"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.

I’ve always liked Buddhism. I like its phenomenalist side, its desire for a unified conception of reality as something like a flux of minute events. The self is indissolubly part of that, so the self is not a spirit that peers into the world from the outside. The self is itself a cloud of minute events and as such is part of the world.

In my religious thought I don’t try to save our immortal soul from a wicked world but rather to realize my complete immersion in this one world of ours. I want to get myself into harmony and into step with the world we’ve actually got. I don’t believe we should look to any metaphysical order on the far side of experience nor to any metaphysical subject on the near side of experience but simply, as it were, to life. We are our lives. If we give ourselves wholly to our own lives, we’ll find the best happiness that we as human beings are capable of. I strongly oppose religions that ask us to distance ourselves a bit from life.

Surely Buddhism has a long record of distancing itself from life. At times it can appear almost life-denying. Buddhism arose at a time when in India, as in Greece, there was a feeling that the development of a state society required a disciplining of the passions, some distancing of oneself from one’s own passions. For me, though, the problem now is rather the other way ’round. Ever since the Romantic movement began, we in the West have been struggling for an integral life of the body, the emotions, and religion. We want to get our values, our feelings, our senses, our bodies all singing from the same hymn sheet.

I’m looking for a more unified selfhood. I like the more integrated, this-worldly humanism that Christianity has always wanted but has very seldom consistently pursued. Evangelicals like to say how horrible secular humanism is, but in Christianity you might say that God is a secular humanist. God becomes man in the world; the human being is the best miniature of what the world is. We shouldn’t try to split ourselves into different bits or separate ourselves from the world.

Nowadays I’m a bit of an emotivist. I define religion as cosmic emotion: a feeling for it all, a desire to place oneself in relation to everything. To understand what we are, how we should live, what we can hope for, how we should orient our lives, where we belong in the whole scheme of things. I stress the priority of the passions and would say that our emotional health is the fundamental precondition for personal happiness. This, I know, is rather different from some traditional Buddhist teaching, but I’ve noticed how many younger Buddhists in the West are not too keen on Buddhist asceticism and don’t think that sexual asceticism is necessary for personal happiness at all.

What do you think precipitated this radical shift in your thinking? Was it the natural scientific understanding of reality that forced you to cast aside old metaphysical certainties? Yes, that’s right. But I emphasize history nowadays. Our life is not controlled by a timeless order or standards. It is profoundly historical. I’ve always been historically minded. I’ve always thought I could only be the person I am in the particular historical period in which I live. So I now see religious belief systems and practices and values all as historical. We ourselves evolve within the historical process and the standards by which we measure ourselves and our lives. We shouldn’t see ourselves as hooked up to an extra-historical order. For me, critical history is even more important than natural science in requiring us to go over to a thoroughly this-worldly, humanistic kind of religion.

In Emptiness and Brightness you speak of the need for a totally fresh start in what you call “pure religious thinking.” You argue that it is the responsibility of each person to take on the task of thinking for themselves in a new religious way. My correspondence indicates to me that almost all people of my generation and younger are aware that their whole lives are spent in a personal religious quest. People feel the need to begin all over again. I think we are becoming detraditionalized very quickly. I now feel that we need a religious version of the scientific method.

I’ll put it this way: The only religious convictions that are of any value to you are ones you have formulated yourself and worked out and tested in your own life and in debate with other people. In 1993 I came very close to death, and my own convictions and beliefs were tested. Not only was I going through a very severe period of poor mental health, but I also had a burst cerebral aneurysm. Surgery left me with severe head pain, and for a time it seemed I would never write or work again. I managed to survive that period. But I asked myself afterward how I had got through such an extreme time and how it was I had known moments of great happiness in that period. Out of the self-questioning that began early in 1994, all my later thinking developed. It reflects a complete break with dogmatism and a desire to make a fresh start in the religious life.

Theologian Don Cupitt
Theologian Don Cupitt

Isn’t there a danger that this approach might lead one to become rather self-centered? Christians have always emphasized the importance of being part of the Church while Buddhists speak of belonging to the sangha. They both stress that religious life must be grounded in a sense of community. I like community, but I’m always afraid of the extent to which religious communities bully and pressure their own members into conformity, and tend to fall under the control of dominant personalities for whom the religious community is a theater in which they enact their own power fantasies. The Sea of Faith has always tried to be a completely free religious society in which people can debate and argue with each other, develop their vocabulary but also find their own voice, develop their own views. Most religious communities emphasize obedience and deference to religious superiors and vows as if they’re trying to stop individuals thinking freely for themselves.

I’d like there to be a much greater degree of religious freedom than we have yet known. I’d like people on the whole to hold fewer dogmatic beliefs. I’d like people to know a lot about the Christian tradition but be largely independent of orthodox Christian religious commitments, for they seem to inhibit thought and stop people from responding spontaneously to life. I’m looking for postdogmatic religion, led by the individual’s personal quest, the search for values and practices that really do help us survive when life gets tough.

