Religion after the West

In this talk to the North London SoF Group in January, reprinted in the March 2006 edition of the Sea of Faith magazine, Don Cupitt drew from his forthcoming book 'Impossible Loves'

Part 1

During the past decade or so I have become gradually more preoccupied with the idea of attempting a reinvention of religious thought as such. This is partly because it has become obvious that none of the major religious traditions can survive as it stands. They have all been totally demolished by philosophical and historical criticism (or would be, if they allowed it) and they cannot now be modernised by well-meaning liberals because the changes in philosophy since Kant and Hegel have been too great. No proposed revision of any major religious tradition is likely to be able to satisfy both the present adherents and critical philosophers. If, nevertheless, we still think religion important despite the intellectual breakdown of all the existing traditions of religious thought, then we have to consider attempting a new beginning. This will not be easy, because most people still associate religion with belief in God and life after death: i.e., with aspiration after a higher and more-real spiritual realm beyond the world of sense.

Today, we live in a purely human world, the world that our language gives us. It is all on one level, finite but unbounded, and it has no outside – and I am proposing to try to recreate religious thought for this new and only-human world! Inevitably, what I come up with is something very different from conventional ideas about ‘religion’. There are some points of continuity, but they are not immediately obvious. If in the end you reject my ideas, but still want to be serious about religion, then only one option is available to you, namely fundamentalism. Or, if you would prefer to discard religion altogether, today’s postmodern entertainment culture is now firmly established, and it is the popular choice.

The second reason why I have felt attracted to the project of a large-scale reinvention of religious thought is that in 1998/99 I found that precisely such a reinvention is already under way in ordinary language. I thought and I still think, even though I remain in a minority of one, that this discovery is very important. Plato made Philosophy a pursuit for Supermen, master human beings, and it remained so up to Nietzsche and beyond. In reaction I have talked hopefully about attempting to democratise philosophy, and now comes the exhilarating discovery that the thinking of ordinary people and the thinking of the leading philosophers are currently developing in close parallel with each other. This enabled me to say to my critics that my own thinking was not so wildly extreme and objectionable as they have invariably claimed. I said: ‘I am not trying to foist my own ideas upon you: I am trying to show you what you yourself are already beginning to think’.

So when I give a very brief sketch of my reinvention of religious thought so far as I have as yet been able to carry it, please do not forget my claim that this is what you already think, because much or even all of it is already written into the idioms of your own everyday speech. As for the content of the reinvention, I repeat that we must entirely forget the old type of traditional organised religion, which involved a special alliance with a particular culture-area and language, a vast cosmic myth of Fall and Redemption, and a distinction between Heaven and Earth. Instead, we take up religion as ‘spirituality’ a personal religious style. For each of us, our personal style of life needs to express an appropriate response to the human situation through which we can become ourselves, make our own lives ‘meaningful’ and make a small but unique personal contribution to the overall value and beauty of the whole human life-world. In this way I find my own salvation as I do something, however small, to assist the salvation of others.

This general shift from organised religion to spirituality is summed up in the formula,

‘From The World, the Soul, and God to Life and My Life’. Our world-view is postmodern and nihilistic: there is only the human life-world, a world made of language, a world without any absolute Beginning or End. In this transient scene each of us has a brief part to play ‘my life’ and each of us needs to find a lifestyle through which one can become oneself, and learn to do one’s own thing in one’s own way. By ardent world-love we can work out our own salvation, and at the same time make life more valuable for those who will follow us.

Today, the human life-world has, for many or most people, no objective ‘meaning’ or ‘value’, nor even reality, apart from what human beings themselves put into it. Thus religion today is concerned not with finding redemption from sin, but with conquering nihilism. The way of life that does the trick is called solar living. It is a synthesis of living and dying: we live expressively, by passing on and passing away all the time – committing ourselves to life so intensely that it is as if we conquer death by living a life that dies all the time.

Against this background a small book called The Way to Happiness was about how the practice of ‘dying to the self’ can help us to find great happiness in cosmic and selfless feeling. The present essay is about the part in our lives that may be played by various impossible loves, both love for non-existent objects and love for unattainable persons and ideals.

Part 2

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel introduced into Western thought the notion that the entire Western cultural tradition was coming to completion. He described a vast synthesis that united Plato’s ascent through a series of stages of knowledge and up to a total vision of the Good with the old Judeo-Christian vision of divine Providence orchestrating all human history towards a grand climax, the ultimate happy ending. Versions of this optimistic story about the end of the Western tradition were put forward by several subsequent thinkers, including Karl Marx. But in the later years of the century the mood darkened, and the End as consummation was replaced by the end as disintegration and termination. The received Enlightenment optimism about reason, progress and human perfectibility had overreached itself, and began to break down. Nietzsche announced the coming of nihilism, and Oswald Spengler prophesied The Decline of the West.

