Esther D. Reed, BA, PhD, is Lecturer in Theology at the University of Exeter. This article first appeared in the October 1994 volume of 'Modern Believing' and is reprinted by permission.
What does Don Cupitt's anti-realism offer to the spiritual life, especially that of women? You might try to answer that question in two ways. One way would be to examine the reasons why his anti-realist approach to the theological task is potentially attractive to feminists. You might look at the fact that as long ago as 1972 Cupitt argued that Christianity had been weighed in the scales and found wanting: 'Has Christianity reinforced the subjection of women?' he asked. 'Yes, Yes and Yes, again'.
More recently, his assertions that only religion without alienation, for women as well as men will survive into the next millennium, are paralleled by feminist calls for a spirituality independent of transcendent monotheism.
Indeed, if Christian 'realism' is a referential, illusionist narrative about divine and ecclesial paternity, then there are few if any reasons why women have anything to say in favour of it. If realism means, 'an innocent, or maybe not so innocent, confidence in the objective validity and absoluteness of your own particular style of theorising', then it is in deep trouble with women. You might conclude that the injustices done to women rank not least among the many causes that make the rebel Cupitt rail, like a latter-day Daniel, against Christian tradition:
MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and PersiansDaniel 5: 24-27
If the subordination of women is sealed with divine sanction, then its truth is not ultimate but ended.
Another way of answering the question would be to look at what women have actually said and done that has resonance with Cupitt's approach. There are women who in their writing have, in a sense, already traversed his thoughts for themselves, and who recognise from their own experience of Christianity his sketch of Yahweh/Jehovah, 'super-male Ego'.
For Cupitt, sexism is one of the primary reasons why he believes that more people might be expected to move away from a traditionally Christian spiritual life, and welcome the end of the church, as it has been known.
For many women also, sexism is one of the primary reasons why they are ceasing to link their secret, spiritual lives to a doctrine of God encoded in a set of patriarchal directives. Rosemary Radford Ruether wrote in 1990: 'Feminism adds to the discrediting of Christianity (which has been in progress since the Enlightenment) by rejecting its ethical as well as its truth claims.
Christianity, as a mesh of prohibitions, indoctrination into abject ways of life, addiction to old values of degradation and otherworldliness, belongs an old regime that has reached the limits of its truth. Karen Armstrong, in her recent account of the history of women in the priesthood, condemns 'a long tradition of Christian misogyny which has constituted one of the major failings of the Churches over the centuries.'(6) It was as if, with the eyes of a prophet, Don Cupitt saw this at a relatively early stage. He saw grain upon grain of injustice, subordination, oppression, one by one, until one day the heap that tipped the theological balance against the Christianity, that had allowed the triumph of patriarchy, had to be denounced.
If, for example, you were to consider the following list of assumptions that have been stirred by contemporary female writers when they have heard the word God, you might well declare with Cupitt that when women start asking awkward questions, then the divine order comes apart.
Always the Same .
The Most Unholy Trinity: Rape, Genocide, and War.
Patriarchal structures of family and church.
The turning of love into an identification with the ideal Father.
[O]ld white man ... in the white folks white bible.
This chorus of women's voices agrees with Don Cupitt when he asserts that the Christianity that taught male primacy is ceasing. It is a simultaneous utterance of negative feelings in the breast and of lived experiences of the expression God' that have meshed with their own lives. In 1972, Don Cupitt wrote: 'Once stated, the feminist case is irresistible' and, despite his own use of gender neutral language at the time, women welcomed his resolute statement, and continue to find him an ally. Like Hamm in Samuel Beckett's Endgame, he declared, 'It's time it ended'. The Golden Age of male tradition had failed to sustain the fundamental indecency parcelled out within the Christian church.
