From Religious Doctrine to Religious Existence

Don Cupitt

This address was presented to the UK Sea of Faith Conference in 1997 and was printed under the title "Religion Still Matters" in the UK Sea of Faith Newsletter No. 30.

[The] Sea of Faith [Network] is ten years old this year. It is time to ask ourselves what we have achieved. How are we perceived, and how indeed do we perceive ourselves? What have we been trying to do? And what new agenda should we be setting ourselves, as we look forward to the next decade?

Taking first the question of where we have come to, Sea of Faith has certainly attracted some national attention and is regarded, by some at least, as the liveliest and most innovative group on the British religious scene. We have a flourishing New Zealand offshoot, and some hopes for the formation of other overseas branches.

But the general religious situation is not encouraging. The culture at large is becoming more secular than ever, and the decline of religion has accelerated. The churches have lost most of their former moral authority and social standing, and their intellectual credibility could hardly be lower. It is a sign of the times that, while serious religious publishing is in decline, a work of numerological fantasy called The Bible Code is a current best-seller. Contracting fast, the churches are going down market and becoming absorbed in silly internal controversies and scandals. Even within the Established Church a special internal vocabulary and a form of cult-mentality are tending to develop. It is not surprising that many among the clergy are deeply troubled.

In their decline, the churches are suffering the same sort of fate as the royal family and other institutions of the old British establishment. Criticism of them all has become much more open, and people are beginning to imagine their being simply swept away. For example, only one-quarter of secondary schools obey the recent Education Act which requires them to hold a predominantly-Christian religious assembly every day, and the head teachers last May voted by an overwhelming majority to demand a change in the law. Not even in Middle England can we any longer assume that there is an established general presumption in favour of Christianity.

Against such a background, Sea of Faith is unfortunately not yet perceived as offering on its own account a constructive alternative and a hope for the religious future. Rather, we are seen only in negative terms, as a troublesome minority who dissent from an orthodoxy which is itself on the verge of extinction. And we are seen also as a dressing station or transit camp where refugees from the churches can briefly pause for refreshment, before they move on to sever their last remaining links with religion of any kind.

This perception of us is not wholly unjust. It seems to be the case that almost a third of our membership changes each year. Perhaps many of us are people whose spiritual journey is still continuing. We'll move on, and no doubt that will be right for us. But the negative perception of us by others has an important lesson to teach us. It indicates that their perception of us, and perhaps our self-perception too, is still too much dominated by nostalgia for the old faith. We are still mourning the loss of the old objective consolations, and yearning for their reinstatement. Amongst people at large there is as yet no belief that deep religious change is urgently necessary, that there really is such a thing as creative and innovative religious thought, and that a major transformation of our religious tradition is historically overdue. We have not been able to get across to people the idea that religious innovation is needed, is possible, and can come. In this as in so many other matters people simply do not want the future to be different from the past. It has in fact never occurred to them that the future of religion could be better than its past. All they can envisage is a relaunch of tradition -- a refurbished Heritage Christianity. But we've had that one already! The Victorians gave us a Heritage-style relaunch of Christianity, and it has become shabby and out-of-date. It doesn't work any more. Its great monuments, both in Britain and in the overseas countries of the former British Empire, are falling into ruin.

So there is no hope for a refurbished Heritage-style Christianity. That move has already been made, and is already long obsolete. Traditional Christianity was--and remains--locked into a dream of agricultural civilization, an authoritarian system of government, pre-critical thinking, and a supernaturalist world-view. It is the traditional system of thought that is to be found in our well-loved children's books. You can refurbish it all as a weekend nostalgia-trip for all the family, but not as serious religion. Sea of Faith needs somehow to persuade the public that times have changed, and we now know enough about religion to be able to imagine creating something better -- and I mean very much better. And perhaps the only way to make the point is by actually producing something recognizably more interesting and valuable than anything that is currently being offered by any Pope, or Archbishop, or Ayatollah, or Chief Rabbi.

