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‘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 (

‘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.

About the Research Project

Presentation to Sea of Faith annual conference, July 2021

Sea of Faith Network members and supporters may be interested to learn of a new research project, “Don Cupitt, the Sea of Faith Network and the Future of Radical Theology”. This is a collaborative venture between two academic researchers (Elaine Graham, Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Chester, Graeme Smith, Professor of Public Theology at the University of Chichester) and Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden, North Wales. 

As many readers may know, in recent years Don Cupitt has been gradually donating his personal archive to Gladstone’s Library. It consists of a fully-catalogued set of all his published outputs from 1970s to 2010s, several unpublished academic theses on his work and additional working papers and notes. Correspondence received by Cupitt relating to the original 1984 BBC TV series, plus its subsequent repeat broadcast in 1986, offers a measure of the phenomenal public reaction to the programmes and provides a unique insight into the diverse and changing attitudes towards religion in the last quarter of the twentieth century.  The archive also contains many visual, documentary and audio materials from Cupitt’s numerous public lectures, interviews and media appearances from the 1970s onwards. These holdings are complemented by a range of theses and dissertations on Cupitt’s thought, as well as collected materials from the SoF Networks in the UK, New Zealand and Australia.

This now represents a substantial and significant body of material, which the Library has named ‘The Sea of Faith Collection’. It represents a unique primary resource for the study of the history of religious thought in the second half of the twentieth century. Through their investigations into the Collection, Elaine and Graeme plan to address a series of key questions:

  1. What were the main features of Cupitt’s thought? 
  2. What place do Cupitt’s ideas have within broader intellectual movements of his day? 
  3. What is the lasting significance of Cupitt’s theology and how does this relate to the future of progressive, non-realist theologies? 
  4. What contributed to the success of the BBC TV series, and what can be learned from audience responses to the series about changing patterns of religious belief, understanding and affiliation? 
  5. What can contemporary media professionals, religious groups and educationalists learn from the series about contemporary approaches to religious and philosophical questions for popular, non-specialist audiences?
  6. How has the Sea of Faith Network grown and developed in different countries since 1984? 
  7. Is there a constituency for Cupitt’s brand of non-realist, progressive or radical theology today; how do people encounter such ideas and express them in practice?

How will the research project be undertaken? Our planning has had to take account of the constraints of COVID-19 and the fact that Gladstone’s Library is currently closed to visitors. But we have recently applied for funding from the British Academy to establish an online resource hub, which will be accessible virtually via Gladstone’s Library website.  We hope to return to Gladstone’s in the spring or early summer of 2021 to begin to scope and curate the archive with a view to placing primary materials, commentaries, study guides and bibliographies online. This repository will, we hope, generate, in turn, further interest and debate and engage, in particular, with three key constituencies: students and researchers in the study of philosophy, religion and theology; the Christian churches; and general audiences interested in popular spirituality, religion and belief.

In later phases of the project, we plan to produce a range of publications, public events and resources. These will include a major intellectual biography of Don Cupitt, the first of its kind, as well as a series of popular and academic articles. We would like to establish some doctoral studentships, which would investigate the impact of the Sea of Faith TV series and undertake an oral history of the Sea of Faith network. We are also beginning to convene a small academic network of scholars to debate and publish around non-realist and radical theologies, setting Don Cupitt’s work and that of others in historical, intellectual and cultural context.

Finally, we are planning a series of public events at Gladstone’s Library and around the UK to mark the 40th anniversary in 2024 of the original TV series. For readers familiar with events at Gladstone’s Library, we have in mind something similar to its annual literary festival, known as “Gladfest”, held over a long weekend and comprising lectures, discussions, exhibitions and book launches.

We are very excited to be embarking on this project. Our aims are to make Don Cupitt’s work more widely available to new audiences, to stimulate broad-based discussion of his (often neglected and misunderstood) ideas and initiate a comprehensive evaluation of his enduring legacy.

We hope to keep SOFN members updated as the project unfolds, but if you would like to contact us, with suggestions, ideas, or further materials please do so!

Elaine Graham ( 

Graeme Smith (

Taking Leave of Transcendence: ‘Embodied Spirituality’ in the Theology of Don Cupitt.

Elaine Graham & Graeme Smith

Paper presented at British and Irish Association of Practical Theology Conference July 2022


In this paper, we want to evaluate the contemporary relevance for practical theology of the work of the theologian and philosopher of religion Don Cupitt (1934-).  Cupitt is one of the most important Christian theologians of the second half of the twenti­eth century and his work has had a significant influence on both academic theology and popular religious belief throughout the world. Yet Cupitt has proved both influential and controversial, as we will indicate. In rejecting forms of religious faith grounded in metaphysics or propositional doctrine, he favours a this-worldly, embodied spirituality which bears fruit in ethical and practical living. We believe that in this ‘turn to practice’, Cupitt comes close to similar trends in practical theology which similarly emphasise the performative  nature of theology; but the question is whether practical theologians necessarily share Cupitt’s commitment to ‘taking leave of God’ and a non-realist theological framework.

Our paper is the product of ongoing work at Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden.  Cupitt has donated his personal papers to the library and they reside in the Sea of Faith archive.  We have been working on a project exploring Cupitt’s life and work for three years, spending the last year paying regular visits to the archive and reading Cupitt’s papers and correspondence. We are developing a website with contains further details of the project.

Cupitt can be introduced by highlighting three aspects of his work.  First he was in many ways a ‘prophet without honour’ in his twin spheres of ecclesial and academic life.  Second he was a public intellectual, often writing and broadcasting for a popular audience.  And third, while he was a controversialist he was also a theological pioneer.  We shall describe these aspects of his life and work before then exploring two of his main ideas (i) his theological non-realism and (ii) his ethical expressivism.  Finally we shall examine the implications of these ideas for the ‘ontotheological’ content — in other words the assumptions about the nature and existence of God — of practical theology.

‘Prophet without honour’

Cupitt began his career in the early 1950s, reading natural sciences at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, before switching to a theology degree for his final year of undergraduate study. He then trained for ordained ministry in the Church of England at Westcott House, Cambridge, was ordained deacon in 1959 and served a brief curacy at St Philip’s Church, Salford. In 1962 he returned to Westcott House as Vice-Principal, which suggests that he was already earmarked for preferment within the Church hierarchy. However in 1965, only three years later, he moved to become Dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, an aca­demic post he was to retain for the rest of his career.  He never became an Arch­deacon or Bishop and was never appointed a Reader or Professor at the university.  Cupitt himself believes the causes of this ecclesial and academic exile were to be found in his controversial ideas and popular notoriety, something that was unpalat­able to the authorities who controlled Church and university life. While this is difficult to verify, one thing we can discern from his work is that for much of his career Cupitt was, despite the controversies, thinking and writing as an ecclesiastical insider and had the public credibility and contemporary relevance of Christianity as his primary motivation.     

Public Intellectual

Cupitt often wrote for a popular audience and much of the work which made him famous was as a TV and radio broadcaster.  He developed a partnership with the BBC producer and presenter Peter Armstrong and in 1977 they co-presented the programme Who was Jesus?  But Cupitt is most famous for the six-part BBC2 TV series The Sea of Faith broadcast in 1984 with Armstrong as the producer.  The series was a theological sensation and at its peak Cupitt was receiving 60 letters a day from fans and critics alike. Four years after the series, a Sea of Faith Network was established in the UK, with organisations also forming in New Zealand and Australia.  In this respect, Cupitt is noteworthy as an academic theologian whose ideas have profoundly shaped the faith journey of ordinary people. 

