Everyone a Pilgrim

By permission of the publishers we reprint Don Cupitt's preface to David Hart's book One Faith? Non-Realism and the World of Faiths

Our culture used to praise the unwavering, lifelong commitment of a person who was rooted in One Truth and never wished to depart from it. Vows were for life, jobs were for life. The translation of a Bishop from one see to another was at one time actually forbidden. Monks were enjoined to practice "stability", remaining in their monasteries and not gadding about the world. An English couple marrying would carve their initials and the date on a stone set over the door of their house, and they expected to remain in that same house till parted by death.

In those days it was the norm to expect that one creed, one set of loyalties and one place could and should satisfy you for life. Right up to the eighteenth century it seemed admirable to be content to spend all your days in one village like Gilbert White, and it was deplorable to become a "sermon-taster", someone who was not content to stick loyally to the parish church, but shopped around.

Today, however, people just do shop around. We now live in a society in which everyone is a seeker and a pilgrim, and everyone is conscious of having their own spiritual biography. In the days when I did a good deal of broadcasting I received thousands of letters from people who wanted to tell the story of their personal spiritual journey. Usually it was the story of how they had been raised in some kind of simple realistic faith, but had gradually lost it, and had embarked on a lengthy quest for a satisfactory replacement.

The fact that so many people are like that nowadays must be one reason for the growing public interest in non-realism. Why? Because non-realism rejects the notion of just one absolute and forever-binding Truth of all things, and allows you instead to shop around, to change and to grow. In this respect non-realism is simply the polar opposite of fundamentalism. For a fundamentalist, growth in faith may mean coming to hold the same set of beliefs in an ever-more-rigid and unquestioning way, but for a non-realist spiritual growth means freedom—the freedom to escape from religious dogmatism and exclusivist, the freedom to change one's own philosophy of religion, and the freedom to move easily amongst and to learn from people quite different to oneself. As that well-known non-realist Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have said, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath"—meaning, don't be fetishistic about your received religious institutions, practices, beliefs and symbols. Use them as tools, that's all. Don't let them become badges of difference by which you divide humanity into us and them, the sound and the unsound. And above all, don't let your religion become a rut that you sink ever more deeply into as the years go by.

David Hart's new book reminds us that nowadays all major countries are becoming multi-faith countries. Realists may regard religious pluralism as a threat, but non-realists see it as an opportunity: an opportunity to escape from the tribalism of the past, and an opportunity for a new kind of religious life to become established in our society. Already millions of us have developed a great respect and healthy appetite for the cuisines of Asia. Soon, I hope, we'll be profiting equally from the religions of Asia. Perhaps especially from Buddhism: for Mahayana Buddhism was the first major non-realist religion, and therefore has been the subtlest and most adaptable, and so the one now spreading most rapidly in the modern West.

I want to end with a personal word of thanks. By the end of 1991 I was badly overtired by a dozen years of furious intellectual excitement, overwork and public campaigning. I've been forced to slow down considerably. But it has been a joy and a consolation to see an energetic and courageous younger generation of writers, of whom David Hart is one, now entering the fray. I'm sure that when you've read his book you'll be as appreciative as I am.