Our Dual Agenda

The opening speech at the 1994 UK SoF conference was presented by Don Cupitt, Lecturer in the Philosophy of Religion in the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.

On the 25th of February this year there was a gathering in Loughborough of members of Sea of Faith who are or have been active in the professional ministry of the Churches. The dismissal of Anthony Freeman by the Bishop of Chichester was a matter of great concern to us. We were of course much troubled about the position in which Anthony has found himself, and also about the possibility that some others of us might also be threatened. How could we support them; and how can we defend the legitimacy of our position within the Churches?

This question is difficult, and highly political. Like every Jew, Christian and Muslim, we knew - just as you know - that there is a curiously intractable politics of truth in religion. In a mysterious and largely non-rational way, but often very quickly, a communal mood becomes established against a particular person, or a particular idea, or book or film or whatever. Momentum gathers, authority perceives that it must pronounce, and soon events are out of control. Official disciplinary action is then used both to confirm and to head off popular agitation. When it has been taken everyone feels satisfied, and the matter can be regarded as closed.

In two notable instances which have not been fully closed, Martin Scorcese's film The Last Temptation of Christ and Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, agitators seem to have had no difficulty in conscripting millions of people into feeling deeply offended by works of art about which they know nothing at all. We are not so presumptuous as to compare ourselves with major figures like Rushdie or Scorcese, but we have had a somewhat similar experience. We have found that the 'non-objectifying' or 'non-realist' way of interpreting Christian beliefs gets condemned out of hand by a few people who do not first take the trouble to understand it, and then a collective mood of scandal and disapprobation quickly spreads. Suddenly and almost unstoppably, everybody seems to know for sure what we are saying and that we are wrong, and it's too late to do anything about it. Authority feels it has to placate the popular mood: it dare not openly pit itself against mass sentiment.

At our meeting in Loughborough, then, we were all of us reminded about the old familiar questions: how far can we, should we, come out? Can we defend the legitimacy of our own interpretation of the faith? What will be the attitude towards us of the authorities? The people present at the meeting were mainly Anglican and Roman Catholic priests, and between us we found that we had an interesting range of stories to tell.

As discussion proceeded, we found various deeper questions beginning to surface. Why, for example, do we always have to be thrown onto the defensive? Somehow, within the Churches, the most authoritarian and conservative types always assume their own possession of the high ground. They assume that they are in the right - and everyone else seems to feel impelled to grant them that assumption. So we liberals and revisionists are always playing away from home, and struggling to justify ourselves on their terms. But while the politics goes on being that way round, the churches must continue to slide inexorably into an ever-more rigid and self-defeating fundamentalism. Indeed, the position now looks even worse than that, because in the past decade or so we have seen the very name of Christian hijacked by Charismatics and Evangelicals, as the old mainstream denominations have gone into rapid decline. A new populist, 'de-historicized' and extremely anti-intellectual version of Christianity is taking over, and if the omens are not good for us, they are not good for the Churches, either. In the politics of religious truth the systemic bias towards the Right and towards dogmatism is very difficult to correct, and is now a major threat to the survival of any kind of reasonable mainstream religion.

However, this political situation has been very familiar in all the Churches (and in some other religions too) since about the 1830s, which raises the question of whether Sea of Faith really is that much more 'extreme' than its predecessors.

Graham Shaw at one point wondered aloud what it is that is really new in our movement. After all, thinking priests have been getting into trouble with the authorities for many generations, and nearly always the controversy has revolved around the same little cluster of supernatural beliefs. For example, and keeping just to the present century, successive controversies in Britain have involved Catholic Modernists in the first decade, members of the (Anglican) Modern Churchmen's Union in the next few decades, and then the demythologizers, the South Bank radicals, the secular Christians and so on, down to people like David Jenkins, John Spong and ourselves in recent years. And in these controversies the same issues of supernatural belief - the Resurrection, for example - have kept on coming up. So what's new this time?