Controversialist and Pioneer

Cupitt did not shy away from controversy.  He was a contributor to John Hick’s famous collection of essays, The Myth of God Incarnate in the late 1970s.  Cupitt’s book Taking Leave of God, published in 1980, is the most coherent and developed explanation of his Christian non-realism.  It provoked a number of serious academic responses, both positive and negative. Then in 1984 came The Sea of Faith, with an accompanying BBC book, to massive public reaction.  But even as people were reading and absorbing Cupitt’s non-realism, he continued to break new ground.  He was the first British theologian to engage seriously with continental post-structuralist thought, through the work of thinkers such as Wittgenstein, Derrida and Mark C. Taylor.

Cupitt’s arguments often shocked and offended people but he was never a controversialist for controversy’s sake.  He was a populariser of serious philosophical ideas but he also had a missionary agenda. He took seriously the intellectual and cultural ideas of contemporary society, asking what would a reasonable and credible Christianity look like in such a milieu.  His answers inevitably meant significant challenges for the Church but their purpose was to protect it from irrelevance and obscurity. His questions, and answers, found a wide-ranging sympathetic audience.  We shall now go on to discuss two of these main ideas.

Cupitt and Non-Realism as a Critique of Religion

The Sea of Faith TV series was probably the first exposure many people had to modern Western traditions of religious scepticism, such as Spinoza, Marx, Freud and Wittgenstein and to the beginnin[GS] of Cupitt’s articulation of theological non-realism. But Cupitt had been working towards a non-realist conception for a number of years prior to this.

As early as the 1970s, in works such as Christ and the Hiddenness of God (1971), Cupitt was arguing that Christianity needed to move beyond a ‘realist’ notion of God as objective, supernatural Being intervening in the world. He gradually moved to­wards a fully non-realist understanding of God which does not depend on the ob­jective existence of ‘an actually-existing independent individual being’ (Taking Leave of God, p. 15).  Rather than being the foundation of existence, we should regard God as our highest ideal, the horizon towards which we orientate ourselves: ‘God as a personification, or a symbol, of love, of perfection, of a kind of timeless bliss that we do occasionally glimpse.’ (Cupitt, 2010, p. 197) The journey of faith should be con­ceived as belief in or commit­ment to a regulating ideal, grounded in a religious im­agina­tion, which embodies our highest moral and spiritual values. 

One of Cupitt’s objections to traditional theism, with its emphasis on an ineffable, supernatural God who exists in a different ontological plane from embodied, mortal humanity, separate from the material and natural world, is that it inevitably leads to a dualistic world-view. The privileging of the spiritual over the material sanctions hierarchies of body-soul, humanity-God, physical-spiritual. Instead, Cupitt looks to embrace a more holistic and embodied spirituality, arguing that ‘It is through the body that we are selves, woven into the fabric of the empirical world, so that what­ever may be wrong with the world at large must be wrong also with the body in particular.’  (Cupitt, 1992, p. 67)

He argues that Western culture needs to reclaim the language of the body as the expression and extension of the self. If personal identity is socially constituted, then our ‘real selves’ are externalisations of our bodies – as linguistic, performative, re­lational people. True selfhood comes not by retreating inwards (or upwards) but by finding identity in communication, relationship, life, vitality and self-giving (Cupitt, 1992, p. 31).  Here, of course, Cupitt’s critique aligns with many forms of political and liberation theologies, which have similarly pointed to the ways in which certain con­ceptions of the nature of the divine have sanctioned particular under­standin[GS] of human identity, not least its material, temporal and embodied qualities.

Expressivism and the Turn to Practice

The Time Being, published in 1982, signals this affirmation of human embodied action and moral agency as an outworking of his non-realist theology and his non-foundationalist anthropology. It is also part of a series of books in which he expounds his notion of ‘expressivism’ in religion more fully. By this, Cupitt contends that the meaning of life comes from what can be told about how one has lived in practice (1982, p. 145). If our lives are performances and we are embodied actors, then we must also be agents, seizing opportunities and harnessing the energy of creativity in moral self-actualisation (pp. 148-150).  10

Cupitt’s expressivist philosophy takes on two key metaphors by the mid-1990s:   those of ‘solar ethics’ and ‘the fountain’. It is no accident that these are drawn from the natural world in which the materialism and immanence of moral action and religious belief is affirmed. 

