Emptiness and Brightness

by Don Cupitt, 2001, published by Polebridge Press, Box 6144, Santa Rosa, California, 95406, US$16. Reviewed by Lloyd Geering

I have just read this book for the second time. It needs to be read carefully and slowly for it is quite closely packed with thoughts which should be pondered for some time. Personally, I have found it the most satisfying of Don Cupitt’s many books since his Taking Leave of God (1981), but that does not meant that it is an easy read. As would be expected, this book is a good deal more radical than the earlier one, for during the intervening period Don has moved on quite significantly. For these reasons, warmly disposed as I am towards this book, I suggest that before reading it one should first become familiar with the kind of material to be found in his earlier books or in others like them.

I found myself to be on familiar ground because of what I have written, first, in Faith’s New Age (which incidentally has just been printed by Polebridge Press in a slightly revised form as Christian Faith at the Crossroads) and second, in Tomorrow’s God. But much of what I had arrived at in those years, and only after a slow and struggling pilgrimage, is here expressed very succinctly by Cupitt in the opening chapters. There he speaks of the New Axial Age and the New World View in which we at last realise that traditional religious thinking has come to an end and we have to engage in a radically new form of religious thinking. Don concedes that this is likely to be both difficult and stressful.

Among other things, we have to shed the last remnants of Platonism, which assumes there is an eternal system of truth out there waiting for us to discover it. In other words we have to empty ourselves of the ‘absolute truths’ which appeared to give our forbears such confidence in the past.

We do not find it easy to do this; indeed, it rather daunting. One is reminded (though Cupitt does not mention it) of the Christian doctrine of kenosis, which (following Philippians 2: 7) described how Christ Jesus emptied himself of his divine form (which presumably possessed absolute knowledge of all things) and took on human form (which implied ignorance and uncertainty).

This process of emptying oneself has become necessary because of our new awareness that the past apparent ‘certainties’, and even our understanding of the world, are themselves human creations. They are made possible through humanly-created language. There is nothing final about them and they are always subject to change. The emptying process, however, does not leave one in the despair of nihilism that one may have expected. We find that we no longer carry unnecessary baggage. We feel free. There is a lightness in our experience and we are able to enjoy what Don calls the brightness of the world.

The longest chapter expounds in turn ‘Universal Contingency’, ‘Empty Radical Humanism’, ‘Attention to Be-ing’, ‘Solar Living’, and ‘Humanitarian Social Ethics’. Although these titles, some of which Don has coined earlier, may not sound very attractive, Don uses them to summarise his exposition of the new religious thinking. Even then the title, Emptiness and Brightness, though correctly pointing to the chief themes of the book, is likely to be found puzzling and even meaningless until the book is read.

As the book is mostly in 18 short chapters, Sea of Faith Groups would find it very profitable material both to discuss and to challenge, section by section.

Lloyd Geering