Don Cupitt is the final philosopher whose work is studied in this first section of the OCR DCT specification. His approach to the question 'what is religion?' is distinctly postmodern although - as you will see - his own views have changed and developed throughout time. He offers a form of religion for the postmodern age. Don Cupitt has his own website which explains many of his central ideas. The Sea of Faith churches also have a website worth exploring. Links to both can be found at the bottom of this page.
Don Cupitt was born in 1934 and went to school at Charterhouse before going up to Trinity Hall Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. He then went to Westcott House Cambridge to train as a priest and was ordained deacon in 1959, becoming a priest in 1960. He served as a parish priest before becaming Dean of Emmanuel College Cambridge in 1965 and teaching Philosophy of Religion.
Since the 1970s Cupitt has written many books on philosophy of religion and on ethics. Initially his theology could be described as fitting within the mainstream of the liberal tradition but from 1980 onwards it became progressively more radical and postmodern. Up until the 1990s Cupitt remained a practicing priest (although he faced a lot of hostility from the more traditional branches of the church). He finally left the Anglican Church in 2008.
In 1984 he presented a BBC TV series called The Sea of Faith which explored the philosophical challenges to religion. It gave rise to the Sea of Faith movement in the UK which has been described as a sort of secular religion.
Nigel Leaves has written a biography of Cupitt (Oddessey on the Sea of Faith, 2004) and suggests that there are seven stages to his thought (so far!)
Stage 1 (1971-1979) Negation Theology (we can only know what God is not and can say nothing meaningful about him - fairly mainstream).
Stage 2 (1980-1985) Non-realism (words like God do not need to correspond to existing entities to be meaningful).
Stage 3 (1986-1989) Anti-realism and postmodernism (there is no objective world, there is only what we create).
Stage 4 (1990-1997) Solar ethics and expressionism (the authentic religious life is one of expressive outpouring).
Stage 5 (1998) The Turn to Be-ing (life involves creativity, religion can help nurture that creative becoming).
Stage 6 (1999-2000) Ordinary Language (the language people use reveals the 'religious' beliefs that they hold. Idea of 'Life' replacing the idea of God).
Stage 7 (2000 onwards) The Religion of the Future (this life is all there is, embrace it!).
Cupitt's ideas develop and change over time and he draws on a whole range of influences. His theology is poetic rather than strictly systematic. If you read any of Cupitt's books it is important to look at the date that they were published so that you know what phase of Cupitt's ideas they represent.
We could divide Cupitt's teaching about religion into four main strands.
Somewhat unhelpfully I am NOT going to divide up the material on this page under exactly these headings (although there are some similarities) but being aware of them at the outset might help you to organise your knowledge about Cupitt.
Cupitt's objections to traditional Christianity are as follows:
Cupitt was concerned that Christianity could not remain relevant to the world we live in if it stuck to its old fashioned claims. He believed that a realist interpretation of Christianity would condemn it to die out.
It is worth understanding some of his objections to Christian doctrines in a bit more detail.
‘The original Jesus, I am suggesting, was almost certainly a moral teacher…he taught a markedly celebratory lifestyle. One should live expressively, from the heart, without any ressentiment or negative feeling. One should be transparent, completely explicit, purely outgoing, and burning with love for life in general and for the neighbour in particular.’
The Last Testament
Cupitt argues that the original Jesus was an eschatological prophet who preached an ethic of love in the face of what he believed to be the imminent end to the world. According to Cupitt, Jesus' original message was, in Cupitt's words 'completely re-written' by the early Church. On Cupitt's reading Jesus was not God incarnate, nor was he Messiah and nor was he resurrected (Cupitt interprets the resurrection accounts as exaggerations of post-crucifixion hallucinations experienced by people like Mary). Whilst many Christians think that rejecting these doctrines undermines Christianity, Cupitt believes that it can actually revitalise it. Cupitt says that Jesus' message is the original solar ethic and his life can be an example of how to embrace opportunities, stand up for values and not fear death.
Cupitt believes that Christianity discourages autonomous ethical behaviour. The tradition Christian message can be paraphrased as 'you should do good because God says so and then you will go to heaven and you should avoid doing bad because you do not want to go to hell'. In other words, it does not allow people to make up their own minds. People have not been trusted to make up their own minds about how to behave and to reach moral adulthood. Instead they have been treated like children threatened and cajoled into approved patterns of behaviour. Furthermore, Cupitt thinks that the idea that 'do/don't do this because God says so' has historically been used by those with power to scare those without into doing what the powerful want.
