‘And yet it moves’ (1): a response to ‘Don Cupitt: Prophet without Honour’, January 2023

Andy Kemp

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.

(1) The words – referring to the Earth moving around the Sun – that Galileo was rumoured to have muttered under his breath, after his bruising encounter with the Papal authorities
Andy Kemp is a charity manager and a Methodist. He has been a member of the Sea of Faith Network for 30 years.

Don Cupitt: Public Intellectual

This is the second in a trilogy of articles for Theology to be published in spring 2023. In this article, Elaine Graham and Graeme Smith consider whether Cupitt’s influence through The Sea of Faith BBC TV series and other writing and broadcasting was sufficient to rank him as a ‘public intellectual’. It will argue that the controversy Cupitt attracted and his categorization as ‘atheist priest’ and ‘radical theologian’ may ultimately have limited his efforts to promote broad-based, serious theological debate in Church and society. 

The first article in this series considered whether Don Cupitt’s controversial reputation as a broadcaster and popular writer contributed to his marginalization by the academic and ecclesiastical establishments. This article will examine that media profile in more detail, with particular focus on Cupitt’s development as a public intellectual, including especially the audience reaction to the BBC television series, The Sea of Faith, screened in the autumn of 1984. The series provided Cupitt with a platform for his ideas and led among other things to the establishment of the Sea of Faith Network, a membership organization dedicated to exploring his non-realist theology.

Cupitt chose the path of the public intellectual by actively cultivating media and broadcasting opportunities in pursuit of what he regarded as the vital task of the renewal of theological thinking in church and society. His public profile therefore had a very distinct character, as a religious sceptic and critic of the traditional beliefs of the institutional Church. For some, he was anathema, a destroyer of simple faith and orthodox, Bible-based Christianity. For others, he became the figurehead of a radical, questioning theology that gave ordinary people a sanction to explore and articulate their own spiritual journeys. Such public sentiment reflects a wider trend within religion at this time, away from formal observance towards a more subjective and autonomous spirituality.  Cupitt’s own trajectory from orthodoxy to a more personalized and existential creed may therefore have commended him to an audience searching for permission to undertake a similar journey.


Fellow-Feeling: David Strauss and Don Cupitt

In this response to the article ‘Don Cupitt: Prophet without Honour’, Alison Webster considers another lost reputation – that of David Friedrich Strauss (1808-74).

The scene is a picturesque graveyard in dappled summer sunshine. Don Cupitt walks purposefully, holding a bunch of white blooms. Standing before a certain grave, he stoops to place the flowers and pauses, head bowed, in reverent silence. It is a profoundly moving moment.

The grave is that of David Friedrich Strauss. This is the third episode of ‘Sea of Faith’ from 1984, and I am watching the documentary (thanks to Youtube) for the first time in nearly 40 years. It is entitled, ‘Going By the Book’, and features Strauss and Albert Schweitzer.

Don tells Strauss’s story. He went up to the University of Tubingen with his school friends to study a five year seminary course for protestant ministry. He graduated top of his year, spent a brief time in a parish then, having sat at the feet Hegel in Berlin, returned to Tubingen as a lecturer aged 25. And he began work on what was to become the theology book of the century – ‘The Life of Jesus’.

Taking a Hegelian philosophical perspective and applying it to the gospels, he proposed a ‘mythical interpretation’ of them which in Cupitt’s words shortcuts the ‘boring old arguments’ about whether, for example, the miracles really happened. He saw the gospels as an expression of the religious needs and preoccupations of their time, rather than historical records of supernatural events.  

Strauss had no doubt about the historical existence of Jesus, and remained (at that stage) a Christian. But when the book appeared, all hell broke loose. Strauss was dismissed from his academic post, and no theologian of repute could defend him publicly. Even his friends couldn’t visit him for fear of injuring their reputations. Never again did he hold a full-time job, and some even regarded him as the Anti-Christ.