In Solar Ethics (1995), Cupitt argues that we should abandon utopian hopes or prom­i­­ses of other-worldly salvation. Rather, we should become like the Sun, whose intense burning is both a sign of its vitality and eventual death. The Sun ‘expends itself gloriously; it lives not by thriftily saving itself but by recklessly giving itself away’ (Cupitt, 1995, p. 230). There is no inward or objective moral sensibility or transcendent reality beyond this material, temporal existence to confer moral value on our lives; all that matters is ‘that we should love life and pour out our hearts’ (1995, p.9).

Similarly, Cupitt likens a truly authentic life to a Fountain, constantly outpouring and renewing in a cycle of beginnings and endings, with no origins, Creators or founda­tions. The Fountain enables us to reconnect with the life-force that inhabits the very heart of Nature; and rather than turning inwards to find redemption or wisdom, we look to immerse ourselves in the onrushing stream of life. True religion lies in ‘self­lessly loving the transient’ and immersing ourselves in the ‘ecstatic immanence’ that is life. Instead of regarding this life as a journey through a vale of tears towards a future, happier existence in a world of immortal souls, we should seek to live intensely and fiercely until that energy is spent.

I think you can probably see how this serves to inform a thoroughly this-worldly ethic in which what matters most is the embodied enactment of our deepest values – ideals which only truly exist as they are lived out in human creativity and action.  Cupitt says this:

‘By a beliefless Christianity, I mean a Christianity which is a practice that reconciles us to this life and enables us to realise happiness and value and a good society and a contented existence below in this world.’ (Glasgow, 1993, p. 30), our emphasis.  This represents a preference for belief in over belief that: to allegiance, belonging and authentic living, rather than dogma or propositions.


What are the implications of Cupitt’s thought for theology? Firstly, he follows other ‘radical’ theologians in arguing that the critique of idolatry and the end of God is the beginning of human freedom. The death or self-emptying of God in creation and in Christ frees humanity from a dependency on an other-worldly authority and liberates us to live fully in the here and now. ‘[T]he God-above-us had to die in order to become the God-with-us.’  (Peterson, 2014, p. 6)

Secondly, religion is redefined as an essentially human endeavour; God is better conceived as ‘an imaginative and poetic construction rather than a philosophical one.’ (Greenfield, 2006, p. 184)Even when any notion of objective theism is aban­doned, nevertheless religion as a human construct can still enrich our lives as a celebration of creativity and meaning-making. It can be a way of expressing what we value and (as Cupitt puts it), how our inner worlds and imaginations are reflected and realised in the worlds we build around us – ‘and the constitution of both is ultimately ethical’ (Cupitt, 1984, p. 269).

Thirdly, we find a celebration of practice over belief, and an understanding of faith and theology as essentially ‘performative’ or pragmatic. What endures after the death of God and of traditional belief is, paradoxically, the immediacy of religious practice. The translation of God from supernatural Being into an immanent, incarnational presence prompts an embrace of the secular, the emptying out of divine energy into the search for justice and human flourishing.  Spirituality is not a departure from the material immanent world but conceived as a form of ethical action, bearing fruits in the virtues of creativity, renewal and transformation.

Non-Realism and Practical Theology

So what might practical theologians make of Cupitt’s more radical critique of the very nature and Being of the divine?

Cupitt’s work prompts us to address the relative silence within practical theology that as a discipline has tended to ‘bracket out’ fundamental questions to do with the existence and nature of God. For a generation now, practical theologians have resisted the terminology of ‘applied’ theology precisely because it implies that we are simply concerned with the outworking of already established and agreed doctrine. Instead, practical theologians argue that practice and everyday experience have the capacity both to prompt and even revise our very fundamental truth-claims. But while practical theologians have become very adept at studying, analysing and theorising forms of religious practice we have perhaps neglected the ontotheological questions – asking ‘what kind of God?’ — that underpin those activities.

