Life, Life

Don Cupitt's book 'Life, Life' is reviewed by Paul Overend, editor of SoF magazine from 2002 to 2004.

Don Cupitt's latest work, Life, Life, develops ideas that have recently been presented in the trilogy of 'Everyday Speech' books: The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (SCM, 1999), The Meaning of It All in Everyday Speech, (SCM, 1999), and Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech (SCM, 2000). Without being a systematising of these works, without being a "philosophy of life", this latest book develops the insights in those earlier works and might therefore be considered to represent the maturing of Cupitt's later position: in fact, his attitude to life. The work is simple and profound: it is deceptively delightful, but also rather terrifying.

The work seems to be simple because Cupitt is developing the idea that the everyday idioms of human speech reflect contemporary attitudes to life. Everyday sayings reveal a changing history of assumptions, from blaming the gods to accepting a divine but hidden plan, and from ideas of secular progress to a new acceptance of life as it is. While the various idioms in the book reflect many differing outlooks on life, behind this work, suggests Cupitt, is an underlying principle, a genre of religious discourse, because the word life has become 'the dominant form of religious language' (p.2). The book explores the use of the word life in the religious genre of everyday language.

The book is also profound, because this approach to thinking appears to overthrow both of the traditions of Western reason: philosophy and theology, and their 'God-centred, Being-centred and Knowledge-centred visions of everything' (p.3). Christian theology uses a conceptual apparatus of Good and Evil, sin and redemption, and so on to reflect on human experience and the meaning of life and the purpose of human experience in relation to God. Philosophy uses metaphysics, ontology and epistemology, with their founding concepts of idea, essence, the noun and verb being, and so on to reflect on truth, existence, knowledge, and on human life in relation to these. Cupitt's work goes beyond that of philosophers and theologians such as Nietzsche and Heidegger, Hamilton and Altizer, who had announced the end of an era of Platonic metaphysics and the end of an era of God. Cupitt thus, apparently, overcomes the problems hitherto faced by the West, the problem of evil and the problem of truth. This is profound, indeed. It is delightful, but terrifying!

It is delightful, in so far as it tells us that we are the philosophers of life, because we use the language of life in everyday speech. We are given examples that please us, because we can recognise them and say, 'yes, I say that, I must be profound'. Moreover, we are told that those who seek to convince us that there is a meaning of life, such as the evangelical Alpha course proponents, actually know no more about it all that we do, because there's nothing more to know, there is no meaning to life (p.70). That, at least, means we don't need to consider a word they're saying, nor even be afraid of the manipulative persuasiveness that they use on vulnerable people who are attracted to simple certainties because they think that life is passing them by.

However, having said that there is no truth, no meaning, no metaphysics, Cupitt thinks that distinctions are still possible. Chapter two contrasts the people of the world with the people of life. The former, with their creation theories and cosmologies, pursue religious and scientific approaches to the empirical world. These theories, with biblical values of stewardship and later technological developments, have informed the way people of the world live; material and economic developments bringing about greater security and human comfort. 'For Life people, by contrast, knowledge and the physical world are relatively unimportant', says Cupitt (p.ll). Such disregard for physical wellbeing or the suffering of hungry people seems surprising, to say the least. Cupitt continues with his distinction: 'World people... are realists...Life people are non-realists...not interested intelligible, real, nonhuman "it" world' (p.ll). While exploring the use of the idiom of life in everyday speech, Cupitt appears to ignore the increasing recognition that human life does involve a relationship with the physical environment, in which the sustaining of :human life requires both stewardship and the development of technology that is sustainable. There can be no environmentalists among the life people then! From this first example, it would seem that the "people of Life" are merely the people of an unreflective, idiomatic use of language, for whom human and other life 'are relatively unimportant'. To what then are the interests of the planet and its people relative? Cupitt claims that the environment that sustains life is unimportant a relative to 'self-expression' (p.ll), to language and contingency, to a culture in which 'life is what we make of it, life is a buzz that we generate around ourselves, especially in the heart of the big city' (p 12).

In this world of contingency everything is chance and 'too much looking for a waste of time' (p.13), though what would constitute 'too much' we are not told. Rather, we are simply advised to 'try to moralize about it all as little as possible', though how little we are not told. Would it be too much to look for the meaning in the wall being built in Israel, or too much moralizing to question it, for example? While we are not told what is too much or too little, we are guided by Cupitt's principle that we really should not trouble ourselves with such matters. C'est la vie! Such is life! (as the everyday genre in question would remind us.) Rather, we must simply wait to see how it all 'pans out', Cupitt tells us (p.13). Then 'say "Yes" to life' (p.16); 'say "Yes" to the whole package' (p.17).

Although this metaphor from gold prospecting implies that as life pans out we might find some value in it we should not be misled. Cupitt is not suggesting that we should wait and see how a racist idea or a fascist ideology pans out in violence, apartheid and holocaust before we judge it to have less value than human liberty and racial equality. Such values cannot be made, because the idiom we are assuming to be the basis of value is also that of everyday speech. The Aryan idiom of National Socialist Germany is simply how it is, or at least speaking contingently, how it was at a particular time in a particular place, and surely that is just fine. 'That's life!' It seems that Cupitt therefore agrees with the everyday idiom: 'I'll take it as it comes'. 'We must take the rough with the smooth' (p.58).

Perhaps I'm exaggerating, because Cupitt also tells us he's a humanitarian (p.137). Quite how he can be, given what he's said, leaves me baffled. He attempts to draw a distinction between a humanitarian ethic and 'repressive and sadistic moralism', where such morality is based on normative regulations, with Kant's categorical imperative being named as one of Cupitt's targets. He therefore commends the phrase 'the milk of human "kindness", meaning akin-ness' (p.137) to speak of this humanitarian ethic. But if in this milky ethic there is no need for norms and restraint, then I suggest this is involving a higher view of human nature than I find to be true. Perhaps if the world was already equal and there were no terrorist groups like Al Quaeda within political life, then it might seem credible, but this is not true of the real world.

This everyday genre does not overcome a deterministic theology. It has merely translated it into a fatalism in which "life" is the impersonal force or flux which determines our destiny—and we are being commended to be happy about it. I, for one, refuse to either obey or accept this God! I am not happy with inequality, exploitation and suffering.

Cupitt has shown us the genre of discourse that is everyday speech, while demonstrating the failure of this unreflective genre to meet the real challenges of life. This religion of everyday speech is the religion of fatalism held by a politically disengaged generation. It would deny life any intrinsic value, would refuse the possibility of any distinction between right and wrong, and would deny us the values by which to choose life, in any real life situations. Such a religion is truly frightening: we need to question the attitudes and assumptions of everyday language, not just accept them. But that, of course, is where Socrates began.

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