Christians Awake!

David Boulton contributed this comprehensive review of God and Reality for the Autumn 1997 magazine.

Who started it, then? Who invented the term "non-realism"? I always thought it was a former Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge named Don Cupitt. I believed that he coined the phrase "theological realism" in the seventies and pushed on to "non-realism" in the early eighties. I bet you thought so too. And we were all wrong.

Who says so? None other than Don Cupitt, tucking the disclaimer away in his contribution to this important but so far little-noticed book. He attributes the term "non-realism" to an American philosopher, Hilary Putnam. "From 1975 [Putnam] was finding very strong reasons for rejecting realism, but he didn't want to go back to realism's traditional alternative, idealism. So he used the term non-realism'", which Cupitt, by a kind of linguistic morphic resonance, arrived at independently in 1982. The rest, as they, say, is history.

Or is it mystery? After fifteen years of debate about non-realism, there is still a great deal of confusion about what it means, and whether it helps or hinders our understanding of religion as a human creation. Part of the confusion derives from the fact that the term is sometimes used to indicate a broad philosophy, and sometimes in a much more restricted theological sense to mean simply the denial of a real, objective God. Cupitt tells us he uses the term "to embrace a wide variety of recent philosophical movements": what American philosophers call neo- pragmatism and post-analytical philosophy, the British constructivism and the Europeans superstructuralism.

Fine. But most of us, who haven't managed to progress philosophically beyond the first couple of chapters of Sophie's World, use the term in its narrower theological sense. The confusing result is that you can be, like Cupitt (and David Hart and Stephen Mitchell) both philosophically and theologically non-realist, or (like Graham Shaw, discussed below: be patient) philosophically realist but theologically non-realist, or even (like Daphne Hampton) rhetorically non-realist but theologically realist. (Are you still with me?).

God and Reality claims to discuss specifically "Christian" non-realism, and in practice this turns out to be the Anglican variety. You would hardly guess from reading through from the Bishop of Monmouth's Foreword to George Pattison's essay on art at the end that there are Catholic, Quaker and other non-C of E variants of Christian non-realism, not to mention post-Christian, other-faith and humanist variants. Colin Crowder's Introduction, after a careless mis-quotation of the Sea of Faith Network's aim as "to explore and promote religious belief as a human creation", attributes the Network's "increasing visibility" to the work of "clergymen of the Church of England". So it is, in part, but how many times do we have to say it: we are not an Anglican special-interest group. It would be a pity if the result of such Establishment short-sightedness was that only Anglicans read these essays.

Cupitt himself begins with what I would recommend as his clearest and most reader-friendly explanation yet of the philosophical and theological chasm that divides old realists from new non-realists. Brief example: "Realists think we live in a ready-made world, a divinely-created world of reassuringly authoritative and unchanging meanings, truths and values, whereas non-realists think that we live in a humanly-evolved world, our world, a world in which all meanings, truths, and values depend on the current state of the (human) argument. Non-realism is like cosmic democracy: everything is seen as depending upon open debate, healthy institutions, and a human consensus refreshed by frequent interjections of new metaphors, new valuations, new angles. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance, the price of truth is endless openness to criticism and innovation. For the realist, what makes the Truth obviously true is its preservation unchanged; for the non-realist, what keeps truth true is the vividness with which it is re-imagined and re-expressed."

Cupitt's essay is followed by contributions from four more Anglican (and clerical) non-realists. Anthony Freeman argues that non-realism is wholly compatible with the life of the Church as we know it: the creeds, prayer, the eucharist, the funeral service. Non-realism widens the Church's boundaries (says the man who was kicked out for practising the openness he preaches). David Hart emphasises the utility of non-realism in a multi-faith society. Stephen Mitchell, in a particularly fine essay, reminds those who need reminding that philosophical non-realists do not say that there is no reality. They say that "reality, experience and language arise inseparably together". (This, it transpires, may be closer to what Wittgenstein and Derrida meant than some of the wilder claims sometimes made about reality and language).

But a different tack is taken by the next contributor, Graham Shaw—another Anglican priest, God bless them all, but one whose theological non-realism owes nothing to the philosophical non-realism of Cupitt, Hart and Mitchell. The 1960s "death of God" theologians Thomas Altizer and William Hamilton inspired his revisionist theology. He now declares himself "in philosophical sympathy with the approach of Iris Murdoch in Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals, not least in her vigorous repudiation of the structuralist inheritance". In sharp contrast to the Cupittians, he is "uneasy with an account of theology which simply equates God with human values", adding that "religion is not concerned simply to utter the platitudes of a certain ethical idealism".

But you would be wrong to conclude from this that Shaw is a closet realist, semi-realist or demi-semi-realist, hanging on to some sliver of an objective almighty. Neo-Platonist he may be, but he is clear that "the only reality of God lies in the use of the word by human beings. It does not refer to some supernatural or mysterious or special being; it is instead a word of the creative imagination by which we construct first in imagination and ultimately in reality a new and different world. The only significance of the word God' is its purely verbal function". By this word "we transcend the given and transform ourselves and the world".

