An Apologia for my Thinking

Don Cupitt presented this precis of his thinking at a Derby University conference on 12 May 2002.

All my writing has been an attempt to explain myself, but I don't seem to have succeeded very well, because so many people continue to say, 'Yes, yes, but now could you please explain in words of one syllable what you've been trying to do for all these years?' So I must try again. Since the age of about fifteen I have known that I am a person unusually preoccupied with philosophical and religious questions, and especially the sort of questions that are called ‘existential’. What are we; what sort of sense can we make of our world and the way we are placed in it; and what is the best that we can hope and aim for? For about fifty years I have wanted to reach, and to state in a book, a view about these matters with which I could feel content. Usually, I have put the point by saying: I'd like to write a really truthful religious book.

I started with Christian faith, to which I became committed at the age of fifteen, and with two great systems of thought to which I was introduced at school—Platonism and Darwinism. Plato's philosophy, with which Christian theology has almost always been intertwined, is the greatest example of a 'top-down', or metaphysical, account of reality. The apparent world in which we live is explained by reference to a greater unseen and controlling 'spiritual' or 'intelligible' world above. Our dual nature—body and soul, the passions and reason—shows that a part of us properly belongs to that higher world. Our life is then a journey through time towards the last home in eternity, which we hope to enter through death.

That was impressive, but Darwinism was equally impressive, for it was and it still remains the most wonderful and potent demonstration of the sheer power of purely 'immanent' and gradualistic or 'naturalistic' explanation. Just time and chance and the natural process of things, over sufficient time, can give rise to astonishingly complex and self-maintaining objects such as the housefly on the wall, your brain and our language.

Although Darwinism is, as some people like to insist, 'only a scientific theory', its implications are formidable. If Darwin is right, there seems to be no need to postulate any special divine action in order to account for the first appearance, and the capacities, of human beings in the world. But Darwin obviously is right on the main issue. Has he not then made God redundant? Christian Platonism could, to some extent, cope with this by pointing out that it has always preferred to play down talk of a personal God and his intervention in the world, describing all such language as merely 'analogical' or symbolic.

But more seriously, as the Darwinian style of purely-immanent explanation spreads out from biology into other subjects, it seems more and more to make obsolete any talk of an unseen metaphysical order behind the visible world. We are not embodied souls: we are just talking animals. Philosophers usually don't like to admit that a mere scientific theory could be of such enormous intellectual importance; but the fact is that Darwinism has probably been the chief influence in bringing about the Death of God and the end of metaphysics. In my own case, the conflict in my thinking between Platonism and Darwinism was eventually resolved after thirty years, when first I put forward in 1980 the non-realist doctrine of God, and then in subsequent books extended non-realism through my philosophy generally.

The non-realist doctrine of God is fairly close to Kant's teaching. We should give up the old realistic idea of God as an infinite, all-powerful Person-out-there who controls all world-events, but we can keep the idea of God as 'the pearl of great price', a spiritual ideal and the focus of the religious life. To say that God is love is in effect to say simply that love is God; and although a purely ideal God doesn't push, he can still have considerable pulling-power. So in the Eighties I used to say that believing in God is by no means the same thing as thinking that God 'exists'. Talk about God doesn't give us any metaphysical information: it functions to guide the spiritual life.

So far, so good. I planned to keep the practical and religious use of the idea of God, whilst dispensing with the old metaphysical God out there who orders and unifies the world and knows everything as it really is. But in the following years my non-realism spread from God to become a general philosophical position, and everything began to shift and crumble. If there is no absolute Mind out there and no metaphysical order, then there are no objective and timeless essences or meanings for us to think in. There is no 'mentalese' or abstract language of pure thought. Human thinking becomes merely a way of talking to oneself in the current vernacular language. We can think only in the public language—which means that thinking is not something spiritual and basic but something secondary.

If there is no Mind out-there that makes, knows and unifies everything, then there is no Cosmos; no ready-made, orderly and intelligible world out there. There is no absolute vision of the world; there is only our world, the world-picture painted by our current theory. And because our language and our theory are not anchored, but are changing all the time, we are always stuck within our own merely-human angles upon our world. Because we can never think outside our own shifting language, we can never be sure of objective reality or truth. As Nietzsche says bluntly: 'There are no facts, only interpretations'.

