After God

INDEPENDENT 6 September 1997

AFTER GOD by Don Cupitt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £11.99)

The Queen, we are told, is a fan of the Internet. God, it would seem, is not. According to Don Cupitt, the new global technology and other expressions of post-modern culture are destroying the last possibility of religious belief.

Cupitt advocated the abandonment of ‘theological realism’, first in Taking Leave of God (1980) and subsequently in The Sea of Faith (1984), which lent its name to the whole ‘non-realist’ movement, as developed in books such as Anthony Freeman’s God in Us and David A Hart’s Faith in Doubt. Refuting any charge of atheism, Cupitt and the non-realists insist that, since the only reality of God lies in the word ‘God’, it remains perfectly valid to talk of a God in whom one does not believe. ‘It heightens consciousness, it gives one a conscience and it helps one to see oneself and others with a greater clarity of vision.’

In After God, Cupitt elaborates his position by examining the development of religious belief from the beginnings of human history and, in particular, from the growth of ‘modern-type belief in God’ in Mesopotamia. He shows how the idea of God – rather than gods – emerges at the same time as human self- consciousness and how the presence of God was necessary for both the stability of the state and the authority of the ruler. With an over-reliance on linguistic philosophy, he concludes that the supernatural world of religion is merely a mythical representation of the world of language.

The historical survey apart, Cupitt’s analysis is questionable on almost every count. In place of one absolute ~ God – he has substituted another, the works of Derrida and his followers – and seems to be as fettered to a single historical moment (‘If we can’t beat post-modernity, we should embrace it’) as any fundamentalist who considers that nothing of value has been written since the first century AD. He cites Luther’s distinction between the Faith which is believed and the faith in which it is believed, while ignoring the equal vital distinction between faith and the language in which it is expressed. Christ, in the Johannine gospel, is the Word; but the word is not Christ. That there is an element of the numinous beyond language has been the principle of the greatest philosophy and art for over 2500 years.

For someone whose framework is exclusively verbal, Cupitt is depressingly lax in his use of language. He talks of religious life as an ‘activity through which we can… find a kind, of posthumous, or retrospective happiness’, when he is clearly not referring to a happiness after death. Speaking through his baseball cap, he likens early images of God to contemporary images of Donald Duck – who may be a cultural icon but is not, by any stretch of the imagination, even Cupitt’s, an object of religious veneration. Like a stage Puritan comically attracted to the venery he condemns, he seems to delight in the prospect of ‘universal meltdown, nihilism, post-modernism’.

Those, who consider belief in a traditional expression of God and an authoritarian structure of religion to be outdated but find Cupitt’s alternative equally unconvincing, need not despair. A third way exists in ‘critical realism’, as propounded by Mark Oakley, in his Farmington Paper, God – To Be Or Not To Be?. Oakley summarises the position thus: ‘critical realists acknowledge that theology is a human construction but we are also aware that the source of belief and the validity of beliefs are separate things. That religion involves projection need not disprove the existence of an object in religion.’