a matter of resting like a ping-pong ball upon a fountain—or perhaps rather, of simply going along with and accepting the flux of contingency of which one is a part.7 Is it not exactly this mysticism of contingency, or secondariness, that everyone recognises and loves so much in the later painting of Claude Monet?

Finally, I am asked: In what respects is your own religious position different from the mainstream tradition? In order to answer this question accurately I have to make a distinction between two kinds of Christianity: Church Christianity and Kingdom Christianity.

According to a well-known saying, 'Jesus preached the Kingdom—but it was the Church that came.' This is comparable with: Karl Marx taught communism—but what we got was Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism and the dictatorship of the proletariat'. The fiercely-oppressive Soviet system was supposed to be only a stopgap for the interim period during which the old bad ways were being abolished and the new kind of man was being bred. But as time went on the withering away of the state began to look less and less likely. The apparatchiks were enjoying their privileges and their security too much, and had no interest in planning their own obsolescence as a class. So the dictatorship of the proletariat in the socialist state became in effect an end in itself, and the fully communist society was postponed indefinitely.

The same thing happened in Christianity. Within the Jewish tradition the distinction between the present state of religious mediation and the final state of simple, humanistic religious immediacy was well-established. In the present order the believer's access to God was mediated by written scriptures, the Temple, the sacrificial system and various religious professionals. God was portrayed as a remote objective being, a distant king and judge. But one day things would improve. In the age to come religious objectification would end: the Law would come to be written on each believer's heart. God would cease to be an objective being, and instead would be distributed into each believer's heart as Spirit. People would no longer be dominated by religious professionals. Religion would become fully democratized.

Jesus proclaimed the coming of such an era, calling it 'the Kingdom of God'. But in the writing of the most important of his early followers, Paul, we already see the beginnings of a relapse into mediated religion.8 Paul wants power and control over the people he writes to, and above all he wants control of truth. By the mid-second century the male clergy were seizing power over almost every aspect of church life, and they created Christian doctrine as an ideology of the kind of mediated religion from which they derived their own status and power. Jesus, who had been the enemy of mediated religion, now himself became the Mediator. The Kingdom was pushed away into the heavenly world beyond death, with the clergy having the keys to it. This meant that there was no longer any danger of the clergy's being made redundant by the arrival of the Kingdom on earth. Henceforth, anyone who taught the possibility of immediate religion could be described as a 'gnostic', a 'mystic', a 'heretic' or whatever, and duly persecuted. The kind of religion that Jesus came to preach was abolished in his name, being replaced by a curious idolatry of the Church and of the spiritual power that had come to be vested in the higher clergy. In time people completely forgot the idea that what is called 'orthodox Christian doctrine' was merely a way of thinking appropriate for a transitional period of training or discipline, when people are under authority, and that it existed in a state of ardent longing for its own supersession by something much better. Instead, people honestly began to think that Church doctrine is the Truth, for ever.

It isn't. It served well enough in premodern times, but with the rise of modern science and critical thinking, and with the rise also of democratic politics and humanitarianism, it has become hopelessly out-of-date. We now urgently need to make the move away from the old cruelly-authoritarian Church Christianity to a new this-worldly and democratic Christian humanism. One religious group, the Quakers, made the shift over three centuries ago, and their example gives a rough idea of what might be involved.

I can now answer the question about my relation to the 'mainstream tradition'. Those who think that Church Christianity is the final form of Christianity will obviously regard me as being no longer a Christian. I reply that they have forgotten their own theology and have made an idol of the Church-system and its ideology.

Having defined a radical Christian as a Christian who thinks that the Church has completed its historical mission, and that we now need to make the move to the final state of religion whose 'nearness' Jesus originally preached, I end by noting the close similarity between the radical Christian world-view and the world-view of postmodern philosophy. Perhaps postmodernity is itself Christianity's final expression, now coming into being. In summary:

This picture of a world that has become all communication, and that is radically humanist, derives from familiar biblical texts such as Revelation 21 and Jeremiah 31:31-34. And it is the world-picture of postmodern, posthistorical philosophy. The time has come: we should seize the day.


The ideas presented in this essay are developed in more detail in the following recent books: After All (1994), The Last Philosophy (1995), Solar Ethics (1995), After God (1997), Mysticism after Modernity (1997), The Religion of Being (1998), The Revelation of Being (1998), The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (1999), and The Meaning of It All in Everyday Speech (1999).

See the reconstructed history of ancient Israel offered by Thomas L. Thompson in The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past, London: Jonathan Cape, 1999.

Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1953.

I make the distinction here because today there are professed realistic theists, such as John Hick, who have in effect given up the personality of God and his all-determining moral Providence.

See novels by Michael Frayn and Julian Barnes for Heaven as a bourgeois fantasy version of the good life.

From The Sea of Faith (1984).

The artist Damien Hirst has a work in which a ping-pong ball is supported on the rising column of air from a tilted-back hairdryer.

Graham Shaw, The Cost of Authority, London: SCM Press, 1983.