How can this be? I do not mean an academic relaunch of tradition, nor anything like it. One might compare Victorian Gothic Revival religion with Victorian academic painting: they both looked to the past for their subject-matter, and both were earnest, accomplished, a little duplicitous, and spiritually stone-dead. The work that the painter put on show was a highly-finished exhibition piece that carefully concealed all the human labour that had gone into producing it. Now contrast such artists -- Leighton, or Alma-Tadema -- with contemporaries like Van Gogh or Cezanne. In the great post-impressionists we are given, not finished exhibition pieces, but a chance to see the work of painting itself, the creative process. What is thrilling is not the finished systematic whole, but the work of painting, the human labour, the artist's spirit burning. The new painting works by bringing out everything that was previously hidden. Similarly in religion, we should not be offering any kind of glossy, refurbished and modernized orthodoxy, nor a new and improved system of true doctrines to replace the old and outworn ones. What we should be trying to persuade people of is that just the production of a religious life and the creative work of religious thought is far more interesting and exciting than any system of doctrinal conclusions. The warfare remains interesting after we have given up the idea that any permanent territorial gains are made. We don't have any true doctrines to offer, and we don't even want true doctrines because they block thought, and in any case because there aren't any. The end of metaphysics is also the end of ‘doctrine' -- that is, the end of ideology, the end of belief in a ready-made truth to live by. What we should offer instead is the discovery that just the creative work of religious thought and the expressive living of the religious life is itself the saving reality. Just religious existence can be great enough fully to compensate us for the loss of the old religious Object. It is possible, it really is possible, to live by the religious imagination. To be the creator of one's own religious life.

The analogy I am offering, then, is this: the work of creative and expressive religious living, just making it up, surpasses old-style dogmatic ecclesiastical Christianity in exactly the same way that a coarse but vital canvas by Van Gogh surpasses a finished but utterly lifeless academic painting by Lord Leighton. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. The letter is fixed, the Spirit moves. Codified religion, believed and practised according to ready-made rules, is dead religion, whereas living religion is something we must make up, all the time and as we go along. In a word, there are indeed religions resources and raw materials available to us, but from now on we need to recognize that there is no ready-made true religion. There is no truth out-there, and there is no ready-made intelligibility out-there. (In this connection, notice that the classic realist doctrine that ‘The truth is out there' is nowadays a stock formula of fantasy entertainment.) We have to give up the idea of religious truth as something just given to us from above and on a plate, something simply presented to us for our acceptance or rejection. The idea of an immutable ready-made truth is authoritarian, and it destroys people's creativity. We don't want it. In the same way, we have already given up the idea that the most interesting kind of painting is the finished academic painting which conceals all the human labour that went into it, and we accept instead that what is really interesting in painting is la peinture, the work of painting, the human labour. And we accept that it is an endless work, in just the same way that democratic politics and art are endless. Perfection, closure, finality are not reached.

The change in the way we see religion that I am describing is considerable, and hard to convey clearly. Think for a moment of those textbooks of comparative religion where each of ‘the world's religions' is described independently, and as if it were a finished and autonomous system, a closed world on its own and inhabited, so we are told, by so many hundred millions of people. I am suggesting that this is a radically mistaken way of looking at religion, partly because everyone nowadays knows a good deal about several faiths, and partly because in any case the life of religion is not in the ideal finished system constructed by scholars, but rather in the ways in which individual people construct their own lives day by day out of the varied materials that come to hand. Hence the wisdom of the Sea of Faith mission statement: ‘Exploring and promoting religious faith as a human creation.' Yes, indeed -- because the total religious system revealed from Heaven was (at best) an ideological fiction designed to justify the power of the bishops, perpetuated by theologians and then studied by scholars. The real life of religion was always what I used to call ‘active non-realism', and what Sea of Faith calls ‘a human creation.' People have always invented great numbers of allegiances, ritual performances and gatherings that symbolize the human struggle, enrich life, and give it meaning. Association football is an example; and if people are so much cleverer than me that they can see the point of football, they should surely be able to see the point of religion.

It is surely an effect of the long domination of life by religious power-structures that people still think in dogmatic terms, and find it hard to see the obvious about knowledge. But here is another illustration. Imagine that you have before you the latest and most complete editions of the Oxford English Dictionary and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Every word in the dictionary is human, with a human origin and a human history of its evolving range of uses. Turning now to the Encyclopaedia, isn't it obvious that every line of every article was written by a human being, and describes a humanly-constructed bit of knowledge? All language is human language, all knowledge is human knowledge, and the only world is the human world, for we are always inside the world of Dasein, human Being. Tautologically, we never make contact with anything completely independent of ourselves. The very making of the contact has already incorporated it into our world. This radical humanism isn't a vicious anthropocentrism, because we cannot really say in any coherent way how things might be otherwise. It is just how things are. And if this non-vicious anthropocentrism embraces everything else, then of course it must embrace religion too. Religion is entirely human, language-bound and historically evolving, just like the rest of culture; and once we have clearly seen how and why this is and has to be so, we wonder how anyone manages to think otherwise.

