Inconclusions - for the time being

Adrian Cairns reviewed Cupitt's The Religion of Being for the Summer 1998 SoF magazine

He has done it again! Just when we thought he might have reached a "final position" with The Last Philosophy and Solar Ethics, Don Cupitt has changed course, or rather he has tacked on the same course. He has reached "a paradoxical in-conclusion" in The Religion of Being. Clearly, like the rest of us, he was feeling a bit trapped by the "outside-less" world of language. Now he has found a formula to unlock this intellectual impasse: "non-language is Being". He says "This cheers me up, offering me at least a temporary resting place." Some of us might feel like responding (with friendly empathy)—well, yes, we always knew that—but the key is much more sophisticated for Cupitt. It actually unifies the central questions for both philosophy and religion, namely, what is it that we are looking at? What is the "object" of metaphysics and also the religious object?

He deconstructs the question with assiduous care, starting from Heidegger who suggested that until quite recently "we pictured God as a control-freak, and we became like him". Now we live at a "world midnight"—too late for God and too early for Being (pp.10-11). But this is not a book about Heidegger, nor an interpretation of him; it merely comes after Heidegger's almost deliberately obscure writing, and "is sometimes with him, and sometimes against him" (p.24).

Cupitt's own radical departure-point is this: "The whole history of Western metaphysics from Plato to Nietzsche rested upon a mistake, and it was a very bad mistake. We were running away from time, finitude and contingency. We forsook Being and took refuge in dreams of absolute security, rational necessity, timelessness, and total knowledge and control. But now with the end of metaphysics, philosophy is at long last returned to its original and founding question, the question of Being" (p.106). Cupitt's writing in pursuit of this theme is full of illuminating sound-bites (in the sense of nuggets of inspired perception rather than political shallowness!).

For example: "...the religious realm is no longer an ineffable extra, but is equated with ordinariness regained" (p.110); "Religion is now applied philosophy, 'edifying' philosophy, philosophy appropriated and lived" (p.114); "In the religion of Being the deepest religious feeling is evoked by the most fleeting phenomena" (p.149); "Being is its own Becoming; it continually slips into itself and slips away" (p.28).

In that last one, Cupitt almost seems to be talking about Time rather than Being. Or perhaps that is his point. "Nothing is eternal. Being is temporal forthcoming, and there is no real being apart from temporality (p.129)". The language begins to get very convoluted in trying to pin down the meaning of Being, so that even Cupitt has to ask: "What is Time prior to all human cultural-linguistic structuring?" He answers himself by saying that it has to be nothing. "...For the time being, Being and Time are indistinguishable—in being Nothing" (p.77). However, he escapes from that cul-de-sac by noting that "Circularly, being and meaning continually sustain each other, just in time" (p.82).

Language itself, following Wittgenstein, has become the logical sticking-point for Cupitt. "Once we understand that everything depends upon language, that we are always inside language, that language is only human and that all our thinking and world-building depend upon language, then radical humanism or thoroughgoing anthropocentrism becomes of course the only option. There is no other." (p.52). This is the linguistic corner into which, for some books now, Cupitt has argued himself. How could he even think, yet alone access non-language? There was only one way out: the admission of non-linguistic Being. "Like a fountain, Being is an even, temporally-continuous forthcoming of pure contingency—ever in motion, always the same" (pp.53 and 35). The Torus-image of a fountain is Cupitt's happiest metaphor. He uses another when, Woody Allen-style, he likens us all to actors on a cinema screen: "We may be metaphysically and irredeemably locked into alienation from truth" (p.67). We are back to Zen minimalism and its meditational discipline of "attention", of "living in the now" without letting the mind, or one's life, wander into the before or the after. Saying "yes" to "high-speed transience and in that recognition to love one's fellow-being—that, that, says Dogen, is salvation" (p.36).

And so says Cupitt, whose thoughts on Being are very Buddhist-compatible (p.161): but "you mustn't suppose that my conclusion is the conclusion. We really do have to give up the idea of stable, fixed and objective truth. And that is a good inconclusion to end with... (p.157)." This is not an easy book, but as always with this author, despite his self-deprecatory remarks on pp.140/1, it is a joy to be privy to the honesty of his forensic enquiry.