What, then, does it mean nowadays to have a religious identity in the traditional sense, to think of oneself as a “Christian” or “Buddhist”? I’m keen on religious and political eclecticism. Traditional identities are a bit of a mistake. I don’t want to go back to any supposedly pure, original, and exclusive religious identity. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, it was usually believed that at the beginning of the Christian tradition the faith was pure. So if you went back you’d find that everyone agreed, everyone held a pure and simple form of the faith. What modern historical critical scholarship has shown is that in the New Testament period there was the most appalling jumble of different ideas, out of which something which considered itself orthodoxy did not develop for about four hundred years. There never was an original, pure, primitive identity. Dreams of purity are almost always a complete mistake. I don’t see why one shouldn’t be highly eclectic. Notice how the most gifted revolutionaries, intellectual and artistic, always know their tradition very well and are quite happy to borrow from the most unexpected places. I approve of the modern religious supermarket and the huge artistic, religious, and cultural wealth that is available to us nowadays to choose from and explore. I want to encourage people to find their own way.

I suppose I am about half Christian and part Jewish. I’ve always liked Jewish humanism, conviviality, and the tradition of locating religion in the family rather than in a monastic order. I like Buddhism because of its independence and intellectual purity of mind. There is a simplicity and clarity in Buddhist thinking which I approve of. Buddhism is cool, and that coolness is a great relief from Christianity’s often overheated personalism. Perhaps a quarter of me is Christian, a quarter Jewish, and a quarter Buddhist, and I don’t see why we shouldn’t be eclectic nowadays. Our societies are becoming multifaith, and our culture global.

In your book you propose an “empty radical humanism.” What do you mean by that exactly? By “humanism” I don’t mean that the world is human-shaped and I certainly don’t want to deify “man,” although I recognize that consciousness develops because the world takes definite shape—and becomes beautiful and bright—only in our language and in our theory. There’s a certain sense in which we can’t avoid anthropocentrism, but I also want to demythologize our sense of ourselves. I don’t want to say that man is the crown of creation. So it’s an “Empty Humanism.” Here I refer to the traditional no-self doctrine of the Buddhists, anatta—”empty,” in the Buddhist philosophical sense of nonmetaphysical, noninflated. I rather like the humanism of respect and even veneration for elderly or weak people that you find among the Jews and the best Christian artists: a humanism of human weakness and compassion, but not heroic.

You also say in your book that rather than meditating on emptiness, we should discover how to live emptiness as freedom. How does that work in practice?
The studies I’ve done on the word “life” and the way it’s used in English show that increasingly we want to live life to the full, to commit ourselves ro life. That means accepting that we are passing away all the time. The more we pour ourselves out into life, the more we live by passing away. This requires us to be very nonmetaphysical, nondefensive, not holding onto the self but giving ourselves away all the time, taking risks.

What I call “solar living” is living as the sun does or living as a fire does. I like personal magnanimity and generosity rather than the traditional reserve and caution of the Christian who says “Don’t touch me!” and shrinks back. In Christian art, the classic image here is that of the risen Christ recoiling from Mary Magdalene and saying, “Don’t touch me!” It is that fearful, defensive attitude that I want to get away from. I would like a religion of personal recklessness and generosity.

The phrase “Emptiness and Brightness” is reminiscent of the Tibetan Dzogchen teaching that the nature of mind is empty, radiant, and unimpededly responsive. Were you thinking of that? No. In my own history it comes from the fact that I’m a highly visual person. I get intense religious and artistic pleasure from the sense of sight every day of my life. I develop enthusiasms for birds, for butterflies, for trees, for geology. The great enrichment of the human apprehension of the world, because of the extenr to which we’ve described what is around us, gives us a very vivid and brilliant sense of the world just through our eyes. That to me is brightness, the sense in which the glowing cosmos takes shape in our seeing of it, covered all over with human language, very finely described, appropriated by us. This is a hard thing to describe. It means for me that the sense of sight is very important in our cosmology and a great source of religious happiness.

I wish there were a better education of the senses in the Western tradition. In the West, education is almost always seen in terms of drilling people into conformity, of repression, of preventing kids from knowing toO much about things that we do not want them to know about. I’d like education to be a formation of the senses and in particular of the sense of sight. Perhaps leading to an education of the body, of movement. We haven’t yet developed the sort of education that human beings of the future will want.  

Given the sort of resistance you meet from evangelical and conservative Christians, and given the growing forces of fundamentalism in all religions, are you optimistic about the future? Can you see your ideas and those akin to them ever making much headway against a tide that seems to be moving in the opposite direction? It’s a hard battle to encourage people to develop new religious ways of thinking as an alternative to fundamentalism. The deterioration of my own tradition during my own lifetime has been very depressing. When I was young, the Church of England still had some weight and was closely linked with the national culture. Nowadays it’s mediocre. The outlook for religion might seem to be poor. But I think there is great need for it.

Even though we are the most privileged and richest human beings there have been so far, in terms of the stability and length of our lives and the cultural resources available to us, we’re not as happy as we should be. I’d like to see politics more oriented toward the question of happiness; certainly I’d like to see religion more concerned with making integral, happy people and raising the quality of personal life in our culture.

There is so much talk about power relations, and about economic relations, but there’s not enough talk about the quality of personal life and personal happiness. My religious humanism is about trying to invest this life of ours with very high religious value. I think it can be done. I think our best thinkers, people like Nietzsche or D. H. Lawrence, knew that this is what religious thought nowadays should be concerned about. We must press on with that even in difficult times, because it is what we need in the long run.

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