Don Cupitt, Reforming Christianity (Polebridge Press, 2001)
A review by John Noack
John Noack has been a clergyperson at Rainbow in Victoria, Australia; a Tutor of Ancient History and Biblical Studies in the Middle Eastern Studies Department at the University of Melbourne and an Secondary Teacher of History, Social Studies and World Religions at Trinity Grammar School in Kew Victoria. His reviews of Archaeological books have been published in “Buried History”: the Journal of the Australian Institute of Archaeology and his book reviews and articles in relation to Progressive Christianity have been posted on the website: www.progressivechristianity.org
(Reviewed March 2014)
Don Cupitt has spent much of his life developing a “Kingdom Religion”, which can fit comfortably within the scientific outlook, the secular ideology and the humanistic culture of both our 20th and 21st centuries. In relation to social institutions, a Reformation can involve either changes with improvements or the demolition and a subsequent and more drastic re-formulation of the basic doctrines. Don Cupitt’s books indicate that his aim has not been the reformation of the mostly conservative and dogmatic Christian churches but the re-formulation of Christianity itself. This has moved from its traditional, supernaturally-oriented doctrines and creeds, which were drawn from its intellectual and philosophical world during its early centuries in the Roman Empire, and into a “Kingdom Religion” or a “Realm of life-world” Religion, which is fully at home in our present-day, secular, one-and-only world.
This approach has often been labeled as “radical”, since it begins with the present-day secular and naturalistic world-view for a re-formulation of religion. In contrast, the “liberal” quest tends to operate from within a particular religion as it makes modifications to the doctrines or structure.
The author has clarified his radical re-formulation of Christianity in his ten principles. These were prepared for a Sea of Faith meeting at Newcastle in England in 1998. (p. 139). He noted that Platonism, Metaphysics and the general acceptance of eternal norms and of absolute truth, were replaced several centuries ago with humanly-postulated and historically-evolving features and a more pragmatic “current-consensus world-view”. Cupitt’s starting point for such a “Kingdom Religion” is a world-view of ordinary language and everyday life.
In this type of Radical Christianity, the world-views of science and religion, which are built out of humanity’s life-world, supplement each other rather than come into conflict with each other. Kingdom Religion’s main function is to deal with our Society’s wide-spread nihilism by giving value to life and by helping to explore shared meanings, purposes and narratives in our World and Cosmos.
The author’s stress on a rational and scientific world-view raises the problem of the metaphorical and poetical nature of theistic or theological texts. It is possible for heavenly, supernatural beings, places and events to act as symbols and myths for parallel beings, places and events which are depicted on Earth. In addition, the depth-psychological dimension as explored by Carl Jung provides for the anagogical appropriation of the same supernatural features as symbols within the patterns and processes of the human psyche and for the human “soul-journey”. The literally interpreted supernatural realm raises current problems but there is still a place for the literary and poetical appreciation of such symbolical and mythological realms.
Despite this deficiency as I see it, Cupitt has expanded his ten principles in his book’s Introduction and in his twenty very challenging chapters. He like many others has noted the steady decline in the number of church members and in church attendance, which he attributes in part to “a general loss of public confidence in the objective truth of the major Christian beliefs” and to the replacement of Christianity’s “natural philosophy” with the post-Enlightenment world view of natural science. Consequently, Christian preaching and publications have “lost general intelligibility” and sound more like “the internal jargon of a cult”. (p. 1)
Cupitt plans to move beyond this jargon to a Christianity “after dogma and after the Church”, which will “ring true to our sense of ourselves” and will be “true to life as we now live it” New proposition will therefore not be “revealed truth” but will be seen as “human cultural formations” (p.2) and they will need to be “genuinely truthful, livable and productive”. These features for Cupitt can be regained from “the meaning and message of the original Jesus” in his “Kingdom Religion”, (p.3) which He has depicted as most suitable for our own secular and sacred “life-world” . His reference to the “Kingdom of God/Yahweh” seems to match the “Realm of our life-world”, which is most appropriate for our current, scientific and humanistic 21st century world-view.
