New Directions in Philosophical Theology: Essays in Honour of Don Cupitt

Nigel Leaves, author of a two-volume study of Don Cupitt's work, reviews this festschrift edited by Gavin Hyman. Ashgate. 2004. 224 pages. £47.50. ISBN 0754650618

Don Cupitt was once described as ‘a retired Cambridge don, with many unmistakable characteristics of a retired Cambridge don, rooted in English philosophy and that pleasant way of life.’ My second book on the writings of Cupitt, Surfing on the Sea of Faith (forthcoming from Polebridge Press), attempts in part to dispel that portrayal. Unfortunately, this collection of essays edited by Gavin Hyman in honour of Don Cupitt reinforces that misleading description in four ways.

First, all the essays are written by British academics who were (or still are) at Cambridge University, most of them former students of Don Cupitt. Second, all the contributors (except for Linda Woodhead) actually oppose the direction that Don Cupitt has taken; indeed most of the writers clearly espouse theological realism. Third, this is an academic tome written in such dense prose (again Linda Woodhead is the exception) that it will be beyond the grasp of the general reader. Fourth, the price tag of £47.50 will condemn it to the restricted venue of University libraries.

This is quite contrary to the agenda set by Don Cupitt in his numerous books, articles and two TV series. Not only has his aim always been to cross the alleged gap between the Academy and the general public, but lately he has come to despair of the ability of theological professionals to understand the theology inherent in ordinary language. His purpose has been to explore non-realist readings of Christian doctrine and find new ways of religious be-ing. He has burst out of the Academy to join those who are struggling to find religious purpose and meaning in an increasingly conservative Church. He has joined forces with religious radicals in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere. He does not lecture from an ivory tower, but calls from a hill-top for all to hear. The Sea of Faith Networks across the globe are testament to his worldwide appeal.

This Festschrift for Don Cupitt would have been more appealing if it had included contributions from those who are on the radical edge of both the Academy and the Church, and for whom his message is ground-breaking – Lloyd Geering, John Shelby Spong, Robert Funk, David A. Hart, and Scott Cowdell. Such appreciative testimony would not only have balanced the record but would also have dispelled the myth that Cupitt’s primary audience is both British and Academia.

The fundamental problem with these essays (apart from their obscurity) is that nearly all their authors use Cupitt as a foil for their own affirmations of the existence of something/someone more ‘out there’ than Cupitt is prepared to admit. They all are thankful that Cupitt has outlined the difficulty of believing in God, but they refuse to accept that this might result in non-realism. Time and time again in these essays one reads such phrases as ‘this does not require non-realism’ or ‘Don and I differ theologically’ or ‘I do not follow him much of the way.’ The book should be subtitled, Believing in God and not quite agreeing with Don Cupitt. One senses a concerted reticence to admit (or at least to acknowledge) that Don might actually be right. The contributors have either espoused the theological outlook of the ‘early Cupitt’ of Christ and the Hiddenness of God (1971) and are thus locked into negative theology and the apophatic way, or are peddlers of ‘radical orthodoxy.’ One also has a sense that some are prudent holders of important academic and Church positions and so they are afraid to ‘come out.’

I really wanted to find something positive to say about these essays. Don Cupitt deserves to be honoured. In the end one is grateful for an excellent introduction which gives a good summary of the essays, a fine bibliography and a refreshingly comprehensible essay by Linda Woodhead on ‘theology and the trouble it’s in!’ For the rest buy yourself a good theological dictionary, enrol in a Master’s Course in philosophical theology, and you might at last benefit from the expenditure of your hard-earned cash.

Perhaps we in Sea of Faith will find this lamentably pedantic and one-sided anthology a compelling reason to honour Don by producing a more honest and user-friendly Festschrift. Surely someone ought to.

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