The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech

by Don Cupitt (SCM Press, 1999) This was reviewed by Lloyd Geering in Newsletter 31.

This is the first of a new series of books by Don Cupitt on what he calls 'ordinary-language theology'. He has collected and analysed a number of new idioms occurring in everyday speech, all having to do with 'life'. He contends that our very vocabulary illustrates how, unconsciously, we are already moving from a God-centred to a Life-centred religion. In other words, without our realising what is happening, we are creating and enunciating through our everyday language a new theology of life. He says, this 'ordinary language is the best radical theologian, and significantly sharper than the professionals'.

Don's research into language shows that the word 'life' is also changing its meaning and is becoming religiously charged. For example, we commonly say of someone 'she loved life', where once we might have said 'she loved God'; the latter is now more likely to prompt an embarrassed silence. He suggests that, for a very long period, religion was so preoccupied with warning us about our imminent Final Examination and helping us to prepare for it, that it distracted us from discovering what this life is. He claims, therefore, that the discovery of 'life' —like that of the body, the imagination and human psychology—is essentially modern. He says, 'God dies, man comes back to life, eternal life comes back to humans'.

Don could well claim support from the Fourth Gospel for this. It is now commonly acknowledged that the term frequently used there, 'eternal life', literally means 'life of this age or aeon' and refers not to quantity of life but to quality of life. The English New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd said some 60 years ago that the theology of the Fourth Gospel could properly be called 'realised eschatology'. That means it was written by someone who believed that instead of looking for the New Age or eschaton to come (as the first Christians did) it was better to treat this life as that in which the expected New Age had already come. Life could be lived in this age of such a quality that it was eternal life (life of the aeon). In similar vein Thomas a Kempis in his famous spiritual classic said, 'Vanity it is to wish to live long and to be careless to live well'.

What Don has discovered by examining everyday language I found quite fascinating. He suggests that, because there is no ready-made objective and unchanging Truth to be discovered, what we humans do is to draw upon a communally developed stock of guiding idioms, quotations, pro- verbs and use them as the need arises, to interpret our experiences. This language stock is becoming for us what the Wisdom literature was in the Bible. In this process, he suggests, 'life' has gradually become theologised during the past century. We have been learning to see life as a process and not a static permanent thing. We are no longer afraid of transience. Everything from protons to galaxies, including humans, has a life span. "In real life there are no second chances and no retakes. Its now or never. This is it".

If Don is right, then the religion of the post-Christian future is already evolving and it will not be artificially created by experts but will arise spontaneously from our communal life, as, together, we face the many challenges which 'life' brings.

Lloyd Geering

The complete series is:

  1. The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech
  2. The Meaning of It All
  3. Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech