Re-Review (and Review): The Sea of Faith by Don Cupitt

Jeff Astley is Director of the North of England Institute for Christian Education. This review appeared in the October 1994 volume of 'Modern Believing'

Don Cupitt's Sea of Faith, first published by the BBC in association with the eponymous TV series, is now ten years old and has recently been republished by SCM Press with a new preface, 'some revisions' (which appear to be largely confined to recasting in more inclusive language) and the excision of all the illustrations.

The book and the programmes have been influential, at least to the extent that they gave rise to a growing 'Sea of Faith Network' of radical religious non-realists (which also embraces many less radical liberal theists). In his Preface to the second edition, Cupitt locates the book in the early eighties as a supplement to his non-realist trilogy on Christian humanism: Taking Leave of God, The World to Come and Only Human. It lacks the more explicit postmodernism of later works such as Life Lines (1986), The Long-Legged Fly (1987) and What is a Story? (1991), although we are told that the author himself recognizes in some of its sentences 'the germs of most of what I have written since'.

The text surveys western thinking about religion from Galileo and Pascal to Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, underscoring in particular a 'profound mutation of Christianity, a reforging of all its meanings' that is intrinsic to the loss (and subsequent—or correlative—gain) of faith. It claims to trace the development of an 'anthropocentric and voluntarist interpretation' of faith: a 'fully demythologized version of Christianity'.

Despite this framework of the history of ideas, this is a very personal book. Cupitt's own position is most explicit in the Introduction and the Conclusion: the latter offering a five page summary of his views about God (a humanly constructed, 'ideal unity of all value') and true Christian spirituality (forged in the furnace of Nietzschean humanism out of the Christian gospel and Buddhism). Other autobiographical references are scattered throughout the text, including a reflection on his curacy in Salford in the context of a discussion of secularization, and these words that help to bring alive a passage on the challenge of modernity: 'Do not tell me that this complete loss of objectivity is hard, for nobody knows that better than I do'.

The authorial voice is also to be heard, however, throughout his selection and reflection on the individual thinkers surveyed. Earlier reviewers and commentators sometimes complained that some of these reflections misrepresented their subjects. But others may be willing to defend Cupitt against the charge of scholarly irresponsibility on the grounds that he has gone beyond the constraints of scholarship to tell a vivid and very gripping story that is meant to be the reader's own story—and is certainly Cupitt's story—as much, and often more, than it is the story of these intellectual giants from the past. Such an approach would at least be consistent with his later, more explicitly re1ativist approach to truth, interpretation and meaning. More relevant here, perhaps, is his account of the significance of the distinction between exegesis and hermeneutics. Once these are separated, he claims, hermeneutics becomes 'an unpredictable and uncontrollable work of human creativity'. And it is hermeneutics that is the more important task, allowing the dead to speak to us in a way that is both theirs and ours.

Certainly Cupitt sees The Sea of Faith as the first survey to keep the issue of realism versus non-realism—'the great undiscussed question underlying the whole development of modern religious thought'—consistently in mind. This is brought out in his contrast between the orthodox, 'but quite non-religious' Descartes, and the 'authentic', because expressivist, Christian faith of Pascal. It reappears in his account of the naturalism of Darwin and Freud, and of the non-realist philosophy of religion of Jung. It is patently there in Cupitt's Albert Schweitzer, 'the first post-Christian Christian', with a voluntaristic faith that flowed from his tragic vision of Jesus, and in his Kant, 'a kind of ultraProtestant whose religion was wholly ideal and imperative' and for whom God is only the transcendent ideal goal of human faith. And we find it too in his reading of a Schopenhauer who insists that the essence of religion is not doctrine but holiness, and in his appreciative comments on Nietzsche's joyful wisdom—a 'Yes' to life that sits uneasily with the same philosopher's nihilism.