Later in the documentary Cupitt points out that, though Strauss was driven out of academia and the church, his ideas haven’t died. Indeed most of them are now rather commonplace in contemporary theology. He takes the opportunity to make the point that truth is now considered a moving debate, which shifts with the consensus – it is not about fixed positions, but evolves. Cupitt contrasts this with conservative evangelical perspectives where ‘free debate and critical questioning are eliminated’, and he suggests that the problem for the churches is to contain within themselves these two radically opposed mentalities – with theologians sometimes being the casualties.

Reading the article, ‘A Prophet without honour – the marginalization of Don Cupitt’ put me in mind of the parallels between Cupitt and Strauss. The punishments they received for their radical thinking are different. Cupitt’s was a lack of preferment – academically and ecclesially; Strauss suffered ostracization and the mental and physical sickness caused by complete isolation. Both paid a price for pushing the boundaries of what can ‘comfortably be thought’ within organised religion and the academy that serves it. In Cupitt’s reverence of Strauss’s grave, I sense a very definite fellow-feeling.

Alison Webster is General Secretary of Modern Church (www.modernchurch.org.uk)

‘Prophet without Honour: the marginalization of Don Cupitt’

Elaine Graham and Graeme Smith

This article is the first of three articles to be published during the spring of 2023 evaluating the work and legacy of Don Cupitt. The Abstract below offers a short summary of our argument. The full version of the article is now available in in Theology Vol. 126, no. 1 (2023).

We begin by suggesting that Cupitt might be depicted as a ‘prophet without honour’ in both his ecclesiastical home of the Church of England and at the University of Cambridge, where he spent most of his professional life. This is based on the observation that, after a promising early career, Cupitt never received the ecclesiastical preferment or academic promotion that many argued he deserved. This arguably represents a missed opportunity for both Church and academy, because Cupitt is more accurately understood not as an enemy of religion but as essentially an ecclesiastical insider whose chief motivation was to uphold the contemporary relevance and credibility of Christianity.

Crisis of Moral Authority

This book was written in 1970, in the days when even the Church Times was welcoming Don Cupitt as a stalwart believer. However, as the author now points out, it is an important pointer to the future. The straitlaced early Cupitt is obviously struggling to prevent the later Cupitt from bursting out.’ Its starting point was straightforward enough. Many, perhaps most of the great critics of Christianity have rejected it chiefly on moral grounds. Yet, because they have tended to suffer from an entrenched sense of their own moral superiority, Christians have never really taken this fact seriously enough and so have failed fully to understand one very important factor in the modern world’s rejection of faith, The idea was therefore to outline the principal moral criticisms of Christianity, in order to discover how strong they are and what should be done about them. This was the beginning of a course which took Don Cupitt, as he himself confesses, much further than he ever expected.Many have parted company on the way at various stages; they, and those who find what Don Cupitt says speaks to them more than most modern theology, will find that these early stages, in retrospect, make fascinating reading.

Christ and the Hiddenness of God

Written at the end of the 1960s, this book introduces a whole series of themes. problems and perplexities which have come to obsess Don Cupitt permanently. However at that stage he was still ready to align himself with that mainstream of theological writing which almost identifies orthodox faith with the quest for objectivity, whereas now he is not. In the case of God the considerations that were leading him to question received assumptions had to do with the problem of analogy and the dynamics of the spiritual life. In the case of Christ they had to do with the resurrection. Above all it was hard to take a realist view of the ‘Christ’ of present experience. `Somehow I felt that the notion that faith is a matter of intuitive acquaintance with an invisible person, inside one’s head or behind the scenes, is epistemologically and psychologically deeply wrong. No satisfactory sense can be made of it. In fact I think it has only developed since the seventeenth century and is an aberration, the chief symptom of modern Christianity’s dangerous slide into irrationalism and the cult mentality. This book fires the opening shots in a struggle to check that slide and restore rationality to the spiritual life.’ Don Cupitt is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.