Spirituality, Old and New

Delivered by Don Cupitt at the 11th Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith Network (UK) at Sheffield on 23 July 1998

During the past decade or so, as instant communication between people in different parts of the world has become cheaper and cheaper, it has often occurred to me that we need to begin developing a global religious vocabulary. Because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was signed up to at the time by most countries, it has done a very good job in helping us to develop at least the beginnings of a global moral vocabulary. Talk about human rights may sound rather different in different countries of the world, and may be very unpopular in some places, but it has by now acquired a certain universal resonance and moral authority. No country, however arrogant and isolationist, likes to have a bad reputation in the field of human rights. And with the United Nations Organisation there have also become established a number of international bodies such as the ILO and the WHO, whose work has done much to establish a common moral vocabulary, values and goals across the world. The way we have come to use the word 'humanitarian' is a good illustration of what has been achieved. Countries with very different cultural traditions have begun to talk a moral language which is not just local, but global. And this development is not a mere luxury but a necessity if we are to negotiate world-wide about such matters as international law, the environment, and population policy.

Some progress has then been made in establishing a global and humanistic moral vocabulary, and if this has been a good and necessary thing then surely we should also be looking for the development of a global religious vocabulary? Humanity's ancient faiths are all of them tied to particular geographical regions, languages and histories, to such an extent that religious allegiance very often looks all too like the nationalism with which it is so often bound up. It is not universal, but highly specific, jealous and exclusive. It very often leads communities to draw apart from each other, to eye each other suspiciously and even to come into conflict. But in the modern age most larger states have become multi-faith, and all faiths alike are now threatened by rapid cultural change. Surely it is becoming urgent that the major world faiths should begin to talk to each other, and to develop a common vocabulary, in which they can find common ground and make common cause? Various faiths claim to be 'catholic' or universal, but in practice none yet is so. A generally-accepted world religious vocabulary will surely help all the faiths to escape from their respective cultural ghettos, expand their sympathies, become porous and mingle with and into each other. Surely the old obsession with maintaining separate vocabularies and separate identifies, unpolluted by each other, is now out of date?

So far, so good. What will be the key words in a world religious vocabulary?

This is not an easy question to answer. Everybody knows that in all faith communities since the Second World War there has been a strong tendency to put up the shutters, resist assimilation, and retreat into various forms of neo-orthodoxy or traditionalism. People simply do not want to change their ways. In Christianity the ecumenical movement has ground to a halt; and on the wider front, bodies such as the World Congress of Faiths have few achievements to point to. Everywhere, religious vocabularies and doctrines are more likely to be used as badges of difference and separation, rather than to negotiate agreements. About the most that can be said is this—that, as in ethics our struggle to establish a global moral vocabulary will probably begin with such words as humanism, humanitarianism and human rights, so in religion about all that we have to start from is words like spirit, spiritual values and spirituality; while in order to link ethics and religion, we have also agreed that amongst human rights there are certain religious rights, which are now widely claimed and conceded: the right to assemble, to worship and generally to practise and to propagate one's religion freely.

What then do the religions have in common today? So far as public discourse is concerned, it seems that the answer is that they have a common interest in battling against anti-religion and against something usually called 'materialism'. Hence perhaps the popularity of talk about 'the spirit', about 'body, mind and spirit', about 'spiritual values', and about 'spirituality'. When we use this language we are drawing upon the old contrast between spirit and matter. We are trying to gather a broad multi-faith constituency in support of the proposition that 'materialism', whatever that is, is a very Bad Thing, and that in religion we concern ourselves with another and larger realm that transcends the material world. The presumption is that we are all of us today threatened by thoroughgoing secularism, and that a purely this-worldly outlook and way of life is a state of bondage. Talk about the spirit and spirituality is talk about how human beings can be liberated from captivity to 'the world' and material things.

In all this the presumption is that the essential message of religion, and the one thing that must at all costs be preserved, is the picture of the human being as an amphibian. Our life is a journey through time towards our true and final home in the eternal world. We are composed of two parts, the body or 'the flesh', and the soul or spirit. In human life and human society there are everywhere two realms that presently coexist: Nature and Grace, the secular and the sacred, Throne and Mtar, the civil and the ecclesiastical, things human and things divine, the relative and the absolute, time and eternity, outward appearance and invisible inner reality. Everywhere, religion is assumed to be concerned with a distinct and higher-ranking sphere of life and dimension of human existence. The assumption is that today 'materialism' threatens this ancient world-view, and thereby threatens human dignity and the very survival of the human spirit. And if this is right, it would seem that when we talk about spiritual values and spirituality we are saying that the essence of all religion is Platonism, the concern for an eternal Reality beyond the passing show of material existence, an eternal Reality in which we shall at last find our true home.

