Saturday, August 6, 2011

Oolon Colluphid's God

An homage to Don Cupitt- a theologian I can deal with.

What is it about god? It drives some people nuts, and drives others to absurd feats of theological gymnastics. Dead for a hundred years, but your garden-variety theologian seemingly hasn't gotten the message. Don Cupitt offers an answer:
"... theology is the one subject whose practitioners are in constant danger of finding themselves becoming demythologized right out of their subject, and then being told by everyone that they have a duty to resign. The corollary is that you can be a theologian in good standing only for so long as you are not very good because you don't yet see your subject clearly and in an up-to-date way. You may plan to survive the difficulty by adopting the time-honoured strategies of being evasive, or sticking to history, and so avoiding ever actually having to come clean about your own personal views. But you cannot help but feel a little uncomfortable about the paradox: an academic must seek full, transparent understanding, but when you fully understand religion you are no longer a 'believer'."

Former Dean of Emanual College, Cambridge, radical theologian Don Cupitt takes modern science and philosophy seriously, and thus doesn't believe god is "real". And that is perfectly OK with him. In any case, the matter needs to be faced squarely. Due to his various heresies, he has both been sidelined in the Anglican church, and humorously mocked by Douglas Adams, who modeled the theologian Oolon Colluphid in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy on Cupitt. Colluphid's putative titles include "Where God Went Wrong", "Some More of God's Greatest Mistakes", "Who Is This God Person Anyway?", and "Well That About Wraps It Up for God".

The title I am going to cover is "The Great Questions of Life", 2005, a book that puts Cupitt's various philosophical points across fairly briefly. Of the great questions, some are badly posed (What are we here for?), some not theological at all (Are we alone?), some infected with bad philosophy (What is real?), while some get a plain answer (Is there a God? No). The rub is that Cupitt still has great attachment to the Anglican traditions, and to some of the overall Christian culture, especially the revolutionary liberal teachings of Jesus himself.

The problem is simply to take in the higher level of knowledge we now have, and the separation of reality and fantasy that characterizes the modern state of philosophical understanding, including the sciences, arts, and humanities, and apply it to theology. Unfortunately, that means throwing a great deal out, and Cupitt has bitten the bullet and done so. The book is heavily philosophical, more so than Christian per se, which makes it interesting far beyond the Christian (or post-Christian) community. For instance, right off the bat, he has a passage on Hegel that did more to clarify Hegel's philosophy for me than reams of wiki pages:
"In Hegel's day people were coming to see the end of L'Ancien RĂ©gime as marking the end of the old hierarchical conception of reality, and its replacement by a new story that sees everything as developing historically within an entirely immanent process. In Hegel's interpretation of modernity, with the end of classical metaphysics the entire supernatural world of religion has come down from heaven and been dispersed into the unfolding common life of humanity. Ecclesiastical Christianity as we have known it hitherto reaches fulfilment and comes to an end. Instead of being routed through the heavenly world above, religion becomes immediate and beliefless, and the love of God is transposed into a new and ardent love of and commitment to life."

The main theme of this book is the "outsidelessness" of our situation. The universe is outsideless, there being no way we can ever peer beyond the shroud where our telescopes and cosmological theories reach, with spacetime being essentially closed (with a hat-tip to the multiverses, which are dubious). Supernaturalism is a matter, not of cosmology, but of psychology. His other example is language, which in any dictionary is defined solely in term of other language symbols- it is a self-contained, self-referential system. Similarly, our human, earthly world is outsideless as well, with no one handing down the rules and meaning. We are all we've got, and we had better take care of this, our precious world.
"As we have seen in looking at the great questions of life, even to this day, most people seem to assume that the purpose of life, the real meaning of life, the point of it all, the goal of life, what life is all about must be something great that hidden outside life. I thought the same myself, at first. Only very gradually, through the influence of figures like Hume and Darwin, did I gradually some to admit the superior beauty and clarity of naturalistic or immanent types of explanation in all fields."
"The general rule is that everything is contingent: everything is the product of time and chance. The cases of living organisms, of language, and of culture generally all pursuade us that complex, ordered, rule-governed, and self-maintaining or self-replicating systems can be formed and can develop just by the interplay of contingent forces within the world, over long periods of time. ... a broad, spreading network of purely contingent truths can be immensely strong without having to be based upon any sort of external support or founding certainties."

Cupitt makes the rather ironic point that conventional belief is in essence just as unrealist as his own more explicit formulation:
"Today, because of the decay of metaphysics, the ordinary believer's God is an imaginary Father- a finite being, in time- to whom one listens and with whom one talks. At the same time the ordinary believer invokes the God of non-realism, as when he or she says: 'My God is not a God of Judgement. My God is a God of Mercy, forgiveness, and love. Not a God of the respectable only, but also a God who takes the side of the outcast, etc.' In such talk (of which we hear a great deal) God functions as a personification of our most cherished values. So the God of the ordinary believer and the ordinary chuch leader clearly does not 'literally' exist. ... the believer is openly admitting that 'I posit a god whose job is to reflect my own cherished values, and in whom I can therefore believe.' Today's religion is therefore non-realist and will be quite happy to remain so- but with one qualification: it oddly insists upon its own realistic character, even though it is totally unable to spell out exactly what God's 'objective reality' is."