The author also sees the need for reforming Christianity or Churchianity from being a “complex system of mediated religion” which “has become a monstrous idol” (p.7) to one of “immediacy”, the immediate kind of religion or the unmediated appreciation of the world’s empirical reality and the human’s psychic and archetypal depths.
The nature and appearance of a human Jesus is also an issue for Cupitt, whose chapter 2 title reads “An Ugly Little Man” (p.11). The 51 commonly painted and dramatized scenes in the life of the Gospel’s God-Man, semi-human Jesus do not reflect real life but are “a stately procession through a series of theological tableaux, revelatory moments in each of which something of his eternal Glory is manifested in the spatio-temporal world. It is a supra-historical moment of revelation where the eternal shines through”. (p. 12)
The Transfiguration of Jesus/Joshua/”Yahweh Saves” as tableau 20 however may be more than abstract, heavenly theology. Mount Hermon, which is situated north of Caesarea Philippi, was a well-known location for the experience of solar theophanies. In fact, a shrine has been located there with a carving on it of a human figure wearing a crown with radiating sun rays. Peter experienced or viewed this figure with a face like the sun. Paul also had a similar experience under the midday sun on his way to Damascus, which passed through this same theo-phanic area.
This solar imagery and the solar cycles are also being seen in Mark’s Gospel, which appears to follow in its chapters the annual four seasons of Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter and the twelve zodiacal signs from March to the next February, after the sun has been in Aquarius, the naked young man.
The author offers an interesting comment about such Gospel stories: “Historical study shows these stories to be a huge collective work of folk art, both cultural tradition and communal fantasy”. (p. 15). However, supernatural Christianity continues to reappear in our Society each year in the School Nativity Play. (p.16)
Another ongoing issue which is addressed is the gulf between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith. For the author, Jesus “was a Jewish exorcist and teacher, a prophet of the kingdom of God”. (p.28) He did not claim to be God or the Messiah.
“Kingdom Religion” is presented in chapter 5 in contrast to “ecclesiastical theology”, “supernatural Christianity” or a heavenly oriented eschatology. Cupitt suggests that his Kingdom Religion will “become easy and spontaneous. It will be the way all people ‘naturally’ relate themselves to life”. (p. 34). Its immediate and non-mediating form will promote mysticism and charismatic Christianity and it may move towards a radical reformation, a Post–modern Post-christianity, a further Society of Friends and the Coming-of-Age man. (p.35) Since the stress in the kingdom-world is on ordinary language, this will promote radical humanism, democratic practices and an awareness of the reality that there is no supernatural beyond the natural and that all living beings face eventual death and extinction. Sadly but truly, we live only once. (p. 38)
The author goes on to analyse other aspects of “Kingdom Religion”. The traditional quest for personal salvation will take “the form of a quest for self-realization by self expression” (p.49). The human being is a talking animal, a being in whom Nature is all the time getting turned into Culture”. (p.50) “The kingdom religion really is simply a way of living, which is popularly described as living life to the full, or to its fullest”. (p. 54)
His concept of “solarity’ and solar living is expanded in his proposition that “only the Now exists: live by the heart, trust life, plunge in, don’t dither, give it all that you’ve got, put on a good show, live as the Sun does”. (p. 55). In relation to the Church’s requirement to believe in unbelievable super-natural dogmas, we are told that “Church Christianity made itself vulnerable to historical refutation by pinning its own truth to certain very extravagant historical claims-in particular, about the resurrection of Christ.” In contrast, “Kingdom Christianity can be and must be verified in practice, just by being lived” (p. 58)
When the concept of “God” is raised, Cupitt states that “God is an ideal and an integrating concept that is applied to experience, rather than a reality that presents itself to us in experience’. (p. 70) He quotes Robert Funk, who refers to “a deep crisis in god talk” (p. 71) and Cupitt concludes his chapter, “Is Reformation Possible” with his view that “We need to understand better why it is that doctrine is dead and the post-dogmatic kingdom type of religion is now the only live option” (p. 73)
His analysis of current Christianity reveals the existence of the anti-intellectual Evangelicals, the conservative Right Post-modernists and the secular-oriented Left-Post-modernists, including Don Cupitt. (p. 79) Main-line churches are mentioned but they are “unhappily stuck in a time warp, with nothing useful to say. Too often, the Church gives the impression of being composed of naysayers, killjoys who disapprove of far too much of the world about them. Its visible, organized form is now redundant”. (p.114)
The author expresses his concern about the influence of “asymmetrical binary oppositions’, the resulting positive and negative dualities, and the often cruel discrimination against those on the decreed negative side like women, homosexuals, darkness, evil etc, which still continues to poison relationships between members in various churches. (p. 121) His call for symmetrical and non-evaluative, complementary pairs or polarities is most timely. (p. 119)
Ironically, the author cannot avoid his own asymmetrical oppositions, when he contrasts the traditionally confessional neo-orthodox “Churchianity”, which stresses belief but never enjoyment, overvalues its own status or qualities while it denigrates what is independent of itself, with his own more radical kingdom religion, which seeks liberation through mysticism. (p. 125). However, he goes on to reaffirms his outlook of being “maximally world affirming and non-dualistic”.
