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)