“Zingcreed – thinking aloud about religion, a personal ‘Christian/Atheist’ polemic by Peter Turner M.A., M.Sc.”

Yes, Don Cupitt, Dean of Emmanuel College Cambridge for dummies; and that includes me. I was fascinated by his TV series “Sea of Faith” years ago, and I even bought the book. To think that George Elliot translated David Strauss from the German! But when I bought other books by him I found some of them rather difficult to understand. I suppose that’s not surprising, he’s a Cambridge academic and there’s nothing he doesn’t know about theology and philosophy. He’s influenced my writing a lot, but although we have similar views, and we both have science degrees, I am just a bumbling amateur compared with him. I doubt I’ll ever read Barth or Nietsche. Being a member of the Sea of Faith Network, I responded to the offer he made this year to members to write in for copies of his books free of charge. (He’s having a clear out.) I toyed with the idea of writing a long summary of his main views as the world’s leading radical Christian, based on my new acquisitions. Then I came upon a booklet in the British Library (and no, they don’t have every book ever printed) from Radio New Zealand, containing a transcript of a conversation between Cupitt and some other radical Christians – most notably Lloyd Geering. Here he is forced to simplify in a way he never does in his books. In this Post I aim  to copy extracts with the minimum of editing.  I hope will be useful to others looking for a radical take on their religion. ( When I met him for the first time on 22 September 2013 at a Sea of Faith Network meeting in London, I told him about this blog; he didn’t seem particularly interested and said there was a lot of stuff on the internet about him.)

The faith of a radical Christian

On belief:
“Originally it meant loyalty, allegiance to a people, a path, a way, and I’m a believing Christian in that sense. I believe ‘in’. What happened in the Christian tradition was that belief ‘in’ got turned into belief ‘that’, and it became very dogmatic…you had to hold the right doctrinal beliefs to be saved. That model I reject. I believe ‘in’ Christianity in that I take from it my vocabulary, my way of life, and out of that I try to make something new.”

On God:
“I don’t think of God as an objective being out beyond the world at all. I think of God rather as a symbolic vehicle for common values, our common cultural values. God is a focus of spiritual aspiration. God symbolises the values to which we’re committed. But our idea of God changes over time as our values change. The most familiar example of this is that the harsh patriarchal societies of the past had a harsh patriarchal God, whereas nowadays, with the influence of environmentalism and feminism, God is getting greener and is getting a feminine pronoun more. It’s important to be questioning our idea of God and modifying it as times change.”

On the supernatural:
” I don’t believe in any reality beyond this one around us. I don’t believe in any supernatural ‘beyond’, either out on the far side of it or even inside us on the near side. I’m just completely immersed in this flux of life.”

On religion:
“Yes, indeed I have a place for religion! I think religion gives us a shared vocabulary in which we can celebrate together our life, our values, we can join in common cause, we can debate the questions of the meaning of life. Religion is the most central cultural institution – without it we’re disoriented and lost. We’ve got to have a common religious vocabulary, but I’m saying at the end of the 20th century, our religion must change, when we are living through the greatest single cultural upheaval in the whole of human history.”

On spirituality:
“Spirituality doesn’t mean that there’s an extra spiritual dimension to the world or experience quite apart from us. In the Christian tradition the spirit is always associated with life, the giving of new life.  There I think of the many ways in which our vision of the world may be renewed or enhanced by myths, by stories, by art, by religious fellowship. So spirituality for me is the renewing energy that gives life meaning and enables us to make sense of things. It’s not a transcendent use of the term spirit- rather I see spirituality in terms of language and way of life and renewal.”

On salvation:
” There is a movement to a more communal, less individualist, understanding of salvation, and with it comes a more this-worldly understanding of salvation. For me, now, to be saved is to be returned to myself, to the centre of my life, to this world. I don’t see salvation as a transfer to another world. For me salvation is to be found in the here and now and in saying “yes” to life. Since I am part of the world and my life is bound up with other people’s, for me salvation now extends to human society and even to the planet.”

On sin:
“Sin usually meant breaking with traditional lines and divisions. I think sin was a concept that belonged in a traditional, structured, rather immobile kind of society. It’s obviously changing now in a society that’s fluid and shifting. What was thought of as sinful and disobedience and presumption in the past may today be the right thing to do. The whole notion of sin has become very fluid and uncertain. Also in the past the notion of sin has been a tool of power by which people have been oppressed. They’ve been made to feel guilty and dependent. So I think it’s quite right that for Christians nowadays, the forgiveness of sin should mean actually getting rid of the idea of sin from your thinking.”

On death:
“Eternal life is a kind of synthesis of life and death achieved in the here and now, in the practice of faith. I don’t believe in any further life or any further experiences after we die. I put there the main emphasis on the community’s remembrance of its dead. I rather like those traditional and tribal peoples who pay great attention to their dead, and treat them as venerated ancestors, and so on. The Maori have a traditional culture in which the dead are interwoven with us and coexist in our experience all the time. I think that should be part of message of Christianity.”

On Jesus:
“We’re pretty uncertain about the historical Jesus, but we do have magnificent texts with a lot of interpretive possibilities still to be discovered within them. It was Jesus’s anomalousness that triggered off the Christian faith – the fact that he was a heretic and a sinner and a blasphemer. The person who transgresses, the person who oversteps the mark, the person who crosses the line is the true revolutionary. Such a person always becomes a kind of social outcast and is abominated. But such a person can remake the world too. So because Jesus crossed traditional frontiers and lines of demarcation in all sorts of ways, he’s an anomalous and magical figure who brings the world to an end and inaugurates a new world. That, I think is the significance of the story of Jesus that we see today.”

