No one in power likes being told the whole basis of their edifice is unsound, or facing collapse, perhaps especially by a very clever insider.
Elaine Graham and Graeme Smith, in the first of their articles on the legacy of Don Cupitt, have explored his marginalisation in the church and the academy: ‘a prophet without honour’ indeed. The underlying message of much of Cupitt’s writing over some fifty years is that Christian Theology, and the Western philosophical tradition, are in deep trouble. That is unpalatable fare in the competitive world of academic disciplines and positively sickening in the embattled precincts of the church.
Although I was aware of the Sea of Faith TV series and its accompanying book, my re-acquaintance with Cupitt’s work took place in the early 1990s. It spoke meaningfully to me through a series of personally bruising encounters with the powers-that-were-then, both in the Church of England and the Methodist Church. I experienced several of those wielding authority as narrow, defensive, inward and backward looking, and in some cases paranoid, in the face the kind of critique that Cupitt brings to bear.
However, I believe the authors are right in claiming that the church misunderstood Cupitt as an enemy of religion. He is all about religion! And, for a large part of his career, was concerned with promoting an alternative way forward for the church, one more credible and more relevant to the world as it is now: witness Radicals and the Future of the Church (1989) and Reforming Christianity (2001). Prophets read the signs of the times, but are also annoyingly ahead of them. I remember the fuss in the press when Bishop Richard Holloway’s Godless Morality was published in 1999; and thinking, Don was there long before him, with Crisis of Moral Authority in 1972, well in advance of Taking Leave of God (1980)! Cupitt has also frustrated his detractors by being a moving target; his thinking had changed, developed and gathered many nuances, recorded in his fifty volume life-commentary.
It has been argued that Cupitt’s rational, stripped down, horizontal, here-and-now, anti-supernaturalist, ethic-focused religion, is too prescriptive – even impatient – and too reliant on being knowledgeably Christian to begin with. He continued to emphasise that his ‘solar’ religion of ‘life’ remains true to the salvageable, ethical elements of Jesus’ ‘kingdom theology’. However, Cupitt’s writing and vision also became progressively more accessible to a secular readership; exploring an ‘alternative spirituality’ capable of creatively engaging both the individual and the community.
As Cupitt’s writings ceased, others concerned with the much diminished church’s credibility and relevance, took up the challenge of incorporating the recent humane gains of liberal secularism into its ethos and practice. However, the unaddressed issue of language prevents the realisation of Cupitt’s vision. Too often there is a cognitive dissonance between the expression and practice of hospitality, tolerance, inclusion and diversity, and the unreformed language of orders, doctrine, liturgy, prayer and song. In church, non-realism is still the theology that dare not speak its name.
Cupitt’s way is always likely to be a ‘minority sport’, for the reasons explored above and in the article itself. It is a way of earthed but radiant immanence, a human religion of humane, ethical rationality. And yet it moves me.