Sofia #76 - Editorial by Dinah Livingstone

We have one life and it is this one. There is no life after death. Earth has one life and we share it in kinship with all living things. Life on Earth evolved from inanimate matter and is material and mortal.

This issue opens with an article by Don Cupitt drawing on his forthcoming book Impossible Loves, which he gave as a talk to the North London SoF group in January. In it he attempts a ‘thoroughgoing reinvention of religion’. In After God Cupitt brilliantly charted the death of God as a historical cultural process and he has now reached the position that there is no possibility whatever of bringing him back to life. He was very firm about this in answering questions after his talk. When one questioner suggested that the ‘wonders of modern physics’ offered a new opening into a totally mysterious, perhaps supernatural world, Cupitt categorically refused to allow a ‘sliver’ of the supernatural to slither back in.

This is a radical and brave position. In his talk Cupitt made us very aware that he was contemplating the purely human world we live in today ‘without stay or prop but my own weak mortality’ and his listeners could not fail to be moved. The quotation is from Keats’ Fall of Hyperion and it struck me that, like Keats in that poem (which is unfinished), Cupitt’s work has been a struggle to see and that he is a writer, an artist (in his most recent book The Way to Happiness he writes in ‘riffs’), who to some extent sees by saying. (How can I know what I think till I see what I say?) When he says [the good life] ‘achieves expressed selfhood only “retrospectively” and in passing,’ he is speaking from personal experience.

He describes the old European civilisation with its epic story resting on ‘an alliance of Greek metaphysical philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion’ as having broken down, being replaced by American consumerism. As an artist Cupitt does not write epics – indeed it is true that few poets do write epics today either. They are more likely to write lyrics that capture the feeling or insight of a moment, are ‘mini-epiphanies’.

This is not true of all poets, especially in Latin America, where for example Pablo Neruda’s Canto General or Ernesto Cardenal’s Cosmic Canticle are massively architectonic (Cardenal incorporates into his Canticle many poems he first published as short lyrics). The Caribbean writer Derek Walcott’s monumental Omeros is a nod to a great predecessor. The Suffolk-based Michael Hamburger’s book-length poem Late is a meditation both on his personal situation late in life and the social/political situation late in European civilisation, which, like Cupitt, he sees as ending. However, many poets today write mainly shorter poems. But among these, I find the more interesting ones seek a kind of coherence, so that each individual mini-epiphany – moment of ‘seeing more’– adds up, at least to a book or, more ambitiously, to a body of work with its own clear voice. For example, Mimi Khalvati’s book Entries on Light is a series of individual ‘entries’ or ‘moments’ but the whole book adds up to something more, a vision.

Listening to his talk in Muswell Hill I began to think of Cupitt in a comparable way. His earlier work, which describes the receding of the sea of faith, the historical trajectory leading to the death of God, is a grand narrative of a kind. Perhaps it could be described as an anti-epic.; he does not see this narrative as continuing without God in a purely human struggle for a ‘reign’ of justice. Religion today, he says, is concerned with conquering nihilism. Now his work is as an artist of spirituality, a philosopher and writer who has renounced the epic but continues to produce books, where the viewpoint may shift a bit (or the author grows a bit) each time, which add up to a pilgrim’s progress, a humanistic quest to make ‘a small but unique personal contribution to the overall value and beauty of the whole human life-world.’ Epic becomes lyric: With ‘ardent world love...we live expressively, by passing on and passing away all the time.’

One fascinating way in which Cupitt’s writing seems to be shifting is an increasing respect for the body with its powers, pains and passions. (The current article offers a striking insight into passion’s volatility, how terror can change to reverent awe and ‘rage again the dying of the light’ to a blissful, mystical drowning.) In his talk to the SoF Conference last summer (reprinted in sof 73), I noticed particularly his injunction: ‘Value every aspect of the body, this life, each person and this world as highly as is self-consistently possible.’ The thing I hated most about postmodernist philosophy which reduced everything to language was a discounting of the body, accompanied by a seeming indifference to physical suffering in the individual body, injustice in the social body , and to the Earth herself, which seen from the moon, is a heavenly body like Venus.