'For each individual the ethical task is then that of finding the right ‘scene’ for oneself, and then within it a role, a part to play and a style of self-presentation through which one can fully and satisfactorily express ones-self and so find one’s own form of personal fulfillment and happiness.'
Solar Ethics, 1995
upitt rejects the idea of absolute morality but he says that society can derive whatever moral rules are necessary for it to function. Morality, he says, is like a market place. In a market people know the exchange rate of goods and they cooperate for the good of all. Cupitt thinks moral laws are necessary and, to a certain extent, will take care of themselves. Thus religion does not need to provide society with its moral laws.
What religion does offer is an ethic. Ethics, says Cupitt, is about the type of life we choose to lead. If morality is like a market place then ethics is like the theatre. People need to choose their own role for them to then perform. They need to choose what type of person they want to be and pick a way of living that gives them happiness.
For Cupitt, the way religion will survive in a postmodern world is by helping people to live the type of life that they want.
In his introduction to his 1995 book 'After God' Cupitt described that challenges to religion that came from a changing world.
He goes on to describe the ways that religions people have tried to respond to this challenge by focusing on the ethical message of religion, by relegating religion to the private realm or by fighting back (as fundamentalism does) and rejecting the spirit of the age. He thinks that these responses are doomed to fail.
Cupitt then writes
'I shall propose that if we can't beat postmodernity, we should embrace it. I am proposing a considerable redefinition of religion, a redefinition that (to adopt the Christian vocabulary) will bring us closer to the Kingdom than to the Church, closer to the Sermon on the Mount than to any sort of orthodox theology, and will make it very short-termist in outlook. Unlike the secular theologies of the 1960s, it will "aestheticize" religion, in the sense that it sees religious living in terms of artistic practice and symbolic expressions. As redefined here, religious life is an expressive, world-building activity through which we can get ourselves together and find a kind of belated, or retrospective, happiness.'
'By solar ethics I mean an ethic or lifestyle of all-out religious expression, the best kind of life that one could hope to live'.
Solar Ethics, Chapter 2
Religion then is about finding happiness and meaning in life. 'Happiness' in this sense would perhaps be better translated as eudaimonia or flourishing.
For this to be possible he thinks that philosophers and theologians need to develop:
Augustine: ‘There is no knowledge of God in the mind except the knowledge that it does not know him.’
Quoted by Cupitt in The Last Testament
One of the things that led Cupitt towards rejecting a realist interpretation of God was an approach to theology that goes all the way back to the Medieval world. This tradition is called apophatic theology or the via negativa (negative way). Using the via negativa theologians consider what God is not rather than what God is.
The argument for aphophatic theology goes as follows. If we take a positive statement about God (i.e. a statement in which we say something about what God is) we must then consider what we mean by the words.
This leads us to the conclusion that the term 'God is love' must be qualified. 'God is love, but not the way that we understand it'. The via negativa led Cupitt to understand that we can say nothing about what God is like at all. All we can do is speak of human experience and say something perhaps about what 'God' means to us.
The actual existence or non-existence of God is entirely beyond us!
See the links under further reading to watch a video of Cupitt discussing Wittgenstein's theories of language.
Cupitt has adopted the language theories of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein (who taught in Cambridge in the 1930s) said that most people think of words as symbols which correspond to objects that exist in the real world. However, according to Wittgenstein this view is too simplistic. Words are actually like pieces in a game of chess. Each piece (word) is used in very specific ways and these ways are governed by the rules of the game. Within society there are many different 'language games' being played and the same word may function in different ways within different dialogues. For example, the way words are used within poetry will be very different to the way words are used in science. People discussing literature or science understand the rules of that particular language game so they know how to interpret the way that the words are used.
Problems occur when the 'rules' from one language game are misapplied to another different language game. If, for example, we assume that religious language works in the same way as scientific language then we are bound to misunderstand religion.
Cupitt believes that this misunderstanding occurs whenever we interpret religious language in 'realist' terms. His interest in apophatic theology led him to the conclusion that talk of God is really just talk of human experiences. This means that for Cupitt, the word 'God' is not a symbol corresponding to a being that actually exists. Instead, to speak of 'God' is to subscribe to a certain set of values and a certain way of seeing the world. Cupitt says we should understand theological language in this non-realist way.
