Odyssey on the Sea of Faith: The Life & Writings of Don Cupitt by Nigel Leaves
Life, Life by Don Cupitt
Polebridge Press 2001 & 2003
Reviewed by Hugh Gilman, Treasurer and Membership Secretary
Jung might refer to this as synchronicity but these two volumes arrived to me in an over-lapping time frame. One was purchased through the author. The other was received unannounced from its author with a suggestion that its arrival “may be noticed in the Newsletter.” Both will be in the Resource Centre awaiting you by the time you read this.
I am not terribly at ease with these reviews as (a) from being your Membership Secretary I am aware that both authors will be receiving this Newsletter and (b) I’ve not been called upon to write a book report for lo these many years now.
I found both volumes both comprehensible and enlightening. They can be read separately or in either sequence. I recommend that Odyssey might be a more suitable lead-in when navigating both. Indeed I found it comforting somehow to learn that both Don Cupitt and I have managed similar peripatetic spiritual journeys, crossing paths at several points. I am sure that many, if not most, SoFN (NZ) members will similarly find themselves nodding, “Been there, done that, want to see my scars?” as they read through these two books.
“There go my people. I must hurry and catch up, for I am their leader,” Lao Tse (ancient Chinese general).
Nigel has written his PhD dissertation on Don Cupitt and Odyssey summarizes his findings. I must confess that I have not read many of Don’s books but I did find it most interesting to discover the various way stations he has encountered on his faith journey – and how far he has fared from the ruts of his contemporaries. The writings are separated into seven stages which are each treated in turn with several books selected and examined in each stage. Having a background of an experimental physicist I never studied philosophy and have always found the writings of the various schools too daunting to really “get into.” Nigel with Don’s help, provides a guide to the differing points of view in a comprehensible manner. Concomitant is the development and recognition of Kingdom theology and its relation to secular society as opposed to Ecclesiastical theology as expressed by professional churchmen. I/we need not agree at every point with Don nor do we need to have visited each of Don’s positions over the years. It is sufficient that we are all still exploring in our own fashion.
“Life is what happens while you’re waiting for something else,” said George Harrison.
Life, Life is Don’s latest tide mark on the beach. When I last heard him speak at a Conference here in New Zealand he mentioned that he was ‘collecting’ vernacular references to ‘life.’ (Sorry to say, I never got these two ‘Life’ comments back to him – or perhaps I assumed he already had them from other sources.) These have now been summarized and categorized and placed into context in a most agreeable fashion. I have long wondered at the Church’s disparagement of ‘secular society’ and its manifold inherent ‘evils’ – and so I gather has Don. Perhaps it’s a question of management or control by our ‘betters’. Regardless, it seems that we’re quite well off without management and left to our own devices to develop workable solutions in a Kingdom theology of the here and now. Indeed, most of the philosophical and theological positions that have been approached, examined and passed through seem to have little of practical value. After all, it’s what to do when passing through the front door in the morning and meeting society on the street, the shops and the office and what to resolve when wide awake at 3am that is important to most people most of the time. I fully agree that this life and what I do with it is paramount. If, in the end, the Ecclesiastical bods are correct then I will then be in a position to say that I did my best as I saw it at the time.
“This life is a test. It is only a test. When the real version of your life is released it will include a complete and detailed user manual,”
Alan Goss of Napier, also discusses Life, Life
Many will be familiar with the TV ad which features a frenetic reverend inviting his flock to come alive by drinking a certain brand of tea. Life, coming alive, is the theme of Don Cupitt's latest book and is also captured in some lines from the musical "Sweet Charity".
For the rhythm of life is a powerful beat,
Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet!
Rhythm on the inside, rhythm on the street
And the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.
Life, Cupitt contends, is everything, life is all we have and will ever have and that we must bring it back into the centre of religion. Indeed 'God' is already being replaced by 'Life' as our single religious focus. Cupitt uses the word 'life' mainly in its social context, it is our ordinary conversations with one another, our communicating, the buzz we generate around ourselves, the human traffic of our comings and goings which is concentrated especially in the city.
Some important distinctions are made between God and life, e.g. whereas God (in traditional terms) is pure holiness, life is profane as well as holy; whereas God is pure goodness, life is a mixture of good and evil; whereas God is sovereign and transcendent, life is finite and temporal. Life is a package deal to which we are called to respond. (cf Jesus) It is too big to wrap up and classify -- it is "baggy, shapeless and chaotic" and it is up to us to give it some order.
Life is also bigger than all our religious ideologies, so big that no one religion can be true for everyone, everywhere. Indeed life laughs at all of our theologies and at the absurdity of some of their claims and pretensions. Cupitt argues that since the 18th century there has been a marked shift in our way of looking at the world. Whereas we once relied upon external support from a supernatural realm on high — religious laws, God's will and so on — now we have re-arranged everything around human beings. We therefore re-interpret life from a human point of view. Since traditional Christianity started to fold in the 1960's the word 'life' has undergone remarkable changes, with the old god-language being displaced by the new life-language. People are now heard to say "life is sacred" that we should "love life", "have faith in life", "trust life", "commit ourselves to life", and so on. In our funeral services we "celebrate the life of . . ." In the same way, whereas until recently all life, including yours and mine, belonged to God, now we claim the right to decide "what I want to do with my own life", or to "control my life". We humans are now much more autonomous, we plan our futures, set our goals and arrange our agendas, even if the outcomes end up wide of the mark. People are re-thinking their religion, we are witnessing a monumental changing-over from a God-centred to a life-centred religious outlook, a radically new way of looking at ourselves, our religions, and our moralities, and the world.
That is the substance of this small book of only 142 pages. Some modern people are expressing their love of God through their love of life — in nature, in their relationships, in children, in the arts, in the ordinary ups and downs of everyday experience. The book is a disciplined yet exuberant romp through the rythmns of life and it induced that 'Sweet Charity' tingle in your fingers and in your feet. The author has been accused of adopting a rather cavalier approach to life, inviting us to accept it as a package deal — the good as well as the bad. "Take life as it comes", as we say. Is this, for the holocaust survivor or any victim of tragedy or misfortune, too blase and fatalistic? Read these 32 short and lively chapters and judge for yourself. But let the 1930s film star, Mae West have the last word (as quoted by Cupitt): "Its not the man in your life that counts, it's the life in your man." Surely no-one will disagree with that!?