Ouch! No wonder Cupitt had to strike out on his own, founding the "Sea of faith" movement. And no wonder he tickled Douglas Adams.

Getting past the dissing of traditional religion, Cupitt's positive program consists of a very democratic and idiosyncratic approach to spirituality. Indeed, he is very sympathetic to those who term themselves "spiritual", without bothering with traditional dogma and theology. Glastonbury and all that. The purpose of religion becomes the generation of hope and health insofar as it battles the existential problem. He offers a creed:
"1. True religion is your own voice, if you can but find it.
2. True religion is in every sense to own one's own life.
3. True religion is the pure solar affirmation of life, 'in full acknowledgement of its utter gratuitousness, its contingency, its transience, and even its nothingness.'
4. True religion is productive, value-realizing action in the public world.
5. Faith is not a matter of holding onto anything. Faith is simply a letting go. It floats free."

I particularly liked his discussion of point 2, where he urges being and showing the values you have inside:
"You are your own life. Your personal identity is not a secret thing hidden inside you: it is your lived life and the roles you play. Thus your commitment to life and to the task of becoming yourself has to be read as the task of fully appropriating one's own life and assuming full responsibility for it. Here I reject the traditional idea that there is great virtue in obedience to religious law and to the direction of religious superiors. Instead I join all those young people who would rather die than put up with an arranged marriage or any career or life-path chosen for them by someone else. In traditional Christianity the  demand for radical personal religious freedom has always been condemned as deeply sinful, but I think we must now insist upon it. One must choose one's own life, both making it one's own and seeking fully to express oneself in it. One must come out in one's own life."

While this can be taken as vintage 70's self-actualization and self-fulfillment, even self-centeredness, (or, more probably, a redux of Nietzsche), it is also quite akin to the Buddhist program of fixing the world from the inside out, instead of finding and conquering outside demons. And yet, it communicates a love and gratitude for life, instead of a focus on asceticism and sufferance.


  • People take their own paths to reject reality.
  • Joseph Heller and the death of god.
  • And in Afghanistan, is it tradition, or is it religion? Whatever its name, it is patriarchy.
  • A southern tea party, a southern agenda.
  • We are still on FIRE.
  • Terror attack in the US- ho-hum.
  • Europe has set itself on course to repeat depression dynamics.
  • Economics quote of the week, today from a wealth fund manager, speaking of how differentiated wealth and power are, even within the top 1% of the wealthy.
"Most of those in the bottom half of the top 1% lack power and global flexibility and are essentially well-compensated workhorses for the top 0.5%, just like the bottom 99%. In my view, the American dream of striking it rich is merely a well-marketed fantasy that keeps the bottom 99.5% hoping for better and prevents social and political instability. The odds of getting into that top 0.5% are very slim and the door is kept firmly shut by those within it."
  • And a graph, on where gross income shares are headed, drawn from regular Fed reports:

3 comments:

  1. Burk,

    Don Cupitt is a non-starter. He isn’t taken seriously by any respectable university department of religion, theology, or philosophy anywhere (other than as an amusing novelty). He makes “third rate” an enviable position. In the theological world he is like a creationist at an American Academy of Science cocktail party.

    But I can see why you would like him and can deal with him.

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  2. Hi, Darrell- Sorry, I was on vacation..

    We probably rank about third rate, so that does sound pretty bad.

    I am sure you are right- he has been spat out and studiously ignored by the community of believers, clerics, and theologians. Imagine! A theologian that doesn't even believe god is real. Yet there are many religions out there without gods, more or less, like shinto, jainism, buddhism, etc., so perhaps the concept is not as novel as it might seem to you.

    At any rate, I was just making my very own judgement based on his writing, which is both articulate and highly sensible in a philosophical way. Whether the theological establishment agrees with me or him is not so relevant. The opposite, really.

    Or should he not be called the theologian? Must a theologian necessarily believe in the myth of his theos? Whatever happened to your attachment to postmodernism?

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  3. Very interesting. I hope to read some Cupitt someday!

    I am very, very sympathetic to the idea of "outsidelessness." That is the human condition to a tee, and seeking a method of thinking that is coherent, ultimately non-dualistic and in line with this idea is essential to me.

    I tend to be very post-modern (I think, if I understand it correctly). All language, all mental pictures, all systems of knowledge are sumbolic mythologies seeking to describe and enable communication about our deepest feelings. They are all ultimately "real", but some are certainly more successful than others!

    A difference I have is that I don't use the language that god is not real. Rather I hold on to the term god and seek what it means. This simply makes more sense to me, as God is the search for the ultimate - or at least the next, deeper layer.

    But faith is definitely "letting go" and trusting. That's why a healthy level of agnosticism is essential to having faith in my book.

    Thanks for the review! Steven

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