I have in mind, of course, the title of Don Cupitt's 1980 book about a spirituality of radical freedom and the human demand for autonomy. It was a book about the distance between religious language and the self-consciousness that claims the freedom of action to be the person s/he wants to be by internalising values. For radical feminism also, one starting point is the awareness that traditional forms of discourse have broken down. Mary Daly's new language of transcendence, Alice Walker's immanental conceptions of deity, Rita Nakashima Brock's blending of religious traditions when speaking about the sacred, indicate as much. There is an affinity between anticipated explosions of creativity by women who, in Daly's words, have traversed the rubicon of decision to become wicked by spinning and creating their own inspiration, and Cupitt's invitation to 'make believe' by reworking old, religious themes. Don Cupitt and Mary Daly, each in their own way, sanction the finding of one's own way; becoming a curious traveller in the 'flux of experience (or 'language formed events')', where there is no dogmatic truth or finality, only transience and a letting be. Similarly, there is a growing radical feminist consensus that spirituality is to be exalted above theological doctrine, and that God is to be made a unifying symbol that expresses all that spirituality requires of us. In memorable quotation Don Cupitt wrote: 'God has to become objectively thinner and thinner in order to allow subjective religiousness to expand'. The notion of God personifies religious values and is not specifiable. It compares closely with Mary Daly's use of the word Be-ing to refer to ultimate reality as an intransitive Verb. Both Cupitt and Daly speak of a metaphysical void in which the quest for meaning is outdated, except as it refers to the celebration of absence and the turning of absence into mystery. For Daly as well as Cupitt God has become a question without object. God occupies no transcendency and humans fall into heavens of their own making.
Not all women, however, join in this chorus, and for widely variant reasons. Not all are as iconoclastic as Cupitt, or indeed as full of biophilic energy as Mary Daly. Before speaking personally, I wish to look at the work of one woman who is already too familiar with experiences of emptiness and absence as regards the divine to voice affinity with his call for beliefless religion or to journey freely into new galaxies of spiritual momentum with Daly. Like Cupitt, Luce Irigaray laments the lack of affirmative values belonging to women. Unlike Cupitt, she believes that the divinity of women has been hidden. It must be rediscovered and redefined in order to enter further into womanhood. Cupitt teaches the art of losing; of stepping into emptiness and unknowing: 'We can and we must act in the Void, and I say more: I say that action in the Void is purer, cleaner and more beautifully gratuitous'. Happy is the one who lets go of desire for meaning, coherence, system, creed, tradition, truth and eternity. For Luce Irigaray, a Void that is empty, with no goal or direction is inadequate for women. She perceives a deep-rooted need amongst women for symbols of the divine; a power that cannot be imitated by mortals and which nourishes female identity and community: 'If we are to escape slavery it is not enough to destroy the master. Only the divine offers us freedom - enjoins it upon us. Only God constitutes a rallying point for us that can let us be free - nothing else'. For Irigaray, women must now appropriate the same psychological processes as begot the male God, and fashion for themselves a God that is the fulfilment of their gender. With Cupitt, she fights against any falling back upon phallocratic and patriarchal monopoly of values. However, she does not want a vision for women that is empty, with no goal or direction.
Irigaray's is a functional statement of reason. Divinity is the guarantor of human subjectivity: 'divinity is what we need to become free, autonomous, sovereign'. The Christian has no god in the feminine gender, no female trinity: mother, daughter, spirit and has, therefore, not provided fulfilment and a path of hope for women. As long as woman lacks a divine made in her image she cannot establish her subjectivity or achieve a goal of her own: 'It is essential that we be God for ourselves so that we can be divine for the other, not idols, fetishes'. Only so will it be possible to establish as concrete qualities of good those attributes belonging to women, and to rediscover the love of God as a haven for women. As for Feuerbach, the idea of God for Irigaray is mediated in the imagination. It is the imagination that connects abstract and concrete; female subjectivity has cause in and of itself to create spiritual matter. Feuerbach wrote: 'The ego, then, attains to consciousness of the world through consciousness of the thou. Thus man is the God of man'. For Irigaray also, imagination is the middle term between man and God. Absolute 'I' conceives of absolute God such that God is the absolute self; psychological truth lies at the basis of all theogony.