The history of the West during the twentieth century has largely confirmed these fears, as catastrophic wars and political upheavals rapidly ended the old European world-leadership which had lasted for nearly four centuries. Spiritually, the West had rested on an alliance of Greek metaphysical philosophy and Judeo-Christian religion; but by the end of the twentieth century Europe had disowned both. The old European civilisation was replaced, even in Europe, by the new – and very different – American consumerism, and America itself now paid no more than lip-service to what it had inherited from the old Europe. This is not surprising, for as the current rip-roaring development in East Asia shows, the new capitalist-consumerist culture is independent of the old West and does not need its values. It can and does flourish anywhere, if intelligently managed and led. It does not need philosophy, it does not need religion: all it really needs is technology and the rest is no more than decoration. As for the human spirit, whatever was that? Nobody can remember any longer: in consumer society an inclination to serious philosophical and religious thought is merely an indication of trouble with one’s serotonin levels, and is soon put right by appropriate medication.

Within the old Europe, we find it hard to avoid the feeling that we have nowhere left to go – except perhaps towards a ‘black’ and post-historical kind of art, our version of Dada and Surrealism; or towards Buddhism. This pessimism is only confirmed by the way our last great philosophers always seem to have ended up stuck inside their own systems of thought, leaving their followers with nowhere to go next. This is true of Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida. When you have fully absorbed their final messages – what next?

Is there any possibility of reconstructing or renewing the Western tradition? Nietzsche – still perhaps the greatest of the modern philosophers, and not yet eclipsed by his successors – foresaw the need for reconstruction, but is rather vague and uplifting when it comes to making concrete proposals. A new kind of human being will have the strength to create new gods, new myths, and new values. Heidegger does a little better, when he takes up another Nietzschean theme and suggests that Western thought must now return into its own origins, and confront again the question of Being, as it was confronted by the first Western philosophers. I have tried to develop this theme by talking of the way that the end of dogmatic metaphysics and the end of dogmatic religious belief have effectively stripped us naked, so that we are defenceless in the face of the contingency of existence, and have experienced in very intense form ‘the Return of the Great Questions’. I’m saying, in effect, that the end of dogmatic metaphysical philosophy, historical criticism of our great religious traditions, and our contemporary craze for technology and consumerism have between them already wiped out our inherited religious traditions. Almost nothing of any value is left. It is now too late for reconstruction, and too late for any salvage operations. We should let the dead bury their dead, and get on with the task of reinventing religion ex nihilo, from nothing, from scratch.

Why? And how, if, as I have suggested, postmodern consumer society has successfully eliminated any felt need for philosophical and religious foundations by regarding it as the expression of a ‘mood disorder’? In postmodern entertainment culture people live absorbed in contemplating the ‘mediascape’, the rich, complex imaginary world projected out to them by the mass media. The mediascape is like a vast soap opera, beginningless, endless, rambling in all directions, and filling the whole of cultural space. It is totalitarian: it is a box that hardly anybody has the strength to ‘think outside’. Like a black hole, it swallows everything. I have no answer to it except an obstinate conviction that there must be more to life than this. Even the people who are most hypnotised by the mediascape must surely know in their hearts that human beings can do better than this wretched opium dream.

I persist, therefore, in saying that after the end of the old West and of all the other major cultural traditions, we need to think about reconstructing the whole of humanity’s ideal culture. To begin with, we must go back into the original nakedness and emptiness, and move step-by-step. We need to establish a minimal notion of what the world is and what our place in it is, and we also need to show how human animals can learn to bear the knowledge of what they are and where they stand, and then be reconciled to their own lives.

We have to start, I say, with a minimal conception of the facts of life, and of what it is to be human in a human world. We have to learn how to live and die with a knowledge of the facts of life that other animals do not have to bear. In this sense, and in spite of everything, I still believe that philosophical and religious thinking has a certain logical priority. It alone provides the platform on which a sane and healthy ideal culture can be built. (If you disagree, then you will presumably hold that it is no longer possible to get any leverage against technology and the mediascape, and you should throw this article away at once.)

So we begin: we begin, I have suggested, with the simplest and clearest possible world-view. It recognises only two entities, life in general, and my life. Life is the general going on of events and of symbolic exchange in the human social world. My life is my own personal role in it all.

Against that background, we next define religion. Religion, I suggest, is the complex of ideas and practices by means of which we try to reconcile ourselves to, and make the best of, life in general and our own lives in particular. Religion is about coming to terms with life and learning how to live and how to die.

