Don Cupitt

The sea of faith

Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (1999).

Based on a television series of the same name, and taking its title from Matthew Arnold's poem "On Dover Beach", this book examines the history of belief in God as enshrined in Christianity and comes to a radical conclusion. Don Cupitt is in the curious position of being a Church of England clergyman who does not believe in God. Actually, he would object to this way of putting it because he favours a new way of thinking about what believing in God really means. This new way, he suggests, is the one that modern society is inevitably moving towards.

Many Christians today lament what they take to be a loss of religious faith. But Cupitt sees this attitude as based on a misconception. Faith, he says, is not something that can be gained or lost; rather, it is a cultural phenomenon, which takes very different forms at different times. Most people even today think of God as someone, or something, outside space and time. But Cupitt rejects this; he seems to regard it as superstition. Instead, he offers his own definition: "God is the sum of our values, representing to us their ideal unity, their claims upon us and their creative power." He arrives at this conclusion at the end of the book, after a long meander through history, philosophy, and theology.

He starts with the revolution in our thinking about the world which followed the dissolution of the mediaeval world view after Galileo. Later our view of ourselves was also drastically changed, thanks to Darwin and Freud; Cupitt brings in Jung as well here, though he is not sure of his ultimate significance. Then come the philosophers and theologians, notably Soren Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein--three thinkers whom Cupitt finds especially important.

It is not only belief in God that Cupitt wants to reassess radically; it's also belief in an afterlife. We can no longer take this literally, he says; true Christianity is not concerned with any such question but rather with living fully and fruitfully in the here and now. He finds the same attitude in Kierkegaard.

Considered as a survey of how religious belief has evolved in Western Christianity (Cupitt says nothing about Orthodox Christianity), this is an excellent book. He provides a readable, if rather selective, account of the decline of this belief. However, the logical outcome of this analysis, it seems to me, would be atheism, and if Cupitt declared himself an atheist I'd find his position quite self-consistent. But the paradox is that he first demolishes Christianity and then declares himself to be a Christian, albeit a Christian of a very special kind. I have to say I don't really understand what he is saying here. It seems to me that a Christianity that departs from tradition to the extent of rejecting what most Christians understand by God and an afterlife can hardly claim to be Christianity at all. It would be easier to reconcile Cupitt's views with Buddhism, which is unconcerned with God, and indeed Cupitt is sympathetic to Buddhism. But he remains within his own version of Christianity, and it's one that I find to be self-contradictory and, in the end, incomprehensible.

%T The Sea of Faith
%A Cupitt, Don
%I The British Broadcasting Company
%C London
%D 1984
%G ISBN 563 20202 5
%P 286 pp
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