Don Cupitt: The Priest Who Took Leave of God.

Notes for a talk delivered in Oxfam Bookshop, Chichester, March 2022.

There was a time when Don Cupitt would have needed no introduction. I suspect that that time has now passed.  So my aim in this talk is to begin with some biographical detail. Then I shall move on and discuss Cupitt’s fame or notoriety and then some of his main ideas.

Biography

Cupitt was born in 1934 in Lancashire. His ambitious parents sent him to Charterhouse School, a famous public school. From there he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge to study the Natural Sciences. It was at Cambridge that he was converted to Christianity and by his third year he decided he wanted to be ordained into the Church of England. He switched to studying theology.

After two years National Service he returned to Cambridge to train for the priesthood at Westcott House. He was ordained in 1959 and then spent three years as a curate in Salford. After his curacy he returned to Westcott House as Vice-Principal and it is now that it all starts to get interesting.

His appointment as  Vice-Principal meant that the Church of England powers that be believed he was a high flyer with great things ahead of him. Previous Vice-Principals had included John Hapgood who went on to be Archbishop of York and Robert Runice who became Archbishop of Canterbury.  However within 3 years Cupitt had left Westcott, and been appointed as Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge where he remained for the rest of his career. He taught philosophy of religion in the Cambridge Faculty, eventually being made a University Lecturer. Whatever glorious ecclesial or academic prospects Cupitt had were never realised. He never became a Bishop and he never became a Professor. 

All of which might beg the question as to why he is so important?

There are two main reasons.  

(i) In the 1980s Cupitt was exceptionally famous, to the extent that it is difficult to argue any other theologian has achieved such renown since. In 1984 he presented a six part BBC TV series entitled ‘The Sea of Faith’. In the programmes he explained chronologically why scientific, philosophical and psychological developments in human thought had challenged the fundamentals of traditional Christian belief. Further he suggested this was a good thing, to be welcomed by the churches. His main point was that traditional Christian belief had been forged in times very different from our own. Much of what is traditionally believed is simply no longer credible. So it is time to change Christianity so that it works for people who are growing up in our Modern world.

The show produced an enormous reaction. At one point Cupitt was receiving 60 letters a day. The initial reaction was hostile. People praying for his salvation and return to the faith; clergy chapters passing resolutions condemning Cupitt’s arguments; some of the more eccentric letters warned him, in diagrammatic form, of the dangers of the second coming. More than one person questioned whether he could continue as a priest. However the negative response was not the only response.  People also wrote in to say how much they had appreciated Cupitt’s honesty and candour. They said how they loved the Church whilst findings its beliefs incredible. People described how they had struggled for years with the doctrines they could not in all conscience believe. Cupitt, for many, clearly hit a nerve, expressing their hidden doubts and revealing to them that they were by no means alone.

As a result of the programme the Sea of Faith Network was formed. It began life in the UK but there were also branches in new Zealand and Australia.  The Network continues to this day and it perhaps unique in being a theological network established because of the theology of one man. 

So Cupitt is important because he is so well-known.

(ii)  But fame alone is not enough for us to take him seriously.  After all he could just be a very effective and successful self-publicist.  So the second reason Cupitt is important is because of the quality of his radical revision of the Christian tradition.

Cupitt’s work has been divided into multiple phases.  He was a prolific author producing 40 odd books, as well as numerous articles and reviews.  There are just over 1000 items in his bibliography.

Key Phases of Cupitt’s Thought

However before we get to the complexity of Cupitt’s thought I want to suggest we can start with two key phases.  Essentially these are the pre-postmodernity phase and then his innovative work in postmodern theology.  The postmodern phase is less important for this talk and so I am providing only a very brief overview.  Cupitt was one of, if not the first, theologian to engage with key postmodern thinkers like Derrida, Wittgenstein, Heideggar, and, prior to these people, Nietzsche.  As such many acknowledge Cupitt as the founding author of British postmodern, and so contemporary, theology.  However I want to focus on Cupitt’s pre-postmodernity work because I think that is sometimes neglected but still speaks to our contemporary condition.

In this stage Cupitt was a non-realist theologian.

Cupitt’s project was the revision of Christian belief. He believed that realist theology had been swept aside by the Enlightenment. Traditional Christianity was not compatible with Modern thought.

In Cupitt’s view the realist idea of God means that a Christian believes that God is transcendent and metaphysical, a supernatural being. God is separate from and a Being other than humans. Further the supernatural and metaphysical God has certain attributes. In particular the realist God is eternal, omniscient, that is all knowing, and omnipotent, that is all powerful. Cupitt suggested this picture of God owes its origins to Philo of Alexandria and as such belongs to an age that accepted Aristotelian science and Plato’s philosophy.  We no longer accept this overall cultural and intellectual framework.