Why do we need to be reconciled to life? Because our life is subject to certain permanent limits, of which we (unlike animals) are highly aware, for our language teaches us about them. These limits are mutually implicated with each other, and are so deeply a part of our experience that we cannot really imagine life without them; but they cause us to fret a great deal, and we keep looking for ways round them. They are time, chance and death – or, in traditional language, temporality, contingency and finitude. Life is always subject to temporality, in such a way that nothing is ever done, or enjoyed, or achieved totally and simultaneously. We do or enjoy everything only in a chain of succeeding stages, a bit at a time. Life is a one-way journey, with (as everyone knows) no retakes and no return tickets. Life is always subject to contingency, and (despite what the insurance industry says) there is no guaranteed cover against the disasters that may strike any of us at any time. We have to try hard to take full control of our own lives, even as we know that we can never entirely succeed. Fortune wins. And life is always subject to finitude, in that it will never deliver to us the endless and unalloyed perfection we dream of, and it is always terminated by death.

We have just emerged from a cultural epoch that has lasted nearly 3000 years, since the beginning of the Iron Age. It was a period in which great religious belief-systems and philosophies, very widely diffused, acted to protect people from too naked a view of the contingency of human existence and the nothingness of death. But in recent years the old painted veil has crumbled away, bringing about a return of philosophy’s primal terrors. Many, many people now find that their personal happiness in life is ruined, permanently ruined by the nagging, inescapable, unanswerable terror of the great questions that prey upon their minds. That is why religion is so much needed: it helps to pilot us through the terrors, and helps us to find personal happiness and fulfilment in life in the face of those unanswerable Questions.

This is in short to say that whereas the older kind of religion was often about salvation from sin, the chief interest of modern religion is in learning how to live with nihilism. Not the ‘conquest’ of nihilism – a romantic cliché but the familiarisation of nihilism, and the acceptance of everything’s radical contingency.

At this point we should also briefly refer to the distinction between organised religion and spirituality. ‘Organised religion’ is large-scale, traditional and authoritative, in the manner of the world faiths with which we are familiar. A ‘spirituality’ is a religious style that someone has personally worked out for herself. Today, when the old world faiths are dying and many people are finding themselves suddenly stranded by the rapid decay of their own tradition, there is perforce a good deal of spirituality about. But it is very difficult indeed to face these great questions on one’s own, and very difficult to frame any kind of rational response to them for oneself. We still need conversations with others, to stabilise our vocabulary and to maintain our sanity. Which is to say that the religion of the future will need to have a social dimension.

We next need to spell out in a little more detail how religion may help us to come to terms with the great questions of life.

Many people, I know, will think it impossible. They’ll say that we humans are like a line of rather nervous beasts walking into an abattoir. Suddenly a heavy rubber curtain parts, and their nostrils twitch as they get an unmistakeable whiff of what is coming. They go into a desperate screaming panic, but it’s too late, for the bolt hits the back of the skull and it’s all over. The people I have in mind will tell you that the whole of our human life is compressed into that final stage of animal life, the second or two between the moment of realisation of what’s coming, and the end. That is the human condition, as it has often been described by Pascal, Nietzsche and others: to live all your life knowing what pigs and cattle realise only in the last few seconds of their lives. What possible remedy can there be for that?

My answer is threefold. First, we should not attempt to escape from the terrors of existence. Instead, we should by faith cast ourselves into existence in all its one-way temporality, its contingency, and its transience. We must both recognise clearly what our life is, and find the courage for the solar living that nevertheless says Yes to life, and steps boldly out over the abyss.

In the second place, we will and we do of course often find ourselves flooded by anxiety and terror: but it is a psychological fact that the passions are easily deflected, and easily revalued. Notoriously, we readily eroticise the things of which we are most afraid. Still more strikingly, religion has the power very cannily to allow overwhelming feelings of dread, anxiety and terror to overflow, decentring the self and freeing us from self-concern, and then the power also to revalue these same vast feelings and turn them into cosmic emotion, feelings of cosmic exaltation, awe, bliss and peace. In this way, a man who is dying is not obliged to go kicking and screaming into his own final extinction. He can if he chooses make of his own dying a blissful, mystical drowning in God, and so revalue his own extinction even as he slips into it.

I am saying, then, and in the third place, that a new and thoroughly post-Western reconstruction of culture will not dream of attempting to escape or transcend the facts of life. There is no transcendent or supernatural order. We are our own lives in all their temporality, contingency and finitude, and there is no supernatural or transcendent realm. We reject medieval religion’s painted screen, and we reject modern technology’s mediascape. Instead, we’ll try for a culture that is not built on illusions, but is truthful, honest and open all the way down.

What does a solar religious life look like? It involves an attempt to find one’s own voice – which means, to find the lifestyle through which one can best and most fully express oneself. Secondly, you must attempt to appropriate your own life and assume full responsibility for it. Thirdly, your personal living should be as affirmative and extravertive as you can make it: we should so act as to enhance and increase the overall value of life.