As distinct from Cupitt, Irigaray holds onto the importance of saying something about the necessity of knowledge of God. There is an element of 'ought' in her work; a functional decision to privilege knowledge of God for the sake of the preservation of the integrity of women. Hers is an embracing of God for the sake of women, not for the sake of God. Like these lines from George Eliot's sonnet, Irigaray's learning of womanhood is through the limitations on the self imposed by recognition of the female divine:
Widening its life with separate life discerned, A Like unlike, a Self that self restrains.
Love of the Other, including for Irigaray, the Other of transcendence, is not a matter of taste. The issues at stake are too serious for reduction to 'the preciosity of a fetish', fantasy or dream. In her epoch making book, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, her concluding words stake out certain limits of the antirealist revolt for women: 'Scent or premonition between myself and the other, this memory of the flesh as the place of approach means ethical fidelity to incarnation. To destroy it is to risk the suppression of alterity, both the God's and the other's. Thereby dissolving any possibility of access to transcendence'. The ethical imperative, and also the human need for the retention of wonder in the soul, requires a contemplation of God by women, and for the sake of women, who are renouncing their inferior condition and choosing to have a better life.
There is perhaps, truth in the old adage that there is nothing harder to master than the art of losing. After all, a cry in the void echoes eternally. However, the question remains as to whether or not Cupitt's way of losing, his anti-realist approach to the spiritual life, is the best option available for women. Luce Irigaray, as we have seen, gives insight into some possible perils. And, if I might speak personally, I have to say that his work does not satisfy my spiritual needs, it leaves me with a spiritual hunger. This autobiographical response is not intended as a defensive plug for what Cupitt terms 'old style realist systematic theology', although I still cling to personal conceptions of God, try to look through words into meanings, and refuse to drop confessions of the reality of God because that would be to forfeit the faith. It is intended, rather, as a fitting response to Don Cupitt's own honesty that has always demanded the taking back of horizons, and the removing of covers that had been masks for truth.
The clearest illustration is perhaps found in the words of Simone Weil when she wrote: 'In what concerns divine things, belief is not fitting. Only certainty will do. Anything less than certainty is unworthy of God'. Intellectual adherence to belief systems is stifling and inappropriate to the spiritual life. It fills the mind with dry, rationalistic belief systems and agreed testing procedures, and is inadequate for both women and men. Cupitt does not seem to disagree. But Weil does not stop here. For her, the spiritual life is both more and less than either belief systems or belieflessness. It is nothing more than regarding the absence of God from a certain distance, with attention, respect and love, and nothing less than unconditional abandonment to God. And here, in her love of God even in the absence, lies a fundamental contrast with Cupitt's anti-realism. Weil is more like Electra in her love for her brother: 'She preferred the absence of Orestes to the presence of anyone else'. The soul loves in absence and emptiness. Faith adheres to God in the void. As for Electra, the individual knows only that the love that she owes to God requires her to watch and wait. She knows only that in his absence she is spiritually hungry. The temptation not to love is the temptation to cease to exist spiritually. Simone Weil expressed it beautifully when she wrote: 'When we are eating bread, and even when we have eaten it, we know that it is real'. When someone has eaten, it remains possible to raise doubts about the reality of the bread but only as a form of intellectual exercise. The real danger is not in doubting that there is any bread, but in persuading oneself that one is not hungry. For Weil, and perhaps for many other women, to have known in her spiritual life that God is worthy of love, and then to have denied that love, would amount to criminal treason.
Thus, today, there are many who blush for the God that 'realism' offers to women. There are also many who read Don Cupitt's work and think that if the spiritual integrity of a writer is to be found in the opening up of the human to new religious possibilities, then there is something extraordinary and prophetic about this man. However, some women still incline towards his form of antirealism only when looking for a theological geometry of balance; a kind of equilibrium between reality and non-reality, presence and absence, apophasis and cataphasis, in an understanding of God. This is not how Cupitt himself concludes. His is not a geometry that balances but a mathematics that cancels itself out: 'frictionless expressive purity' that insists on living without that dialectic excuse of reason. However, for those women who cannot live without the food afforded to them in their experience of the love of God, Don Cupitt's approach cannot satisfy their spiritual desire.