Cupitt’s interest remains focused on language because that is his artistic medium, but this increasing respect for the body has introduced a new tension or dialectic into his work and it will be interesting to see where that leads. I was thinking that one can focus on language (Cupitt, in this article speaks of ‘the world our language gives us’) without adopting a reductionist position. (If you say the world is nothing but language then this ignores the physical reality of Earth and its inhabitants). But it is possible to hold that ‘language goes all the way down’ in a non-reductionist way, i.e. as an aspect one is focusing on of a total reality. Similarly, it is possible to hold that ‘matter goes all the way down’ and everything, including all art and poetry, can be expressed in terms of brain activity. For example, the humanist writer Tom Rubens says this in the current issue of the Ethical Record. But he appears to be saying it in a non-reductionist way, because he has a great respect for poetry, indeed writes poetry himself and does not reduce it to nothing but brain activity. The brain activity is one aspect of the poetry; the prosody, for example, is another. Word made flesh and flesh made word continually combine in one reality.

Cupitt’s fresh emphasis on the body can be seen as what he described in Muswell Hill as an increasing ‘feminisation’ of his writing. Women are forced to think in more bodily terms than men, particularly when they become mothers. One woman will give birth to a healthy child and another will miscarry. Like pain and hunger, life and death are not ‘non-real’ or nothing but language, although, of course they are also steeped in language: ‘Rachel mourning for her children and will not be comforted...’. I wondered whether a male tendency towards idealism – devaluing embodiment – had any connection with the fact that when a women tells a man he is to be a father, he has only her word for it; she could be lying. Whereas the woman starts with physical signs and before long feels her unborn infant giving her a hefty kick in the guts.

Cupitt’s article dwells poignantly on time, chance and death, our mortal, physical state. He ends by saying the highest wisdom is to accept this transience and to say: ‘I don’t want to be an angel... I prefer to be a mortal whose loves are bittersweet.’ Like some of the greatest poems of the young Wordsworth, whom Cupitt admires, this is a ‘gain from loss’ scenario. Once again I remembered Abelard’s hymn about heaven:

Nec ineffabiles
cessabunt jubili
quo decantabimus
et nos et angeli.

There’ll be no ending
the untterable praises
that we and the angels
together shall sing.

The operative word is unutterable. Angels have no bodies and therefore cannot utter songs and poems like ours on Earth. Our visual artists create with a human hand and eye, using physical materials. Poetry is ‘the darling child of speech and lips’. Its stress derives from the human heartbeat and all the fellow rhythms of life on planet Earth. It is in time. Like all our loves.

In the next article Dominic Kirkham traces the progress, which he calls ‘a rather English preoccupation’ from Natural Theology to the Theology of Nature. He points out that natural theology was patriarchal and that ‘a feminine view of nature as the source of fertility, of the nurturing and care for life was something that had been heavily repressed from the outset of monotheism.’ In the Bible Astoreth, the ancient fertility goddess is called ‘shame’. He describes a radical change, a feminisation, in our understanding of nature from the 1970s and points to the ‘breathtaking views of planet Earth taken from the Apollo spacecraft’ (in 1969 – interestingly, the moon flight race was an apogee of male technological competitiveness). He recalls the publication of the Gaia theory of planetary self-regulation at around that time. ‘As a species we now understood ourselves to be one part of a vibrant and almost inexhaustibly wondrous complex web of life.’ We have moved from monotheism to ‘monozoism’.

But with our increasing understanding of the Earth comes our increasing power to destroy it and ourselves. Life, he says, has now become the new metaphor for God. What we must do now save is the Earth, so that it continues to be able to nurture earthly life, including ours.

However, the DNA of life is a double helix. Sexual reproduction has enormously enriched the wealth of life on Earth. I don’t think we should simply reverse the dualism that designated female as ‘shame’ and male as ‘rational, spiritual’ etc and tit-for-tat call men the ‘shame’. I remember the Women’s Free Arts Alliance in Regent’s Park in the 1970s, which was so anti-men that no male was allowed, even if he was only a few weeks old and his mother was breast-feeding him. Even at the time I thought that was pretty silly. Although of course where there is repression it is right to struggle against it, I think we should value both sexes and all human potential (inevitably potential for good or harm): both fertility, nurturing and technology, imagination and reason, body and mind. After all they occur in all kinds of combinations in actual human beings. We need to summon all our powers to act wisely, value and save the Earth and Earth’s humanity in the making.