Is Nothing Sacred?
reviewed by Nicholas Rundle
Is Nothing Sacred? The Non-Realist Philosophy of Religion
(Fordham University Press, NY, 2002)
An edited review by Nicholas Rundle, an Anglican Priest and Quaker fellow-traveller who lives in the Adelaide hills. Copied, with permission, from the Sea of Faith in Australia “Bulletin” Feb 2003.
Don Cupitt is one of the world’s most controversial theologian-philosophers.
In his popular and, some would say, subversive BBC TV series of the 1980s, ‘The Sea of Faith’, Cupitt asserted that religion, in order to survive, must free itself from supernatural beliefs and be seen instead as a form of human cultural expression.
Cupitt has been described by some as a Christian atheist and he has not been afraid to attack the church and theologians. In his 1980 book Taking Leave of God Cupitt accused the church of exercising ‘psychological terrorism’, [see note 1] and defined his own role as that of a rescuer. Jesus is to be rescued from dogmatic captivity and God from metaphysical captivity. Jesus, the ‘ugly little man’, has in his more recent books, such as Reforming Christianity returned to centre stage where Kingdom religion — the religion of immediacy preached by Jesus — must emerge from the ‘rusty and oppressive’ machinery of the mediated religion of the Church [see nore 2]. Cupitt exhorts his readers to a beliefless religion where worship and belief in a supernatural realm are replaced by a definition of religion as a way people relate themselves to life and celebrate life.
Cupitt’s latest book, Is Nothing Sacred needs to be read against the background of the radical Sea of Faith movement as well as the controversy and vituperation that has followed him as he has sought to promote his non-realist Christianity from within the Church.
In the introduction to Is Nothing Sacred? (p XI ) Cupitt defines non-realism in this way:
Suppose we become acutely aware of our own human limits: we realise that we are always inside human language, and only ever see the world through our human eyes. All that is ever accessible to us is the relative god, my god. As I see this, metaphysics dies and I am left knowing only my god, my guiding religious ideal. And this is the non-realist philosophy of religion in a nutshell.
The value of the Introduction lies not only in the succinct way in which Cupitt summarises his thought but the chronological account of the way his ideas have developed; a kind of chronological apologia. Until now only Scott Cowdell’s 1988 book, Atheist Priest (SCM) provided any kind of guide to the themes which have emerged from Cupitt’s earlier books as he journeyed from Christian orthodoxy to a radical empty humanism and a love of transience. Cupitt quotes with a touch of humour the English establishment figure, Baroness Warnock who bracketed together the philosophers, Derrida, Rorty, and Cupitt as enemies of objective truth and public morals (ix). However the reader also gets a sense of how difficult Cupitt’s journey has been for him and how hurtful he has found the accusations that his philosophy is, “simply a euphemism for sheer and shameless unbelief.” (xv). Perhaps Cupitt has received more opprobrium than other equally radical thinkers because he has drawn attention to the stultifying insularity of the British academic and ecclesiastical establishments. It is perhaps appropriate that his latest book of essays has appeared in a series on continental theologians because Cupitt has been a pioneer in the exploration of continental European thought and its implications for the way in which life is lived.
Is Nothing Sacred is comprised of a series of essays from the period 1980 –2000. They explore themes from Kant and Nietzsche, and sketch Cupitt’s vision for radical religion. I appreciated the essay in which he explores the history of religious art. Cupitt is particularly knowledgeable about art. He traces the dissolution of any kind of division between sacred and secular art in the modern and post modern eras. He notes the move towards the abstract and to postmodern art which seeks to disturb and confront, rather than to console or uplift the observer who can no longer remain only a contemplating observer but is drawn into the emerging flux of being.
Cupitt, much I suspect to the annoyance of the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury, remains a priest. As an Anglican priest myself I note in this book and in others, Cupitt’s real pastoral concern for his readers and hearers to find their own way to liberation. The old style religion of mediated salvation is replaced by religion as therapy which serves to divest people of an addiction to be what Bishop Richard Holloway has called in public, ‘meaning junkies’. In chapter six Cupitt explores therapy as a way of freeing people to accept life as it is, rather than turning life into a weapon to make ourselves unhappy. He focuses on the Buddha as the best exponent of the therapeutic approach. Cupitt has at times been content to call himself a Christian Buddhist. In this chapter he encourages his readers to see religion as reconciling us to what is and might be in this world, rather than providing us with information about illusory worlds or Platonic ideals. It is no wonder that Cupitt’s style of theologising has profoundly influenced novelists like Philip Pullman and Iris Murdoch.
