Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollectionsFixme

Dream On

AFTER GOD: The Future of Religion By Don Cupitt, Basic Books: 144 pp., $20

June 22, 1997|JAMES WOOD | James Wood is a senior editor at the New Republic

Don Cupitt is an academic, a priest and an atheist. "After God," his new book, is a wild attempt to apologize for this impossible trinity. Cupitt, who teaches divinity at Cambridge University, seems to shed intellectual skin almost seasonally. In the 1950s, he believed in the existence of a supernatural God and in Christ's claim to be God's unique embodiment on earth. He had been, after all, ordained in the Church of England. But then he read the later Wittgenstein, Jacques Derrida and Richard Rorty and decided that nothing really exists outside language. Religion is a rather noble language game. As he italicizes in "After God": "We made it all up. We evolved the entire syllabus." In time, Cupitt became a post-structuralist, a "Kingdom Christian" (someone who believes that God's kingdom is not in heaven but here on Earth) and a Christian Buddhist. He now preaches something he calls "solar living."

In the sherry-fed, intellectually relaxed world of the Anglican Church, Cupitt is seen as a fiery thinker, and he likes to see himself this way. His writing is slick with self-satisfaction and carries its atheism as if it were a rare fruit that the ecclesiastical tradition has been too doltish to pluck. "The way the Church got God wrong," he writes, referring to the long theological obsession with the concept of an actually existing God, "was closely related to and tied up with the way it got Christ wrong. (In both cases, something light and dialectical was turned into something heavy and lumpish)." But viewed against the great tradition of skeptical and atheistical philosophies of David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig Andreas Feuerbach, Friedrich Nietzsche and Albert Camus, Cupitt, not Christ, seems "light and dialectical" and, more often, only lightweight.

Cupitt begins his argument with a hasty sketch of our theological age. Post-structuralism has triumphed, he maintains. Most of us now see that God is merely a powerful word and not a "really-existing, all-powerful Being out-there." There is no absolute truth anymore, just the truths which we construct within our man-made language. Global capitalism has accelerated this process by reminding us that there are many cultures and many religions. Indeed, Cupitt gets quite hoarse in his praise of unfettered capitalism: "Everything nowadays is beginning to float on a free global market--not only money and prices, but also linguistic meanings, religious truths, and moral and aesthetic values." Cupitt thinks that "if we can't beat post-modernity, we'd better embrace it."

Though Cupitt's picture is sketchy and overlooks many details, and his Postmodern flag has only primary colors, most readers will recognize the world he describes. Surely, most will agree with him about the disappearance of God. Though millions, of course, still believe in the literal existence of a God who created the world, Western elites do not, calling upon the idea only rhetorically or in desperation. But Cupitt is unwilling to extend the implications of his atheism. The world was not created by God, he believes; but we should keep the "idea" of God and pray to this idea whenever we feel like it. (Cupitt confesses that he does pray to this figment at times.) Since God does not exist, Jesus was not a divinity but a Jewish Socrates, yet it would be a shame to jettison his teachings. In place of the savagery of truly disillusioned knowledge, Cupitt prefers the serenity of partial illusion. If we pretend to believe, he appears to say, things will go better for us.

Cupitt's frail, faux theology offers three advantages, or states of being. They sound like David Hockney paintings: the "Eye of God," the "Blissful Void" and "Solar Living." To see ourselves "as if under the eye of God" is "to assess oneself and one's lifeworld as from the standpoint of eternity." In other words, it is good for us to up the metaphysical ante, to see ourselves in the highest terms. In the Blissful Void, we enjoy the self-cancellation and self-enlargement that the great mystics experience; contemplation even of the idea of God crumbles the petty ego. Solar Living, as far as Cupitt is comprehensible here, is the duty to burn with a hard, gem-like flame; to live as passionate vehicles of life's eternal transience. It is how one might live like D. H. Lawrence in a nice university town. Cupitt often sounds like the Lawrence of his apocalyptic writings--incoherent, eager, pagan, preachy.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|