What's it all about?

Eileen Thompson looks at the joker card of the English language, in this review of Don Cupitt's The Meaning of It All, published in SOF March 2000.

How many times have I had tutors who said "Express it now in ordinary language!"? For Cupitt, philosophy and theology seem to offer no way ahead as avenues for understanding the universe and people. In his current trilogy he shares with us an excursion into the world of ordinary language as a source of meaning for the profound issues philosophy and theology used to be expected to offer.

In this second book of the series he examines the little word it and the many wonderful idioms associated with the word. Here is a word with no meaning of its own, yet with the power to act as a sort of joker. We share the excitement of the search and the fun of discovery.

Cupitt was surprised to discover how old the word it was, compared with life , the word of his previous search. He found, moreover, that the study of the it idioms of ordinary speech suggested a commentary on reality that no tome on philosophy or theology could offer. The excursion into ordinariness gained momentum with the it all idioms. Here language led into the cosmic realm. This was exciting for Cupitt because exploring ordinariness offered glimpses into a currency for contemporary thought.

Our pleasure in the journey may be tempered by the suspicion that Cupitt leads us to a predetermined destination rather than engages in a sincere search. Whatever his motivation, we still value his observation that ordinary people and everyday lives are the material of life and the data of judgment. This is particularly significant to Christians because of the centrality of incarnation and Jesus for their faith and for their concept of eternal life.

In what Cupitt calls the human life-world, beings communicate in language using it idioms associated with emotions, imagination and speculation as well as those to do with material/sensory experiences. It all thus become a door into the beyond, the other. It has an open-endedness to the unknown that appeals to beings who want to know and who lack words to express it all .

How's it going? It can't be helped. What on earth is it all about? Let's stand back from it all . When I recall idioms like these which I use frequently, and look at any one of them, I realise how much it stands for. It all cloaks worlds of meaning. I can appreciate Cupitt's search and his reflections. He draws our attention to accepted means of communication such as literature, dreams, science and psychology, but he finds the richest source of meaning in the language of ordinary people living ordinary lives with a variety of backgrounds, hopes and expectations.

Travelling with a joker may make for an entertaining excursion, but when that joker becomes the fool of court and challenges his audience with the profound issues of the world and humanity, the road becomes rough. The reward, however, is an open gate to the deep concerns of humanity that matter to us all whether we use God-language or not.

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