'The objects of faith, such as God, are seen as guiding spiritual ideas that we live by, and not as beings...The world is not made up of beings but of meanings, and religious meanings are purely practical'.
This interpretation of religion allows him to claim that solar ethics some continuity with Christian history without maintaining that Christian teachings are 'true' in the realist sense.
'When I say that Christianity is true I mean that this particular system of signs and house of meaning is trustworthy and reliable as a medium and a vocabulary in which I can frame my own religious life.'
Cupitt's non-realism reflects his beliefs about experience and subjectivity. Whereas many modern thinkers believed that the use of reason could enable humans to access Truth, postmodernists like Cupitt point out that we are all trapped within our own subjective understandings of the world. We have no access to the world as it really is, no means of stepping outside ourselves to see whether our experience corresponds with reality. The only way we can compare our experience to that of others is through language and our understanding of the language is also shaped by experience.
To put it another way, we could be living inside the Matrix and we would have no way of knowing it!
'But if we are always inside our own finite, human perspective and our own human sense, how can we ever get beyond our own limits, and make the jump from our world to the world? In a word, we can’t...'
Cupitt, The Last Testament, 2012
Given that we have no access to 'reality' as such, we construct an understanding of the world through our language. Language helps us to organise and make sense of our experience. It then shapes our thought patterns and influences how we experience reality. However, language does not correspond exactly with reality. It is just a 'game' that we play!
‘In short, we cannot get, and never will get beyond our own language and ways of thinking. We cannot get beyond culture in order to obtain some kind of external and independent corroboration of our ideas about reality, truth and value…Our world is just a theatre in which different interpretations of our existence jostle and conflict with each other forever, but no final Truth is ever reached.’
Cupitt, The Last Testament, 2012
‘[Religion and Science] are different activites, that build their world in different ways. Science joins up its world by positing mathematical regularities running right across it…By contrast, the Book of Life is written in our natural human language of words. Our poets, artists and religious thinkers join it up and make it morally intelligible and emotionally habitable by finding metaphors and symbolic relationships running right across it…They have great power to make our world ‘meaningful’, evocative, and richly beautiful. They embed us in our world.’
The Last Testament,
Cupitt argues that language is 'world-building'. Words within a particular language game relate to each other and create a framework for interpreting the world and interpreting human experience. Words also shape the way that we think. When we discuss ideas we use words, when we think we use words. Words are the way that we express reality. Words are also a human construct which means that we build reality.
We can illustrate this idea in a number of ways.
Cupitt believes that we construct God and religion through language. To this extent Cupitt has parallels with Feuerbach. However, unlike Feuerbach he does not think that this undermines the significance of religion. Religion is just a part of our attempt to describe our subjective experience of the world. Religion is 'man made' but then so is our entire impression of reality. We construct our world through the symbols we use to create it. What religion can do is to help us find meaning by 'making value out of valuelessness'.
Traditional Christianity offers believers one way to interpret life.
‘the conservative Evangelical Protestant who reads Scripture every day and communes with the Lord all the time also lives in a very rich and busy mental world. His head is full of thought about what Go is, what God has done for him, what is God’s will for his life, how he can bear witness to God’s saving grace, and so on…The believer thinks that the entire supernatural world is gathered in a big circle above him, looking down a t what he’s doing with intense interest, and giving him non-stop commentary, support and advise. He is at the centre, he just could not be more important.’
Cupitt, The Last Testament, 2012
Postmodern religion has to offer an alternative web of meaning and interpretation.
‘…the religious life nowadays largely takes the form of an attempt to face up to the great questions of life, and to work out one’s own personal ‘take’ on them'.
Cupitt, The Last Testament, 2012
So, if traditional, realist religion has no place in the post-modern world, then what is religion left to do? Cupitt says that many of the traditional functions of religion are now done by other things. thinks that religion should be the thing that gives life meaning. In particular, it should be help us to accept the transient nature of life - i.e. it should help us come to terms with our own mortality. Religion should offer us a solution to death, or, to use the old Christian terminology, it should offer us salvation.
‘…religion all along…was a way of reconciling ourselves to life and to each other. Belief in a spirit-world and in life after death was needed in the past, because it helped to make life intelligible and bearable in times when most people’s lives were short, uncertain and harsh. But today the enormous development of modern knowledge, and of the technologies of modern medicine, communications and so on, have done much to make us less dependent upon the protection of a postulated supernatural order. More than the people of any previous period, we have come to ourselves and are able simply to love life just as it is.’