Cupitt’s objections to the supernatural and metaphysical God are manifold.

(i) He objects that such a God is not biblical.

Cupitt worked early in his career on the problems of the quest for the historical Jesus.  He quickly came to the conclusion that there is a distinction between the Jesus of history, who lived, and the Christ of the Church, who was a theological construct often supporting an increasingly imperialist religion.  Cupitt’s point is that the Jesus of history was not concerned with doctrine or Platonic philosophy. He was an ethical teacher who sought to promote a religious way of life for all.  It was ethics not doctrine which concerned Jesus.

(ii) Cupitt was influenced by the mystical via negativa.  One central feature of this tradition is that fundamentally God in unknowable. The final end of the mystical journey is nothingness.  It is not to the list of attributes which Plato ascribes to the form of the perfect Good. Further Cupitt is influenced by Kant who argued that God is unknowable via reason.  It is not possible to demonstrate the existence of God rationally, let alone God’s attributes.

(iii) Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Cupitt believed the religious life should be disinterested.  By this Cupitt meant that there must be no motive to be religious except the pure and disinterested desire to be religious.  In this Cupitt again is influenced by Kant and his ideas about the disinterested nature of ethics.  For Kant a moral action cannot be good if the motive for the action is not pure, by which he meant in no way self-serving. Cupitt applied this to the religious life.  The religious life must be freely chosen by fully autonomous people for the reason of its own intrinsic good.  And this is not possible if we believe there is an eternal, all-knowing and all powerful God, in other words a realist God, watching over us and intending to form a judgement upon us at the end of our lives.  There is an incompatibility between our freedom to be religious and a supernatural Being equipped with the attributes of omniscience and omnipotence.  It is impossible to be fully disinterested when the prospect of heaven or hell, for eternity, awaits.

So Cupitt proposes a non-realist alternative, a non-realist God.

Cupitt’s Non-Realist God

(i) First it means that we need to recognise that God is a human creation. There is no other to the human condition, no metaphysics or supernatural order. God is created by humans.

(ii) Further God is the personification of the religious values that we, if we freely chose to, want to live by. Cupitt argued that humans like myths and narratives.  We find stories easier to relate to. For this reason it is helpful to take religious values and give them a mythological and narrative form, at least to start with.  In this sense that is what God is, the personification in mythological form, of the values we choose to live by.

What are these religious values.  For Cupitt they are self-sacrifice, self-knowledge and self-transcendence – putting others first in a disinterested manner.

Cupitt summarises his belief in the future of Christianity as a type of Christian Buddhism.  It is Buddhist in form but Christian in content.  It means a life of spirituality, of prayer and especially meditation, and a life of ethics, seeking to good.  Christian Buddhism, meditation and ethics.

Cupitt developed these ideas in his book ‘Taking Leave of God’.  The book was not as popular as the TV series, but it still produced a storm, albeit amongst academics.  Cupitt saw it as the point at which he was finally cast aside by the Church.  He later said he was only prepared to write it because he was secure in Cambridge.  Critics included the famous Church historian David Edwards, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and Keith Ward, the then newly appointed FD Maurice Chair of Theology at Kings College London.  Ward in fact wrote a book directly in response to Cupitt, matching Cupitt’s Taking Leave of God with his Holding Fast to God.

Critical Responses

So how did theologians respond to Cupitt.  I will briefly state three critical points often made:

(i) We should note that no one doubted his analysis of the cultural and intellectual developments since the Enlightenment. The problem with Cupitt was not that he had in some way misread the signs of the times.

(ii) Some argued that he had mis-described God.  This God who might send people to heaven or hell was not Christian.  The God who was all powerful and all knowing in the Platonic sense was not the God of Christianity. The Christian God was merciful, forgiving, loving and graceful.  So what power God had was the power of love and mercy, the power of forgiveness exercised for humanity.

(iii) The other main line of attack was to say that Cupitt over-emphasised reason and under emphasised faith.  Questions of the nature of God were matters of a faith commitment which accepted a certain amount of mystery and unknowing.  Human reason is not able to discern what is possible for God, but faith can believe that God is love.

In this brief overview I have tried to introduce one aspect of the thought of one of the most important theologians of modern times.  In particular I have presented his key ideas about a non-realist God.  In this sense I have sought to present the arch-heretic, as many regard him, as in fact a missionary priest.  That is a priest who sought to make Christianity relevant to the modern world.