Book: The Sea of Faith by Don Cupitt

Jesus said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” They replied “You are the eschatalogical manifestation of the ground of our being, the kerygma of which we find the ultimate meaning in our interpersonal relationships.” And Jesus said “What?”

Matthew 16 and Anon.

When discussing the views of Bishop John Spong, I once said that I hoped if I ever reached a position similar to his, I’d have the courage to stop calling myself a Christian. Well, whaddya know…

But I also said that it’d be nice to have the community you get from a church, without the obsession with blood, sin, sex and death. So Don Cupitt’s book The Sea of Faith was of interest to me, because in it Cupitt advances what he calls a “non-realist” Christianity, while maintaining that this is not just humanist atheism by another name.

<lj-cut> The book opens with the text of Dover Beach, the poem by Matthew Arnold from which the title of the book comes. The tide of Christianity in this country has been going out for some time, says Cupitt. The book takes us on a tour of the history of thought about Christianity since about the time of Galileo, arguing that the “realist” concept of an external, personal God is no longer believable for people living with the discoveries of science. The special place of humans in the Biblical worldview is destroyed by advances in physics which make us realise that we are a small part of a very large universe, and by the advent of Darwinism which forces us to acknowledge that we evolved just like other animals.

Meanwhile, Biblical criticism was slowly accepted in this country, coming in from Germany. Writing in 1983, Cupitt says that

… Schweitezer’s view of historical knowledge was over-simple. He talked as if it was in principle possible to discover the real Jesus, Jesus as he really was, Jesus independent of the theologizing and mythicizing process which he underwent in the minds of his followers. But a human being does not exist independently of his or her social setting and interaction with people. Necessarily, the only Jesus the historian can in principle ever hope to reach is Jesus as seen by his contemporaries, Jesus in the context of what he meant to others; in short, a Jesus already highly theologized (for such was the age he lived in), and seen for a variety of points of view.

(By Cupitt’s own admission, he later moved into “all-out postmodernism”. I’m no literary theorist, but I think I can see the start of that here).

In the chapter “Prometheus Unbound”, Cupitt argues that believers in conventional religion are simultaneously attracted and repelled by God. God lives above stairs and we below stairs. God sees to the running of the cosmic house, and we serve him, but neither of us welcomes too much attention from the other. We know our place, and if we should attract the attention of God by our presumption, we need to do something to purge our sin and show our devotion. As I’ve said about evangelical Christianity, the essence of such faith is admitting your own helplessness, and so the very essence of sin is human pride and self will. To illustrate the point, Cupitt provides a brief history of Satan from the Morning Star which pridefully steals the march on the Sun, through to Isaiah, the Church Fathers and Milton (I suppose Philip Pullman might get a mention today!) Conventional Christianity tells us we are part of a universal version of the class system, says Cupitt. As individualist ideas become more and more important, it becomes less and less easy for most people to accept such a position.

It was about here my head started to ache as he sped through Descartes, Hegel, Kant, Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Jung, Nietzsche and Wittegenstein (not for nothing was there much rehearsal of The Philosopher’s Drinking Song in Rome). I can’t possibly precis all that here, but I was interested particularly in Kierkegaard, who, according to Cupitt, would have us hold the contradictions of the spiritual life in tension, with the aim of forcing ourselves into practical action rather than striving for a settled synthesis which enables us to sit back and feel our job is done.

Where does all this end up? To Cupitt, it seems, God is just the language we use to describe something, not an external entity. And what we’re describing is something active:

The relinquishment of the old illusions about God at last allows the religious ideal to function properly. Religion is an activity: it postulates a goal and seeks to attain it. Realist theologies claim that the religious ideal is already actual… They ask no more of us than receptivity. Their day is over. From now on, your god is your star, your ideal, your aim, your hope, your goal. And that’s it.

One question that struck me was why we would bother with such philosophical gymnastics in order to be able to call our belief Christianity. Going back to my posting on Spong, why not just give up? Cupitt attempts to answer by saying that even when our material needs are met, people feel that their lives are aimless and worthless without a religion of some sort. And what would make us choose something calling itself Christianity rather than anything else? Exploring it from within and seeing that it works, he says. Cupitt expresses his hope that Nietzchean humanism and Buddhism might be combined into a Christian spirtuality. He admits there is a tightrope to be walked between this and plain humanism of the atheist variety.

At the very end of the book, Cupitt holds out the hope that, while there is an initial sense of loss with his approach, everything soon returns. Given his development, and that he later left Christian ministry (though remaining in the Church of England as a layperson), it seems a forlorn hope. It’s too easy to fall off the tightrope. While Cupitt criticises the misplaced nostalgia of some people who cling to the old ways of understanding Christianity (and it’s easy to see who he might have in mind, these days), I can’t help but wonder whether the book shows he had some similar attachment to the very idea of being a Christian. (Although it’s possible I’m reflecting my own feelings and those of other people who spent a long time in a church, rather than those of Cupitt).

The book lead to the formation of the Sea of Faith network, a group of people, some of them ordained, who identified with some of his vision. For my own part, I am right alongside his ideas in the first part of the book, on science, Biblical criticism and on the sin of pride. But the tightrope he later asks us to walk seems to go nowhere while requiring a lot of effort to keep our balance. Like the Sea of Faith members, I sometimes miss God (I would like to add another verse about missing belting out the hymns of Charles Wesley). But after reading the book one feels like telling him, as one sometimes has to do to friends who lose someone, that God’s not coming back and he should just move on. (And it sounds like he did, in fact, move on).

The book also seems a little dated in its portrayal of orthodox faith as dying out. Church attendance in this country has declined drastically over the last ten years. But, in a reversal of their fortunes in previous decades, the churches which are growing are the evangelical and charismatic churches, churches with highly orthodox theologies. I could argue that evangelicalism is hightly adapted it its environment and reproduces successfully because of that, that the success is partly because such churches provide a way to meet other nice, middle class people. I always was a bit of an armchair theologian, so maybe I’m overestimating the importance of theology to others. But I find it hard to believe that people are so indifferent to the theology of these churches that they go despite it, rather than giving at least tacit consent to it.

Perhaps the centre cannot hold, and we will all end up as either humanists or evangelicals. I’d be interested to see what Cupitt’s later books have to say, though, to see whether he found a more stable way of believing. Whatever the book’s flaws, it certainly made me think. I’d recommend it to anyone thinking about Christianity in the modern world.

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