Above Us Only Sky
Don Cupitt Above Us Only Sky (Polebridge Press 2008)
A review by Peter Bore
(Reviewed December 2008)
This book is the work of someone who was once an English clergyman. Perhaps I should not be surprised to find it something akin to the proverbial Curate’s Egg. To review it is almost impossible. The book is an attempt to bring together those elements which might constitute a universal world religion. In a sense it is comprehensive but sometimes it is confusing and a consequence of the breadth is that many subjects are treated very briefly. There are 28 chapters each, on average only 3 – 4 pages in length. There is a lot in this book that only becomes apparent at the second or third reading.
Much of it I agree with but other parts I disagree with and yet others seem to been included without due consideration being given to how the words may be interpreted. Thus I cannot, as it were, give it an overall score. I feel that I must detail what I think is good and what I think are its shortcomings. But to do that would involve far too many words and what was intended to be a book review becomes more like a critical examination of a dissertation. Here I will be selective. If anyone wants to read the longer and more turgid version please let me know.
1. Much I agree with
Indeed, some of the ideas are now so self-evident that I find reading about them yet again somewhat tedious. However there are sufficient new ideas and sometimes new restatements of previous ideas that one is bound, when one puts this book down, to have new food for thought.
Chapter 15. Religious Belief Systems and Political Ideologies. This is a good summary of the inter-relationships of these often conflicting ideologies that nevertheless often seek to make use of each other’s status and methods
In Chapter 3 Don contrasts scientific thought with the much less rigorous but much richer patterns of thinking which are used by most people in everyday life including, in my experience, scientists. All too often when discussing matters outside of their field of scientific expertise they use thinking habits which are unstructured, biased, factually incorrect, and irrational - in fact entirely unscientific (If you doubt me read Richard Dawkins.) Don’s words are a thoughtful and timely reminder of how the world operates in practice. We may lament this and we may hope to change it but we should not ignore it.
He goes on to say “Religion must be seen as simply a way of relating to oneself, and as a cluster of values that shape living.” I agree, and this raises an interesting discussion regarding what constitutes a world-view and how, or if, it differs from a religion.
2. Some I disagree with
Though Chapter 3 starts off well, despite reading it several times I am unsure what intonation I should attribute to the later part of this chapter where Don asserts that “a leader of society should be a follower of Machiavelli.” This chapter contrasts ‘factual truth’ (which is characterised by words such as expert, scientific and consensus) with ‘moral truth’ (characterised by words like value, individual and trustworthy). Yet at the end of the chapter he draws a distinction between ‘objective truth’ and ‘expert truth.’ I am confused. Moreover he declares that moral truth “is not about different accounts of what works.”
Moral truths (i.e. “the clusters of value which shape our life policies”) do, in their imperfect way, work. But much depends on whether you view the world from the point of view of the individual or a society. In practice we tend to be a complex and sometimes an arbitrary mix of the two. However once you accept that around 10 or 20 thousand years ago man became a societal animal then what works now is different to what worked in the jungle.
In Chapter 24 Don talks in gently disparaging tones of dialogues between different religions observing that they are usually no more than an agreement to peaceably differ. Well, by agreeing that you will continue to love your impossible god and I will continue to love my impossible god there is an implicit acknowledgement that both of our impossible gods are not worth fighting over. In time both sides may be able to give up their gods and start talking about something more important. Critical thinking is described as a product of the Christian ethos and “the glory of the West” (Page 13 and page viii). In passing, I think that the terms West and East, as identifying cultures or places is no longer very useful in the twenty first century. I live in a country usually regarded as culturally western (by the usual method of ignoring indigenous culture) but which geographically, on the flat-map view of the world, is somewhat to the East of the Far East. Various cultures have been renowned for their critical thinking: the Greeks (only just in the west) and the Muslims (not usually seen as western though their influence did once extend as far as Spain). During the ‘Golden Age’ of Islam (8th to 15th centuries) critical thinking was well developed, as were concepts like human rights, experimental scientific methodology and various legal innovations such as the presumption of innocence. It appears that many of these found their way from Islam into European thinking. It does now seem that these aspects of Islam have waned in some Islamic countries, considerably helped of course by western interventions starting with the Papal Bull “Dum Diversas” and followed by colonisation (which largely abolished education for the indigenous populations), ‘orientalism’ described by Edward Said and eventually the installation of American and European backed puppet dictators.
