DON CUPITT

 

Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)


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The Uncertainty of Life
Don Cupitt

Sea of Faith Conference, New Zealand, 2002

I shall argue here that life has now become our most important religious word. Life is the new religious object, and we talk about having faith in life and committing ourselves to life, rather as our forbears spoke of having faith in, and committing themselves to God.

Life is everything: but unlike God, it is finite, and it includes both good and evil, both joy and sorrow. When we love life, we accept a package deal - as we did in the old marriage vows. But it is very important to recognize a consequence of life's baggy, mixed and finite character: in order to make sense of our life, we humans must actively impose shape and pattern upon it. Life's inconclusive shapelessness makes human creativity possible, and also makes it necessary.

That is why I picture the religion of the future as calling for a greater creative input on our part than was normally expected in the past.

Life Is Everything
Life is everything. Life is God. (Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace )
Life is like nothing, because it is everything. (William Golding, Free Fall)

In the year 2002 the old Queen Mother died in London, at the age of 101. There had been abundant time to prepare for this event, and the Palace could not fail to remember that when Diana, Princess of Wales had died the public had been deeply offended by the way the royal family had at that time retreated into privacy and silence, as if declining to have any part in the general grief. That mistake must not be made again, so on this occasion both the Queen herself and Prince Charles recorded short statements, about two and four minutes long respectively, for television.

These statements were intended to relate the private grief of the family to the public mourning of the nation, and to set the completed life of an individual against the larger background of the ongoing national life.

More than that, it was also - as always - the sort of occasion on which everyone feels a need to invoke a universal, cosmic background to our existence. Given the special status of the Queen and her heir in relation to the national church, and the Queen's own professed personal faith, there was every reason to expect some use of religious language.

At it turned out, however, neither statement made any mention of the soul, the world, God, faith, religion, sin, judgement, or life after death. The traditional religious vocabulary was entirely lacking. Instead, both statements made repeated use of the word "life". Prince Charles, who used the word five or six times, is not known to be a student of philosophy, but two of his uses of "life" had markedly Nietzschean overtones.

It cannot be doubted that both statements were very carefully checked by advisers to make certain that they expressed only the most unexceptionable sentiments in the most generally-intelligible language. And, I suggest, we have here an illustration of the very striking fact that in the past few decades life has become our most popular all-embracing word - by which I mean, the word we use when we want to talk about "it all" or "everything" - and various life-idioms have become the dominant form of religious language that is usable in public [1].

I first recognized this in about 1997, when I was casting about for a new way of writing philosophy and theology for a public that seemed to have become very resistant to both subjects.

I thought of an indirect approach: instead of vainly attempting to interest the public in my own ideas, I would find a convincing empirical method of demonstrating what philosophical and religious beliefs members of the general public themselves already hold. I would do this by collecting all I could of the stock phrases current in everyday speech in which people choose to articulate their own thoughts about the meaning of life.

As the man in Moliere's play was astounded to discover that he'd been speaking prose all his life, so the ordinary English person would be convicted out of her own mouth of already having a worked-out philosophical and religious outlook, whether she liked it or not.

I sat around with a notepad, looking dreamy and jotting down phrases. In time I also purchased a shelf of dictionaries - of slang, of idioms, of proverbs, of quotations and so on. But I still possess the very first sheet of notes I made. At some later date, perhaps in 1998, I have gone over this sheet with a highlighter pen, marking the terms which occur most frequently. They are "life" and "it all", both of which are found some six times.

It was these two terms that stood out and continued to do so, so that in due course they became the topics of the two "Everyday Speech" books of 1999, The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech and The Meaning of It All in Everyday Speech (both SCM Press). These books aimed to turn the tables on my critical reviewers. I would look innocent and say, "I'm not trying to press my ideas upon you. Heaven forbid! No, I'm showing you what a deep and interesting thinker you already are. I'm showing you the implications of the language that you yourself are already using."

Now, if my critics and all those ordinary people chose to be smart and suspicious they could require me to justify my singling out from everyday speech stock phrases that incorporate terms like "life" and "it all" as being of special philosophical and religious interest. Why not focus the enquiry around other terms such as "believe", "absolute" and "certain"?