But it would seem to be in the waters of Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein that Cupitt sees his own face most clearly reflected. Kierkegaard 'does not represent simply a restoration of traditional Christian consciousness, but a more radical transformation of it than is yet fully realized'. For Kierkegaard, religious truth does not consist in objective facts, but in subjective appropriation: thus demythologizing 'Christianity into spirituality', ideology into a form of life. Kierkegaard's stress on transcendence—like that of Cupitt—does not restore objectivity, but prevents speculative theological resolutions of the paradoxes of the spiritual life. For Cupitt, Kierkegaard is 'the most important modern Christian writer' because he fully accepted the radical anthropocentrism of modern thought and yet showed the possibility of an 'uncompromisingly Christian faith'.

Similarly, Wittgenstein's philosophy of religion is interpreted as a recognition that 'religion has to be merely human in order to work as religion'. He is described, like Cupitt himself, as 'a thoroughgoing constructivist and voluntarist', 'a non-realist about religion, ...[and] a non-realist about everything else'. Wittgenstein is also welcomed on account of his prophetic insistence that religion has precedence over theology, and his claim that in religion—as in music—'the performed life is the primary thing'. Nevertheless, he is 'too conservative and nostalgic' about religion: venerating the sacred from afar, instead of creatively, energetically, practically (and publicly) profaning the sacred in changing the world. As Cupitt argues in his later work on ethics, the moral life is a matter of creating value, especially by actively pushing up the valuation placed on others. It is not to be interpreted as a striving for the monkish virtues of saving your own soul unspotted from the world.

In the penultimate chapter of The Sea of Faith Cupitt faces the charge that his story only shows a non-realist development because he has deliberately chosen 'deviant and marginal figures'. He replies that an alternative strategy of studying, for example, the 'incommensurable theologies' of Barth, Bultmann, Tillich, Rahner and Pannenberg would not only demand some reference to the same philosophical background, but also reveal these thinkers as 'artist-theologians' whose portraits of God are creative personal expressions. Their work can no longer be seen as attempts to portray an objective reality, whatever they think they are doing! From Cupitt's perspective, truly critical thinking can never rest in realism: "reality" changes as theory changes, and theory does undeniably change'.

The Cupitt of this period is spiritually rather macho, intellectualist and individualistic, at least when contrasted with his later writings where feelings, society and the body are given more of a place. He stares into the Void and keeps his nerve, refusing to give in to the metaphysical yearning for a Something to support and sustain him. He steels himself to reject the illusion of an objective God, and taking leave of the possibility of God prepares to create god (value, purpose) by doing all that can be done: writing in the water and embracing the contingent, fleeting and mortal. Eventually, however, the crisis is over and the pain of loss and the temptation to objectivity become much less intense. As Cupitt writes in a more recent essay: 'I have found joy in loss'. Having been 'radically emptied out', he claims to be able to practise Christianity 'a great deal better than in the past'. He can now live more freely by dying in the work and in the world. Without God he is with god: 'God has moved round to our side and looks through our eyes'.

This seems to be Cupitt's story. It is on any account a very heroic, and on my view still a very religious, story; even if it does result in the claim that the religiousness of a religious belief is a function of 'the way it is held' rather than its content. The history of ideas that is used here as a background for this story may be employed sometimes rather cavalierly, but it is often rich in insights and never less than fascinating. Many who share Cupitt's journey will pack this book because they are looking, as he is, for charts of the terrain from those who have explored at least part of the way before.

To shift the metaphor: some scholars will continue to criticize the broad brushwork on Cupitt's canvas, especially in those places where he seems to have upset his pot of paint all over it. They will demand more objectivity in his portraits of others, as well as in his pictures of God. But the general reader will be helped by this work to see what some of the major issues are in recent thought and in religion, and she will surely understand what this artist is trying to show her. Not all historical or dogmatic theologians offer that much clarity. With Cupitt, for better or worse, you know what you are getting. And it must be said that honest doubt—and faith—rarely make such compelling reading.

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