The Way to Happiness (Book Review)

Dominic Kirkham reviews the latest book by Don Cupitt. Polebridge Press. 2005. 85pages. £10. ISBN 0-944344-53-4.

Happiness is everywhere – or at least Happiness Studies concerned with its absence. From the exhibition at the Baltic Exchange (‘Every Minute You are Angry you Lose Sixty Seconds of Happiness’) to brain science (which suggests it could all be just a neurological ‘tic’) to ‘Mindfulness’ techniques – the new craze sweeping America aimed at banishing the stresses of daily life. The ‘happiness agenda’ is seeking to find out what’s going on.

Don Cupitt weighs in with this crisp little book of seventy-seven pages, written with all his customary verve (but printed in very small type). I enjoyed many of his ‘riffs’, as the non-schematic sections into which the book is divided are called: for example, his discussion of the power of language to shape both our sense of self and cultural world; of the revaluation of secular life through which we have come to see that the world is ‘outsideless’; of the difference between allocentric love (focused possessively on an other) and the agapeistic or boundless love of life which just is God. These themes, and others, echo previous writings, particularly Solar Ethics, but what exactly they have to do with happiness I am not quite sure.

Perhaps it was because of this that I must confess to a certain disappointment with the book. Or perhaps it was because I was expecting something different. The title and cover to the book , emblazoned as it is with a large Chinese ideogram (which I assume to be a Taoist symbol – that also reappears between the ‘riffs’) gave a hint of oriental enlightenment that never materialised. Perhaps I was expecting something on the lines of the Dalai Lama’s The Art of Happiness, with its sage advice for daily living. But this was not the book.

Instead, we have what aspires to be the spiritual equivalent of ‘A Fanfare for the Common Man’. Don has recently discovered the significance of ‘ordinariness’ – though by a very tortuous route – and is now ‘looking for a theory of religion that might be personally helpful to modern Westerners who are temperamentally highly religious, and who want there to be religion, but who know that virtually all received religious ideas, doctrines, and institutions are obsolete.’ Phew! Sounds serious, and it is. Where traditional religion once offered the promise of eternal happiness, we are invited to see religion as the symbolic language with which we ‘can voice our joy in and love for the world, life and each other’. True religion is now ‘cosmic emotion’; meta-spirituality just the ticket to offset the whirl of hyper-materialism.

There is no lack of ambition here. Don wishes to write ‘the first really truthful religious book’, which recognises that what the ‘Abrahamic’ traditions call the Kingdom of God on earth – the coming together of the sacred and profane at the end of history, the end of religion – is, we are told, now happening in our secularised culture. Though such a book would mark the end of religion as a distinct institution, and as such be ‘the last religious book’, this one is a continuation of previous work, such as The New Religion of Life, which explored how popular idioms revealed ‘life’ had replaced ‘God’ as the new religious object of embracive meaning. Ordinary language has become radical theology, and this book is interested in making sense of the spiritual consequences of that ‘confusion’, or flowing together, of the sacred and profane; ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures have now given way to the pervasive popular culture of ordinariness.

Yet this is not an ‘ordinary’ book. And despite scepticism as to the eternal truths and values beloved of philosophers, it is also a very ideological book. A quick glance at the notes reveals that all the usual pundits are here, from Schopenhauer to Wittgenstein: not notably ‘ordinary’ guides to anything, least of all happiness. Perhaps because of this, it misses one of the distinguishing features of contemporary religion, among both fundamentalists and Straussian neo-conservatives, which is its anti-intellectualism. Their willingness to adopt traditional beliefs is simply because they are simpler and socially cohesive. Their criticism of popular culture is that it is self-indulgent and egoistical, in which the pursuit of happiness is a euphemism for greed. This was also the conclusion of Sayyid Qutb, founding father of Al Quaida, whose preferred route to happiness is by way of a suicide bomb. But then, who said there’s only one way to happiness?