It is worth commenting here that all the greatest moral advances of the past seventy years have been of this type: feminism strove to raise the general social valuation of females; environmentalism strove to raise our valuation of our physical environment and of all the living things that populate it; anti-racism and the many movements descended from it strove to raise our valuation of racial groups other than our own; and finally, humanitarian ethics responds simply to human need, without regard to any calculation of relative merits.

If we are still able to be hopeful about human beings and the human future, it is largely on the basis of what these four great movements have already done to make the human world a better place today than it was in earlier periods. That is why, for an absolutely minimal basis for ethics in the future, I argue that we should learn to love life and to try to live as affirmatively as we can, acting always to raise rather than to lower the valuations of things that are already built into our common language.

That is about as far as I have yet been able to take my proposed reinvention of religious thought. It is an astonishingly slow, difficult and painful business, it has taken me many years, and that is all I have done. In the present essay I have been trying to understand a complication that has arisen: in recommending solar immediate commitment to life, I seem to be commending an energetic ethic of living intensely and energetically. But how is this compatible with the fact that we moderns spend so much of our time dreaming about and lamenting lives that we missed living, kinsfolk who are lost to us in death, opportunities that we missed, unattainable ideals and dead gods? We are much more aware than previous generations of all the roads that for one reason and another we did not take. Maybe I can learn to say Amen to the one contingent life that I have actually had; but I cannot help thinking that the one life I did live is surrounded by an indefinitely large number of other possible lives that might equally well have been mine, if I had only happened to take different turns at various points along the road. And why do I cling to various religious and human loves that were never very practicable, and by now are permanently lost to me?

By way of an answer I point out, what I think has never been observed before, namely that the real world out there, a God-made, law-governed, finished work, was never just given to us. It was an object of credal belief. In the Creeds, it is ‘heaven and earth’; or it is ‘all things visible and invisible’. When dogmatic religion died and God died, the real world out there died too, to be replaced by the humanly-constructed world, a shifting, slightly fuzzy, consensus product.

In this process, our life changed radically. In the old God-made world your life was single. It was created, predestined in the minutest detail, guarded, guided and eventually ended by God. People knew nothing of the modern idea that one should try to take full control of and responsibility for one’s own life. God and God only controlled your life, and knew it all: when it began, how it was to be lived, when it would end. In a world ruled by the will of God, there was simply no reason to think about unfulfilled possibilities and missed life-chances. God’s Will missed nothing. Your job was just to live the life God had pre-programmed you to live.

Today, in our relatively fuzzier man-made world, our human life looks quite different. The one life I have actually lived is surrounded by an indefinitely large number of other imaginary lives that I might well have lived, but happened not to. The gap between the contingently-actual and the surrounding contingently non-actual is only very narrow. So I am driven to conclude that all our lost, missed, ‘impossible’ loves are part of the truth about ourselves, and it is not surprising that we should brood over them in our effort to make sense of our own lives.

A further and very tantalising thought presents itself: I begin to suspect that in the new, emergent world-view the whole realm of ‘the Impossible’ corresponds approximately to what the Supernatural realm was in the old world-view. The actual life I, Don Cupitt, have lived is a single strand made up of a chain of contingencies, choices, misfortunes and at least two outstanding bits of good fortune. It is surrounded by the whole realm of the Impossible, all the things that might once have been for me, but which now with the passage of time have become lost and impossible. Contemplating all these impossible loves, I feel the old pang, I smile wryly: but they do help me with the one vital task of learning how to end content with what I have been, what I have had, and what I have done, be it little or much.

Part 3

The thoroughgoing reinvention of religion that I am proposing turns out to be, at its centre, very simple. (That is not surprising: I have been trying to make it as simple as I could.)

First we make a single broad ‘cosmological’ distinction, that between life in general and my life.

Secondly, we say that religion is a way of seeking to become reconciled to, and at ease with, life in general and one’s own life in particular.

Thirdly we ask, Why the need for reconciliation? and we reply that life is always subject to certain very general limits, as summed up in the formula: Time, Chance and Death. We fret against these limits and dream of being able to get around them, conquer them, or transcend them. But true religion finds salvation by choosing and affirming our life, with its limits, as a package deal.

Then fourthly, we describe the good life as ‘solar’. It

(a) achieves expressed selfhood only ‘retrospectively’ and in passing; and

(b) seeks to add fresh value to the common world.

And finally, the new religious life in our new world is a life of love. But the self and its world are now so changeable and transient that all our loves have a poignant, ‘impossible’ quality about them. The highest wisdom now is to accept this, and to say: ‘I don’t want to be an angel, and I don’t want a world that is pure sweetness. I prefer to be a mortal, whose loves are bittersweet.

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