The best answer is surely that people in general evidently find that these are our most effective all-embracing terms. I mean that when we talk of life we invoke everything about the human condition, human experience, and human knowledge as it appears to us humans who cannot but see everything from the point of view of living beings with an intense interest in life.

The word life comprehensively reminds us of what we are and from what angle we see everything. And in fact I found that the new life-idioms and it-idioms are quite remarkably numerous. It seems that in modern times we have become acutely aware that life is everything, that life is all we have and all we will ever have, and that our being in life flavours and shapes the way we see everything.

In the past, thinkers have constructed God-centred, being-centred and knowledge-centred visions of everything. But today it seems that the life-centred point of view is the best. It leaves nothing out. As Wittgenstein says, "The world and life are one" [2]. Very well.

But why has the old religious vocabulary so suddenly gone out of use, and why have the new terms so suddenly come to seem much more appropriate? Why the big changeover?

The historical story that I have already told elsewhere remains, I believe, substantially correct. It invokes "the discovery of time", "the discovery of the mind", the discovery of bildung, and the discovery of the innocence of everyday modern life, all in the period around 1780-1870 [3].

After the French Revolution a new commercial and industrial civilization led by the middle classes began to develop very rapidly. Its outlook was and is highly "historical" - progressive, humanistic, liberal and democratic. Through the Romantic movement and the rise of psychology a strong interest in individual human subjectivity and individual life-experience began to develop. People began to see the human life-world as being the primary world in which we all live, and the novel became the dominant literary form.

Naturally enough, novelists began to show a special interest in the major events of the human life-cycle. Everyone became highly conscious of the story of her own life, and especially of the formation and development of the personality through childhood and adolescence to adulthood, courtship and marriage. Not least through the novel, women began to come forward into equality, both in art and in social and public life.

And finally, people cast aside their traditional heavy moralism about big cities, and began to affirm the innocence of secular urban everydayness.

Plein air impressionists, painting Paris, are a world away from Hogarth's London. Even a figure as intensely religious as Vincent Van Gogh sees very clearly that modern city life escapes traditional religious censure. In particular, it escapes the old distinction between the sacred and the secular, or profane. The two have become fused together in a new outlook which dramatically re-values everything that is finite, temporal, contingent and of this world.

Two of the very best statements of the new outlook are Wordsworth's straightforward confidence in the innocence of bodily life and sensuous experience, and Tolstoy's sentences - attributed to Pierre and written in the late 1860s - towards the end of War and Peace: "Life is God", and "To love life is to love God" [4].

Thus by 1870 or so in the work of certain major artists life is emerging as the new religious object. It is within us, it is that in which we live and move and have our being, and it is also in a sense over against us. My life is my own personal span, and I have to decide what I want to do with my life. At the same time, life is also our other, our milieu and our only home. It may be personified as calling for our commitment to it, as guiding us, as teaching us lessons and as dealing out to us our fates.

Gradually ordinary people's outlook has become more and more life-centred, until by today people instinctively take a life-centred view even of death itself. Thus the funeral service has become "A Thanksgiving for the life of ...", and the memorial service is "A Celebration of the life of ..." the dead person. Increasingly, even the churches are opening forest burial grounds where corpses, instead of lying "asleep" waiting for the general resurrection, are content to be recycled into the biological life of this world.

So we see today that a long process of return to this world, to time, to the body and everyday life - a process that first began, perhaps, with or shortly before the Protestant Reformation - has by now reached a certain completion. In the early days Protestant attitudes to the senses, the body and everybody life were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand there was a desire to assert the holiness of everyday work and especially of domestic life, a theme to which seventeenth-century Dutch painting already bears eloquent witness. But at the same time there was also a pessimistic conviction that sin could not be finally conquered and the human condition could not be changed greatly for the better by anything short of the return of Christ.

In the nineteenth century that mixture of optimistic and pessimistic strains continues, as we are reminded when we note that Tolstoy's Pierre who so extravagantly praises life is also a prisoner of war who has recently lost his faith and has been having a cruelly hard time; and that the Paris whose everyday life is so eloquently hymned by a long line of painters had just gone through the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War. Claude Monet himself had experienced great hardship and had left the city - but here he is back home, and Paris is paradise again.