Against this background, I can now state the dilemma that I propose to discuss in this lecture. It is often complained that much modern talk about spirituality is wishy-washy and self-serving. What does it all amount to; is it just fantasy? In reply, I am suggesting that words like spirit, spiritual and spirituality still get their meaning chiefly from various ancient oppositions that are deeply embedded in our culture: the biblical contrast between the flesh which is weak, and the power of the spirit; the old medieval contrast between 'the spirituality' (that is, the clergy), and such 'temporalities' as property and money; the pervasive contrast between a person's outward appearance and her hidden, 'interior' and 'spiritual' life—and so on. Out of this background has gradually developed our own use of the word 'spirituality' to mean 'concern for a Higher, religious, dimension of human existence'. We often also speak of 'a spirituality', in the sense of a specific religious style, a particular set of religious practices and attitudes that some individual or group has evolved, and lives by.

Thus, if people complain that talk about spirituality is horribly vague, I answer that we can learn at least something of its meaning from its history. In practice, this means learning what spirit means by looking at what it has been contrasted with. Spirit is power, as opposed to the weakness of the flesh. The world of the spirit is unchanging and eternal, as opposed to this world of time and change. Spirit is inward and hidden reality, as opposed to the outward appearance of the body and clothing. And so on. But now we see that everything we say about the history of things spiritual is highly dualistic, whereas today, when people are talking about spirituality, they almost invariably disclaim any intention to confirm the old opposition between this world and the next world, between outer and inner, body and soul, secular and Sacred, time and eternity, and the rest.

The dilemma, then, is this: it is very difficult to use any religious vocabulary today without invoking a history of extreme Two-Worlds dualism that one must hasten to disclaim. Most religious liberals today try to go on using the traditional religious vocabulary, whilst at the same time repudiating the old cosmological beliefs and valuations that used to give that vocabulary meaning. It is no wonder that we end up sounding vague, woolly and confused.

Most of our religious vocabulary first came into use around 20-25 centuries ago, at a time of very deep pessimism about the possibility of human life in this world ever being entirely happy. The only way to make life bearable was to suppose that we must be cosmic prisoners-of-war, held captive under miserable conditions by a foreign Power, namely, Satan—or even, as some have thought, in an entirely foreign world. As it is, nothing is fight: here in our captivity time drags heavily along, but our true home is not in time at all. We belong in the eternal world above. These corruptible mortal bodies of ours are only a kind of prison clothing that we are temporarily forced to wear. Our true identities are now hidden inside us, and will only become fully manifest when we get Home. All the ambient conditions of our life are at present wretched, and the whole cultural world of symbolic communication within which we now live is Vanity Fair: outward show, illusion, deception and folly. But we will be delivered.

Thus the whole of the present set-up within which human beings are living is relegated to the status of a mere outward and perishing appearance. On the day of salvation what is now hidden and inward will stand forth and be publicly manifested as having all along been the true and eternal reality of things. Meanwhile there are on earth a few colonies in which elect people live a special way of life that is an anticipation or foreshadowing of the Real life that is to come; and these colonies are the religious orders of men and of women.

Now a spirituality was, in the past at least, a set of practices through which you regularly acted out and reconfirmed your vision of the world and the human condition. Christian spirituality, from about the third century to the nineteenth, passed a comprehensively hostile judgement upon almost every aspect of human life in this world. It then invoked the philosophers' contrast between appearance and reality, declaring that this present evil world is only appearance and doomed soon to perish. The Real World and the blessed way of life yet to come is already being acted out and anticipated in the lives of monks and nuns. They are the top grade of holy persons, in most religions. But lay people living in this present world can also practise a spirituality by being inwardly monkish while still living outwardly in the world. One prays so many times a day, cuts out strong drink, gives alms to the poor, controls one's passions, lives an orderly disciplined and obedient life, studies the scriptures, and avoids occasions of sin, whilst at the same time working as a craftsman, a banker, a soldier—or, indeed, keeping a home and children. Outwardly, you may seem to be just another ordinary sober citizen of this world. But like a spy you are secretly living a double life, and your true identity will one day be revealed.

This dual way of life—described by Max Weber as 'intra-mundane asceticism'—was classic Christian spirituality, at least for the average lay person living in the world. It was still being punctiliously followed in the nineteenth century by Clapham-Sect Evangelicals, by Methodists, and by Oxford Tractarians. But very much the same spirituality was followed by numbers of Jews and Muslims, and by most Christians until very recently (including me, when younger).

And the point I'm making is now obvious. Classical spiritualities—in Christianity above all, but also in other faiths—were extremely world-denying, and made a sharp distinction between the present very bad outward and passing appearance of things, and the blessed inner and eternal reality of things that would stand forth at the end of time. Christian spirituality to a very high degree attempted to deny this world, and with it the body, the entire secular realm, the passions, sex and time. It was a way of witnessing to and preparing for the life of a quite different world yet to come—the real life for which we were made, but from which we have been born exiled. It was very long-termist, and was bound up with a large-scale cosmological narrative of Fall and Redemption.