You may think that we have caused particular annoyance because we have been concerned to demythologize not just some of the outworks of faith, but its very citadel, namely the idea of God himself as an all-powerful and world-controlling sovereign personal Being. But even this can't be the whole story, because that particular notion of God has long been quietly set aside - and it has faded amongst the orthodox just as much as amongst us revisionists. Since the days of Kant and Hegel educated people have been aware that the natural world about us, of which we are part, is described by our natural sciences as a continuous and entirely immanent process. And also the human historical world is now seen by all of us as a purely immanent developing process. Both in science and in history we see each state of the world as simply giving rise to the next. There are no sudden jumps in the story. Explanation is immanent; and so much do we all take this for granted that I am ready to bet that even the Bishops of Oxford and Chichester rely upon weather forecasters rather than prayer to settle what weather tomorrow will bring. Nowadays neither the scientist nor the historian needs to postulate any divine interventions in the world, or to make the natural/supernatural distinction at all. And this modern vision of the world as a purely immanent and continuous process obviously tells not only against all belief in supernatural miracles, but also against the traditional realistic notion of God as a world-transcending, world-controlling supernatural Person.

A consequence of these changes is that the old metaphysical idea of God is becoming obsolete. The very word 'God', and standard ways of speaking about God, are falling into disuse. The objective or realistic notion of God is not being kept alive in the language by doing useful work in the daily speech of politicians, journalists, business people, teachers and so on. God-talk is no longer part of the living language, to such an extent that no theologian or Bishop can any longer spell out in public the traditional realistic theism in a way that makes sense. The scholastic vocabulary is too archaic and too rusty to be used. It simply cannot be made to sound convincing.

The upshot of this is that in everyday life nowadays the old realistic kind of religious belief is invoked only in the most extreme circumstances as a desperate last resort, or ironically, or even jestingly. People may talk about praying for rain to avert defeat in a cricket match, and they may speak whimsically of the dead as being 'up there looking down on us'. But that is all we now hear in everyday speech of the old kind of belief in God, prayer and life after death - and it's so weak that it is a joke. Why are the Churches battling so fiercely to defend something that has become so pathetically attenuated?

Against this background we can now see how we might answer the Loughborough question about what is new in Sea of Faith. We reject the old politics of religious truth. We reject the assumption that the ultraconservatives have the right in perpetuity to occupy the high ground in debates with liberals. We question their philosophical assumptions, their definitions, and their ideas about what counts as a good argument. The reason for this is that cultural change in the modern period has now gone so far that the conservative version of 'orthodoxy' has become laughable. Orthodox concepts and methods of argument carry no conviction outside a tiny circle. The whole idea of a fixed, revealed, supernatural truth, objective, unchangeable, fixed in language and somehow possessed by the ultra-orthodox, has come to an end.

Charismatic Christians believe they can raise the dead. Evangelical Christians claim simply to know that Charles Darwin was radically mistaken. The British Chief Rabbi, in a recent statement, has said that a religious Jew has just got to believe that the entire text of the Torah was dictated in Hebrew by God to Moses. If you don't think that, then you have abandoned the Jewish faith.

Such statements show conservative religion in extremis, and making itself a laughing-stock. Yet we are all very familiar with the way the fundamentalists hijack language in their own interest. The Chief Rabbi's statement seems to claim that the fundamentalist is the only true and loyal Jew, just as Islamic fundamentalists seem able to get away with the assumption that their own position is the most authentically Islamic position. Similarly amongst Christians, the Evangelicals nowadays use the word 'Christian' to describe their own position and no other. Thus in each tradition the most rigid and reactionary outlook is successfully passed off as being the 'strongest' and most authentic faith - a view that journalists and media folk are very happy to accept. They, for their part, increasingly regard all religious belief of whatever persuasion as being irrational and potentially harmful, so they are very happy to accept terms of discussion that tacitly confirm their view. The easiest way to wipe out conservative religion is simply to report faithfully in the newspapers what its proponents say.

