Review of Don Cupitt's The Meaning of the West

Rob Wheeler reviews The Meaning of the West by Don Cupitt
SCM Press (London 2008). Pbk. 171 pages. £18.99. ISBN: 9780334042020.

It has become quite fashionable to knock ‘the West’ nowadays. It is therefore gratifying to be offered an alternative, and more positive, interpretation of the development of western culture in Don Cupitt’s latest book, The Meaning of the West. At the outset Cupitt is quite clear about what he thinks the greatest invention of the West is. It is not any specific technology or methodology but rather something that underlies them all: critical thinking: ‘The West is at heart an independent, questioning cast of mind for which nothing is entrenched, nothing is sacred, and (conversely) everything is on the table, negotiable, open to reappraisal, revision and reform or reframing. In short the West is a uniquely vigorous culture based on a fully open market of ideas.’

What is surprising and challenging about Cupitt’s thesis is its rejection of received wisdom regarding the origin of rational thinking. He locates the seeds of the western critical thinking tradition not in classical Greek culture, that eventually percolates through into Christian culture, but within the practice of Christian spirituality itself: ‘The modern West is a huge objectification of the old Christian spirituality, transferring to the entire public and intellectual life of the culture the scrupulous spirit of critical examination and purging that the monk in his cell had originally directed against himself, and himself alone. This critical spirit owed something to Socrates, but much more to St Paul and, later, St Augustine. The idea that systematic critical examination is the only way to the Truth we seek began as a principle of Christian spirituality...’

The problem that Cupitt is up against with this thesis is that as a matter of brute historical fact the Church has generally behaved defensively and dogmatically, rarely critiquing its own ideas and suppressing dissent ruthlessly. Following current lines in radical biblical scholarship Cupitt takes the view that the teaching of Jesus was originally largely secular and utopian (there are few theological presuppositions in his sayings in the Synoptic Gospels) and that in essence the message of Jesus has flowered, over time, into modern secular humanism. Cupitt relies on the idea that the teaching of Jesus contains a kind of inner logic that unfolds into something quite different through the historical process. This leads Cupitt to conclude that in many ways the modern, western state is more ‘Christian’ than the Church ever has been because it more successfully embodies the values and beliefs of Jesus. These values and beliefs include the unique value of the individual, mutual love and forbearance, care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, a high estimation of human creativity, belief in the uniformity of nature and a belief in social and moral progress.

The feature of this book that troubles and puzzles me most is Cupitt’s claim that he is a nihilist – a claim that he has made in several other of his recent books too. Not only that, but he appears to run nihilism into relativism and pragmatism and other, on the face of it, incompatible philosophical positions. The common meaning of nihilism is a belief that there is nothing of value in the world; that all value distinctions are meaningless. However, Cupitt seems to be quite happy making value judgements and truth claims throughout the book – not least implying that critical thinking itself is both good and possible.

Adopting the ‘Principle of Charity’ (an important critical thinking method) I have come to the conclusion that this claim to be a nihilist is just a rhetorical flourish or piece of hyperbole. What Cupitt is really wanting to do is vigorously reject Platonism – the belief that there is a preordained, rational structure out there in the world. I wish Cupitt would give up this eccentric use of terminology as I do not think it in any way promotes understanding of what he is trying to communicate. Where I find myself unable to accept Cupitt’s central thesis is his failure to distinguish between rational thought as such and critical thinking, which is a specific type of rational thought. Of course the monk in his cell uses reason to judge his conduct against the rule of his community. Likewise the theologian uses reason to support his apologia for the Faith. However, neither are engaged in a fundamental examination of the presuppositions of the belief system they have received. Neither can ‘think outside the box’.

Karl Popper in his 1958 article ‘The Beginnings of Rationalism’ points out that while religions make an effort to pass on a pure and uncorrupted version of the teaching, labelling and rejecting those who change the ‘truth’ as heretics, the pre-socratic Greeks invented the new tradition of critical rationalism. In this tradition Anaximander criticises his master Thales and there is no quarrel or schism as a result. So the essence of critical thinking lies in looking for, and eradicating, error in the received belief system but while staying within the convivial community of enquiry. The way of Christianity, and all religions, has been the attempt to pass on a pure version of the doctrine, using reason to justify but never critique and punishing those who deviate from the party line. So it is the Greeks we have to thank after all!

Rob Wheeler is SOF webmaster.

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