The Revelation of Being
Reviewed by Lloyd Geering in Newsletter 30
Hard on the heels of The Religion of Being, Don Cupitt produced a second book The Revelation of Being (SCM Press, 1998). It was sparked off by an experience he had when sitting at his desk at Emmanuel College and gazing out of the window while writing the former book. He saw the whole scene before him "covered over with and made legible by language". The sudden realisation that the human world consists of three worlds in one-the worlds of Being, of Meaning and of human life-constituted for him a "violent explosion of pure happiness", a momentary beatific vision which blew him away.
Don refers to this as a complex language-event. The rest of the book consists of his philosophical exploration and analysis of that moment. Although it is a only a short book (about 94 pages of text) it takes a long time to read. As with most of Don's recent books one has to read carefully and ponder.
Not having Don's extensive knowledge of the history of philosophy I am not in a position to judge how correctly he has interpreted earlier philosophers though his claims are consistent with my more limited knowledge of them. More importantly, the many striking observations he makes about our current understanding of the human predicament suggest to me that he is still working at the growing edge of western thought.
Whereas ancient philosophers started with Being, and modern philosophy from Descartes onwards started with Man, post-modern philosophy starts simply with language. Don discusses in turn Being, Man and Language and then turns to the way they relate together in pairs.
Finally he discusses qualities such as contingency, temporality and outsidelessness which apply to all three.
He ends up by seeing Being, Man and Language forming a kind of secular trinity which transforms and replaces the classical Christian dogma of the Trinity. Thus the Revelation of Being brings the Holy Trinity into finitude and time.
Being is the quite-unfathomable outpouring of everything and is prior to language. Being reveals itself in Man, which is the language-based common world in which we live and move and have our being. Language is the complex web of symbol and communication, which makes that world possible and is the medium of our social and historical life.
There are some deep thoughts here but they are not always easy to grasp. This fact leaves us with some questions. Since language, as Don rightly affirms, is so important for our humanity, what are we to make of sentences which we do not wholly understand?
Is it because we are dull of understanding? Is it because the words are attempting to describe the ineffable? And how do we distinguish between deep insights which elude our understanding and gobbledegook? The latter term is sometimes applied today to some expressions of traditional theology just because we live in a world where traditional dogmas are not so much false as lacking in meaning. Don seems to be aware of these questions even though he might not express them in that form, for he ends his book with an explanation of the chief words he is using. He even wonders to himself what sort of writing is he now doing. Is it theology, philosophy of religion, edifying philosophy? He is content to call it simply "religious writing".