Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Don Cupitt and Me

A contribution of mine, in response to another, about Don Cupitt in Fulcrum makes me think it's about time I lay my cards on the table regarding Don Cupitt and me.

First of all, the theologian as was and philosopher of most impact upon me is indeed Don Cupitt. He met my theological movements in a way no other did: not John Robinson, not Paul Tillich, not Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not Rudolf Bultmann. One reason I am presenting these to a local church theological group is precisely because they do not reflect my own personal theology. Theirs - all - is a protectionism of christology first, and I think it is a device that indicates the failure of such theology. It simply runs away from other academic disciplines, only to use them afterwards. The basic Taking Leave of God position is also mine, even if I might come at it from different angles, including that of a more sociological signals of transcendence (that of Peter Berger). That means we have this social life and this social world that sometimes indicates pointers to transcendence, but we cannot join the dots from where we are.

Yet I have some significant differences with Cupitt, despite the huge overlap. One is that his pre-1980 material is still useful. His notions of a high and dry transcendence is still worth a visit, though I think very limited. His material on Jesus via history and via the many Christs is remains more useful. He summarises very well where other writers keep making revisits.

Then like a pre-1994 Cupitt there is, for me, an interest in both Buddha and Jesus: both human, both inside traditions, both interpreted from the now. Like a post 1994 Cupitt I also see a sense in expanding the now, the simplicity of the sunlight through the clear glass window into a box room with perhaps some dashes of modern art. Unlike Cupitt, though, I still have a place for coloured glass and creative architecture and for realist paintings.

My biggest difference with Cupitt is the extent of my non-realism. He will say that mathematics is just a series of human created games. I certainly don't have the view of the mathematician of Marcus de Sautoy that Maths is pure truth, because it starts to come apart towards extremes, and its symbols are overstrained, but nor do I regard maths as invention in its broad base. Darwin's hoped for tree of life really has been found to be a tree of life - the DNA is a lock-solid evidence of evolved life. In other words, there is something called logic and something called falsifiability, and yes paradigms can shift regarding overall explanations but those falsifiable methods give rise to close-bound ongoing mechanisms. Furthermore there are arguments to be made about means to order of chaotic systems that are real arguments and not just games of talk.

However, when it gets to social sciences, the truth game gets a little more divided between regularity and validity: regular patterns across large scale phenomena, and close in-depth understanding of the particular. Again, it is not just talk - because it is researched. Now choices and methods of research are not neutral and not value free: but they are still research, limited as they are. This, by the way, is also the response to postmodern Radical Orthodoxy, which tries to label sociology as secular theology. It isn't, because it comes down to research: either in depth or across patterns. Radical Orthodoxy in comparison is but a puff of conservative wind.

It's when we get to the arts and religion that it becomes impossible to have an objective, universal view that can supersede a subjective individual view. Sometimes what seems to be objective is just a raid on another discipline for support - theology drawing on social sciences, for example. No harm in that, but theology didn't do it: it only reflects upon it afterwards.

Now history is a problem here, associated as it is with the arts. History does try to be careful, but in the end even trying to keep to empirical primary documents leaves too much out about who writes what and why: power structures, meaning ambiguities and narratives going on in the background. Still the disciplining is important, and why history and say the New Testament are not the same. Yes the New Testament in some lost pure and split apart forms are primary documents of Early Churches and their thinking, but that's all these documents are, and they remain lost to the past (as history).

So, in other words, whilst all these forms of meaning and truth-pursuits are language games, some language games are more realist than others. The least realist are religion and art; they are cultural products layered upon layers.

The problem with my position is that I can be accused of a comparative atheism when it comes to religion compared with science. But I won't have that: it simply is that religion even in its most theistic talk cannot compare with the methodologies of maths, science and social science.

Like art religion is supposed to inspire and motivate, but let's not confuse it with history or social science or science.

Cupitt's soteriology is in this world and this life, and so is mine. Neither of us in the use of Buddhism bother with reincarnation or supporting deities. I go with the agnosticism of some Western Buddhists (though Cupitt went East for the more severe forms of Buddhism; Buddhism is usually more moderate and longer term). It's practical and pragmatic and curtails idealism: Cupitt like me also learnt much from the late Richard Rorty.