The result of this is that the old politics of religious truth is grist to the mill of those who want to see religion disappear altogether: and it also gives us our dual agenda. We in Sea of Faith, I suggest then, have two tasks. We have a message to give to the Churches, and we have something to work out for ourselves. To the Churches we must somehow go on saying that only if Christian doctrinal beliefs are interpreted in the non-realist way can there be any future at all for a rational, mainstream type of Christianity. Those who insist upon keeping dogmatic supernatural belief, literally or 'realistically' understood, will have to go over to the way-out fringe, the counter-culture, as the Charismatics have done already. But for the rest of us who are constitutionally unable to embrace unreason, non-realism is a chance to keep our religion as myth and symbol, as spirituality and ethic, while still remaining useful members of normal society.

In Roman Catholic language, non-realism was traditionally labelled 'dogmatic symbolism'. Ever since antiquity it has been recognized that all statements about God and divine things are inevitably symbolic. Our human language was developed by us in order to describe and manage the affairs of this world and this life. We have no direct experience of a supernatural world. So, in order to speak about divine things and a supernatural worid, we have to use our words in a special way - in an extended or metaphorical sense. Long before the rise of Christianity, Plato was already perfectly clear about all this, and the main Catholic tradition has always understood and accepted it.

How then does our alleged heresy differ from the traditional orthodoxy? The difference is not very great. We simply press the traditional doctrine a bit harder. We say explicitly that all statements about God are symbolic, including the statement that God exists. The whole system of ecclesiastical dogma, all of it, is human, historically-evolved and symbolic. It carries our values, shapes the way we live and gives us a vocabulary in which we can debate the ultimate questions of life. Our present task is simply to retell the old myths, transform them, and bring them to life in a new way for each new generation. The truth of our faith is not something that has been given to us ready-made, but something that we must keep on making and remaking.

At this point non-realism shows itself to be a form of humanism. It insists that truth depends on language, and that language is purely human. There isn't and cannot be any purely objective and superhuman Truth that is just given to us, because we do all the talking. Even in religion. we do all the talking.

Such is what I have called 'active non-realism', and it is much the same as what Roman Catholics have called 'dogmatic symbolism'. But it is a heresy that the Church has condemned. Why? I'll suggest three short answers. First, when Rene Descartes and others launchedmodern thought in the seventeenth century they oriented it towards dogmatic realism. To overcome scepticism and rebuild human knowledge, it was claimed that we need dogmatic certainties. Descartes and others set out to provide those certainties: metaphysical dogmas in philosophy, dogmatic and objective truth in mathematical physics, and, yes, dogmatic realism in the Church's teaching as well.

Descartes and his contemporaries have bequeathed to later generations the idea that scepticism and relativism are very bad, and that in order to be happy what people need is metaphysical Truth, absolutes, 'objective realities' and so forth. And this brings me now to the second reason why the Churches have condemned non-realism. In religion as in many other areas of life, we have a very ancient, long-established culture of dependency. People reckon that they must have that something out-there to lean on, however minimally. It can happen that a well-known philosopher of religion like John Hick will go almost all the way with me in admitting the human and historically-evolved character of all religious language, in admitting that our experience is moulded by our beliefs and so on. But he won't go all the way, because like so many others he clings fiercely to that tiny speck of objectivity, that feeling that there is, there must be, something Real out there to which all the symbolism refers, even though we cannot say anything about it. People cling fiercely, desperately to that last sliver of objectivity - which brings me, now, to the third reason why the Churches reject non-realism.

Since the seventeenth century, as the rational grounds of faith have become steadily weaker, reliance upon authority has perforce become steadily stronger. Realism and authoritarianism have become locked together. People feel desperately insecure. They want objective guarantees, certificates, pledges, warrants, certainties. They find authority highly attractive. Roman Catholics find comfort in the authority of the Church and the Pope, Conservative Evangelical Protestants find comfort in the authority of the Bible, and the new Charismatics find comfort in ecstatic experiences, generated amongst themselves, which they believe to be supernaturally caused.

In all these three cases - no doubt there are many more - we see the same cluster of ideas. People are thrashing about, terrified of the Void, terrified by the transience and insecurity of life. They desperately want religious comforts and consolations, comforts which must be objectively given and guaranteed, like a handrail that one can grip firmly in the darkness.

