Radical Theology

Michael Senior reviews Radical Theology by Don Cupitt. Published by Polebridge Press (Santa Rosa, USA). 2006. 145 pages. £8.26. ISBN13 9780944344 97 2.

This is a collection of pieces (‘selected essays’) written between 1972 and more or less now, either unpublished or obscure. Part One consists of talks given as Sea of Faith conferences or prepared for various events, some of which never took place. Part Two is a set of sermons, including the important statement ‘God Within’ which belongs to the period of the publication of Taking Leave of God. Part Three is a set of academic essays, in which Cupitt the religious historian is perhaps at his best; here we have several investigations of the idea of Christ, culminating in the short but important piece called ‘Religious Humanism’ (as opposed, that is, to secular humanism). And with Part Four being two recent pieces we thus, in one neat book, cover much of the ground of the development of the ideas behind the Sea of Faith. We may also, at this late stage, see it referring back to its roots, since one of the most recent pieces (2003) is called ‘John Robinson and the Language of Faith in God’, being part of the commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Honest to God; and although Cupitt makes clear here the differences in thinking between him and Robinson, this book is dedicated to John Robinson’s memory, in recognition perhaps that it was that work that sparked off the movement which is here being called Radical Theology.

One slight surprise might be the title. Cupitt insists that he is a theologian, though a radical one: he is, he says, ‘not ashamed of the label ‘radical theologian’’. He has ‘been trying to discover and spell out something that might serve us today as true religion’ – but, we wonder, in what sense is this theology? To him (in ‘God Beyond Objectivity’) God ‘is not an objective being, not a person, and does not exist as things exist’. Where, then, is the ‘theo’ bit? Yet we are reminded that in Taking Leave of God he had been concerned to reject ‘the charge of atheism’. ‘I am no sceptic’, he says here (in ‘Religious Experience’). While again and again, in this book, being confronted with the question ‘Does Don Cupitt believe in God, or doesn’t he?’ we are at the same time faced with his strenuous honesty on the subject, and his feeling, as in ‘An Apologia for my Thinking’ that he has somehow failed to get the point across. Although he has been trying all his career to explain himself, ‘I don’t seem to have succeeded very well’. When he then sets out to explain in words of one syllable what he has been trying to do we may feel our request about to be answered. Yet it is not so easy. The whole of this book reveals a search, an extended impression of a searching and penetrating mind, and in itself finally adds up to a fierce defence of independent and truthful thinking. The clarity is sometimes breathtaking, as when, in ‘Make Believe’, he finds himself in a group of Anglicans discussing whether there is enough scriptural evidence for the corporal assumption into heaven of the Virgin Mary, ‘as if we knew what is meant by a corporal assumption into heaven’. The language appears to him to be meaningless, and he ‘can’t take part in a meaningless debate’.

By the time we reach the end we begin to understand why it is almost impossible to say in simple terms what Don Cupitt believes. This is because his set of beliefs turn out to be something dynamic rather than static, to be seen as a motion through periods of the development of a small, but interplaying, set of ideas, and as the lamination resulting from superimpositions occurring along that way. When he does, in the end, set it out, as one had hoped, in ‘An Apologia for my Thinking’. it reads a little like a summary of the intellectual movements of our time. Non-realism led to relativism, to interpretation, then to nihilism, to existentialism and finally to post-modernism. There is no space here to explain these concepts: read the book. Suffice it to say that one comes away convinced that Don Cupitt has worked his way to a personal religious position.