Emptiness and Brightness

A Review by Alan Goss

Emptiness and Brightness
Don Cupitt
USA: Santa Rosa, Calif: Polebridge press

Anyone who is brave enough to suggest that a new way of religious thinking is urgently needed ... is destined for a long, hard ride. But this is what the Cambridge theologian Don Cupitt sets out to do in his little book \Emptiness and Brightness\\. We need a second Axial Period largely because the great religious traditions have run out of steam, their vocabularies, their ways of thinking and their view of the world are plainly out of date.

Central to Cupitt’s position is that there is no ready-made Real world “out there” and there is no ready-made self. There is no objective reality “out there” (God), there is only this world which, like ourselves, is passing, transient, flowing, fleeting, existing in time. This transient life is itself our spiritual life. Religious truth is not to be found in some cosmic supernatural realm separate from this world but is right under our noses. It is easy and obvious and simply involves saying “yes” to life as it passes by. To say “yes” to life is bliss.

“Yes” to Life: Life is the ongoing process of the world ... the ceaseless drama or soap opera of human existence. Life is formed and filled out by language which is the medium of human communication. It is through language that our life in the world is built up and held steady. What is necessary ... is that we give up the quest for “something out there” (objectivity) and the idea of truth out there and say “yes” to life and our life in this world. Most people ... feel that there is something “out there” that gives them the anchor they seek. They need the anchor to hold them, keep them steady, to ensure a measure of control. The majority of Christians are realists, that is they believe there is a supernatural real world out there independent of ourselves. Better to let the anchor go, to let be, and to float freely on the ever-changing ocean of life.

There is an appealing ordinariness about life. The tragic and the comic, the serious and the trivial, are all mixed up together. Those who agonize about and bewail the lack of young people in our churches should heed Cupitt’s life-focussed approach. Such people congregate in places where there is the flow of life – the pubs, the malls, the resorts, the rock band arena, where meeting matters.

Cupitt is therefore inviting his audience to respond to a religion of life, just as it is. There is no longer any need for the old supernatural distinctions between spiritual and material, heaven and hell, God and Satan, sacred and secular and so on. These outdated dualisms are largely to blame for Christianity’s long-term decline. We need a new religion, a fresh start, and show people how to recognize and respond to the truth of our life as it now is. As we enter the second Axial Period we can dispense with the complex apparatus of mediated religion with its doctrines, priesthood, big hats, religious laws, which enable us “to do business with God”. Cupitt is asking us to learn and practice a new world view. This may be summarized as follows:

World: The world we make for ourselves ... is our world and the only world we know ... and is subject to ceaseless change. Nothing that happens in the world is fated to happen, it just happens — our ideas and practices and values emerge in the flow and in time pass away. There is no “other” supernatural world out there, nor are there any imposed absolutes from on high. This new view of the world – and we see only our world – represents an enormous change. It means leaving behind the old God-endorsed, God-backed programmes of knowledge, ethics etc. and the end of a divinely established reality of things. Cupitt employs the Buddhist term “Empty” to describe this view of the world, namely that everything is passing, transient, empty of substance and objective reality. There is no supernatural glue that holds things together. There is an in-built spontaneous and creative play of forces at work in the world and within ourselves. Our best ideas seem to come without a giver. Cupitt offers three modes or aspects of life in the world:

  • (i) Be-ing cannot be described, pinned down, in language. It ... is like a fountain, it emerges from the ground and recycles itself in a steady and ceaseless flow. It is all there is, and it is not mysterious or deep in any way, it is simply the flow of things in time, ourselves included.
  • (ii) Language is the symbolic currency by which we humans communicate with others and build our world.
  • (iii) Brightness. As we become consciously aware of the world so do we become consciously aware of its brighter, vividness and beauty. Cupitt calls this world view “Empty Radical Humanism”. It also means a humanism of love and pity for the human in its very transience and weakness, not in its strength and pride. Socially our only concern is attempting to free our fellow humans from need and other forms of deprivation; we leave the work of governing to the law and to the processes of liberal democracy; morally we will favour toleration, limiting the freedom of others only when it is necessary to do so for the good of others.

    Our chief religious task is to love this world, love this life, to throw ourselves into the business of living. This means becoming poor in spirit, losing ones-self, losing everything.

    Conclusion: For Cupitt life really has no depth, no hiddenness, no mystery, a view which makes some of his critics rather testy. What he means is that what you see is what you get, there is no Big Question about life and no Big Answer to it somewhere to be found. We are not going anywhere special and our lives are not a preparation. We’re home already, the world is our oyster. God and the sacred, together with our religious feelings, are now scattered and dispersed throughout the world in personal relationships, love, morality and babies.

    In the light of all this, a revised mission statement for today’s Christian church might be as follows:

    The mission of the church is to help all people, everywhere, to reach their full human potential. The church will do this by exploring life in all its brightness, darkness and complexity, drawing upon the resources of the Christian and other great religious traditions as well as from other appropriate sources. The preservation of the environment and the fostering of human spiritual values like love, caring for others, a passion for justice, an appreciation of beauty and a concern for truth will be central to the church’s mission.

    Alan M Goss, May 2003