If we thus accept that it was always human beings, building their lives out of the symbols stories, values and rituals that came to hand, who did the real work of religion, then we may also be able to accept that the same ordinary individual must in principle be capable of major religious innovation. After all, ordinary human beings are evidently capable of just inventing great art, so why shouldn't they also be capable of inventing great religion? In the past the hierarchy -- the elite group of religions professional who hold power in the great religious institutions -- have commonly claimed that religious truth comes to us only by revelation from above, and down channels that they personally control. In a word, they have for reasons of power-politics deliberately infantilised the ordinary lay-person. Religious ideology has always hitherto been designed to turn people into sheep, by concealing from them their own potentiality for religious creativity. But during the past 200 years we have gradually come to see that there really is such a thing as popular culture. The people are naturally creative, and why not?

Think what an amazing creation language is. Who could invent such a thing? But ordinary people just in transacting the business of everyday life have evolved all the 3,000 or so living natural languages and the same number of cultures. So if ordinary people were able spontaneously to evolve their own languages and cultures, why should they not be equally capable of evolving their own religions? Of course they are, and they did. But for a very long time we and other peoples lived under the shadow of a fiercely-persecuting Church, and even today, 300 years after the last heretic-burning in Britain, people remain a little nervous about telling the clergy what they really think about religion. Our history has left us expecting authority already to know and to enforce all the answers Doctrine has always been used in our tradition not to stimulate but to inhibit religious thought, and people still fear that they are not allowed and not competent to develop new religious ideas.

The word ‘heresy' originally meant a choice, or an opinion or view that you had worked out for yourself and had come to hold as a matter of free choice. Then, a heresy came to be a school of thought, a shared set of views. Finally, as the church became more and more of a monarchical power-structure, the central authorities defined as orthodox those views that they themselves had canonized, and began to describe as heretical and to persecute all other views. In effect, the Church became a great engine of religious repression and thought-control. But today we should no longer accept the views that true religion consists in obediently holding only authorized opinions. We should shake off the old fears and say that we are glad to be heretics. It is religiously profoundly liberating to think for oneself. Indeed, now that we live in an age when the old orthodoxies are collapsing, it has become urgently necessary to think for oneself.

And there's the rub; for we have come to the very troubling paradox which is the central theme of this lecture. It is this: that in our new technological culture the very same changes that have brought about the downfall of the old world view and its certainties are also having the effect of expropriating us intellectually to an alarming extent. The technologies that have liberated us and have given to each of us the chance, and indeed the duty, to be a world-maker seem also to have made us unable to respond to the challenge. Nowadays we more and more employ machines to do our thinking for us, and are less and less able to do it for ourselves.

Of course a long line of twentieth-century thinkers have been pessimistic about the effects on our culture and world-view of the increasing domination of life by instrumental rationality and modern technologies. Interposed between us and nature, the new technologies have made life so easy that we have lost the basic skills of survival. We have become decadent, and such thinkers have therefore dreamt of a return to a simple pre-technological past form of life: crofting, perhaps, or ‘three acres and a cow'. But we should not adopt such views. Martin Heidegger, although often thought to be anti-technological, himself recognizes that technological thinking and action is one of the basic forms of human Being. He sees clearly that humans have always had to look about them and take from the environment things lying ready-to-hand that they could employ as tools in order to meet their needs and fulfil their purposes. The human being always was homo faber, a worker and tool-user. And we should also recognise that the objectification of mind goes back at least as far as the invention of writing. The written text is a simple storage and retrieval system more efficient and publicly-checkable than memory, and in the earliest surviving written texts we see the beginnings of the learned professions: the accountant, the lawyer, the registrar, the civil servant, the historian. Undoubtedly there are still conservatives who believe that the skill of using a library is somehow morally inferior to the skill of stocking and consulting one's own memory; but not even an antitechnologist like Gandhi would seriously suggest that society would be better off without writing and the various technologies of social administration that writing first made possible. And indeed until well after the end of the Second World War there was not very much public awareness of the possible effects of really advanced technology upon the mind. The most obvious effect of modern technology seemed to lie in the substitution of powered machinery for human labour, both in the workplace and in the home. We talked about ‘the mechanization of agriculture', and about ‘labour-saving gadgets' in the home; but the phrase ‘information technology' had not yet been invented. When computers first arrived they were used chiefly to perform more quickly tasks that were already being performed by clerical workers with the help of Ready Reckoners, filing systems, punched cards, typewriters, slide rules, log tables and the like. Sometimes they were perceived as ‘electronic brains' -- as rivals. But we did not at first see clearly the extent to which we were handing over our own mental functions and capacities to them, whilst at the same time requiring them to become more and more user-friendly, to the point where we need not understand how they work but rely upon them to do more and more of our thinking for us.