The turn to life, a theme that emerges in Cupitt’s more recent books, is summarised in an article entitled, ‘The Value of Life’ in which he explores the requirement to develop an appropriate environmental ethic. He draws attention to the nostalgic utopian tendency in conservation movements and traces this to western assumptions about an unchanging morality ‘out there’ needing only to be grasped and applied rather than an “ever-renewed creative activity though which we give our life worth and keep the human enterprise going.” (p 124) In the final two chapters of the book Cupitt reprints two essays in which he responds to criticisms by two British Anglican theologians, the establishment liberal David Edwards and Rowan Williams, soon to become the leader of the Anglican Communion. In his disputation with Edwards Cupitt attacks theological liberalism at its weakest point. Cupitt sees the liberal project as one of cleaning up the language and presentation of the faith in the hope that the result will more than satisfy a post Christian world, hungry for spirituality as well as restore passion and commitment to the mainstream Church. Cupitt rejects these liberal aspirations and calls for root and branch reform by appealing to the feminist critique of Christianity and to Jesus’ radical this-world ethic. Here the reader gets a sense of Cupitt’s determination to staying within a Church in which many regard him as an ecclesiastical cuckoo. The last words of this book have him reiterating a promise to change the Church from within and claiming his own place within the Church. His vision of the future Church, reiterated in many of his books is of democratic undogmatic Quaker style non-realist communities fired by a solar ethic. Individuals and communities live like the sun pouring themselves out for others without hope for spiritual reward. Can we see the shadow of Kant’s ethics in Cupitt’s solar ethic?
In his reply to Rowan Williams, Cupitt employs the metaphor of the dance to describe the ambiguity of religious claims to truth, which must at the same time be negated. He quotes Derrida in defence of a playful use of language that is ultimately incapable of definition. Cupitt finds much in common with Williams, both writers seeking to employ language as play, an arena for meaning making in this world although Cupitt believes that nothing can lie beyond language. Cupitt defends himself by a discussion of the void, or Nihil, a common theme in his writings. Cupitt is taking the path of many mystics by saying that faith is not information gathering or belief but a radical death into unknowing, a kenotic embrace of the void rather than a retreat into a closed circle of certainty. Cupitt accuses Williams of taking the side of a nostalgic easygoing Christendom-type religion rather than seeking to make connections and learn the language of the world which only comes by entering the place of dark unknowing. He urges Williams to come out of the religious closet and declare himself a non-realist.
I hope that Williams and Cupitt will continue the dance of debate and that voice of radicals like Cupitt and the Sea of Faith will be as much valued and respected as the voices of powerful lobby groups. In every area of contemporary life, the Church included, conservatives and liberals continually squabble about the moral high ground. They usually make common cause only to suppress the unpopular radical who points out the real state of the Emperor’s robe-less condition.
Perhaps it’s worth recalling that in the Gospel the sworn enemies Pontius Pilate and Herod made friends in order to crucify Jesus. One hopes that the prophetic Cupitt will keep the radical nature of faith alive in the Church of the Kingdom which may yet emerge from the wreckage of institutional Churchianity.
I found Is Nothing Sacred? a valuable and important addition to my knowledge and appreciation of Cupitt. I have found Cupitt’s writings enormously influential in the development and maturation of my own faith. Unlike Cupitt I am prepared to be open (most days) to a faith in a transcendent God beyond the god of human imagination and creativity to which humans can relate as I/Thou. I certainly believe that Cupitt deserves to be more widely read in an Australia. More and more people are struggling to find a way through a post modern world where the old nostalgia often peddled by political and religious leaders seems less and less convincing and where the void of loss leads many to nihilist despair. Cupitt also speaks powerfully to the condition of many post Christians and post theists who still want to value the transformative potential of religion without God. He challenges those who want to escape into Harry Potter fantasies where the truth is out there somewhere waiting to be decoded, delivered by Santa or downloaded from the Internet.
This book is a good introduction to most of the major themes that Cupitt has wrestled with since his turn to non-realism in 1980. If you have not before read Cupitt and engage with
Is Nothing Sacred?
you may well discover why the Adelaide-based scientist and author Paul Davies calls Cupitt as one of the most exciting theologians of our era.[see note 3] You may not agree with Cupitt but I think you might discover in the questions he is asking a powerful antidote to the religious pulp fiction that so often passes for theology, spirituality, personal group and other meaning-making genres in our era.
1. As described by T. Beeson Rebels and Reformers (SCM 1999) p.171.
2. Cupitt, D Reforming Christianity Santa Rosa California 2001 Polebridge Press p 7
3. Davies, P ‘The Ingeniously Ordered Universe’ p 38 in Wallace, Fisher et al (eds) Time and Tide (John Hunt, 2001)