In effect, every single subject studied in the modern polyversity is a field of discourse on which conflicting interpretations jostle against each other, and 'truth' can never be more than today's state of play. And that's as true of religion and ethics as it is of every other subject. Value is only current market value, and meaning is only current usage. In Nietzsche's day the worlds of music and the theatre were beginning to grasp, for the first time, the implications of the rule that 'Every performance is an interpretation'. Musicians and theatre directors may go on producing fresh interpretations of classical works till the end of history; but nobody will ever produce the final and definitive interpretation that makes any further reinterpretations unnecessary. Playing his works on an organ just like his will not by itself gives us the 'real' J.S. Bach, and the quest of the historical Jesus will not by itself lead us to the essence of Christianity. Interpretation or 'spin' goes all the way down, and we never get to a pure uninterpreted essence of the thing.

Thus as we explore its implications non-realism unpicks the world, leaving us with no absolute Origin, no last End and no objective reality, or value, or truth. It leaves us with only a beginningless, endless and outsideless flux of conflicting interpretations; and since the whole analysis applies to us too, we ourselves are also melted down into the general flux. Hence my recent phrase: 'Empty radical humanism'. There is nothing but our language, our world, and the meanings and truths and interpretations that we have generated. The world fully becomes the world, bright and conscious of itself, only in us and as our world. We are the only worldbuilders; but we are as empty as our world. In the end, there is only emptiness and brightness, as in a late-Monet painting of vegetation and water. Beautiful, but—I must admit—ultralight.

Along these lines I moved during the 1980s from a rather cautious and conservative non-realism about God, towards a form of 'nihilism'. But this wasn't as pessimistic and gloomy a progression as you may suppose. After all, I loved the analogous movement in painting, from realism to impressionism and on eventually to abstraction in Kandinsky and Mondrian. I had two main arguments for optimism: one was that what we made, we can remake. Old-fashioned conservative realists always like to say that things such as 'human nature' or 'God's revelation' are fixed and can't be changed by us; but I could reply that if we ourselves have evolved amongst ourselves our own pictures of everything, then anything and everything can be changed. What we made, we can remake.

Thus non-realism makes an optimistic Utopian outlook possible again. And secondly, when my 'active non-realism' reduces us also to being no more than transient bits of the general flux of things, it thereby helps us to feel completely at one with the world of which we are parts. A religious person no longer has to feel that she's exiled from her true home in another world. On the contrary, we can feel completely at home, now, this minute, and in this world. More generally, personal fulfillment and the point of our life are not to be sought either in a mythical Beginning or in a mythical End of all things, but simply here and now, and in the present moment. Thus my non-realism eventually led me to what I now call 'solar ethics', a spirituality of creative self- expression in the present moment.

So much for the way my philosophy was developing during the Eighties. In theology, I was in 1980 still close to the existentialist theologians - people like Bultmann and Tillich. For these thinkers, each Christian doctrine was to be understood in terms of the attitude to life that it prescribed. Thus to believe in God as our Creator was to understand that you should treat your own existence as a pure and gracious gift, and to believe in God's Providence was to believe that if we stick to our faith, we will in the end come through. When I live a risen life, Christ is risen—in me; and when Christ's teaching rules my life, he is ascended - in me. So I didn't actually change the doctrines very much at all. I just translated them into rules of life, as Wittgenstein had said one should do.

By the end of the Eighties, however, as I moved into all-out postmodernism, I was claiming the latitude to borrow religious symbols and themes and to reinterpret them in whatever way seemed to be necessary. The notion of an endless flux of conflicting interpretations after all applies as much to the Bible and the Christian tradition as to anything else, and I was feeling the need to take advantage of it, so that I could drastically reinterpret tradition. It was beginning to be clear that Christianity as we have received it is collapsing very rapidly, and we are moving into a revolutionary situation. After 1991, then, I gave up officiating in church—though to this day I remain a communicant—and I began to talk about Post-Christianity, or alternatively 'Kingdom theology'.

