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I’ve liked Don Cupitt’s work ever since his 1984 TV series “Sea of Faith” which led to my joining the Sea of Faith Network (sofn) which I can highly recommend. I mentioned his 50th book (out earlier in 2015) in an earlier Post and now that I have had time to read it on my kindle on the train I want to summarize his view of ethics and the coming of the kingdom – or empire- of God. I hope you find this interesting.
Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.”
In the first sentence of the book, Cupitt extols the personal integrity of the South African leader Nelson Mandela ” a world moral hero”, “a man who belongs to all humanity.” At the same time he is baffled that commentators and journalists never enquired into the origins of Mandela’s ideas. What were the moral influences on him? Cupitt speculates that Christian mission schools in Africa would have exposed him to the Bible and to the history of various British humanitarian movements such as the abolition of slavery, which were informed by Christian social ethics.
In his later years the famous Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy gathered a world wide following for his views on the teaching of Jesus. He called for nonviolence, simplicity of life, universal love and reconciliation. His ideas of nonviolent protest and passive resistance echo to this day.
Gandhi was influenced by Tolstoy and “appropriated the ethics of Jesus into the Hindu tradition.” His earliest political action was in South Africa where he greatly influenced the African National Congress and therefore the young Nelson Mandela. Cupitt sees Mandela as belonging to a lineage running from Enlightenment humanism through Dickens, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Martin Luther King. The list could be expanded to include Byron, Locke, Coram, Clarkson, Elizabeth Fry, Hannah More, Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury; and why not include entertainers Seeger, Lennon, Dylan, Baez and Geldof?
Even Pope Francis comes in for moral praise as he emphasises ethics all the time and has put the Vatican’s dinosaur doctrines on the back burner. Now, what might Christianity look like today if it had stuck to the teaching of Jesus and the primacy of ethics? The author points out that “the dominant modern ethical tradition of post-Enlightenment humanism is clearly derived from and inspired by Jesus…we need to state simply and clearly what the teaching of Jesus was, and how far we can appropriate it and live it today, in a different world and after all this time.” (p.13%) Here’s what Cupitt thinks Jesus’s ethical teaching was NOT, these are simply some unsatisfactory purported summaries of Jesus’ teaching:-
(i) Mark 1:15. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” The first clause recalls the Jewish belief at that time that if Israel fully observed the law for one day, the kingdom would come. “Which implies that the law is already sufficient to win our salvation, and does not lead us to expect any additional moral teaching from Jesus.”
The second clause sounds like a church interpolation as Jesus was not a dogmatic teacher.
(ii)To quote Leviticus “love thy neighbour as thyself” as a summary of Jesus’ teaching does not do him justice as he is sharply critical of mere reciprocity.
(iii) Likewise “do as you would be done by” is a golden rule in many religions, and didn’t just come from Jesus.
(iv) The Lord’s prayer is a church invention: it tries to separate heaven and earth, while Jesus tried to close the gap between them.
(v) The parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son surely epitomise the ethics of Jesus: God will always forgive and one should help the needy. No. These are Luke’s creations. “You may retort that the moral of each story is surely in Jesus’ own spirit; but the lesson in each case is not quite what you may think. The Good Samaritan story is anti-racist, and the second story brings out very forcefully the Elder brother’s sheer meanness of spirit.”
So, what were Jesus’ ethical teachings?
Cupitt looks at the work of the Jesus Seminar (upon whom be peace).
Some of Jesus’s well known sayings commend extreme magnanimity and generosity:
“turn the other cheek” (Matt 5:39)
“when sued for your cloak give your coat too” (Matt 5:40)
“blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20)
“go the second mile” (Matt 5:41)
“love your enemies” (Lk 6:27)
NB all these quotes come from the Q gospel from which Matthew and Luke copied.
The core idea is that “we shall not become fully good and happy members of a fully-reconciled society unless we learn to be ‘big’ – capable of reaching out to the other, capable of making the first move, and capable of taking the risk of being consistently generous and forgiving even to those who have wronged us most badly. Above all we must never nurse ill feeling or harbour a grudge, because that kind of negative feeling feeds upon itself and poisons the soul.”
