But how will it feed the hungry?

Eilidh Whiteford wrote this review of Don Cupitt's second "being" book, The Revelation of Being. Eilidh is Chair of WSCF (World Student Christian Federation) Europe, and General Secretary Designate of the Ecumenical Youth Council in Europe.

In one of his lesser-known but rewarding stories, The Black Girl in Search of God (1932), George Bernard Shaw presents a potted and partial history of Western civilisation, charting the demise of Christianity and the advent of modernity. His musings are mediated through the perspective of a young African girl, converted by zealous and well-intentioned missionaries. The naive but pointed questions of the young protagonist regarding her new religion and the culture from which it has emanated provide the author with an opportunity to bring that culture's most basic and widely held assumptions about life, the universe and everything under close and critical scrutiny.

On the whole, however, the terrain where science, humanities and the arts meet and interact with theological discourses has remained largely unmapped by twentieth century writers. In recent decades Don Cupitt has been one of the few contemporary thinkers to attempt a rapprochement between "God talk" and the dominant intellectual currents of the day. In The Revelation of Being Cupitt resists, characteristically, any artificial division between the secular and the spiritual and draws attention to the human agency exercised in the construction of religious systems.

Fortunately for readers, Cupitt shares Shaw's readiness to exploit the aesthetic possibilities of hard-core theology. Cupitt explores the way religious discourse is formulated within language, devising a "trinity" of Being, Man and Language which attempts to meet the need he perceives for relevant and credible theological frameworks. This short book covers a lot of ground, displaying formidable erudition and intellectual agility. We have come to expect no less; but The Revelation of Being is also a work of art—it has qualities of narrative fluency, shape and style which cannot simply be attributed to the author's contagious enthusiasm and which are sorely lacking in too many philosophical treatises. It is quite impossible here to do much justice to most of the big questions Cupitt raises, but suffice it to say that by turns this slim volume is entertaining, provocative, uplifting, exasperating and inspiring.

Yet I have a few reservations. The Revelation of Being is a deeply personal book grounded in a particular time and place and in the spiritual experience of its author. And of course, I read it in an equally specific context. In this respect the comparison I drew with Shaw's story is by no means coincidental, in that I read The Revelation of Being while journeying in Africa. Maybe for this reason I was more acutely aware than I might otherwise have been of Cupitt's tendency to posit as universal a world view which is in fact highly particular. Of course, no-one can begin to "escape" the preconceptions which are in many ways the precondition of writing. But Cupitt uses a problematic "we" throughout the book which grounds as normative certain perspectives of cultural background, class, gender and education which are in fact located in truly exceptional circumstance. Often I felt very far removed from the "we" expressed in Cupitt's "revelation" and viewed his existential concerns with alien eyes.

At one point in The Black Girl in Search of God the pilgrim-heroine runs into a bloke with a beard who turns out to be the great scientist Pavlov. He tells her that really the universe is a huge conditioned reflex which if pushed in one place will react in another. He explains that by cutting open the cheeks of dogs he has established the fact that their mouths water when you ring the dinner bell. The black girl responds that she already knew this without having to cut open dogs' cheeks. Shaw's Pavlov thinks he seals his argument by reminding her, smugly, that although she might have known it, she could not prove it scientifically.

Somehow, while reading The Revelation of Being I found myself sharing in the exasperation of Shaw's black girl towards all these silly old men, the great architects of Western science and philosophy, some of them described by Cupitt, who have pondered profound questions, who have know so much, yet understood so little. There is at least a suggestion in Shaw's story that the black girl's systems of knowledge and sources of wisdom are just as useful and valid as those supplied by the pioneers of the Enlightenment. However, Shaw's main point seems to be that the black girl is ethically far superior to the great, wise and learned men she meets on her travels.

But don't mistake my exasperation as an appeal for some sort of "down to earth" or "common sense" approach to philosophy. Rather, I am suggesting a more thorough re-evaluation of the sources and methods used in the process of constructing the religious and philosophical mythologies which sustain our collective and individual lives. It will not do to topple patriarchal religious authorities—"old men in big hats" as Cupitt dubs them—only to replace them with old men in big and dusty libraries. Moreover, reading The Revelation of Being in a continent where, as one woman put it to me, "the most pressing philosophical question is how to fill our bellies", impressed on me again the need to assess and rework the ethical frameworks underpinning the social, economic and intellectual project we call modernity. "Edifying religious writing" like Cupitt's may help to initiate such a process, but perhaps needs also to attend to the flaw-lines in modernity's ideological framework as much as to the cracks in the crumbling edifice of traditional theological discourse.

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