Dominic Kirkham reviews “Above Us Only Sky by Don Cupitt”

Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa USA, 2008) Pbk. 134 pages.£13.25. ISBN: 9781598150117

In a recent Diversity Survey at work I hesitated over which box to tick when it came to Religion. In the end, like 44% of my colleagues, I ticked the ‘None’ box. I was not particularly happy with this and, as with my colleagues, it does not imply a brazen atheism or hard faced materialism. Far from it. Rather it reflects the emergence of what Don Cupitt (henceforth DC) calls, in his latest book, a new kind of religious consciousness that has been quietly ‘easing itself in around the world’ over recent decades as, ‘the religion of ordinary life’: a secular, this-worldly, and radically-democratic affirmation of ordinary life.

The appearance of this new way of religious thinking is a theme that DC has been exploring over the last decade in a number of books. In this latest work he seeks to present ‘a systematic theology’ of ordinary life. Not that he is trying to persuade anyone of anything. On the contrary, his style is exploratory – ‘trying to show you what you already think, or are coming to think’ – which is fine with me, because, like so many citizens of the modern world, I am not fully sure anymore exactly what I am coming to think – though I am rather more sure about what I don’t believe!

In taking stock of where we are in this process – whereby an ‘ethic of human-fellow-feeling’ replaces the old ethic of Divine Law – DC begins by postulating 26 ‘slogans’ (with brief explanations) which encapsulate the new dispensation. Here key elements from previous works are recognisable: the contingency of Life, Solar Living and non-realism. There is much to reflect upon here that is well put and pithy, as in, ‘Life is now God to us’; I particularly liked, ‘The work of justice is to clear a space for love’, but would query – having experience of the largely hidden anxieties and frustrations of aging people – that, ‘There is no point at all in making any preparations for death.’

Having concisely delivered this teaching the following 27 chapters –each of essay length and autonomous – are ‘Backing and Backup’, covering everything philosophical, religious and cultural that has been happening over the last few thousand years! As always, DC is concise and stimulating, even on old topics. I liked his ‘ironic’ presentation of Plato as the man who gave us both, ‘the metaphysics that nourished and fattened up Christianity and the dialectical or questioning style of thinking that was eventually to break Christianity down.’

The ultimate purpose of all this is to persuade readers to ‘throw out the junk’ that clutters our minds from the past in order to start thinking clearly – a modern sort of Purgative Way. The genesis and role of critical thinking is a crucial element in how DC understands the uniqueness of the Western, and now post-Christian, bequest to the global culture of modernity. For DC there were two seminal ‘arenas’ which account for this: the law courts of classical antiquity – ‘one of the great nurseries of reason’ – and the confessional, ‘the religious believer’s scrupulous self-examination before God.’ However, I am with A.N.Whitehead on this is in ascribing a third and more pivotal role to the Medieval practice of scholastic disputation, and in particular the teaching of William of Occam. It was Nominalism which first rent the hitherto seamless web of belief and reality, which led to a desperate search for certainty down two very different routes: one by way of the religious fundamentalism of Protestantism’s sola scriptura and the other by way of empirical investigation of the scienza nuova.

The aftershocks of this seismic epistemic split are still reverberating around the world. On a personal level DC tells us (p..91) that, ‘the day this book is published, I shall finally and sadly terminate my own lifelong connection with organised religion.’

It was whilst reading DC that I came across a report of the recent Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in which the chairman lamented how, ‘The retreat of God from education has left a spiritual vacuum and the breakdown of any shared value system.’ One may wonder at the coherence of such a sentiment, still more at his belief that independent schools were uniquely placed, ‘to fight such a malaise.’ An address like this makes one realise both just how paralytic much religious thinking is and also how hard it is to let go of the spectral past. It is precisely in the ability to look beyond old fixations to the possibility of new, non-religious value systems in a positive way that DC excels. As he writes, ‘Christianity is now our Old Testament’, valuable though outdated and superseded by something far better, a religious humanism in which God has truly become man.

Just one small cavil! I wish Polebridge Press would get out of the habit of using unexplained Chinese ideograms as copy designs. The one in this volume, so a Chinese colleague tells me, means ‘Nothing’. Personally, I was disappointed with the opaque title and would have much preferred something that reflected more accurately the content of the book: such as The New Religion of Ordinary Life.

Dominic Kirkham is an interested follower of SoF and writes regularly for Renew (Catholics for a Changing Church).

This book is available from for £13.25.

Click printer button for printer-friendly version of this article
Registered charity number 1113177
© All Sea of Faith material is licenced under a Creative Commons Licence