The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech

Don Cupitt's book 'The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech' is reviewed by Greg Spearitt, head of SoF in Australia.

'Life-enhancing' is a term I latched onto some years ago. It expresses very succinctly the highest Good I can imagine.

Being a self-centred creature, I naturally tend to assume that everyone thinks—and has always thought—like me, at least in broad outline. Don Cupitt's latest offering jolted me (yet again) out of my načve assumptions.

In The New Religion of Life Cupitt has collected some 150 idioms concerning 'life' which are now current in everyday speech. I was surprised to see just how recent are such expressions as 'Get a life!' and 'quality of life'.

In contrast to the automatic valuing of life inherent in my 'life-enhancing', witness this passage from Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's, Dublin (1667-1745):

Although reason were intended by providence to govern our passions, yet it seems in two points of the greatest moment to the being and continuance of the world, God hath intended our passions to prevail over reason. The first is, the propagation of our species, since no wise man ever married from the dictates of reason. The other is, the love of life, which, from the dictates of reason, every man would despise, and wish it at an end, or that it never had a beginning. (quoted p. 6)

Even 30 years ago, 'lifestyle' and 'what life's all about'—as with most of the idioms Cupitt analyses—were not present, or were at least uncommon, in our thinking and speech.

Cupitt's thesis is that, over the last few decades, a truly new 'religion' or spirituality has emerged and is expressed in the ordinary language that we now use. Life itself has become the religious object. Upon someone's death, for instance, we may praise them for their 'love of life', but would be rather embarrassed to speak (even if it were appropriate) of their 'love of God'.

As usual, Cupitt is lucid, entertaining and for the most part cogent. The publisher's blurb on The New Religion of Life speaks of "a new departure", which is certainly true, but it must be noted that Cupitt arrives at a very familiar destination, that is, the one he's been discussing and developing since he first 'took leave of God' in 1980. This is no criticism, however: I continue to resonate with and appreciate Cupitt's new takes on his particular 'liberation' theology.

I am not sure, however, that Cupitt proves his point completely. He is surely correct to observe that 'life' has to an extent filled the gap left by God. Even allowing for his love of hyperbole, however, it is difficult to go along with his view that:

in very recent years many or most people have at last become able to say a religious Yes to biological life and to their own mortality. (p. 50)

Indeed, some pages earlier he contradicts this:

People may say: I want to live my own life, but as yet only a few really mean it. Most still see themselves as believers, fans and spectators, fit only for vicarious life. Pessimism about our life remains religious orthodoxy (p.38)

In this era of virtual reality, saturation media and the highest suicide rate ever (at least in Australia), the pessimistic analysis seems the more plausible to me.

Still, The New Religion of Life offers me hope. By paying more attention to the words I use and their implications, I may yet be able to say with Cupitt that "we are cured of anxiety because we are no longer in any way trying to keep up a pretence that things are other than they are". (p.52)