Very fierce asceticism existed until recently. The use of the scourge or discipline, whipping oneself until one draws blood, was practised by some of the more enthusiastic Puseyites at Oxford in the 1840s, and subsequently, as everyone knows, by William Gladstone. Such people seem to have got from Italy the implements required, and it is from time to time alleged that there are Catholic circles in which the scourge is still used—as it of course is, in public, in Shia Islam. Very similar oddities are common in the East. But it goes without saying that nobody in the modern West would defend such practices. Amongst us, a gradual revaluation of everything this-worldly has been going on since the Middle Ages. Step-by-step we revalued the merely-human point of view and the whole human world: human friendship, natural reason, earthly beauty, human love, the body and so on. But then more recently human life and the human self have become more and more, first enhistorized, and then darwinized. The thoroughgoing darwinization of human psychology, and even of language and consciousness, is still continuing and it is making the old world-view and the old spirituality simply incomprehensible. Increasingly we have come to believe in only one world, this world, as our true home, and so to feel that we need to develop a purely this-worldly understanding, and practice, and justification of religion.

In this context we can now understand why so much of the old vocabulary has become empty and barely usable. The most you can do with it is to create a brief shock-effect by the way you reverse it. Thus the former Roman Catholic priest Charles Davis wrote a book called Body as Spirit. Nobody nowadays would wish to commend the sort of flesh-Spirit opposition that in the past has alienated people from their own bodiliness. So Davis—like Matthew Fox, who makes many similar moves—declares that bodiliness itself is good and holy. Body is Spirit. But this language both invokes and repudiates the old dualism between body and spirit, and therefore also between outward appearance and inner reality. It's a trick that can be played only once; after that we have to start changing our vocabulary.

Let me spell this out. As the darwinian revolution comes to permeate the culture more and more deeply, we come to see ourselves in full continuity with the animal background out of which we have evolved. We don't like flesh-spirit dualism any more, and we do not approve of the kind of self-hatred implicit in some traditional ascetical practices. One should not try to crush one's own biological nature. But more than that, we increasingly find repugnant the notion that a religious person is a sort of spy, with a second hidden identity. The Christian, right up to the time of Kierkegaard and even later, was a person who spent her whole life in the closet. You were not to come out until the parousia—the moment of final revelation, either in death or at the Second Coming. Until then your spiritual life was a second life, hidden, interior and secret, that you cultivated assiduously but privately, in preparation for the moment when you would be called out into the open on Judgement Day.

From this it is clear that our dissatisfaction with much traditional spirituality has several related strands. We cannot accept the sort of spirit-flesh dualism that disparages everything fleshly or carnal; and we cannot accept the sort of inner-outer dualism that equates inwardness with reality and outwardness with superficiality, vanity and 'mere' transience. From our twentieth-century point of view human beings live only one life, and it is a biological life, in only one world, this world; and the movement into outwardness, or 'publication', is not a movement away from reality but a movement into it. That is why, during the Nineties, I have been trying to describe an 'expressionist' or 'solar' kind of spirituality, which sees our religious life in terms of self-expression and coming-out. If we cannot any longer expect to 'come out' and to see the Truth manifested in a future life, then we must try to bring it all out in the open here and now, in this present life. We live only one life, and it is a communicative sort of life, in which we are trying to become ourselves by expressing ourselves. 'We live along the wires' and become ourselves in and through our networking with other people. We should be wary nowadays of the ancient tradition that says that we are most ourselves when we are recollected into ourselves in solitude, silence and inwardness. Isn't the truth rather the opposite of that? Real-ization equals publication. Both Reality and Truth are processual, and both require a continual coming-out into the open. Back in the 1840s Isaac Williams, the author of Tract 80, 'On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge' (1842), together with some of his contemporaries, revived and applied to the religious life of the individual the ancient idea that one should not speak openly about holy things. They should be kept secret, in the dark. So the modern Christian ought to keep his spiritual life hidden, and not talk about it. John Keble even took the doctrine to the absurd extreme of deliberately preaching boring sermons, in the name of 'humility'!

In opposition to that kind of dualism, I am suggesting that we should now simply equate the religious life with our attitude just to life itself, experienced as temporal be-ing. Life pours itself out, spontaneously and ceaselessly, and so should we. The entire religious realm is currently ceasing to be a distinct supernatural world, and is becoming instead something like an imaginative, religious way of construing this life and this world. I still accept the old view that a spirituality is a way of acting out and confirming our picture of the way things are with us human beings, and of the way to happiness. But we are steadily leaving behind us the old contrasts between the earthly world below and the heavenly world above, and between body and soul. We are replacing the old heaven-and-earth world-view with a world-view that knows only 'life', or 'be-ing'. All being is transient or passing. It is a groundless and endless many-stranded outpouring of meaning-events, of which our own lives are simply part.

