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Don Cupitt and the Future of Christian Doctrine – S. R. White

March 27, 2016

DCATFOCDCupitt once preached the University Sermon when I was a student. He began and ended with the conventional ascriptions to the Trinity but, in between, demolished the God to whom he had made these ascriptions. I had enjoyed his TV programme ‘Who was Jesus?’ and waned to compliment him on it so I hovered near him, waiting politely for him to finish his conversation with someone whom he clearly knew already. He completely ignored me – and that gives the flavour of this man who talks to his fans and ignores everyone else, writing them off as beneath his attention.

He has produced a book every year and, towards the end of his life, seems to be writing his ‘final’ thoughts and then comes out with further ‘final’ thoughts the next year.

Two current are moving in the opposite direction. There is increasing fundamentalism on the one hand and moves to reinterpret Christian theology for a modern world on the other. Back in the 1960s, thinker like John Robinson excited many ‘ordinary’ people but today there is little outside rarefied academia. Movements like Feminist and Liberation Theology come from outside the Western tradition.  They often concentrate on one particular issue without working through the implications for the structure of the rest of theology.

Don Cupitt is an exception in that he reflects on the development of his own thought (which began as thoroughly orthodox) and thinks through its wider implications.

He departs from supposed orthodoxy when he questions the atonement, though just because he rejects one narrow view of it doesn’t mean that he has to reject all of it.

He is critical of dogma rather than its misuse. His arguments are often unsubstantiated and circular and his premises wrong, e.g. he takes an extreme form of belief and makes it normative of all Christianity before demolishing it, much like the approach of Richard Dawkins.

I was a bit disappointed that there hadn’t been a more detailed refutation of Cupitt’s claims but, as the author admits, that would require a systematic theology which would be far bigger than this book.

In the end, I came to the same conclusion that I had before reading this book – I don’t believe in the sort of God that Cupitt doesn’t believe in. But that doesn’t mean that there is no God. In other words, the position of critical realism.

And Cupitt’s claim, that people today don’t feel that life is worth living, simply isn’t true. Look how people cling to life, often in desperate circumstances that the well-fed Cupitt can never imagine.

I had to look up psittacine = parrotting


When I wrote it in 1964 I was one of those serious hyper-orthodox young men who arise in each generation to dismay their elders and betters (just as today, replicas of what I was, they have arisen to reproach me.)

He may express himself in different language, but his consistent attitude of devout agnosticism in this book would not have disgraced many of the Church Fathers, or indeed the mediaeval mystics.

To show the richness and ambiguity of religious metaphors, [such as that of the development of the child,] we can easily reply to Freud on his own terms, and argue that the trust we place in science and technology in modern culture is illusory, being SI)thing but a projection of infantile belief. Modern man’s mental age is about seven; he wants his toy-cupboard full of marvellous gadgets, and believes he will be perfectly happy when his environment responds to his every whim. But modern man’s gadgets, his greater knowledge, and his technical control over nature have done nothing whatever to alter or diminish the fundamental facts of life, namely, moral evil, suffering, solitude and death. It is time to outgrow utopian fantasies of omniscience and omnipotence, and recognize that we cannot attain final happiness until we come to terms with realities we cannot manipulate. If we read the life of Jesus, or of the Buddha, we may begin to grow up. Science is to religion as infancy to adulthood.

Cupitt fails to make a vitally important distinction between ‘referring’ and ‘defining’. He assumes that religious language is intended to be ‘factual’ and either does not see, or does not acknowledge, that religious language is, and always has been, largely metaphorical; and by means of metaphor one can, of course, refer to something without in any sense claiming to be defining it.

Cupitt will be found to be misrepresenting deconstruction in the service of his own arguments just as much as he has misrepresented Christianity. He has adopted a number of unfortunate ‘slogans’ from modern French philosophy such as, ‘there is only the text’, ‘there is no outside’, and ‘language goes all the way down’, and he has failed to appreciate that when viewed in its entirety, and in particular as practised by its more rigorous exponents, deconstruction is not as free-wheeling and purely negative as Cupitt would like to think

The God whom C [and so throughout] cannot abide is not the Christian God, the God revealed in Christ; and the real God is very like C’s religious ideal, except that he exists. C’s arguments for taking leave of God have missed the point, by simply talking about the wrong God. I hope that we would all take leave of his God, but I hope also that few would be tempted to think that has God was either the traditional Christian God or the God of living Christian experience.’

The most telling critique of Cupitt’s views according to this criterion of universality is advanced by John Hick. He argues that a path such as Cupitt’s is only open to a particular kind of highly intellectual and self-aware spirituality, and that the vast majority of people are inherently unable to travel the spiritual path which Cupitt has mapped out. This being so, they are all doomed to die in a state of unenlightenment, unfulfilment or `non-salvation’, and there is also in Cupitt’s world no possibility of any greater fulfilment for them thereafter.

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