In Europe critical thinking has been around, as Don admits, for only a few hundred years but, as he also recognises, its hold is tenuous. Any glory may turn out to be short-lived. The Christian ethos has contributed a lot to critical thinking but this is not exclusive to Christianity. To use words that seem to claim it as only emanating from Christian cultures might, to some, appear to be 21st century orientalism.
3. Repeating earlier books
Significant parts of this book (notably chapters 7 – 10) repeat what has already appeared in Don’s books of the last 10 years. Some will find this tedious, others helpful.
Several statements appear to have been included without sufficient thought having been given to their credibility or potential impact on a reader. There were occasions on which I could have discarded this book. Some sentences left their meaning in doubt and even conveyed the opposite of what I eventually decided they were intended to mean. Some statements were unsupportable, some needed qualification, and some suggested prejudice. That I continued reading was largely because of my familiarity with Don’s written and spoken words but had I been a first time reader I might not have persisted.
In Chapter 14 Don returns to the theme of morality and claims that morality has no foundation in nature. That is too simplistic and perhaps a good example of what Niels Bohr refers to (see below). This is a complicated area and morality may well have some basis in nature. Nature may not provide the answers but it often shapes the question and how a question is enunciated will inevitably influence the answer. If we ask questions about the survival of humans do we mean survival of individuals or survival of groups? We may choose to live, and die, as individuals (i.e. by the law of the jungle). But we may also chose to live in collaborative groups. It is tempting to see morality as just the consequence of humankind’s decision to live in such groups with the consequent need to establish and maintain trust within that group but I doubt that it is that simple. There is the idea, particularly well expressed in the writing of Neville Symington and Raimond Gaita, that, a consequence of human consciousness is the recognition that other humans are worthy of the same consideration from you as you think you deserve from them. Don himself suggested such possibilities in the Sea of Faith television programme of 30 years ago. Humanity is greatly in need of a credible and accessible basis for morality which does not depend on a god out there. Perhaps it is to be found within mankind itself. We have little difficulty in accepting that humans have intrinsic propensities to compete. It is equally credible that, in certain circumstances, they have intrinsic propensities to collaborate.
On page 79 Don suggests that it would be unthinkable that any politician would ever commit the state to a course of self-sacrifice. Politicians often give as their reasons for going to war the desire to protect others as in World Wars I and II. In Iraq there has been considerable cost to the US in terms of money, lives, credibility and moral authority and thus there is, in practice, a significant sacrifice. Of course the politicians may have been lying about the reasons and they may also have expected that there would be no actual sacrifice. Nonetheless I think that these examples show that the idea of a state committing itself to an act of self-sacrifice is not unthinkable.
Page 16 contains the statement “People should be ashamed to wear a quartz watch without being able to explain exactly how it works.” Can I not use an aeroplane if I do not understand the thermodynamics of the jet engine and the aerodynamics of airfoils? Can I not have my cancer treated if I do not understand the anatomy of the human body and the pathology of malignant tissue? Should I be ashamed that I am typing this on a computer whose workings I do not understand? The assertion is absurd. Again, a thoughtful editor of the manuscript would have recommended its rejection. I presume that Don is trying to say the same as Lawrence Krauss was saying when he said “We live in a society where it is considered okay for intelligent people to be scientifically illiterate.” The generality of Krauss’s word are credible. The specifics of Don’s words are not.
Don is writing books at what seems to be an ever-increasing rate. Most contain substantial re-statements of some or all of his books of the last ten years. Is Don a Becket who could no more stop writing than he could stop breathing or are books to Don what water lilies were to Monet.
On page 73 Don considers that his thinking is not as good as his writing. Niels Bohr is quoted as saying, “Never speak more clearly than you can think.” Whilst it is difficult to include in a comprehensible sentence all the uncertainties, qualifications and nuances of a complex thought, to fail to do so can create an aura of certainty and dogma which is usually unjustified and often not intended. Secular and religious politicians long ago realised that simple statements sounded better than complex statements. But the complexity of Don’s thoughts is his outstanding virtue. They embody an accuracy and inclusiveness that is hard to capture in simple sentences. Striking the right balance between comprehensiveness and clarity is rarely easy. The superiority of clear but simplistic writing may be illusory.
As usual Don is at pains to reinforce his mantra that you must work things out for yourself and that he is not there to tell you what to think. What then does one make of the things I have alluded to in part 4? Are they careless inconsistencies or are they deliberate? Is the clue to be found on page 108 when Don confesses to being subversive? Is he being provocative in order to make us think? I am not sure. But for me there is no doubt that as Don flits butterfly-like from flower to flower he presents many challenges and much that stimulates my thinking.