What views I retain are roughly these: that all is transient, and attaching yourself to what will pass is a severe mistake. Nevertheless, while something exists, enjoy it. All the time one should check the self, reduce the self, but retain personality. Life is rough, and sometimes there's no option but to go through the rough to get to the smooth, if you do. Theology should be consistent with other academic disciplines when it makes claims that relate to them, otherwise it can tell what stories it likes. There should be no up front privileges: not for person, book or tradition. We humans are accidents of evolution and chaotic events, made different only by awareness and precision of language (as well as use of imprecise language), and as such we set ourselves up against evolving and our ethics struggle against the tendency to tribalism: tackling it via a purpose to serve beyond boundaries. We are collective and empathetic about consciousness and pain, and come together through symbolic exchange, and rituals reflect the exchange, and pure service turns the exchange into a gift. Like everything else, we die and we rot and we ought to come to terms with this. Reflecting on all this is the purpose of meditating, even saying prayer in the sense of one's own orientation towards one's own dead end and the other alive.

For just over two years now I've thrown myself into the religious task again, and this on a kind of postmodern non-realist (towards apophatic) use of Christianity, but once again the realism and connectedness of the Christian language has undermined itself. It is almost - almost - impossible to relate such tradition to a this-worldly outlook on life when affirming the other. It's not all over yet: I'm not quite there with Don Cupitt's 2008 arrival, but nearly. There is still the possibility of some second-hand relating framework, some sort of struggle and severe relationship with ancient text and forms, but it doesn't look promising.


Anonymous said...

SO, do you go to church because it gives you some community?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Not principally, no, though it does. No, I go for religious reasons, to contemplate via a spiritual path.

Beyond Words said...

Beautifully said. I no longer blog because I've come pretty much to the place you describe. It's humbling and freeing and poetic, raw and terrifying. But this chaotic accident that led to awareness is too precious to waste on superstition and hyper-tribalism. I'm now trying to discover the spiritual disciplines I was always seeking in Christianity but never found. I'll check in with your blog from time to time to learn from you.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Gosh. Glad I can be of service. I've just posted my most useless blog entry - on shopping.

hatless said...

What a great post! I started 'following' Cupitt in the early 1980s, and tracked him for about ten years, but he's forever moving on! Never been sure about his non-realism, but the Long-legged-fly is a stunning read.

Bonzo said...

"We humans are accidents of evolution and chaotic events, made different only by awareness and precision of language (as well as use of imprecise language), and as such we set ourselves up against evolving and our ethics struggle against the tendency to tribalism: tackling it via a purpose to serve beyond boundaries."

Good blog. An idea for you to kick around. Sack it if it's no good.

I'm sure we seem to set ourselves against the survival of the fittest to some extent. But evolution, may not only be driven by the 'selfish' survival of a single organism, but, especially once intellect is introduced, by the co-operative survival of the group.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

The Long Legged Fly is one of his best. It's a very good way into Derrida and postmodernism.

We have various pause and stopping off points, but I still see a value in going a long way back as well as back and fully forward.

Erika Baker said...

Bonzo's quote is philosophy. I have never understood why anyone thinks its theology.

What is it that makes people who deny the truth of any religion other than as a man-made concept are still so determined to be seen as THEOlogians?

What's wrong with being a good philosopher?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Because the subject is God and what follows, including in its absence, and so this way we have the whole range of theology including that of Mark C. Taylor - very definitely a theologian, for whom God has died into writing.

Erika Baker said...

Yes, I sort of get it.

But if your main thrust is that there isn’t a God and that religion is man made, then you’re only really talking about God in the same sense that atheists forever go on about the God they don’t believe in, and Robert Ian Williams on TA forever talks about Anglicanism. You might as well call Richard Dawkins a theologian.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I wouldn't call Richard Dawkins a theologian, in that I wouldn't call him a philosopher. But if as an atheist he was to enter into the dialogues of theology, as they exist at whatever end he chooses, then he would be a theologian.