The future prospects in the view of the author are problematic. He like many others have observed the steep decline in the churches within historic Latin Christianity. He regrets the great confusion in this tradition over the real nature and role of the Gospel character of Jesus. “Jesus’ memory and his legacy seem to have been fatally and permanently blurred and confused by the massive theological transformation of him that began soon after his death”. (p. 134) At least, Cupitt continues to maintain the historical existence of a human Jesus/Joshua/”Yahweh Saves” in Palestine in the first century. Even in the Gospels, John’s eternally pre-existing Logos-based Jesus bears little resemblance to Luke’s cute little baby Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem and was placed in a humble cattle manger! (p. 134) Cupitt asks: “Can we save Jesus?” (p. 135) His respect and concern for Jesus is clear when he states: “I can’t save Jesus as divine savior, but I can perhaps do something for him as an ethical teacher-provided that you don’t mind learning to see him not as a god who can’t be wrong, but as a man who might be right”. (p. 135)
Don Cupitt has clearly continued in this book his determination to present his ideas in an honest manner, to formulate what is scientifically and historically truthful, to promote what is practical, useful and possible within the context of our secular, non-supernatural and this-worldly social context and to preserve the value in the human quest for both religion and a Religion. Certainly “Kingdom Religion” has many valid features appropriate for our present century and these may also be of value to Secular Humanists, Agnostics and Atheists, as they face the same Existential life-issue as all other human beings. There is a place for religion beyond the fanatical, the gullible and those in between.
Cupitt has no doubt received a lot of criticism from conservative Christian traditionalists. However, we no longer live in the ancient world of the divinely inspired Hebrew prophets and early Christian Epistle and Gospel writers, whose universe was three tiered, whose heaven above was full of angelic beings and deities and whose hell below contained its lake of fire, which was prepared by the deity for the eternal punishment of malefactors.
In contrast, Cupitt offers a more realistic “this-worldly religion of transience”. (p. 140) This theme is explored and developed on every page of this book and readers who wish to ascertain what radical reforms Don Cupitt has had in mind for Christianity, this book is certainly the best available publication for shedding light on what the author desires for the most difficult task of “Reforming (or re-formulating) Christianity”.
This book ends with Notes, a Bibliography and an Index of Names & Subjects.
John Noack's third last paragraph informs us that Don Cupitt's Kingdom Religion offers Secular Humanists, Agnostics and Atheists, like myself, the possibility of finding an existential meaning to life. Nevertheless, I already have dozens of "gods" (My highest values. My loftiest ideals. And my areas of ultimate concern). For each of my "gods" I have one or more "religions" - ie. for my "god", Truth, I have two "religions": science and philosophy. The inverted commas indicate that I use these terms in a non-theistic and naturalistic (non-supernatural) sense. In Theistic terms, our religions are our means of worshipping our Gods. So, in my naturalistic terms, my "religions" have three stages: Firstly, my "religions" celebrate, honour and uphold my "gods". Secondly, my "religions" apprehend and realize my "gods" (that is, getting to know and understand them). Thirdly, my "religions" manifest, actualize and quest for my "gods" (that is, bringing them into being in our world, both in myself as well as in others).
Posted by David Miller