Emptiness and Brightness

Stephen Mitchell, former chair of the Sea of Faith network, reviews Don Cupitt’s 'Emptiness and Brightness'.

Whenever I've been asked which Cupitt book I would recommend for someone new to the network or new to his thinking, I've always suggested Solar Ethics. Now without hesitation it would be Emptiness and Brightness. Like Solar Ethics, this book contains some dazzling writing. Like Solar Ethics it's breathtaking in the way it sweeps across human thought and history and weaves together the themes that have obsessed Cupitt throughout his journey of faith. And yet it has the same lightness of touch and easy-to-read style.

But there is another similarity and another reason for recommending Emptiness and Brightness. The dedication of Solar Ethics was "for the members of Sea of Faith". Now we have a book for "some fellow-voyagers with whom Sea of Faith members have been meeting recently. They include the Fellows and Associates of the Westar Institute's Jesus Seminar in the USA and Snowstar in Canada."

These two books, then, are not just for those new to Cupitt. Nor are they a mere "Thank you" to those who've travelled with him. These books are for us and for us to use.

In his conference speech last year, Don mused over the republishing of Taking Leave of God, first published over twenty-two years ago. "I couldn't help but be struck by the difference between my outlook then and my outlook now. It is very great." The difference has been too much for SCM and their loss is Polebridge Press's gain. For this too is a classic. Many in the network have also shied away from exploring that difference or have found the difference too great to contemplate. And perhaps titles like Philosophy's Own Religion and The Religion of Being are not for all of us.

But this book is for us. Once again Cupitt is in a relaxed and happy mood. Like Solar Ethics, which completed the trilogy of The Last Philosophy and After All, so Emptiness and Brightness concludes a triple testament in Philosophy's Own Religion and Reforming Christianity. The reader is caught up in the sense of a new beginning, a new age and a religious thinking for a new age. The long period that emerged from the great individual and influential thinkers like Plato and the Buddha has come to and end and we are now in a new period of change, a new Axial Age. The influence of these long established cultural traditions has been do great has been that we find ourselves having to begin again, from the very beginning.

The process is a democratic one. There is no leader to reveal mysteries or guide down spiritual paths. Life is there, we live it, share our engagements with life and ideas and our humanitarian ethics evolves, and goes on evolving.

So Emptiness and Brightness is an induction course into a new way of religious thinking, an invitation to shake off bad habits of thought so that the easy and obvious religious truth might consume us with happiness. "To say a whole-hearted Yes to life in full acknowledgement of its gratuitousness, its contingency, its transience, and even its nothingness—is bliss." Or more simply

When we give up the idea that our chief religious task is to discover and hold on to some very important but hidden Truth and when we thus get our heads clear, then we'll be ready to see that our chief religious task is to love this world and this life and to make the most of them that we possibly can. (p.112)

If that sounds too obvious, too simple, too elementary—fine, it is that simple. You may decide, "You don't need this book. It's too platitudinous." But my guess is that we all need help in uncluttering our minds.

There’s a wonderful television series, a Changing Rooms with a difference, called The Life Laundry. The format is deceptively simple. A householder has all their possessions taken outside and spread out on the lawn and with the help of Dawna Walters subjected to a ruthless de-junking. Add a little bit of Handy-Andying and their life is restored.

The basic premise is deceptively simple: clutter weighs you down, physically and psychologically. Letting go of the accumulated debris liberates mind and body: "It is possible to let go of the emotional and physical clutter and move on to a greater awareness of the present moment" writes Walters in her book of the series. Don does for religious thinking what Dawna does for living space.

There's much to be got rid of and Cupitt persuades, cajoles, tricks, exaggerates, jokes and sympathises to help us free our minds, embrace the lighter, emptier philosophy of life and be dazzled by a brighter and more glorious world. You can read this book from cover to cover or you can pick it up, open at random and find images and analogies to get you going on the task of religious thinking. Either way, you don't have to agree with it, you don't have to like it. You have to read it.