The problem with belief in an objective, metaphysical kind of God, he argues, is that it frees humanity from ultimate responsibility for their world. It leaves them "radically dependent", happy to leave things in God's hands. "Leave it all to Jesus", as the sampler which once hung over my bed used to urge me. But this is a form of cowardice. "God" remains of value only to the extent that this little three-lettered word serves to galvanise us into selfless action to mend a broken world.

To those who ask "Who now needs this word (except as a means of playing safe and holding on to a living)?", Shaw replies that it retains a transforming and transcending power which mere "values", the humanist's substitute, lacks. Humanists might respond that that is fine for Graham Shaw and those who have a powerful need to position their non-realism within a familiar religious culture, but a vocabulary which inspires those who choose to remain in the arms of mother church is unlikely to have any potency for those who have freed themselves from her embrace. However that may be, Shaw's non-Cupittian version of non-realism represents a strand of thinking within our Network which demands further exposition and exploration.

After the assorted non-realists come the varied ripostes of seven realist critics. Peter Selby argues for a Reality (yes, with a big R) "behind" language. Jeff Astley asks non-realists to make up their minds whether they are confrontationists proclaiming the overthrow of realism or reconciliators claiming that non-realism doesn't make much difference because it is just another way of using the symbol of God. Good question. Denys Turner attacks Cupitt for misinterpreting or misunderstanding the medieval mystics as crypto-nonrealists. Fergus Kerr argues that Cupitt radically misunderstands or misinterprets Wittgenstein and Heidegger, and even Hilary Putnam, who first used the term non-realism. Wittgenstein, says Kerr, was not a non-realist, except perhaps in his view of mathematics. Putnam actually went so far as to contemplate "a rebirth of a full-bodied, red-blooded metaphysical realism if that were the way to get people to accept the objectivity of ethics".

Graham Ward continues the assault. Cupitt and his followers also misunderstand Derrida, building their entire philosophical edifice on a naive deconstructionism which, says Ward, the master himself actually repudiated. (Derrida is quoted as writing that in semantics, ethics and politics, "deconstruction" should never lead either to relativism or to any sort of indeterminism", and disclaiming the notion that he had ever "put such concepts as truth, reference and the stability of interpretive contexts radically into question").

Derrida is also quoted back at Cupitt by Daphne Hampton, shamefully the only woman and probably the only non-Christian contributor to this collection. (She describes herself as "a non-Christian realist"). Her blast from the master-deconstructionist has him saying: "I never cease to be surprised by critics who see my work as a declaration that there is nothing beyond language, that we are imprisoned in language... and other stupidities of that sort". Deconstruction "tries to show that the question of reference is much more complex and problematic than traditional theories supposed", but this "does not amount to saying that there is nothing beyond language". I look forward to Don's response to these suggestions that his kind of philosophical non-realism is built on the sands of a naive misunderstanding of the philosophers he most often cites as foundational.

But Hampton has another, and perhaps more serious, quarrel with Christian non-realists in the Sea of Faith. (Incidentally, she does tend to assume, mistakenly, that SoF is exclusively Christian). "The fact", she writes, that the symbols, the metaphors, the creeds of Christianity, are held by non-realists to be not actually true, does not help in the least". They are bad symbols, bad metaphors, bad myths and bad creeds: bad because they are saturated with vicious patriarchy. Christianity, she says, is indeed a human creation, made by men to validate their supremacy over women: "God the Father... Jesus Christ his only Son... born of the virgin... etc.". Christianity is the missionary position: men on top (my vulgarism, not Hampton's).

And she tears into David Hart (why can't she pick on someone her own size?) when he imagines a non-realist Christian service where "the congregation are invited to listen to the sacred history of Israel and the story of the Christ". Her incredulous response: "That is to say, in a sacred setting, which is potent, men and women are invited to hear about a (male) God and his sons... It sounds to me like ideological propaganda in favour of patriarchy!"

Nor is the luckless David, pitted against this most unlikely Goliath, rescued by the hope he has expressed that some day it may be possible to broaden liturgies "along feminist lines" and create "a non-sexist version of the Alternative Service Book". Tinkering won't do the trick, retorts Daphne. "May I ask," she asks, "are such liturgies and service books to continue to refer to the Father and the Son? Will baptism still be into this male Trinity? I am failing to see how the Band-Aid procedure will work. Will such ceremonies still be performed in churches with stained-glass windows depicting a man impaled on an executioner's gibbet, while women with covered heads gaze up at him? Not for me, thank you..."

From a wholly different perspective from theirs, Daphne Hampton poses the same question that secular humanists put to Christian non-realists: why use the language of a discredited story when we can make new and better stories, drawing on the language and imagery of our own times? Isn't there a case to answer here, Don, David, Stephen, Anthony, Graham?

I hope I have said enough to indicate that God and Reality is an indispensable read if we are to push our explorations into more challenging and perhaps more dangerous and divisive territory. The essays by our own Famous Five demonstrate that, even within the narrow confines of clerical Anglican non-realism, radically different philosophical approaches can and do find a place within the Sea of Faith Network; and the critical essays that follow offer challenges of a quite different order from those we have been used to from fundamentalists and liberal traditionalists. There's a lot of open sea waiting to be explored.

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