On Buddhism:
“I like the Buddha because he shows how it’s possible to base religion on doubt, and how it’s possible to have a religion that starts from transience and the fleeting character of the world and our life. There’s no belief in the soul in Buddhism. they accept that the human being is just a part of the transient world. I want to replace Christian Platonism with Christian Buddhism: that is to say, a version of Christianity based on doubt, accepting the fleeting, transient nature of this life; a version of Christianity that’s therapeutic and returns us to this life.”

On sex:
“Religion is saturated with sexist metaphors, and religion has always been very interested in controlling kinship and the sex roles and sex ethics. Nowadays when sex itself is being rethought, the effects on religion are going to be very great indeed. We’re changing over to a more plural world in which cultural and sexual and other differences exist side by side, and sort of react with each other horizontally.  This is making intellectual and religious conservatives a bit touchy.”

On the environment:
” Historically, Christianity began with the belief that the whole earth was a sort of demolition site, awaiting destruction and redevelopment. Earthly beauty was regarded as a potential temptation, distracting you from the pursuit of heaven.  But since Darwin we’ve been forced to realise that this earth really is our home and our whole life is completely interwoven with it. We’ve only just begun to realise that political theory will have to include the interaction between human beings and their physical environment. That’s a big shift and it’s going to affect our whole culture and our religious outlook.”

On the church:    
“We need the church because: (i) we need a common vocabulary in which we can talk about and celebrate the meaning of our  life together. We need a sort of shared house of meaning. (ii) In the modern state we need the church as a stronghold of values, a place where life is rethought and where our values are criticised. We need the church in a critical and creative role in relation to the state, because modern people are only individuals against the vast power of the modern state, but associated in a Church they can put up some resistance – and around the world the Church is a very powerful force  where the state is racist or oppressive or totalitarian. Also because the church is multiracial, the Church can play an important part in mediating in conflicts between people of different races. The Church gives you meaning. It gives you a place where you can together talk about what sort of shape you see life as having.”

On being a Christian:
” I see Jesus as a revolutionary who lived on the edge between an old world that was dying and a new world that was coming into  being. I see the sermon on the Mount as an ethic for life in very thin and transient and changing world. I love Jesus’ parables and his reversal sayings. I love the fact that he wasn’t a dogmatic teacher, but rather questions our received assumption, invites us to see ourselves and our life in new ways. Now we have no eternal truth, we realise that our our life is made entirely of stories. So we can rehabilitate myth and we can say that the life of Jesus gives us a story to live by. So one of the things that being a Christian means for me is that the figure of Jesus still has this exemplary mythical quality. Myths are the stories that shape peoples’ perception of life. and, of course in Jesus there’s not only the tradition of his teaching but the superb symbolic narrative of his death and resurrection, of loneliness and glory, loss and gain- all those wonderful themes which are, as it were, models for experiences that we go through in our own spiritual life.”

On suffering:
“Suffering has caused terrific agony in the Jewish community, who have produced a great literature about it since World War II. Why does God allow his own people to suffer on such a scale? Why does God allow to a figure like Hitler such enormous power to cause suffering to other people? You can’t blame suffering just on abuse of human free will, because we also have a world in which one person’s sin can cause the misery of millions of innocent folk. So the problem of evil is not really a problem that can be answered I think on any theory. I’d rather say that suffering is a challenge to us. We can at least do something to reduce the amount of human suffering. We can lengthen human life expectancy. It’s within our power to ensure that most people live without undue hardship in the modern world. We’ve got the basic knowhow – it’s rather that our economic and political arrangements need reforming. So I’d put the main emphasis on the challenge to us to do something about it. I think the problem of evil is fatal to the idea of an objectively existing, loving God who controls world events. On such a view how could you explain the holocaust? So I’d rather say we humans must change. We’re responsible for our world, we’re responsible for the political and economic arrangements that are often the causes of suffering.”

On miracles:
“They’re a supernaturalist conception, aren’t they – that there’s some kind of intervention into the natural order of things from outside. I don’t mind the idea of miracle in the sense of artistic inspiration, a sudden insight seeing things in a new way, being illuminated or converted. But I don’t like the idea of miracle as a kind of cinematic special effect, a freak. That sort of miracle seems to me a fantasy – I don’t think such miracles happen. I think belief in them is related to childhood fantasies of omnipotence, as in Batman and superman comics.  Notice that Jesus himself in the gospels rather warns against belief on the basis of miracles. He’s critical of people who just come to him wanting to see conjuring tricks.”

On science:
“I am personally an advocate of modern western science at its best – I think that’s the best guide to life we’ve got. I greatly regret the historic conflict between religion and science. I like the scientific outlook. I think it’s a good discipline for your soul, a good discipline for your reason. Scientific truth has a limited life, and of course I’m saying the same thing about our values and about religious truths. Science is strong because it’s weak. That is to say, it’s strong because it’s open to rethinking and change and so on, and it admits that its theories are only provisional. Its curiously paradoxical that science is strong through being sceptical and religion is weak through being dogmatic!”

On reading the Bible:
“All we’ve got is the text. I think myself that the quest for the historical Jesus has been a failure, not in the sense that we’ve found out nothing, but in the sense that just by purely historical method you won’t find enough of  religious interest. Rather the point lies in how you read the gospels, what sort of sense you make of them for your own life. Of course your reading will be a personal interpretation. Of course it will be eclectic, you’ll take what you want. But I think that’s all right.”

“Frontiers of Faith” Transcripts of two Radio New Zealand Connexions programmes, part 2. St Andrew’s Trust, NZ (1993)
(excerpts copied without permission)

Related Zingcreed Posts:
Don’s dream: Cupitt on the kingdom
Cupitt’s new book puts ethics before belief

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