After God

This review appeared in SOFN (NZ) Newsletter 24

After God, The Future of Religion by Don Cupitt, Weidenberg & Nicolson, 1997, reviewed by Lloyd Geering.

Don Cupitt was commissioned by Basic Books (of HarperCollins) to write this book for the Master Minds Series, a publishing venture consisting of original books by leading thinkers round the world. So it first appeared in USA.

It sketches a theory of religious meaning for the future. It is "religion without metaphysics, religion without creed, religion no longer focused around a power centre outside ourselves, religion without a structure of authority, and religion without a gathered community of people -- the elect".

But first he analyses the religious history of the past. So the book is in three parts: The Coming of the Gods, The Departure of the Gods, Religion after the Gods.

This is not exactly bedside reading but SoFers will find a great deal in it to excite, to stimulate and to ponder upon. I have read it three times. I do not agree with all of it and perhaps I have not understood the full import of every sentence. Yet each time I find more of interest in it, so much so that my copy is becoming heavily marked.

Cupitt draws upon many ideas and assertions that are to be found in his earlier books, such as the absence of absolutes and the way we build our worlds out of language, but he carries them further and with much freshness of expression. For example, "everything nowadays is beginning to float on a free global market -- not only money and prices but also linguistic meanings, religious truths, and moral and aesthetic values". He suggests that protagonists of the Right, who set themselves up as defenders of traditional values, are quite illogical if they do not acknowledge that moral values sink or swim just like economic values.

After rejecting four current methods of attempting to preserve traditional values in the current "sea of meanings" where nothing is fixed, Cupitt proceeds to his radical redefinition of religion. To do this he goes back to ask why the gods were created by human imagination in the first place and why they have recently disappeared.

Cupitt's general contention at the outset is that the spirits of the ancient world, when demythologized, turn out to be the power of words, and that the supernatural world of ancient religion is really a mythical representation of the creative power of language. This could have been even better illustrated from Zoroastrianism, where the spirits are actually called by such names as Truth, Right-mindedness, Immortality and the supreme God Ahura Mazda literally means "Lord Light".

This supplies the key as to why "the gods have departed", when understood as external and objective beings. There is nothing permanent or absolute about language. Words come and go and change in meaning. Every word has a history. Every culture has a history. Every religion has a history. And, as Karen Armstrong has made so clear by her book, even God has a history.

In attempting to salvage something of God-language after "the death of God" for the religion of the future Cupitt selects three themes which he calls, the Eye of God, Blissful Void and Solar Living.

The first draws from the mediaeval mystic Meister Eckhart who said "The eye with which I see God and the eye with which God sees me are one and the same eye". To believe in God, suggests Cupitt is "to live as if under the eye of God and to assess oneself and one's world from the standpoint of eternity".

The Blissful Void draws upon the Buddhist concept of Sunyata, which means Emptiness. In a world where nothing is solid, permanent or changeless, Cupitt finds this to be a suitable replacement for the old metaphysical God.

Solar Living, or the outpouring of one's life and energy without trying to hold on to anything, Cupitt made clear in his Solar Ethics. Incidentally, it is a very apt modern expression of the Christian invitation to "take up the cross".

Like most of Cupitt's books this is a book to be discussed, debated and thoroughly chewed over before it can be finally digested.


Postscript

We can report that After God was reviewed in the October 12, 1997 issue of the Guardian Weekly on page 20 of the Features section. The article was less of a review of the book and more of a background to Cupitt and his writings. Some quotations:

"Cupitt categorises his present religious views as 'eclectic and improvised -- 50 percent Christian, 20 percent Jewish and 30 percent Buddhist.'"

Quoting Cupitt, "By all means let us look at a sunset with the eyes of a physicist when it is appropriate to do so, but as a corrective let us learn also to look at a sunset with the eyes of a Turner."

"Cupitt rejects the idea of a one-truth universe, teaching instead what he calls 'cosmic democracy: everything is seen as depending upon open debate, healthy institutions, and a human consensus refreshed by frequent injections of new metaphors, new valuations, new angles. If the price of liberty is eternal vigilance [then] the price of truth is endless openness to criticism and innovation.'"

"Just as painters, 'beaten' by photographers, learnt to paint in new 'post-realist' ways, so religious thinkers and philosophers can show 'what it is to live religiously or to think philosophically: what needs we are trying to meet, and what questions we try to answer.'"

reported by Noel Cheer