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.