Cupitt, The Last Testament, 2012
The key thing is that is has to offer us hope within this life.
‘In short, we need a religion for people who live their brief lives in one world only, this world; a religion that will enable us to find eternal value in the midst of pure transience; a religion that will help us to say a great Yes to our life as we are living it out. Not a religion of deferred salvation and post-dated cheques, but a religion that delivers something that deserves to be called ‘eternal happiness’ and delivers it now.’
Cupitt's book Solar Ethics published in 1995 sets out a possible vision for postmodern religion.
Cupitt describes solar ethics as 'ethical expressivism or emotivism' in his introduction to the book. He says that in a postmodern world which has abandoned belief in absolute morality and moved beyond 'realist' interpretations of religion people have to devise their own ethic by which to live their life.
For Cupitt the sun is an apt metaphor for how people should live life. It lives in the moment, it is all that it can be and it shines brightly in the world. Cupitt says that we too should live this life fully aware that it is the only one we have. We should fulfill our potential and 'shine' in our celebration of life. Cupitt is adamant that we must find meaning and value in this life. Life has no intrinsic purpose, but we give it meaning when we find our own values which excite us and enable us to celebrate the moment so that we can 'lead the best possible life that one could hope to live'.
'I am giving as far as I can towards simply equating the ethical with life’s own spontaneous and joyful affirmation of itself – life’s solar outpouring…the purest affirmation of life is also a thoroughgoing acceptance of transience and death.'
Cupitt, Solar Ethics, 1995
In Solar Ethics Cupitt draws on the Buddhist principle of anatta which means 'no permananent self'. He says that we need to embrace the changing nature of life and make the most of it by shining brightly.
'There is no inner space within the self through which we have access to another world more real than this one, and indeed there simply isn’t any other world than this one…everything is immanent, everything comes down to one level. There is no transcendent moral order, there is no inner world within the self…There is nothing left for ethics to be but that we should love life and pour out our hears…As the man says, ‘You are the light of the world’ For solar ethics is a version of Christian ethics, if one may say so.'
Cupitt, Solar Ethics, 1995
Cupitt advocates that we actualise our potential (as the sun does) by becoming everything we can be. Cupitt thinks that the sun is a good metaphor for living because
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Matthew 6:25-26, 34
As stated above, Cupitt rejects the traditional Christian view of Jesus in favour of what he believes to be a more authentic reading. He says that Jesus taught people to live for today. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus cautions his followers not to worry about tomorrow but focus on today. Cupitt says that Jesus had celebratory life-ethic and that his message was essentially secular. Cupitt explains Jesus' use of the term 'Kingdom of God' as a reflection of the beliefs at the time. I.e. Jesus used the term in a non-realist sense because it fitted with the thought patterns of the age and was therefore the best way to get the message across. Cupitt advocates a 'Kingdom Theology' which means treating this life as heaven and celebrating it rather than seeing it as a precursor to an eternal afterlife.
‘…we may be able to show that the secular religion we need can be created out of what remains of Christianity…’
The Last Testament
Cupitt believes that there are elements of Christianity that are worth saving. The concepts like 'God' remain useful provided we do not interpret them in a realist sense. Likewise, prayer has a useful spiritual function provided we realise that we are not in conversation with a divine being who can answer it. Christianity already has in place a useful framework for interpreting the world and Christian ideas are reflected in the structure of society.
In Cupitt's opinion it is not disingenuous to keep the terms even if we have rejected a realist interpretation of them. He points out that the same applies in science. Old paradigms that we have rejected may still be referred to because they reflect our experience. In The Last Testament he points out that although we no longer have Geocentric view of the world we still speak of 'sunrise' and 'sunset'. This is because ‘…the old ways of thinking still seem to fit the observed facts and to work well enough in practice.’ He goes on to say
‘Thus it seems that both in theology and in physics we can and must acknowledge that truth is paradigm-relative. In both cases, too, we can and do sometimes drop back with pleasure into the language of a now-superseded paradigm, especially in areas where the older ways still fith the observed fact, still generate accurate predictions, and (like ‘sunset’) still have their ancient poetic appeal to us. By the same token, I still sometimes catch myself praying. I shouldn’t do it, but I do.’
