Reviewed by Lloyd Geering, SOF NZ Newsletter #6, March 1994
Don Cupitt's most recent book After All, was published this month by SCM and the editor has received an advance copy. Don first discusses the "emergence of Post-Christianity". He argues that since "Christianity contains within itself an impulse to self-criticism", post-Christianity is still a form of Christianity but it is one which is "being experienced as a religious liberation".
Don sees the need to reinvent a sort of metaphysics, in the "sense of sketching the view of the world and the human condition that a reasonable person might currently hold", and one chapter, called "How it is", (half of the book), is taken up with this. This is not always easy reading but there are so many challenging things in it that it is worth reading more than once.
Don makes much of the fact that we see and understand everything through the grid of human language (itself a human creation). He says he has "tried to develop an antirealist visionof the world and the self, as a solution to the problems left by the demise of the traditional realistic religious belief".
To this end he has "redescribed religion as a way of world-affirmation and life-affirmation ... Religion was always supposed to be a way of preparing for death and overcoming the fear of death, and I have argued that this can be done by making the world so beautiful that one can die content". He points out that Jesus, in speaking of the Kingdom, did not envisage a peaceful restored Eden but "on the contrary the Sermon on the Mount envisages the continuation of stress and conflict, persecution and suffering". But Jesus "promises joy in affliction: no more, but no less than that".
In this mind-stretching book, Don Cupitt put forward a view of life that fits the times we live in. He wants to describe as truthfully and as naturalistically as he can, the world, ourselves and our language. In other words, a natural theology and a natural religion.
By the end of the nineteenth century, metaphysics and systematic theology were dead in the water. We now need to come to terms with the cosmic story offered by modern science allied to a vision of the world that reduces everything to the movement of cultural signs, especially language. The old ideas about God, the soul, life after death ... are no longer tenable. The church is fighting a desperate rear-guard action in defense of tradition against modernity and, rather ironically, clings to power by asking people to believe in absurdities. (True maybe, but do I not detect a trace of acid and overkill here?) The language of fundamentalism is empty and ranting, the language of liberal religion is soothing but empty waffle. Religious language has collapsed. So we live in a post-modern, post-christian age when people can live without ideology, in which there are not two worlds but only one, this world. There is no longer a super-Being "out there". Everything that lives is holy. We want a new kind of Kingdom religion which is grown up, open air, free moving. Jesus can therefore be seen as a prophet of the post-christian age.
In his major chapter, "How It Is", Cupitt attempts to harmonize the three worlds of our experience the world of events (objective), the world of self (subjective) and the world of language. This he does in naturalistic terms:
Language: all our thinking is transacted in linguistic and other signs. The Big Bang and the Universe itself, are conjured up only by language and can appear to us only within language. The world, like our brain, is a seething cauldron of language.
The Universe: Pictured as an immense slow-motion explosion, scattering radiation and tiny particles of energy across space and time.
Life-In-This-World: Symbolised by a fountain. In speaking of the world as a flux of language-formed events we call up a picture of a constant uprush of energies that arch upwards, spread, scatter, are borne away and are lost. The fountain is a symbol of life's transparency and passing away, its rush into oblivion, and ceaseless renewal. It flows in the same direction all the time, but its not going anywhere, has no general long-term goal towards which events are orchestrated. A fountain is also a symbol of healing and refreshment, blissful to contemplate. It moves so fast, its still; its so transient its eternal.
Mystery: Apart from the flux of language-formed events there is nothing else, nothing between the lines, nothing mysterious. What appears is what there is.
Transcendence: In place of the old mysterious transcendant order ... we will acknowledge that language and interpretation is endless, there will always be scope for surprise and innovation. We believe in art, and in the creative religious imagination. (In a later book, After God, (review), Cupitt acknowledges an unseen intelligible world, or spirit world, about us and within us. It is the world of words and other symbols. "The supernatural world of religion turns out all along to have been in various ways a mythical representation of the truly magical world of linguistic meaning.")
Relationships: There are preachers who idealize straightness, transparency and truth-telling in human relationships. They are mistaken. Unless people are a little prickly they disappear. Life requires a touch of misunderstanding, conflict of interpretations, teasing, malice, banter, irony and difference. Love is a very particular way of being irritated or stirred by someone. Sameness is death. Otherness is life.
Death: The moment of death may be viewed as a state of total relaxation and therefore of final and snuffed-out impersonal bliss. It can therefore be regarded as something to be looked forward to.
Cupitt concludes with a chapter on active religion trying to enhance the beauty of the world; and contemplative religion a sort of ecstatic melting into and being part of the world.
This book, like most of Cupitt's works, is no casual read. His creative mind and poetic instincts, along with some obvious frustrations, are always running ahead of his pen; but its well worth the effort trying to catch up.