The situation now is that all the advanced countries are overwhelmingly committed to economic growth, which means ever-more-advanced technology, which means the domination of education by the requirements of technological culture. We go to school to learn how to handle the new information technologies: it is said that in the US half of all workers have a screen and keyboard to hand as they work. We are learning to play our part in a system which is progressively alienating people more and more from what knowledge and thought user to be. Knowledge itself has been de-ethicised: that is, separated from any connection with the use of the imagination, the development of the self and the practice of virtue. Knowledge has been depersonalized. Knowledge has been secularized, quantified, commodified, until now it is external to the self, having become just a mathematical pattern in a calculating machine. And what in human beings used to be thinking and wisdom is now simply keyboard skills. Our function as operators of the machinery is simply to make the system more and more what it is already. Apparently, culture is no longer about the perfecting of the human being. It is about objectified ‘growth', at the expense of the human being. As ‘the economy grows,' we shrink.

The late Ernest Gellner used to point out how often governments of the Right use a conservative language of family, home and traditional values to mask their programmes of aggressive economic modernization. What they say they are doing functions to conceal the truth about what in fact they are doing. It was in this spirit that the recent long-running Conservative administration changed Britain's polytechnics into universities, in order to mask its real agenda: the conversion of all the universities into polytechnics. The incoming Labour government, continuing in the same spirit, now proposes a University for Labour. One UK company is already setting up its own ‘university' -- the presumption being that universities are for job training.

The change is extraordinary. I first went up to University in the early 1950s. I expected it to be, and it was, a transforming experience. I left with a faith, a task in life, a much clearer consciousness, and the knowledge that I had been made into a different kind of person. But who today supposes that a university exists to have that sort of effect upon people? Like other institutions, universities exist to promote national economic growth, and to that end they train students in a wide range of marketable technical skills. There is no suggestion that the acquisition of these skills might be a directly and personally transforming experience. The skills are simply passports to professional status and the income that will enable one to enjoy ‘the good things of life' -- which are now understood to be a range of purchasable goods and services.

We now have world-wide a culture in which the Last End of all communal human action is national economic and technical power, just for power's sake. The most sinister and beautiful expression of this is surely the Stealth bomber -- a magnificent object, our cathedral, the symbol of our highest values. At the individual level, the Last End of all action is that each of us should ‘have a full life', enjoying ‘the good things of life.' Technical or instrumental rationality has become so overwhelmingly dominant in the culture that it leaves no space for, and is quite untroubled by, philosophical or religious thought as these were traditionally understood. Indeed, the development and perfecting of the self is no longer seen as an important objective. Knowledge has been entirely secularized away into technical skill for the sake of power, and is therefore no longer thought to have any bearing upon the ultimate well-being of the self. Art has become a marginal, freakish sideshow. Thought has been replaced by celebrity opinion. We have become the passive spectators of life. Personal experience has become a dance of images and stimuli, some pleasant and some unpleasant. We naturally opt for the images and sound bytes that make the most pleasing impression upon us, and so the ‘feelgood factor' comes to occupy the space where there used to be political thought. And in religion and philosophy people's opinions have similarly come to follow non-rational impulse to an extraordinary degree. People do still acknowledge a need to meet standards in their professional field; but in private life, anything goes. You consider yourself entitled to believe whatever makes you feel good.

Religion minus religious thought is fundamentalism, and the present argument leads me to conclude that the prospect for the human race in the third millennium can be summed up in the three-word formula: technology, entertainment, fundamentalism. It sounds like a nihilistic nightmare, but it is what all the greatest and most powerful economic and political forces are currently striving to bring about everywhere; it is arguably, what the masses world-wide are almost unanimously voting for; it is already the actual cultural condition of a large portion of humanity; and it is very probably what will come about.

It also explains a curious paradox, the paradox that as the percentage of graduates in the population rises, the general cultural level falls. Of course it does -- because what nowadays passes for education is a type of technical training that leaves out virtue and the self, and has the effect of dumbing-down the person trained. Our newly-trained professionals have become less able -- and are much less inclined -- to ask innocent philosophical and religious questions than they were at the age of four. I suggested earlier that in the past it was the church that repressed our natural power. Today the same repression continues under the hegemony of the technological rationality that is tending to reduce all the questions of life to technical problems, all education to technical education, and all knowledge to technical skills.