However, he does not consider it essential to use Christianity at all. A person might find a different way of finding meaning in the world entirely independent of the language and structures of Christianity.
‘Sixties pop culture at its height, going with the flow and saying love is all you need, was much closer to the original Jesus than the Church is ever likely to get.’
Cupitt, The Last Testament, 2012
Over time, Cupitt himself has begun to move further away from the Christian symbolism. In The Last Testament he writes that ‘I used to think that I could deal with this problem. During the 1980s I still felt pretty confident of the permanent and in-all-situations goodness and religious efficacy of Christian myths, symbols and moral values. It seemed enough simply to argue for a non- realist interpretation of them.’ This enabled him to still remain within the Church of England and find the ceremonies and traditions meaningful. However, he subsequently moved further away from Christianity. He stopped acting as a priest during the 1990s and left the Church all together in 2008.
One could argue that to keep terms but reject the traditional understanding of them ismisleading. People will mean different things by the terms. Furthermore, traditional adherents to Christianity would doubtless object to this revision of God, afterlife, prayer and salvation. Cupitt however, argues that Christianity has undergone several fairly radical revisions of itself throughout its history, consider for example the difference between traditional and liberal views about homosexuality.
Think for yourself whether you think that it is useful to re-interpret Christianity in this way. It Solar Ethics really the future of 'Christianity'?
We can evaluate each of the stages of Cupitt's argument separately.
Firstly, he claims that traditional religion is dead and beyond recovery. Modernity and postmodernity have made any continuation of a realist understanding of Christianity impossible. He says
‘Church-Christianity is now in headlong and terminal decline. Its whole exegesis of the Bible, and its whole supernaturalist world-view – based upon belief in God, in supernatural causes of events, and in life after death – is dead.’
Cupitt, The Last Testament
However, we could ask whether this is necessarily true. Are there other, less radical ways for Christianity to survive? For example, liberal Christianity has dispensed with many of the more problematic parts of Christianity without arguing for a non-realist interpretation of God. In certain areas of the world much more traditional versions of Christianity seem to be thriving.
Secondly, we could take issue from a philosophical perspective with the non-realist interpretation of religious language. This is surely not actually what most religious people mean when they talk of 'God' and 'Heaven'. Thus, if we return to the question 'what is religion' it would be misleading to say that religion is a collection of signs and symbols creating a framework to understand reality. Religious people are much more likely to say that religious language corresponds with reality.
Stephen Ross White wrote a book called Don Cupitt and the Future of Christian Doctrine. He argued that Cupitt misrepresents both realism and Christian morality. He also said that concepts like God, Salvation etc become meaningless when understood in a non-realist sense.
Thirdly, whilst there are definitely grounds for questioning the old assumption that we can access absolute truth we could equally well say that there are reasons to trust our sense experience too. People often like and dislike similar things, this could imply that our experiences are similar. The fact that we can construct something like science and then use it to make predictions about results again implies the reliability of sense data. It might make more sense to be a critical realist than an anti-realist. When applied to religion we might well want to agree with John Hick. Religious experiences are affected by our culture and background. We interpret them in the light of our previous experiences, BUT the thing we interpret is real and comes from somewhere!
Fourthly, as discussed above, we could say that it is confusing and unhelpful to keep the language of Christianity if we have changed the meaning of the terms.
Fifthly, if we reject a realist interpretation of the supernatural and if we reduce religion to an ethic of making the most of life then does it really deserve to be called a 'religion' at all? How is solar ethics actually any different to just having a zest for life? If it is not any different then why call it religion? If Feuerbach is right about where religious belief comes from then surely he is also right that society should abandon it when we have recognised that. We might ask why does Cupitt want to keep religion at all?
Finally, is religion really just about spirituality? Is this a complete picture of what the religious life is? Where does this leave faith, creeds, teaching and tradition? This leads to practical problems too. If there is no common belief system to bind the religion together, then what will happen to the community aspect of religion?
Don Cupitt's official site can be found here.
Sea of Faith Churches website found here. Includes a FAQ page which helps to explain their theological perceptive.
A good revision summary of his ideas can be found here (along with other useful RS stuff!)
Sea of Faith video (two parts) in which Cupitt describes Wittgenstien's theory of language and its relevance to religion here. The most relevant part starts nine minutes in.
Additional notes on Cupitt including some useful extracts from interviews here.