In Praise of Solar Living

Don Cupitt's 'After God' was reviewed by Dennis Nineham (emeritus professor of theology, Bristol University) in the Times Literary Supplement, 26 Dec 1997

How is it that Don Cupitt, one of the most learned, acute, lucid and intellectually stimulating theologians of his generations, has received virtually no public recognition, either in his own place (Cambridge) or any other? The answer is partly that, even now, religious orthodoxy counts for a great deal in British theological faculties, where some posts are still confined to scholars in Anglican orders. After God, like Dr Cupitt's other recent books, is so radical that it leaves all questions of orthodoxy or unorthodoxy behind. It is, in fact, an inquiry into what can or should be done with religious once cultural developments have forced recognition, as he believes they have, that the word 'God' has no objective referent.

Following an autobiographical introduction, in which the factors which have led Cupitt to his present position are briefly outlined, the first of the three sections that make up the book is devoted to an anthropological and sociological explanation of the origins of religion. We are shown, for example, how a religion of spirits corresponded to the conditions of hunter- gatherers and nomads, while settled farmers and, later, city-dwellers needed the dominant authority of a state god to hold together and regulate their communities. Then follows a comparable account of the rise of monotheism. There is perhaps not much new in all this, apart from the extreme clarity with which it is expounded.

The second section discusses the realistic philosophical theism which derived from Plato and taught the existence and influence of an objective supernatural cosmos. Cupitt analyses with insight the 'absolute presuppositions' of this outlook and points out some of the internal contradictions it contained. It could only be maintained, he argues, because of the contemplative tradition and mystical practice which accompanies it, but which were fundamentally incompatible with it; and it eventually led to the recognition that religious language has no objective referents. Objective theism was replaced by subjectivity and a sense of history, which have enabled us to see 'that everything, including all linguistic meanings, truths, values, and indeed reality itself, is a slowly evolving consensus product with no objective basis'. As that may suggest, the whole book is predicated on the Derrida-like conviction that there is nothing outside the flux of human ideas and mental constructions: 'we should give up all ideas of so-called absolutes because there are none. We have no access to any objective order independent of ourselves. We contact only our own symbolic expressions.'

Such an uncompromisingly anti-realist position clearly means the end of religion in any of its traditional forms, and Cupitt goes on to ask what role religion might be expected to play 'after God.' He suggests that theologians should be encouraged to rework Christian and other religious myths in the way Greek poets and tragedians reworked the religious myths of ancient Greece; and he expects the upshot to be an understanding of religion as a set of attitudes and techniques which will help us 'to love life and live well'. For example, if we imagine ourselves under the all-seeing eye of a God, we can grow in self-knowledge; if we accept fully our transience and insubstantiality, we can gain release from pointless anxiety and learn to pour out our selves and energy selflessly, as the sun pours out its rays—what Cupitt calls 'solar living'. For him, if we

'wait in silence for the anxiety-driven rush of language to slow down until we become utterly relaxed, the world unknits itself. We enter a condition of empty void bliss. Is this God; is this absolute nothingness; is this death? It doesn't matter.'

In fact, nothing matters in the sense of deserving the anxiety we commonly experience.

In the course of the book, there are many insights—for example into the significance of modern painting—which will enlighten even those who are not persuaded by the general argument; and there are some unforgettable thumbnail sketches, for instance of the eighteenth-century world-view in its dependence on Descartes, or of the origins of the Romantic movement. The whole book is almost compulsive reading; and the omnivorous reading, in a wide variety of fields, on which it is based, is worn lightly and always used to illuminate.

Will After God convince, and will it bring Cupitt the recognition his other books have failed to win? It is not couched in the style normal in accepted academic works, where each advance is consolidated, and every flank covered, before any further move forward is attempted. Hostile critics will be able to point to innumerable places where alternative interpretations of the evidence are simply ignored, or dismissed as mere clinging to the past. Even a scholar sympathetic to a lot in this book, such as Iris Murdoch would be—to judge from what she has written in this area—would question the extreme anti-objectivism it presupposes. What we have here is in effect a powerful, almost white-hot, expression of a personal vision. It is a vision which deserves respectful attention because it is the vision of an exceptionally able and sensitive man, with a remarkable grasp both of the history of religion and of the current cultural situation Many of his points about traditional religion are palpable hits, and who is to say that this is not a prescient preview of how the religious future is going to develop?

Don Cupitt has always been an enthusiast, and the leopard will not change his spots. Yet he is one of the very, very few theologians to be grappling with the issues central to their discipline, and surely of vital interest to us all. What is needed is a recognition that the style in which he advances his thesis is not important, together with a much more sympathetic and sustained engagement with his work than it has so far received.