Friday, July 25, 2008

A review of "Reforming Christianity"

A few posts ago in “The New Yorker,” Theodicy, and Don Cupitt, on July 2nd, I mentioned "Reforming Christianity" by Don Cupitt (Polebridge Press, 2001). Below is a review by Graham Warren from November 2001 of that book on the blog, "Sofia, Sea of Faith in Australia" ( I think the review provides a good overview of Cupitt's ideas and a challenge to us church members to move out of church Christianity into Kingdom religion, because for me the saddest idea in Warren's review is "The Church has condemned itself to the sideline of history." This is because the church refuses, as Jesus did, to stand with "God facing up to nihilism."
By the way, "Radicals and the Future of the Church" is another wonderful book that I recommend highly.

Here is Warren's review:

Don Cupitt's latest book "Reforming Christianity" is a post-script to his 1989 reformation book, "Radicals and the Future of the Church." His proposals for and sketches of a church of the future - how it will be organized and what it will actually do - were mocked. Now, sadly, he portrays himself as a man who does not mind losing the church and its version of Christianity. However, he fears the loss of Jesus - a serious blow. Jesus may not be rescued as a divine saviour but we may be able to do something with him as an ethical teacher - provided we don't mind seeing him not as a god who can't be wrong but as a man who might be right.

My first acquaintance with Don Cupitt was a life-altering reading in 1988 of "Sea of Faith - Christianity in Change" (1985). I then read backwards "Taking Leave of God" (1980), "Jesus and the Gospel of God" (1978), "The Leap of Reason" (1976), "Christ and Hiddenness of God" (1971). Somewhere along the way I read "The Long-Legged Fly" but I have lost my copy and with it the memories and thoughts evoked in the reading.

Don Cupitt prefers plain speech. He refuses to be an ecclesiastical apologist. He is a philosopher of religion and an heir to the Enlightenment exploring Kant's insight that we fabricate our world. Like Hegel he believes that reality emerges in our encounter with historical developments. Don Cupitt follows the critical path of Schopenhauer, Freud, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida. Cupitt does a more complete draft of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer intimated - religionless Christianity. He asks 'do we want to grow up?' Do we want to join the global shift away from authoritarianism and traditionalism? Are we prepared to move away from the assumption that the world is ready-made and all we are required to do is to be enthralled.

Can Christianity be reformed? It is a given, is it not? Only if one has a belief system which is immutable - “deposit of faith” as it is known in the Roman tradition wherein all is revealed from above. Contrast this with a voluntarist view where autonomy and responsibility are balanced one against the other.

This book may scandalize the faithful. With each new book Don Cupitt adopts a more urgent iconoclastic polemic with the church as a “deposit of faith” squarely in his sights. One constantly hears echoes of the forebears of Cupitt's ideas: "…faith as an act of will", "…religion is an attempt to familiarize the terrible" - Soren Kierkegaard; "…man’s last and highest parting occurs, when, for God's sake, he takes leave of god" - Meister Eckhart. This book is an urgent call to throw off "the painted veil", a metaphor as old as Plato, to describe that which hangs between the eternal world and us. This is not new material from Don Cupitt but it is the most urgent and latest call to act. As Church Christianity melts away there is an urgency: don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Don’t lose sight of what Jesus represented!

The Church has condemned itself to the sideline of history and Cupitt has analyzed the reasons for this over a lifetime of writing. But now we are in danger of losing the voice of Jesus - not the Christ of faith constructed by the church since first they puzzled over the delay in the parousia - but the Jesus as the original caller to the Kingdom. Don Cupitt preaches kingdom theology, kingdom values.

Jesus preached the Kingdom and we got the church. Now that the church has reached its use-by-date, we need to rescue core teachings.

Don Cupitt argues that reformation and renewal of Christianity are possible. Church Christianity, as we have received it, is handicapped in its view by two great errors – the mistaken interpretation of Jesus Christ as being co-equal Son of God incarnate, and a mistaken belief that there is a controlling supernatural place beyond this world.

To escape we need to start again with the message of Jesus about the Kingdom of God on this earth. In honest reflection on this message Don Cupitt argues for a religion that is immediate, beliefless and entirely based on the here and now. Religion is no longer how we relate ourselves to the supernatural realm, but rather how we relate ourselves to life. To reject the church is to reject a mediated view of God.

What power had the old mediated view? It promised reward later! History and maturity have stripped us of this as a credible belief and we stare in the face of nihilism. Don Cupitt embraces nihilist Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Schopenhauer but shows us God facing up to nihilism. This is the voice, resurrected after two millennia, of Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus preached the Kingdom. Don Cupitt preached Kingdom religion. This is a combination of "solar spirituality" and humanitarian social ethics. It is autonomous and responsible. It embraces the end of belief in life after death. Why did Jesus express such eschatological urgency? Perhaps it is, and was, here and now. We need to embrace it. We are not called to prepare for it. It is now. "Solar spirituality" is lived not explained. If Jesus had so much trouble being understood, small wonder that Cupitt likewise does.

This is not a secular humanist rebellion against God nor a repudiation of Christianity. On the contrary, we see it as Christianity's own struggle to advance from its warped ecclesiastical stage to its final Kingdom stage of development. The church has always prayed "…thy Kingdom come (but not yet please!)”.

