A couple years ago at about this time of year, I stumbled upon Don Cupitt’s 1984 BBC series “Sea of Faith” on YouTube, while researching some philosophical topic or another. I wasn’t searching for any scholarly reason since I have only an undergrad minor in philosophy, but I’ve always felt a deep interest in the subject, the same interest I’ve always had in religion, growing up in a conservative Christian sect. But for about 15 years beginning in my mid-20s, I fancied myself a New Atheist and tried not to think too much about religion or, for that matter, philosophy. Instead I immersed myself in all the science I had ignored during my school years as an English lit major who thought, like too many young girls growing up before the turn of the millennium and even since, that I “just wasn’t good at science.” It was a necessary period of catching up, but after a while something started to seem a bit off, and eventually I became acquainted with the term “scientism,” which described my adopted worldview a bit too well. Soon after, philosophy and religion came knocking at my door again, (probably not so) coincidentally after the births of my two children—first philosophy, but religion wasn’t far behind.
Don Cupitt’s long body of work in the philosophy of religion addresses both, and reading of his views struck a chord with me. His approach to religion, which he describes as “non-realist,” didn’t irritate the sensibilities I’d developed during my decade-plus tenure as an atheist of the “ra ra rationality” school, yet still spoke to the existential wound I’d been neglecting. Encountering “Sea of Faith,” a program that seems to have been well ahead of its time and still feels provocative today, at least from an American point of view, ended up opening my mind to the possibilities that still exist under the term “Christianity,” and therefore to a whole range of exciting thinkers, in particular Peter Rollins, whose work is the reason I found my way to The Way Station Facebook group and eventually this blog.
Don Cupitt was ordained an Anglican priest in 1960 but has spent most of his career teaching at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he still has a Life Fellowship. He is the founder of the Sea of Faith Network, which is active in the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. Despite public controversy over his radical theological views, he has published 51 books, his most recent focusing on the pressing ethical problem of global warming. Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking, is his 50th book and probably the best place (for now) to find crystallized his lifetime of thinking on the philosophy of religion and the future direction and value of Jesus’ ethical legacy in particular.
Be forewarned: although this is a slim volume modestly packaged, written in accessible if often luminous prose for the lay reader, its message is bold and un-apologetic—pun intended—in the same way that Nietzsche’s was. We don’t have time to keep playing at church anymore, he seems to be saying, pretending we don’t see what has happened intellectually to the old pre-Enlightenment faith; we need to get on with things and create a faith that reflects where we are now.
However, unlike Nietzsche and many philosophers since who have found little of value left in the trappings of Christianity after the death of God, Cupitt finds the ethical import of the sayings of Jesus to be startlingly relevant to our present situation. Not only are our secular “humanitarian ethics” culturally heir to the early sayings of Jesus, but these early sayings and the attitude they illustrate, obscured by centuries of orthodoxy and tradition, might offer some fresh insights into how we can strive for a better world in our time: by beginning to “live the dream” of the “kingdom” now, in this, the only life and world we’ll know.
In making the case for the influence of Jesus’ sayings on the development of the Western secular ethics which have since spread to almost every corner of the globe to a greater or lesser degree, Cupitt writes, “Jesus the dead teacher has done better than the divine Christ: he has converted almost the whole of humanity.” Of course, accepting the moral and rational persuasiveness of these ethics and exemplifying them are two different things, so arguably there is still much work to be done in every corner of the globe toward realizing this, but Cupitt strikes an optimistic tone, at least on this note.
However, despite our apparently secular societies in the West, the legacies of Christian orthodoxy and of the Platonic dualism that infused it continue to influence the way we think and manage to keep us from what Cupitt calls “solar living,” which is an existential attitude in which we do not attempt to purify or conserve ourselves for a hoped-for life after death but instead expend ourselves, “express” ourselves—pour ourselves out, in this life.
He writes, “You’ll be living a dying life, passing away all the time along with everything else; and when you have identified yourself completely with the transience that so threatened you, you’ll start to see it as mystically beautiful. This immanent mysticism of secondariness is profoundly consoling, and you’ll find yourself living in a world that, like the heaven of the Bible, is all light, with nothing hidden or dark at all.”
