"Late September, 2001" © Richard Serra. Used Courtesy of R. McKeever/Gagosian Gallery
“Late September, 2001” © Richard Serra. Used Courtesy of R. McKeever/Gagosian Gallery

Don Cupitt may be the most radical Christian theologian alive today. Yet his work is hardly known in the United States. Born in England in 1933, he is an Anglican priest, a lecturer in the philosophy of religion at the University of Cambridge, and a fellow and former dean of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Author of more than thirty books, he is the founder of the Sea of Faith movement, which calls for a radical rethinking of our faith traditions. He has been accused of being a heretic by the more conservative wings of the Church, and has been described as being closer in his thinking to Buddhism than to Christianity. In Emptiness and Brightness, Cupitt writes: “Of our religions, only Buddhism offers a serious and disinterested attempt to understand human unhappiness, diagnose its causes, and propose a therapy that, if persevered in for long enough, actually has some chance of working.” Risking It All and Wrestling with Life, a two-volume study of Cupitt’s life and work by Nigel Leaves, will be published in 2004 by Polebridge Press. Tricycle contributing editor Stephen Batchelor interviewed Cupitt at Emmanuel College in April of this year.

In 1980 you published a book entitled Taking Leave of God. For some this must have seemed a shocking idea for a theologian and Anglican priest to propose. It would seem to threaten the very foundation of Christian religious life. Although I’ve been temperamentally religious all my life, my philosophy of religion turned critical with the publication of Taking Leave of God. I argued that we should regard God not as a metaphysical being, an infinite spirit, but rather as a guiding spiritual ideal by which to orient one’s life. This idea of God was explicitly put forward by Kant, and arguably has always been present in the Lutheran tradition.

The older realistic understanding of and language about God leads to impossible intellectual difficulties. How can a person be infinite, timeless, simple, and immutable? It seems to be essential to most Christians’ idea of God that God should somehow be thought of as personal, as having dealings with us, but the philosophical attributes of God make that unthinkable. To me it makes more sense to see God as a spiritual ideal. And perhaps the best way to interpret Christianity is to say that Christians see in Christ that ideal embodied in a human life. So I demythologize the idea of an incarnation of God in Christ into the idea of embodiment of Christian values in Christ, in his teaching. I see Christianity as a spiritual path in which one pursues various values, tells certain stories, follows examples that in the end go back chiefly to Jesus of Nazareth.

To what extent was your taking leave of God a movement toward other faiths, in particular Buddhism? Yes, that was the time when my path and [author] Iris Murdoch’s crossed. She was getting very interested in Buddhism and was taking instruction in meditation. Both of us were beginning to feel that the metaphysical side of Christian belief was coming to an end. We were attracted to Buddhism because Buddhism has always known how to bracket the metaphysical questions, and to put the following of the path first. Christians have a maxim, lex orandi lex credendi: the way you pray should give you the general shape of what you believe; the way you practice your religion should come before the ideological form you later cast it in.

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