In the twentieth century the same ambivalence continues, as Henri Matisse maintains the vision of this life as Edenic while living under the Vichy government in southern France. But modern people take a non-realist view of life. It is not an iron cage. Our life is what we make it. By changing the way in which ordinary people see themselves and their world, and by changing the political and economic arrangements under which they live, we can make everyday life paradisal. It can be done. It�s up to us. There is therefore no excuse for not holding, and battling to realize, the Edenic vision.

So it has come about that since the 1960s the new religion of ordinary life that Tolstoy had adumbrated a century earlier has now become the effective religion of ordinary people, embodied in all the stock phrases about life that are common currency. All life is sacred, and we must have faith in life. We all of us want to love life, to live life to the full, to trust it, to commit ourselves to it, and to make the most of it while it lasts.

Two centuries ago, Hegel described the process by which the entire supernatural order returns into this world, coming down to earth and being diffused through the common life of ordinary people. We should not regret this process. Its happening is part of the working-out of Christianity's own logic.

After Protestantism, the next step is the religion of ordinary life. As I have suggested elsewhere, the traditional "church" sort of Christianity should not grumble about this, but rather rejoice to see itself as at last being elbowed aside by its own fulfilment. Like John the Baptist, it should graciously give place to its proper heir and successor.

In the little book of 1999, The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech and its two successors I said all this. But I made some mistakes. I concentrated the argument around an attempt to demonstrate that life has become the new religious object, trying to show in some detail how the various things that we used to say about God have now been reshaped into sayings about life. We need to have faith in life, we should not tempt life, because nobody is bigger than life [5], and so on.

This "interest" or tendenz of the argument led me to stress the respects in which life resembles God, and relatively to neglect the various important ways in which life is quite different from God. The result was a little book that was accurate so far as it went, but which failed to make as much as it should of the good idea from which it had begun.

There are two ways in which life differs markedly from God. They arise from the fact that the "omni"-attributes of God come out quite differently from those of life, because God (or was) transcendent, simple, unmixed perfection, sovereign over all things, whereas life is finite, temporal, immanent and all-inclusive. God is pure holiness and goodness, whereas life is baggy and shapeless, and includes all the opposites - bliss and wretchedness, comedy and tragedy, fullness and emptiness, good and ill, all bundled together in one great package.

The result is that saying "Yes" to life is markedly different from saying "Yes" to God. When we say "Yes" to life we say "Amen" to all of it as a package deal, and thereafter the so-called problem of evil does not arise. We are required to renounce the victim-psychology and the old impulse to complain about being unfairly treated.

Those who say "Yes" to God, on the other hand, take sides. They commit themselves to a dualistic view of life, at every point choosing this and rejecting that. Inevitably, they have great difficulties with suffering and evil - not least because with our historical picture of nature it has become very hard to maintain that aggressiveness and death are no more than secondary intruders into a life-world that was originally designed to work best without them.

But there it is! Those who love life say "Yes" to it all and try to learn never to complain, whereas those who love God pick and choose in the hope that they will one day be spectacularly vindicated.

The second way in which life differs from God is that - unless they claim to believe in a "life-force", or something of the kind - the lovers of life are non-realists. Life is not a great Being, self-existent and utterly distinct from us. Life is just the going-on of things in the human life-world. Life is our human traffic, our business, our conversation. Life is communication. Life is our world, and life is what we make it.

A religion of commitment to life is therefore the only fully immediate and non-dualistic religion, for it refuses to make any distinction between our outer life and our inner life, or between secular and sacred spheres of life, or between loving God and loving it all or loving one's neighbour.

Nor does it distinguish between temporal and eternal concerns. On the contrary, it simply calls for an unhesitating and unreserved ethical response to the call of life, where you are and right Now - that is, the sort of response that the teacher Jesus of Nazareth is reported to have demanded.

Life is chaotic. We can�t expect to be able to completely sum it up it speculatively. But by the way we commit ourselves ethically to life and to our neighbour we can make sense of life.

Here we should notice that the religion of life is metaphysically very different from traditional theism. In the religious outlook in which we were all brought up there were two great all-embracing ideas, God and the finite, created order which is usually called "the World".

I am now replacing those two with a single new object, which may be called Be-ing or life. It is finite, temporal and contingent. Above all, it is a single, immanent, continuous whole of which we are seamlessly parts. It is outside-less. Life is, simply, everything.

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