Being Myself

Alison Webster reviewed Cupitt's The Religion of Being for the Summer 1998 SoF magazine

There is always feeling written into Don's books—if you know where to look. Unless I'm just projecting, of course, which is perfectly possible.

But in The Religion of Being the personal and the emotional are more explicit. Achingly so, I thought, in his "Inconclusion". The following excerpt, for instance, seems to me the key to many things: "I cannot claim to be any sort of expert on my own ideas. When they have been coming with most force they have caused me such violent elation and distress that I could not clearly and calmly understand them, nor bear to speak about them except for some years in arrears" (p. 155).

This inspires me to speak personally too. For, as Don says, we are as human beings highly situated. So it matters when we read things—what else is going on for us at the time. I loved The Religion of Being, but mainly because my reading of it was so timely.

I read it at a time of deciding that I am, after all, a religious person—and that the question now is how to perform that. How (to paraphrase Don) to let religion make me, and make something of it. Quite why I should reach this conclusion (if that's what it is) at this point in time I'm not sure. Something to do with a school friend's suicide, I'm sure, which precipitated in me a realisation that the loss of traditional Christianity was like the loss of a friend, but that I've hidden that distress very cleverly from myself and only realised it "some years in arrears". How many other SoFers would say the same?

So I was particularly interested in the parts of this book which are about the difference between religious and non-religious people. For instance, Don says (and I'm sure he is right), "...the really important difference at the end of the twentieth century is not between folk who think that there is a God out there and folk who think that there is not a God out there, but rather, between the kind of Sartrian for whom human beings are radically alone and who has no patience with any sort of religious attitude or feeling, and, on the other hand, people for whom there is something around us towards which a religious attitude is appropriate" (p. 138). Don goes on to say: "The religious person is a person who feels that none of us is, or can be, wholly autonomous, self-made and monarch of all he surveys. There is at least something there that one must defer to; something that supports us, something that we surf, something with which we are interwoven, something to be grateful to and for, something to be respected and even venerated. We are never wholly alone. We are always embedded in and related to something we need to acknowledge".(p. 137).

Don calls this book a "poem in praise of Being"—Being, that is, in the Heideggerian sense [see pg.10]. This is Don feeling his way back to religious expression and, linguistically and stylistically, it's Don at his best: stating, restating and changing his ideas; playing with words and replaying them. Philosophically, The Religion of Being explains how Don can embrace this vision of being religious without surrendering the ground he has won through his thought to date. Read the book to see exactly how, but as I understand it, the key idea is that the importance of Being is its function, not its content. This book is an exploration of what can and can't be said within Don's language game. One cannot ask, "is Being something or nothing" because that is not what it's for. It's there to facilitate celebration of contingency and flux and solarity—everything, in fact, that Don has come to hold dear.

Logically, it holds together. As he says, "I am warned by m'learned friend that some people will see the turn to Being as a retraction, but it's not" (p. 154). This is crucial for those of us seeking to redevelop some kind of religious expression—for whatever happens, this cannot be a "return" to what we left behind. We may want a religious future, but we cannot go back. Old styles of religious expression are the proverbial salt that has lost its taste, which cannot be restored even if we should wish it. The only way is forward, and The Religion of Being offers a place to start.

But though it is not a philosophical retraction, there are significant changes here. Just re-read the quote above from p.137: "...none of us is, or can be, wholly autonomous, self-made and monarch of all he surveys". How different this is from the Cupitt of the eighties who, if I remember correctly, very much praised autonomous, self-made people as part of his attack on institutional religion for keeping human beings infantile and dependent. I am glad for this change, for it makes Don's project so much more warm and human. Less "muscular", if I may.

Personally, I've been helped to discover over the last couple of years that I'm a much more pleasant person when in thrall to other human beings than I am when in thrall to systems of thought. So I welcome Don's "Inconclusion" which I interpret as a challenge to the reader to think about the ways in which we interact with this book, and indeed the whole body of his writing. I was amused to read the frustrations of one reviewer, who lamented the fact that Cupitt keeps changing his mind. It seems to me that this is a problem only if you think that the main point of reading is to assess a system of thought. But if The Religion of Being is any sort of poem then it seems to me that it's main point is expressive, rather than descriptive of a coherent authorial identity.

And I, for one, enjoy what The Religion of Being is expressive of. I am delighted that, after all this time, Don settles for "The less you believe, the more you will be in touch with your own feelings and able to live by the heart" (p. 62). And I love it when he says, "...we find that we are most profoundly moved by the most transient beauties: water, spray, rainbows, clouds, flying insects, birds, shadows, flowers, moments of love and friendship. Absolute certainties and eternal verities leave us cold...because in the religion of Being the deepest religious feeling is evoked by the most fleeting phenomena" (p.149). I think that's my religion at the moment, and I'm grateful to Don for so wonderfully expressing it.

Click button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence