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Surfing on the Sea of Faith

Surfing on the Sea of Faith: The Ethics and Religion of Don Cupitt
Nigel Leaves, Polebridge Press, Ca, 2005

This is the companion volume to the author's Odyssey on the Sea of Faith which was reviewed by Hugh Gilman in Newsletter 57. Both volumes were derived from the author's 2001 Ph.D thesis at Murdoch University. Nigel Leaves is Director and Dean of Studies of Woolaston College in Perth and is the chair of the Perth branch of Sea of Faith in Australia.

The first volume takes us more or less chronologically on a trip through Don's work: from the Negative Theology starting in 1967, via Non-realism, Postmodernism and Anti-realism, Expressionism, Be-ing, Ordinary Language theology, culminating (for the time being, for Don is an evolving creature!) with today's Religion of the Future.

This second volume deals with three major themes that emerge out of the first volume: ethics, religion and the SoF Networks. Under "ethics" the author (who shares with this reviewer a passion for categorisation) sees Cupitt passing through five "phases". The first, Moral Asceticism, dismisses the five styles of moral argument that depend upon external criteria; in his New Christian Ethics Cupitt referred to the 'cosmic-protection-racket version of Christianity' in the 1950s; the third phase gave three objective grounds for ethical theory despite there being nothing more substantial than a 'democratically evolving concensus'. Phase Four — Solar (personal) Ethics — introduced us to ways to handle our transience (in six pointers); while the last Phase "Postmodernity, has 'realised' the religious humanism espoused by Jesus in his kingdom theology."

Still categorising, we are taken through Cupitt's "Four ideas of the essence of religion" whch developed over the last 25 years. At the time of the TV series 20 years ago, he defined religion as “a way of affirming the value of human life from the first breath to the very last.” Then a three-year period of the ‘discipline of the void’ — there is no metaphysical world, our world is ‘outsideless’ (as he elsewhere writes, so too are our lives).

The two approaches to religion in the last decade are Religious Humanism wherein “the divine comes down into the human world ... [and] ... theology is translated into anthropology ..”) and Post-Christianity, “a natural development of the tradition ... [which has] ... a radical tradition of self-transcendence ...”).

For those still agonising over whether to leave the church or whether to remain and try to fix it, Chapter 4 sets out the issues among which we find these two neat expressions: “Churches are intellect-free zones” and “Christianity isn't about saving one's soul, but about losing oneself in the work of love.”

The last section is an overview of the developments of the Networks in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. The author helpfully points out that there is no hiererchical relationship between them. By medium of the Internet there is a free exchange of opinions, ideas and Newsletter material throughout this "network of Networks". He writes of Don's special affection for organisations that came into being to discuss the ramifications of the TV series. Nigel doesn't mention that, in the case of New Zealand, our Network was well underway before our cautious government TV organisation got round to broadcasting it. Though Don did not set up the Networks, he retains a strong involvement in their activities — he is (along with Lloyd Geering) a Life Member of the NZ Network.

It is usual, once an organisation is well established, to eulogise its founder and at first glance these books might appear to do so. But that would be only incidental. For many in SoF, Don Cupitt has been a bit enigmatic — changing his orientation every few years. On page 9 of Odyssey Nigel wrote “Cupitt has declined to write his own autobiography, insisting many times that his writings are his autobiography because they reflect a string of selves that have grappled with an ever-changing religious faith.”

The first book of this pair is a sort of roadmap, tracing the development of Don's thoughts. The second volume teases out the ramifications in what is (in this context at least) paradoxically called “the real world”, though still at one remove. Perhaps that slight distancing is a characteristic of the democratic nature of the Sea of Faith in general. It (and Don) don't provide answers — but they wonderfully sharpen up the questions.

Availability may be a matter of some difficulty. Although both books deserve attention among liberal/rational post-Christian, religious-humanist readers, retailers could easily form the opinion that there might be only small number of readers. That not need be the case because as the malaise that Don writes of spreads over the already declining mainline denominations, there is a detectable thirst for ideas among people who are looking for alternatives. Don's large output of material and Nigel's two-volume survey of it should help such people. Both books are available from www.amazon.com

Noel Cheer