So we are looking for a non-dualistic and 'expressive', or 'solar', spirituality, which does not look to an eternal world above, but which goes along with the flux of existence and is content to pour itself out in time along with everyone and everything else. We should not see the religious person as someone who draws back out of life, but rather as someone who plunges recklessly into it, unafraid.

Let's now consider the change in relation to the question of religious happiness. Exactly what is it, and how do we reach it? In the old world-view, religious happiness is to know God, and to enjoy him forever in the eternal world. Exactly what the knowledge of God is, and why it makes us happy, is very difficult to say, but it was usually seen as a state of perfect intellectual satisfaction; a complete and intuitive vision of Reality as being necessarily and eternally and perfectly just so. Not an easy idea to grasp nowadays; but our present point is that this complete satisfaction couldn't be had in this present world. Christian spirituality was then a discipline in preparation for a better life in a better world that would be fully ours only after death. It follows that the practice of Christianity is justified only if a large-scale story of Fall and Redemption is dogmatically true.

Contrast that traditional long-termism and otherworldliness with the modern position. We are products of the process of this world, which is our true and only home. We have only one world, one life, one body. If we still believe that there is such a thing as religious happiness, it's got to be attainable here and now, in the present moment, in time, and in the Fountain, the ceaseless self-renewing flux of events. In this very short-termist set-up, no Grand Narrative of otherworldly Redemption is required. The practice of religion is justified insofar and only insofar as it promptly delivers the happiness it promises.

But if so, then what is religious happiness? In time, language runs unceasingly, and with it the process of the world runs on, both within the self on the near side of language, and out there beyond language in the objective world. Religious language offers us unifying and reconciling symbols through which, from time to time at least, we are able to get ourselves together and to feel ourselves completely in harmony with the world. In such moments we can say Yes to life, and feel completely happy. We are not alienated in any way or from any thing; we are in full continuity with the everlasting flux of things in which we are immersed.

My suggestion is then that we are currently changing over from classical spirituality, which was a disciplinary preparation for eternal happiness in another world yet to come, to a new spirituality in which as we meditate with our eyes open we are at least sometimes able to find eternal happiness in the present moment. The traditional spirituality was often compared with life under military discipline, or in athletic training. The new spirituality is closer in temper to art.

I should explain this last point further. The old spirituality was predominantly ascetical. One was under discipline, and there was accordingly a strong emphasis upon a large body of religious Law, and upon the duty of unconditional obedience to religious Authority. The special place given to religious Authority and religious Law depended upon the claim that the authorities had custody of a body of supremely-important sacred Knowledge, upon which everyone's ultimate happiness depended. This Knowledge concerned the heavenly world, how we have come to be alienated from it, what remedy is available, and how we can at last be sure of gaining our place in it. So there was the body of divine Truth, there was the religious society, there was Authority, Law and all the machinery of salvation. The whole system worked to ensure that you could die happy, fortified by the rites of the Church and confident of your place in Heaven.

However, everything depended upon the Two-Worlds cosmology, and the picture of human beings as amphibians (or perhaps caterpillars, preparing for a more glorious form of life yet to come). When we change over to a one-world and one-life cosmology, everything has to be reassessed. Religious Authority, religious Law and the body of divine Knowledge all become much less important. Indeed, I now think that religion does not supply us with, nor even depend upon, any specially-privileged knowledge that cannot be obtained from other sources. Rather, we should see religion as concerned simply with life itself. We should see prayer and meditation as attention to Being, the continual moment-to-moment forthcoming of everything in time. Being is life's pure givenness, but it comes forth clothed with meanings that we have supplied, as we build our world, interpret our experience and shape our lives. So religion isn't only a matter of attending to Being; it is also concerned with what we are making of our life, and the meaning that we are giving it. Here we should see religious language and myth as utopian visions, not of a second world to be entered after death, but of a different way this world might be. Religion is halfway between ethics and art; indeed, it is a sort of performance art in which we act out a representation of what our life might be like. Thus the communion service enacts a picture of what community life should be like here and now, and different ways of staging it—that is, technically, different 'ceremonies'—elaborate and apply it to different social circumstances.

I'm arguing then that spirituality in future needs to become fully this-worldly and timebound. It will be concerned, not with the things of another world, but with the continual givenness of our this-worldly existence, and what we are making of it. Questions of religious meaning and truth need to be judged, not dogmatically, but pragmatically: religious teachings and practices should be appraised simply in terms of the kind of person and kind of world they tend in practice to produce.