The arguments used by Jesus in the early years of his preaching career were “emotivist, expressivist, outgoing, heedless, very short-termist, imprudent, carefree and self-expending, reckless and over generous”. He rejected vindictive demands for justice or ‘closure’ or ‘a level playing field’ in favour of complete availability and openness towards others; and insistence that one must be always and unhesitatingly over-generous in one’s response, always going beyond what custom and law require.
Matthew paints a picture of a later more introspective proto-Catholic Jesus.
For our original Jesus, the kingdom of God has already come as we begin to live its life, finding eternal happiness in living a life of heedless generosity now. The original Jesus says “Do it now! Don’t look back! Don’t calculate the costs and the benefits!” For the first 20 years after his death, the original Jesus was well remembered, but Paul’s supernatural view of the universe emphasised quite different things.
Jesus was just a sociable human being. His religion is concerned with the common human world and with that only. His teaching totally lacked the old Mosaic sense of the awesome holiness of God. Christianity would have been a much more advanced religion if it had remained closer to the message and the ethics of the original Jesus. A new ‘second Christianity’ is slowly emerging.
(p.40%) Don Cupitt’s dream resembles the kingdom of God – it is his sketch of how things ought to be and perhaps one day will be. Indeed, if we decide to live by a dream, we should deliberately anticipate it in the hope that ‘faith in a fact can help create the fact’ (William James). The author approves of young idealists who refuse to listen to those old people who tell them ‘you can’t change human nature.’ He gives as a case in point the successful non-violent campaign led by Gandhi in South Africa that resulted in legislation banning anti Indian racism. He sees a kingdom of God, where all men are brothers, being brought about by non violent direct action.
I am not very good at abstract ideas, so I shall quote the following passage verbatim, but with some editing. In it Cupitt is contrasting the later, Pauline view of the soul with the original early Jesus view.
“The soul is no longer interested in purifying itself and preserving itself for everlasting life in the eternal world, but instead continually expends itself, pouring itself out into its own expression, drowning in the visual glory of the world. Such this-worldly mysticism is a striking feature of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. We are not to retire into some inner chamber, but instead should come out like the sun. (Mt 5:14-16; 6:22 ff.) Thus the self’s religious life is wholly this-worldly – another example of Jesus’ usually-unnoticed secularism. The self’s religious life consists in its making itself a purely this-worldly show of itself in self-sacrificial love. Come out, do your thing, strut your stuff! We simply do not have time or energy to care about claiming our own rights or demanding ‘justice’ or ‘closure’ for ourselves. The religious person stands out conspicuous by his ardent presence. He’s like a standard lamp. (Mt 5:14-16) When he is in this mood, the early Jesus (of the tradition up to and including Q) always enjoins excess, chiefly with the object of precluding any lapse into meanness of spirit, and calculation. Any sort of reward or recognition would utterly subvert this kind of religious life. So for example, a non violent campaigner for a moral cause or vision gets the moral force of his campaign entirely from its moral purity and his self-expending selflessness. The Jesus-following kingdom-religion I am describing doesn’t expect or hope for any kind of payoff hereafter.”
The shift of thinkers like Kierkegaard from doctrine to ethics implied a tacit abandonment of all supernatural doctrine. We now know for sure that almost none of the propositions of faith is testably and straightforwardly true. By today’s standards the entire doctrine system is a fairy tale. The alternative Cupitt proposes is ethics-led religious belief. he holds up Martin Luther King‘s “I have a Dream” speech as an exemplar. In part it reads:
“I have a Dream that the better world we long to see can come, will come soon.
Let us together live the Dream.
We can and eventually we will make it come true.”
Although they might differ in detail, both reformists and revolutionaries are agreed upon certain ethical points, namely you need to be self critical of your motives, goals and methods; you act independently of any supernatural support or backing; you have a world view that includes everything and you reject the old and build the new; ethics come before everything else. Expanding on his Dream idea, Cupitt says that for him it is a spiritual ideal of perfection that can perhaps never quite be realized on earth. The idea of living in such a paradise functions both to make us dissatisfied with present ethical reality, and to raise our expectations for the future. Don’t accept the status quo, dance with the dream – this is true religion. Our (non-realist) God is pure spiritual ideal of freedom, clarity and spiritual perfection. He is not our Alpha but our Omega, our chief End.
TO BE CONTINUED
Cupitt, D. “Creative Faith: Religion as a way of worldmaking” Polebridge Press (2015)
Cupitt, D. “The sea of faith: Christianity in change” BBC (1984)