Thus the old psychology of dependency lingers on. There is a secret bargain between religious authority and human terror in the face of the violence of existence, and the Church in defending realism is defending that ancient bargain.

When we urge the Churches to embrace non-realism as soon as possible we are saying that the old bargain no longer works. The credibility of appeals to the authority of Bible, or church or religious experience is exhausted. Traditional church-Christianity has already entered upon its final collapse. In another fifty years there will be very little of it left apart from the non-rational populism of the Charismatics. My middle-aged friends amongst the Bishops and the theologians are adopting the old tactic of saying to themselves: 'Well: if only I keep quiet, the status quo will see me out.' They know in their hearts that the game is up, but they hope to be able to postpone the final showdown until after their own time. 'Not in my time', they say: 'Please, not in my time'.

This attitude is a betrayal. We say to the Churches that they must embrace non-realism right away. They must repudiate the psychology of dependency, they must give up their myths of authority and they must break with realism. Their only chance now for a further lease of life is by telling their own members that they have to assume full responsibility for remaking and renewing their own religious beliefs and values. Christianity will not survive unless Christians grow up, and fast.

That is the first part of our dual agenda, the message to the Churches. But there is also a second part, with which I have been getting more involved in the past couple of years. It is the task of working out a new world-view, ethic and philosophy of life. We need it for ourselves, because the end of the old realism does leave a certain sense of emptiness. When the objective reality of God is lost, the objective reality of the Cosmos and of the human Self goes too. Soon we see that we are left with nothing but our own humanly-constructed and very transient visions of the world, and this can seem very thin at first.

I mentioned earlier 'the culture of dependency'. By this I mean that we are used to a situation in which religious belief gives people an intelligible and ready-made ontology, world-view, ethic and task in life. Thought is unnecessary. You don't have to build your own world-view, ethic and aim in life, because religion has obligingly laid all that sort of thing on for you. And to this day religious doctrine remains so powerful in most Anglo-Saxon minds that it still seems to have largely cornered all the great questions of philosophy and ethics. We Anglo-S axons remain rather unphilosophical just because Christian doctrine, although no longer dominant, still casts its long shadow.

But then along comes non-realism saying that religious doctrine does not after all give us a cosmology. It does not present us with definitive, dogmatic answers to the great questions of philosophy and ethics. No, on the contrary, it gives us only myths and symbols, pictures to live by and materials that we are to make use of in constructing our own worlds and our own lives. Non-realist religion is, inevitably, do-it-yourself religion.

Not surprisingly, people's first reaction is one of deep shock. They feel a severe sense of loss. They start to talk about 'atheism', in the distressed and angry tones of people who have been suddenly struck with terror at life's lightness and transience. Ahead of us all, it seems there is only the Void.

Realizing all this three or four years ago, I began to see that we must do something more than try to convert the Churches to non-realism: we must also, on our own account and for our own sakes, begin to work out a quite new religious vision of the world and human life. Christian non-realism needs a new background, a new framework, within which to operate.

It occurs to me now that in our most recent writing, our Nineties work, Lloyd Geering and I have been working along parallel lines. In his book Tomorrow's God (Wellington, NZ: Bridget Williams 1994), Lloyd seeks to articulate a large-scale vision, a global religious eco-humanism, and I see now that my own recent group of little philosophy books, After All, The Last Philosophy and Solar Ethics (London: SCM Press, 1994, 1995 and 1995 respectively) tend in a similar direction. We both of us want to leave behind the old distinction between the natural order and the supernatural realm, and learn instead to see the world, and within it our own life, as being one continuous flowing, evolving process. In the older Christian outlook, both the objective world and the spiritual life of the individual were constructed by setting up various polar oppositions and contrasts - between Nature and Spirit, Practice and Theory, Fact and Value~ Matter and Mind, Life and Death, Time and Eternity and so on. The effect of all these great contrasts and oppositions has often been in the past to make people feel ill-at-ease and not-quite-at-home in this life, this body and this world. We felt we did not wholly belong to this world; the higher and better part of us had its true citizenship elsewhere, in the eternal World-Above. At this point Lloyd shows himself to be still a Sixties man, somebody who wants a complete meltdown of religion, and therefore also of selfhood, into secularity. And, yes, I am with him on that point. We both reject the old notion that the way to personal happiness and salvation is by distancing ourselves from our own biological life and the process of this world; instead we both think that the way to a truly religious happiness is by identifying ourselves completely with, and pouring our life out into, the process of this world. In order to become whole people, we must become fully naturalized citizens of this world only. We should therefore welcome 'reductionism', and not regard it as a threat to be feared.