Under this new technocracy, there is no space in the culture for thinking, and little scope for the play of the creative imagination. What is required is simply efficiency. There is good and bad management, there is problem-solving, and there is feelgood and feelbad. There is, then, technology and entertainment; and there is fundamentalism, in the sense that it is from time to time convenient to invoke and make political use of archaic non-rational collective sentiments and prejudices. But this new regime has no time and seems to leave no room for innovative philosophical and religious thought. It has, in Heidegger's phrase, ‘forgotten Being.' In setting us our agenda for the years ahead, it makes us first ask how we can ever hope to get any purchase against it.

We may begin by remembering that another group is in the same position as we are. How can art nowadays hope to compete with design? The most grandiose products of modern technology -- objects such as the Hubble space telescope, the recent Martian Pathfinder and a communications satellite -- are the products of the collaboration of thousands of highly-specialized people, and billions of dollars. How can an individual new artist, without any significant funding, be expected to produce an object in any way comparable with the great showpieces of technology and design? How indeed can any artist hope to make as much difference to the world as a design team who make an object that is to be manufactured and sold by the million?

What excuse have the artist, the religious thinker, the philosopher? We are all trying to remind the public of something desperately important to humanity that is currently being lost. The artist cannot hope to produce a better thought-out and better-finished object than a Boeing airplane. No chance. And by the same token, the modern philosopher or religious thinker cannot hope to produce a serious rival to the modern scientific world-picture. None of us can hope to beat the opposition at their own game. As I tried to suggest earlier, the realization of our own relative weakness has forced us to adopt a different strategy. When the painter sees he can't beat the camera, he learns to paint instead in a new way that shows us the work of painting itself. We learn what it is to be an artist. Similarly, the religious thinker and the philosopher cannot now hope to produce a view of life or a system of thought which has the same sort of world-wide cogency and attractiveness as our natural science and the technologies based upon it. But we may be able to get people interested in learning what it is to live religiously or to think philosophically: what needs we are trying to meet, and what questions we try to answer.

Our gifted young generation of new British artists produce many of their best effects by tactlessly drawing attention to all those features of the human condition that we don't want to think about, and that cannot be remedied by technology. Memory, time, transience, the body, mortality, the mystery and the absurdity of the self. In the brash, eternally optimistic world of the media the endless progress of technology is taken to imply that everything can go on getting a little better each year, for ever. Enterprises such as the Internet and the Human Genome project perpetuate old theological dreams of achieving perfect happiness through total knowledge and total control, leading perhaps even to the conquest of ageing and death. But in response to such grandiose dreams the artist does not attempt to produce some alternative and even more grandiose dream. Like the jester of old who said ‘Caesar, thou art mortal', the artist punctures the grandiose totalizing dream by pointing out what it represses, what it tries to forget, the Other.

From this we may take a hint about our own agenda. I'm suggesting that on the constructive side our first task is to persuade a very sceptical world that there is still a vital need for religion. Not all the problems of life can be solved by good management, technical progress and economic growth. There is still a need to cultivate the non-technical kind of thinking out of which is born new values and new forms of life. Man does not live by means alone: there has to be thought about ends. In particular, we need new visions of the good life and of the good society, because so many of the old ones are out of date and so many of the new ones are banal. Old-style talk about saints is outworn, but new-style talk about ‘role-models' is too shallow. We need to do better: and for that, we need to use the religious imagination.

The non-realist Christian today, who is trying to find ways of making the old language do new things, is in a situation very familiar to artists. Indeed it is arguable that Sea of Faith is trying to democratize art by saying that everyone is nowadays in a situation that has long been familiar to artists -- people such as Graham Greene, Benjamin Britten and Stanley Spencer. These people (and many more like them) passed for Christian artists; but they were by no means straightforward orthodox believers. They were in effect non-realists. They liked and used the symbolism, the values, and the language of Christianity because it gave them access to, and enabled them to deal with, a whole range of questions and vitally important regions of experience that might otherwise soon become unavailable to us. And what those artists did is very similar to what we must do. It is about as certain as can be that old-style dogmatic truth is dead: but religion remains humanly necessary, and we must try to make it out of whatever materials we can get hold of.

We need somehow to demonstrate that religious existence is still possible, even under today's conditions, and in full recognition of the dark side of life. My own Solar Ethics was an attempt to show how it might be possible to go on saying a religious Yes to life even as one is burning out and passing away into extinction. The idea was to affirm the highest joy of all, in the darkest place of all.

That, I am suggesting, is the sort of thing we must attempt if we are to persuade people at large that religion still matters. We need new experiments in religious writing and, still more, in religious existence.