God Secularises Himself

Five Extracts from Don’s Cupitt’s new book The Meaning of the West


The modern West, I am arguing, is the legacy of Christianity, and in particular of two central doctrines: the creation and preservation of the world by God, and the final, definitive incarnation of God in the man Jesus Christ. In these two doctrines we see the transfer from God to human beings of God’s own power to impose language upon the chaos of experience, and so create an ordered, law-governed world; and also the transfer from God to us humans of the power to give the world (and each other) value just by the way we love the world, pour ourselves out into it, and die. Thus the central Christian doctrines have functioned to liberate and empower human beings, and so to produce the secular modern Western world. In the nineteenth century this process was called ‘the building of the Kingdom of God upon Earth’, and it completes the historical task of religion. (p.7)


Even in the Bible itself this progressive withdrawal of God is already obvious. God is vividly and personally present, as an agent in the narrative, only in Genesis and Exodus. Thereafter he pulls back and hides himself behind his revelation in the Torah, in the prophetic oracles, and in occasional religious experiences. In the New Testament Jesus Christ is in the foreground, and God is heard only as a heavenly Voice speaking from offstage, as at the baptism and the transfiguration of Christ. Sometimes God rattles the scenery, as at Christ’s death; but it is very noticeable that in the New Testament as a whole, which is supposedly God’s final self- disclosure, God has almost totally disappeared and only Jesus Christ is seen. And Jesus is but a mortal man who dies. So the final revelation of God is simply the Death of God which sets us free, and the Christian atheist reading of Christianity, as developed in the Lutheran tradition by Hegel and others, is correct. The old God of power has become the new God of Love. Universal, non-objective, human love. (p.9)


As the return of the supernatural world into this world becomes complete, we understand how it is that Christianity doesn’t need any supernatural agency to bring about ‘the end of the world’ and thereby lead the Faith to its destiny; for on the contrary Christianity by its own inner logic precipitates itself beyond itself. Christianity is the religion that for several centuries now has been passing over into radical religious humanism. It is the religion that more than any other takes us beyond the age of religion into the secular and humanistic age that follows. Christianity’s central declaration is that God himself is a secular humanist, that is, one who chooses to be simply a man in the human world (Latin: saeculum). That’s enough for him, and indeed it is in a sense henceforth all there is for him. And this self-secularisation and self-emptying of God was bound to become the template for our own eventual secularisation of our culture and faith.

In the light of all this, how do we now understand St Paul’s classic statement about what Christ means to his readers? It runs:

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death –
even death on a cross.
Therefore God has highly exalted him...
(Philippians 2:4ff.)

As always with his doctrinal arias, the context in which Paul writes these words is ethical (see Philippians 2:3-4 and 2: 14ff). Like religious people the world over, the group at Philippi are being arrogant, disputatious and touchy, and it is necessary for the apostle to tell them to ‘come off it’, as the phrase goes. But he must go carefully; he must be tactful. So he sings his aria about how Jesus the Christ had come down off his high horse in the biggest way imaginable, and is now gloriously rewarded for it. The moral teaching here is straight out of the central tradition of Jesus’ own message – that is, it is part of Q (Matthew 23:12; Luke 14:11; 17:14b): ‘all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

So St Paul tries to talk the quarrelsome Philippians into being a little kinder to each other by singing to them a doctrinal aria about Jesus as a cosmic figure who has temporarily renounced his place in heaven, has been born a man, has lived among us and suffered an unjust death on the cross, and now has been exalted to universal lordship.

Why does Paul think that this christological romance will persuade his readers? At present our ideas about the evolution of Christian doctrine in the first two decades after Jesus’ death are still somewhat hazy. The best guess we can propose for now says that Jesus himself was an almost purely secular teacher of wisdom, whose teaching made a very deep impression upon his immediate circle. At first they could see his death only as a case of innocent suffering, nobly borne. But somehow the message and the new way of life must go on – which meant that, exactly as happened in the case of the Buddha, Jesus himself must somehow be seen as going on, and therefore as being a permanent, cosmic figure. Local theology begins to supply his new symbolic dress. He is a righteous man, he is a great prophet and martyr taken up into heaven like Elijah, he is the adopted son of God, he is the Messiah-designate who will return, he is the pre-existent heavenly Son of Man figure, he is God’s expressed Word. And so it goes on, the theology developing in exactly the way one would expect at that particular place and time. But at bottom all that it is about is the new ethic of mutual love and forbearance. A huge system of christological doctrine, a whole world-view and system of religious mediation develops over the next three or four centuries, and then lasts a thousand years. Gradually the wheel turns full circle, and in early modernity the process of demythologising begins. When it is complete we return into the simplest ethical problems of human life together, here and now. And that is the return of the original Jesus – that is, of his message. (pp.21-23)


My thesis, then, is that the Judaeo-Christian tradition has always been many-stranded, argumentative and somewhat at odds with itself. The great theological themes of God’s special purpose in creating humans, his self-revelation to them, his providential guidance of their collective history towards a final consummation, and, above all, his incarnation in Jesus Christ – all these themes together, critically examined and argued over, have made Christianity a uniquely self-secularising faith. God takes the initiative, moving towards humanity, giving himself to humanity, becoming human and dying into humanity.. In the end, as St Paul puts it, ‘all things are yours’. The entire supernatural order communicates itself to us, and passes away into the human world. God is a secular humanist, content to become just a mortal in the human world and to die. All the old ‘absolutes’ disappear, except for God’s shade, which is simply Love. (p.32)


If we are indeed currently moving over to a new kind of religious Grand Narrative such as I have described, then it is easy to see how the history of Christianity, its task and its ultimate fate, the accumulating ‘Indelible’ and ‘the West’ all fit into the story. The whole Grand Narrative is about the making of humanity; that is, about the emergence at last of fully emancipated and empowered human beings who can bear to look life in the face and say a great ‘Yes!’ to it. Christianity is the uniquely self-secularising religious tradition which, with its narratives about the One Creator-God, his incarnation in the man Jesus Christ, his redemptive death, and his gradual self-communication into humanity at large, slowly brings about the formation of the new type of human being. It does this by making a series of indelible impressions upon us. For example:

a. it imprints upon us a new Western kind of selfhood, highly conscious, self-dissatisfied and ready to change;

b. it imprints upon us a new ethic of love: not merely the mutual love of the strong and beautiful for each other, but the ethic of mutual love and forbearance, and compassion for the weak;

c. it teaches us to believe that we can build an orderly manageable world, in which science and technology are possible;

d. it teaches us to believe in progress: that is, that we can gradually make of ourselves better people in a better world;

e. it teaches us to believe that the full social emancipation of women and of every sort of slave and servant is going to happen;

f. it eventually convinces us that we can live creatively: that is, we can like artists re-imagine and remake ourselves and our world, and that creative joy in life can fully overcome our old fear of nihilism and death.

As Christianity fulfils its historical task by imprinting all this material upon us, it secularises itself into Western culture – which already increasingly belongs not just to Europe and ‘the English-speaking world’, but to all human beings everywhere. As this process continues, the old ecclesiastical type of Christianity becomes redundant and disappears, but culturally objectified Christianity goes on and will go on unstoppably until its task is done. Already it is much more fully and generously catholic than ‘Catholicism’ could ever have hoped to become. (pp.47-8)

The Meaning of the West by Don Cupitt is reviewed on p.23 by Rob Wheeler. Don’s next book Jesus and Philosophy is forthcoming from SCM Press in June 2009.

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