Lloyd and I differ a little in emphasis. His point of view is large-scale, global and historical, whereas mine seems to be more existential. I seem still to be caught up in the problems of the old Western self, the sort of self that was born in the pages of Paul and Augustine, and lives yet in Kierkegaard, in the existentialists and in other modern figures. Just trying to think about the human condition makes this unfortunate character dizzy with dread. Freedom and responsibility, transience and death are all abyssal mysteries. Thought cannot compass them. How can such a person find eternal happiness? The old way to salvation no longer works, and today there is doubt about whether it ever really did work. While reality remained split, the human self could never become whole.

Thus, whereas Lloyd Geering's main emphasis is upon the emergence of a unified and fully globalized world and a global human consciousness, my own emphasis seems still to be upon the individual struggle to get oneself together and to make sense of the human condition. The answer I have been trying to present in the 'expressionist' books involves giving up completely the idea of the self as a substance, and instead picturing it as a process in time. The self is always both coming to pass and passing away, both becoming itself and losing itself as it pours itself out into expression. Eternal life is to live and joyfully to accept the unity -- indeed, the identity -- of life and death.

As for the idea of redemption, I have been arguing that it needs to be brought forward into the living out of our lives in this world. Going out all the time into the objectivity of our loves, our work, our world-building and our self-expression, we can find redemption in and through the living of our life. So I claim that the highest religious happiness is attainable in the here and now. We should not defer it. But this is not the time to go into these matters in any more detail. I have mentioned them here only to show how big is the change in world-view that will have to take place. It will no doubt involve the labours of many people over many years. At Lloyd's sort of level, we have to learn to leave behind us every kind of tribalism and ethnicity and achieve a fully globalized consciousness both of the world and of humanity. At my sort of level, we have to work out a new philosophy of life and a new, 'solar' spirituality.

However, we have to be careful not to reintroduce dogmatism. On the nonrealist view, there is no great and ready-made Truth of things out-there, waiting to be discovered by the honest seeker. We ourselves are the only makers of meaning and truth. In matters of religion and philosophy, just as much as in all other areas, we humans do all the talking. Accordingly I've suggested that we should see a philosophy, or a body of religious teaching, as an art-work. It is a piece of writing that aims to help the reader to see the world as a theatre within which a certain kind of life can be lived and a certain kind of happiness can be found. We should not see ourselves as the discoverers of a new religion with a new set of doctrines. Rather, we are trying to open up a new kind of free and quite undogmatic religious life, and claiming to find in it a new and very intense happiness.

* * * * * *


I have proposed the title, Our Dual Agenda, our two tasks. In relation to the Churches, our task is still to try to persuade them, not Just to tolerate a non-realist interpretation of their own beliefs and doctrines, but rather that, in order to reverse their own accelerating decline, they need to go over to non-realism as soon as possible. Understood literally, and used as tools of control, supernatural beliefs are not only untrue but also religiously harmful. In order to free the religious imagination, we need to abandon the oppressive policing of religious thought by the church authorities. People need to discover what a wonderful thing unpoliced religious thought can be.

Secondly, we have also a still larger and more urgent task, to be undertaken on our own account. It is the task of working out a new global religious vision for the future. I'm guessing that it must be a form of religious naturalism, a Christian ecohumanism. I personally look for an 'expressionist' vision of our human living, and a solar ethics. And all this may perhaps come to be seen as a new mutation of Christianity, through which it breaks out of its past merely local and traditional setting and becomes a fully global faith - a 'world religion' in a new, double sense.

This then has been my attempt to define the agenda, the dual work that lies ahead of us.