Despite the solar imagery, associated in the West with the masculine, solar living seems to me a rather maternal concept, and Cupitt notes throughout the book his growing appreciation later in life with attitudes toward living that have traditionally been associated with the feminine and consequently discounted—giving of oneself without limit, for instance—but he points out that this is precisely what Jesus taught at every opportunity.
Cupitt also notes, tangentially related, that as yet there is no satisfactory sexual ethics among modern Jesus-inspired thinkers, hinting that perhaps this is an area that needs attention. Although I know there has been much writing about sex from liberal and progressive Christian thinkers and much critique of existing Church-derived moralistic ethics, I would love to see this topic addressed by truly radical theologians and philosophers of religion, especially women and LGBTQ thinkers, because it’s a major gap, and I appreciate his calling due attention to it. I also appreciate his statement that “The subjection of women was, until very recently, the foundation of culture.” So true.
Describing his concept of solar living, Cupitt often uses the term “extraverted,” despite what he describes as “a lengthy period of devotion to Kierkegaard,” whose primary attitude toward religion was nothing if not introverted, although Cupitt’s description of the self as “theatrical” and realized in symbolic expression is something Kierkegaard might have found compelling. I was attracted to Kierkegaard myself because of his introverted orientation, and so I found all this talk of extraversion a little accusing, reminding me of how, as a teenager, I’d read some bits of advice for young adults in church publications conveying the message that introverted types like myself were not temperamentally reserved but merely selfish, not wanting to do our Christian duty of sharing ourselves with the world.
After a while, though, Cupitt’s concept here began to grow on me. For one thing, I don’t think he’s speaking of extraversion in relation to the world so much in terms of a Jungian personality type as of an existential attitude—something even an intractable introvert like myself could theoretically manage, but perhaps with a bit more struggle. And that’s just fine with me, actually, because it’s a struggle that resonates with the existential attitude that I’ve already begun trying to embrace, inspired in fact by my experience of parenthood. The prospect of solar living presents a true challenge, the challenge of a lifetime, to live without fear of losing, because there’s nothing to lose, except the chance to live joyfully, without ressentiment, a French word borrowed by Nietzsche to signify ill feeling toward others. It is the presence of ressentiment that prevents us from saying a joyful “Yes” to life.
Well, it’s a dream, of course, to live this way. Who can live always without those negative feelings toward others, especially those who may have truly wronged us—anger, envy, desire for revenge, or, if not revenge, at least the righteously indignant sense of “they’ll get theirs”? And even if a few saints here and there achieve it, what of the rest of us—or even if a good many of us did somehow manage it, could a whole civilization achieve such a dream?
Cupitt isn’t assuming any such thing, but he nevertheless presents the dream. The radical aspect of this dream isn’t its content, because in that sense, say, compared to an eternity of bliss, it’s not even that ambitious. What’s radical is that, technically, it is achievable. It’s not ontologically supernatural, as Cupitt points out, but it’s “morally ‘supernatural’; that is, beyond ordinary human nature’s present reach.”
“True belief,” he writes, “is a dream that we can help to make ‘come true,’ now and in this world.”
Writing in a style inspired by the famous speech of Martin Luther King Jr., Cupitt lays out the sketch of a dream:
“Morally, much in our life and in our social world seems to us to be unacceptable. In many respects human relations are far below what they should be. Indeed, many things need to be turned upside-down. We need a revolution in our values.
“I have a Dream that the better world we long to see can come, must come, will come soon.
“Let us together live the Dream.
“We can and eventually we will make it come true.”
And in describing what solar living might look like in the life of an individual person, he writes in a chapter entitled “Without Consolation”: “The self is simply to be expended. When it’s gone, so are we. Meanwhile the true religious happiness is simply our present joy in going out into expression, communication, tending, work and creativity. Do your thing, strut your stuff, put on a good show, live as intensely as you can in the present moment. There is nothing else: there couldn’t be. To realize this is to have finally outgrown any need for consolation.”
I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in radical theology, in new ways of looking at the relevance of Jesus’ teachings to our lives here and now, or simply in looking for new ways to approach our shared existential situation.