Surfing on the Sea of Faith: the Ethics and Religion of Don Cupitt (Book Review)

David Boulton reviews part two of Nigel Leaves' study of Don Cupitt. Polebridge Press, 2005. 194 pages. £11. ISBN 0944344631. Surfing on the Sea of Faith is available at £11 postfree from Stephen Mitchell, All Saints Vicarage, The Street, Gazeley, Newmarket, CB8 8RB. Special double deal: Surfing on the Sea of Faith and The Way to Happiness by Don Cupitt are available from Stephen Mitchell at £20 postfree.

‘One of the most prolific and original religious experimenters of the postmodern age’: that is how Nigel Leaves describes Cupitt in his opening sentence. This is the second of two paperbacks on our hero’s life and writings (the first, Odyssey on the Sea of Faith, was published last year), and the two books chronicle what Cupitt himself, referring to his whole body of work, once described as ‘not a single system but a sort of winding sausage’.

Leaves – Director and Dean of Studies at Wollaston Anglican College, Perth, Australia, and chair of the Perth branch of Sea of Faith – is a faithful Boswell, and his Johnson is duly appreciative. ‘How do all these Australians know more about me than I know about myself?’ he asked in his Foreword to Odyssey. ‘Perhaps we should invert the Gospel saying and declare that a prophet is more honoured by those who live furthest away from him.’

Surfing is divided into three parts. The first examines Cupitt on ‘Ethics after God’, the second ‘Cupitt’s Religion’ and the third ‘Cupitt and the Sea of Faith Networks’. The first two parts will be useful reading for those who never got round to progressing beyond the early Taking Leave of God and The Sea of Faith, perhaps because two or three books a year seemed to threaten the intellect’s digestive system with an overdose of winding sausage.

Cupitt’s critics get some space; more often than not they are put to rights by Don’s disciple. But Leaves – as does Cupitt himself – evidently accepts the criticism of his ‘solar ethics’ most cogently put by the Quaker Rachel Muers that ‘for the workaday world solar ethics is too bohemian and short-termist’, too individualist and anarchic. Leaves argues that Cupitt saw the force of this criticism, which has driven him in the last five years to look for ways of combining solar ‘personal’ ethics with humanitarian social ethics in a secular postmodernity which he equates with the kingdom theology of Jesus. However, for many of us, equating ‘the kingdom’ with current secular postmodernity would seem to undercut the radical potential for social and personal transformation which is what Jesus was surely all about.

In the third section Leaves moves from Cupitt’s own writings to those of the ‘many people in Networks such as Sea of Faith who are similarly engaged in creating a faith for the future’. After a potted history of the origins and development of SoF in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, he turns to the work of the networks’ ‘most important’ writers: David Hart, Stephen Mitchell, Anthony Freeman, Lloyd Geering, Graham Shaw, Hugh Dawes and John Spong. For the purpose of his discussion he uses a tripartite classification of non-realist categories (which he ascribes to me): it is possible to be (1) both philosophically and theologically non-realist, (2) philosophically realist but theologically non-realist, or (3) rhetorically non-realist but theologically realist.

Leaves puts Hart in the first category. Hart is seen as a prime mover in the UK network’s ‘push to move beyond Cupitt’, whose project he has described as ‘too cerebral’, lacking in ‘actual activity’ and communitarian expression, and too Christian-based. Mitchell and, more dubiously, Freeman and Geering are similarly categorised as thorough-going philosophical non-realists. For Mitchell, faith (in Leaves’s precis) is ‘the exploration within humanly created religious communities of what it means to be human’. Geering emphasises a ‘global religious eco-humanism’ – which, says Leaves, ‘has persuaded even Cupitt himself to become more interested in a ‘large-scale vision’.

For Leaves, the Anglican-priest-turned-Quaker Graham Shaw falls into my second category as a philosophical realist, sympathetic to Iris Murdoch’s neo-Platonism as against Derrida, Rorty, post-structuralism and Cupittian postmodernism, but non-realist in understanding God as a symbol rather than an objective being’. Finally, among the ‘most important’ SoF writers Leaves considers Hugh Dawes and John Spong, both ‘rhetorically non-realist but theologically realist’.

Although none are included among his pantheon of ‘most important’ writers, Leaves does not neglect the role of women in SoF’s ‘far-reaching program of theological exploration’. Alison Webster, Teresa Wallace, Anne Padley, Anne Ashworth, Aileen La Tourette, Valerie Clark, Anthea Boulton, Marian Tomlinson, Anne Horner, Wendy Worham, Penny Mawdsley: their contributions, creative or critical (or both) are recorded, often with perceptive comments.

If Surfing were commercially distributed in Britain it would make a most valuable contribution to a wider knowledge of Cupitt and the Sea of Faith Network. Unfortunately, Polebridge Press – which now publishes Cupitt – has no distributor here. But copies imported from California are obtainable from SoF’s Stephen Mitchell (address above).