The church very early became locked into the view of Jesus as portrayed in John's gospel - a divinised Jesus Christ. This is in stark contrast to the human Jesus of Nazareth portrayed in the other gospels. Why do church theologians in seminaries not cross the corridor to listen to their colleagues in scriptural study? New hermeneutical tools and analyses have given us a chance to hear the muffled voice of Jesus. Why has the institution remained deaf and mute to these new understandings of their founder?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Policing: A Middle Way between War and Pacifism

An international police force may be a way between war and pacifism that can reduce violence in the world. This is the thesis of a new book of essays, “Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to World,” reviewed by Donald W. Shiver Jr. in the July 29, 2008 issue of the “Christian Century.” Ivan J. Kauffman, an author of one of book’s essays, points out the defects of both the just war tradition and pacifism. The former assumes that violence can achieve justice, while the latter assumes that opposing violence is the way to justice. However, merely opposing violence does not produce peace. Peacemaking is a larger effort, in which policing can play a major part. Policing, Shiver points out, is unlikely to eliminate violence in the world, but policing can diminish violence, subject it to judicial restraint, and treat life as worth preserving, and thus lead us toward a world that deserves the name “civilized.”
I haven’t yet read the book. Shiver’s review makes me want to read it, but more broadly, I’m drawn to reconsider the role of policing in the world, especially as undertaken by international organizations like the United Nations. I hope these essays lead our policy makers to see policing as an important alternative to both war, which is rarely if ever just, and pacifism, which often seems merely oppositional rather than actively peace seeking.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Same-Sex Marriage: The ELCA and California, Compared

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) in its Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality ( maintains the tradition that “Marriage is a structure of mutual promises between a man and woman blessed by God (Mark 10:7-9) and authorized in a legal arrangement required by the state.” (lines 1005 - 1007) The draft continues: “After many years of study and conversation, this church does not have consensus regarding loving and committed same-gender relationships.” (lines 1116 - 1117) And, further, “This church recognizes the historic origin of the term “marriage” as a life-long and committed relationship between a woman and man, and does not wish to alter this understanding.” (lines 1151 - 1153)

Compare this with the opinion of Chief Justice George of the California Supreme Count who, in May, 2008, wrote in the majority opinion overturning the ban on same-sex marriage that “The right to marry represents the right of an individual to establish a legally recognized family with a person of one’s choice and, as such, is of fundamental significance both to society and to the individual.” Like the ELCA, Chief Justice George conceded that “as an historical matter in this state marriage has always been restricted to a union between a man and a woman.” But, unlike the ELCA, he maintained that “tradition alone” does not justify the denial of a fundamental constitutional right. Furthermore, when lawyers for the state identified two interests to justify reserving the term marriage for heterosexual unions - tradition and the will of the majority. Chief Justice George said neither was sufficient. (“New York Times” May 16, 2008) Apparently Justice George thinks that equality and justice are more important than tradition and consensus.

Equality and justice are hallmarks of the Gospel. In “Reforming Christianity" (2001), Don Cupitt points out that as the Church loses influence because of its ridigity and fear, signs of the Kingdom often appear “on earth” in secular society. Justice George’s ruling is such a sign. In contrast, the ELCA, fearful of losing its conservative base, has forsaken the Gospel in regard to same-sex marriage and is hiding behind “tradition and lack of consensus.” If Jesus had based his ministry on tradition and consensus, he would be long forgotten. As equality and justice prevail for gay people, the ELCA will be ignored and then forgotten. The ELCA should hear the Gospel and proclaim it, because the Gospel is to way to life. If the ELCA proclaims the Gospel, it will live. Otherwise, it’s dead.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

“The New Yorker,” Theodicy, and Don Cupitt

“The New Yorker” didn’t publish my letter, below, so I’m posting it today:

Although James Wood cites Nietzsche at the beginning of his article, “Holiday in Hellmouth” (June 9th & 16th), he seems to yearn for the return of the theistic God, whom Nietzsche so famously declared dead, to solve the problem of theodicy. Such a supernatural, otherworldly, almighty God no longer captures the imagination of many people. Rather, as Don Cupitt writes in “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” some of us are coming to “... believe in an historically-evolving, human, and culturally-established God.” Further, “...we now have become responsible for our God. We’ve got to appraise him, update him, rewrite him continually.” Cupitt points out, following Hegel, that the doctrine of the Trinity is an obvious beginning for reinterpretation: “The co-equality of the second person (Christ, the Son) with the third person (The Holy Spirit) is an invitation to demythologize, because the full coequality and coeternity of the Son means that everything the Father is, the Son is also. And when the Son completely and irrevocably commits himself to becoming human then God has become human, without remainder. So everything that God is, this fellow human being beside me now is.” Also, “... the God of Pentecost (The Holy Spirit) is a postmodern God who has ceased to be a substance and has instead become the interrelatedness of everything.... the medium in which we live and move and have our being, the dance of signs.” Therefore, we are not passive bystanders in God’s world waiting for God to overcome evil, but rather we humans can be God incarnate, expressing the Spirit through (as the old prayer has it) “our life and conversation.” We know all too well that we have the ability to bring about evil. The challenge lies in whether we can express God to foster good.

This letter is an outcome of my re-reading “Radicals and the Future of the Church,” which, I think, 19 years after its publication, is still an excellent description of what the church could be like if non-realism were adopted. It is out of print, but Amazon has 6 used paperback copies from $7. It’s well worth the read.