The main idea is that we now need to move beyond the ecclesiastical version of Christianity that we have known hitherto. Church-Christianity has a strong authority-structure. It is disciplinary; based on faith in supernatural doctrine, and very strongly oriented towards either life after death, or the Second Coming of Christ. In all these respects, it is now historically obsolete—the main reason being that since the death of communism and of the belief in progress, we have quickly lost all remaining forms of the idea that it is worth putting up with hard times now for the sake of a much better and greater world that is yet to come. Instead, we need what I call 'solar ethics', or kingdom religion. It is a way of committing oneself completely and unreservedly to life, through which we can find 'eternal' happiness (a happiness that never fails us, however bad things get to be) in the present moment. We can't trust doctrine and we can't trust promises about the future: religion must deliver now.

This last stage in my thinking was first sketched in 1994/5, and has been further elaborated in a flurry of books since 1996. There have been three or four new themes. In After God (1996) I sketched a philosophy of our religious history that aimed to show how in traditional society religious ideas functioned to stabilize the whole 'Symbolic Order'; that is, the whole world of language. A society oriented towards change, like ours, will not need the older kind of religion any more. In Mysticism after Modernity I argued that mysticism should be seen, not as a special way of knowing, but simply as an embryonic form of radical theology. It was a kind of writing that was already trying to resolve the traditional ecclesiastical theology down into 'solar' or 'kingdom' religion.

In particular, church religion sets up and insists on maintaining an unbridgeable gulf between Holy God and the sinful human being. The church's realistic view of God keeps believers in a state of permanent religious alienation and subjection, in order to terrify them into obedience and conformity. The mystical writer tries to deconstruct the gulf between God and the individual human being in order to overcome theological realism, unite the believer with God, and produce an effect of supreme happiness and liberation. It is of course because non-realist religion is such a wonderful release from realist religion that the church fears it, and has so often persecuted the mystics. For the church has always been a disciplinary organization that aims, not to fuse the divine and the human together, but to keep them apart for the sake of social control.

A third theme of recent years has been ontology, the theory of the nature of Being, or existence. In two books about 'Be-ing' I followed Heidegger in trying to overcome the traditional contrast between Eternal Being and temporal Becoming, saying that there is only temporal Be-ing. Be-ing is a continuous and gentle but very dense outpouring of pure contingency; a sort of white noise, which language differentiates and forms into the world of our experience. In my symbolism Be-ing is female, like 'the womb of time'. The fourth of these new themes arrived in the three little 'Everyday Speech' books of 1999/2000, in which I tried to show that ordinary language is already 'the best radical theologian'. Study of the new idioms that have become established in the common language during the past half-century or so shows the remarkable extent to which ordinary people have already demythologized God down into the contingent flux of life. The new Kingdom form of religion is already taking shape. The reason why church Christianity is nowadays in such rapid decline is therefore not that it is being replaced by no religion, but that it is today being elbowed aside by its own fulfillment!

It is to be noted that in the new globalized and communicative world, change is brought about not by the labours of individual geniuses, but by a shift in the general consensus of which we become aware only in retrospect. These recent ideas converge to show how it is that religion today is fast becoming more democratic, more identified with the way ordinary people experience their life, and more ready to accept and embrace everything's transience. Belief in life after death is dying out. Religion is becoming less and less a matter of seeking an anchorage in a point somewhere outside life, and more and more a matter of simply saying Yes to life.

In a final little trilogy I have tried to present my conclusions as Philosophy's Own Religion (2000), as a project for Reforming Christianity (2001), and as a synthesis of Eastern and Western thought in Emptiness and Brightness (2002). From now on I imagine that there will be some tidying-up operations, but the main thrust has been taken about as far as my abilities can take it.

And that is that. I am still sometimes asked to write an autobiography; but my writings have been my autobiography; in the sense that through them I have slowly worked my Way towards a personal religious outlook and philosophy of life with which I can feel content. It has often been very hard going, but I am not complaining about anything. In my view, not only should one say Yes to life, but one should also in the end be able to say Amen to one's own life. That I hope I can do; and I shall be even more pleased if my own testimony proves to be of use to some other people.

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