The Sea of Faith

Leslie Cram offers a 20th anniversary review of The Sea of Faith, by Don Cupitt (second edition, SCM Press, 1994, 0334029279). Leslie is a retired archaeologist with special interest in the Old Stone Age. He is a member of Council, and a past Chairman of ONE for Christian Renewal. This review first appeared in the Renew magazine.

Twenty years on in 2004 is an apt time for a new appraisal of the book The Sea of Faith, first published in 1984 following from the television series and leading to the founding of The Sea of Faith organization. The organization now has about 750 members in the United Kingdom, produces a newsletter for them 6 times a year and a magazine for members and about another 100 readers 6 times a year. It also holds annual conferences and regional workshops. There are also independent networks in Australia, France, New Zealand and the USA.

The 1994 edition has some 290 pages that include an index and 7 pages of Notes and Sources. The book expects its readers to have previous knowledge of material such as "Pascal's wager"(p.56), Hans Kung (p. 94), and Wittgenstein (p. 222). It accepts the loss of faith expressed in the poem 'Dover Beach' by Matthew Arnold but goes on to show how a new creative approach to religion is available now in each individual's interpretation of the world. Religious activity today resembles the activities of artists such as Gauguin and Cezanne, who painted from the non-real inside themselves rather than to conforming to the real external artistic norms (p.273). The truth of the "religion as art" position is argued by tracing how this position has been reached in the development of Christian thought in western Europe from the 17th century to today. The book claims to be the first survey of religious belief which keeps the development of non-realism constantly in mind (p.60 and p.239). The position of religious belief is described by Nietzsche as part of the development of losing social norms so that in all aspects of life we now do our own thing. 'What will not be built any more henceforth, and cannot be built any more, is a society in the old sense of the word; to build that, everything is lacking, above all the material. All of us are no longer material for a society' (p.273). The book is rich in ideas, hopeful for individual fulfilment and has been of immense value to many.

But there are aspects of religious experience not covered by the book. Firstly its truth is an historical truth. The development of non-realism is described at times as if it is an independent force acting on human beings moving towards a goal of freedom from superstition and 'to reach this goal is Christianity's destiny' (p.278). The Sea of Faith puts its data in chronological order and looks for cause and effect through time. In the natural sciences the account of the world once took this approach, following the order of creation as told in the bible. Then Newton described the universe as having laws that operated uniformly over space and time. Geology followed in interpreting the past only by reference to what can be observed in the present. The humanities also moved last century to examine how data are structured and how they function together at anyone time. Social anthropology has its textbook of Structure and Function in Primitive Society (Radcliffe-Brown, A. R., London: Cohan & West, 1952). Sociology, linguistics, archaeology etc. do not look now for meaning being found in changes over time. Cave art is as good art as present day art, stories of non-literate people are as good as Homer, Shakespeare and any present day poet. A similar functional approach to religion does not allow any mechanism by which today can be judged to be better or worse, more or less true than the past. A pattern in the data leading to a future destiny as seen by The Sea of Faith is not able to be seen from this functional view.

Secondly, indeed it is common for an individual to experience an inner self or mind as a rich world only able to be known by that individual and from which he or she can create a unique art or religious statement. However an alternative explanation of the mind was given some 50 years ago by Gilbert Ryle who stated, "What there is to be known about other people is restored (by his arguments) to approximate parity with self-knowledge". (The Concept of Mind, London: Penguin Classics, 2000, p.149). Cezanne could know Gauguin as well as Gauguin knew himself. Christian experience follows Ryle in the tradition of the spiritual director of the Orthodox Church, confession of the Roman Catholic and accountability to a small group of the Protestant tradition (for instance the Methodist class system or the present-day Iona Community). For these Christianity is to do with the soul or mind being shared with or entrusted to others. The Sea of Faith does not define mind in a way in which this sharing can happen.

Thirdly, the human activities that The Sea of Faith deals with are those to do with words and logic as shared with philosophy. Western European Christianity specializes in this. It gladly attempts definitions of God. The Orthodox tradition by contrast avoids religious belief being built on words and definitions. It more looks to go beyond any experience by apophatic or "negative theology", saying "and yet it is not just that, there is more to it." Music, painting and the architecture of the church convey theological truth for the Orthodox but not for Catholic and Protestant. The composer was asked to explain the meaning of his piece of music. He sat down at the piano and played it through. The Sea of Faith has not commented on how musical and artistic theologies follow the same route as claimed for verbal theology.

Fourthly, there are the experiences of the numinous, the mysterious, the awesome. The ability to recognize the numinous comes from sharing with others who have already experienced it rather than from theology. This sharing and the bond that is created are often with those who have had similar experience in the past as much as in the present. This is an aspect of religious experience not covered by The Sea of Faith, which rather claims that individual experiences today are more valid than those in the past because today they are free from superstition or the wish to conform to social norms.

Finally the book has echoes of the arguments of western Europeans a century and more ago for the superiority of their physical type and culture over all others. It may be true that human destiny is being fulfilled in the western European Christian tradition. But we should look for this to be argued from, let us say, the aboriginal American or Shinto Japanese tradition rather than from within the western European Christian tradition.