There are already some strands of thinking in practical theology which parallel Cupitt’s emphasis on the moral and practical nature of belief. This is the view that understands the truth-claims of talk about God as embedded in religious practices, such that the primary medium of theological discourse is not doctrinal but performative. In her book Transforming Practice Elaine Graham characterises theological statements as secondary to performative praxis. Doctrine and codified belief are ‘provisional – yet binding – strategies of normative action … Ethics and politics … become processes and practices, rather than applications of metaphysical ideas.’ (Transforming Practice, 1996, p. 6) This is perhaps the closest practical theology has come to incorporating post-modern, non-realist or non-foundational perspectives which challenge the notion of a metaphysical, pre-existent reality independent of our experience. Yet it is not necessary to conceive of a kind of metaphysical foundation or supernatural being to posit this kind of ‘practical divinity’ (Atherton, 2001) as a viable ‘inhabited action-guiding world-view’ (Pattison, 2007, p. 7).

Concluding Comments

We have been arguing that in his rejection of the metaphysics of a transcendent God Cupitt’s work is essentially an exploration of the implications of an alternative theo­logy that is fully embodied and immanent. Time and space prevents us from devel­op­ing this much further. But two questions emerge from this initial engagement be­tween Cupitt’s thought and some practical theological voices. Firstly, in seeking to respond to modern scientific thinking and a rejection of institutional, credal religion in favour of the practical and this-worldly dimensions of the religious life, does Cupitt’s thought have the potential to speak to new generations of those seeking a credible and practical spirituality? Secondly, there is the neglected issue of what philosophers would term ‘onto-theology’ or the existence and nature of God. There is a direct connection between Cupitt’s non-realism and his strong stance on ethical living at the heart of the religious life. We would argue that Cupitt’s thought prompts practical theologians to think more deeply and seriously about first principles, namely the very models of God underpinning their work and the extent to which they inform our under­­­standings of the theological truth-claims at the heart of our discipline.


Bennett, Z. et al. (2018). Invitation to Research in Practical Theology. London: Routledge, esp. Chapter 3, ‘Researching religious practice and performance’.

Cupitt, D. (1971). Christ and the Hiddenness of God. London: Lutterworth Press.

Cupitt, D. (1976). The Leap of Reason. London: Sheldon Press.

Cupitt, D. (1980). Taking Leave of God. London: SCM Press.

Cupitt, D. (1984). The Sea of Faith. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.

Cupitt, D. (1991). What is a Story? . London: SCM Press.

Cupitt, D. (1992). Rethinking Religion. Wellington, New Zealand: St Andrew’s Trust for the Study of Religion & Society.

Cupitt, D. (1992). The Time Being. London: SCM Press.

Cupitt, D. (1993). Anti-Realist Faith. In J. Ruzzo (ed), Is God Real? (pp. 45-55). London: Macmillan.

Cupitt, D. (1994). After All: Religion Without Alienation. London: SCM Press.

Cupitt, D. (1995). Solar Ethics. London: SCM Press.

Cupitt, D. (1998). Mysticism After Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell.

Cupitt, D. (2006). Radical Theology: Selected Essays. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press.

Cupitt, D. (2010). Don Cupitt on Non-Realism about God. In D. Edmonds & N. Warburton (eds.), Philosophy Bites (pp. 191-200). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glasgow, N. (. (1993 ). Frontiers of Faith. Wellington, NZ: St Andrews Trust.

Graham, E. (1996). Transforming Practice. London: Mowbray (2nd Edition 2002).

Greenfield, T. (2006). An Introduction to Radical Theology. Ropley, Hampshire: O Books.

Peterson, D. J. (2014). Introduction. In D. J. Zbaraschuk (Ed.), Resurrecting the Death of God: the Origins, Influence, and Return of Radical Theology (pp. 1-19). New York: SUNY Press.

Don Cupitt: The Priest Who Took Leave of God.

Graeme Smith, University of Chichester

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.


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.