Odyssey on the Sea of Faith: The Life & Writings of Don Cupitt

In Odyssey on the Sea of Faith, Nigel Leaves maps the ways in which the ideas of Don Cupitt have developed, evolved, and changed — from mildly evangelical, to liberal, to leading exponent of the view that there is no God out there and that we must create new religious ways of be-ing. This book makes sense of Cupitt. For those interested in the ideas of Don Cupitt, it will be the authoritative resource for many years to come.


Nigel Leaves’ … study of Don Cupitt’s theology is of such quality that it may be regarded as defnintive. — Lloyd Geering

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Odyssey on the Sea of Faith: The Life & Writings of Don Cupitt

  1. Review

    Book Review: Odyssey on the Sea of Faith: The Life and Writings of Don Cupitt by Nigel Leaves. Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa California, 2004; 140 pp.; ISBN 0-944344-62-3; $28.95.

    This postmodern-oriented book is based on a section of the author’s Ph. D. Thesis, which he presented in 2001 to Murdoch University in Western Australia. During the previous thirty years between 1971 and 2001, Don Cupitt wrote thirty-two books. Nigel Leaves carefully studied them for over six years and was able to group them sequentially into seven distinct stages and themes. These themes depicted Cupitt’s radical and postmodern religious explorations, transformations and intellectual creativity. Leaves has very carefully explained these seven stages in three ways: [1] as a page-long summary of these stages and books in Figure one on page 2; [2] in brief paragraphs in his Introduction on pages 1-8 and [3] in great detail and complexity within his seven challenging sections which constitute most of his text on pages 21-109. He then academically supports this perceptive and exhaustive analysis of Cupitt’s themes and many books with seven pages of end notes, nine pages of bibliography and six pages of relevant articles. Clearly any review of this scholarly and comprehensive work is unable to do full justice to the vast wealth of its challenging information and ideas and of Cupitt’s many works addressed.

    Although Cupitt has expressed reluctance to compose his own autobiography, Leaves has helpfully intertwined some of Cupitt’s life-experiences with the contents of his book. This provides useful background and biographical insights for readers, as they investigate the seven stages of Cupitt’s intellectual development and creative formulations either in detail in the book or in the brief summary presented below. Only several of his books are mentioned at each of these seven stages.

    Seven Stages of Don Cupitt’s Writing

    Cupitt’s stage 1 from 1971 to 1979 requires us to look back to the time of Cupitt’s Liberal Christianity and his exploration of “God beyond theism”. This stage featured a Negative Theology, Platonic cosmological dualism and thinking about God, in which God was deemed to be remote, unknowable and ultimately ineffable and beyond language (p.21). Such thinking can easily lead to Nihilism.

    For Cupitt, this thinking came into conflict with the stress by Immanuel Kant on the real existence only of phenomena, with Charles Darwin’s immanent and naturalistic Theory of Evolution confined to the contingent world and with logical empiricism. The non-reality of a metaphysical realm therefore replaced the task of believing in the supernatural realm and in infallible orthodoxy or correct beliefs with living religiously and engaging in orthopraxis or correct practices (p.29).
    These issues were understandably included in his books Christ and the Hiddenness of God (1971) and The Leap of Reason (1976).

    Stage 2 from 1980 to 1985 revealed Cupitt’s modern “Coming Out”, as he explored theological non-realism. This view proposed the non-existence of the biblically-depicted supernatural and miraculous events, superhuman divine and semi-divine beings and a supra-terrestrial heavenly realm up above. The word “God” was viewed as a spiritual ideal and the resurrection was seen as the living of a risen life, with the Easter message read as “Christ is risen-in me!” (p.5). Several important books during this “Coming Out” stage included Taking Leave of God (1980) and The Sea of Faith (1984).

    Post-modernism and anti-realism featured in Cupitt’s stage 3 from the years 1986 to 1989. They stressed that there is no objective Truth, that only our present, experienced world and cosmos constitute our reality and that humans are creators and co-creators of their own world (p.5). Such views were prominent in Cupitt’s books The Long-legged Fly (1987) and Radicals and the Future of the Church (1989).

    Cupitt’s Stage 4 from 1990 to 1997 featured artistic Expressionism, which could express the sacred in a creative religious and moral life and be lived purely within the context of a this-worldly, naturalistic and humanistic context (p.56). An important feature in this for Cupitt was the sun in the sky. He, like other humans on Earth, daily experienced the bright, illuminating, light-bestowing rays of the sun and the life-giving and life-preserving heat of the sun during its daily and seasonal cycles in relation to our Planet Earth. In contrast to Nihilism, Cupitt’s solar ethics, which drew inspiration from the powerful and all-giving sun, promoted similar ethical and moral living, ecstatic immanence and active recreation of the world, which daily “burned brightly in recklessness and extravagance” (p.71). Of interest is recent research into possible solar origins of the biblical “Yahweh” and of his humanised son “Yahweh Saves”, Yehoshua or Jesus. Certainly Cupitt’s quest for the “highest happiness” strongly features the brightly-shining solar disk and this view resulted in both Creation Out of Nothing (1990) and in Solar Ethics (1995), which was written specifically for members of the “Sea of Faith Networks” (p.71). Cupitt is clearly indicating that post-modern world-views and perspectives, which are based on empirical, inductive and scientific analysis and assessment, have now replaced the pre-modern, ancient metaphysics, its two-worlds dualism in a tiered cosmos and its supernatural celestial beings. Consequently, such post-modern, up-to-date world-views and ethical principles can be adopted by Sea of Faith groups with confidence and can be proudly practised publicly for the benefit of others, in the manner of the constant and extravagant life-giving rays of the sun.

    Being and Becoming

    The concepts of Being and Becoming were taken up during stage 5 in 1998 and the aspect of Becoming or Forthcoming of life and objects in our Cosmos are described as “the serendipitous creativity manifest throughout the universe” (p.83). In contrast to the common human fear of non-Being, Nihilism and the Void, Cupitt has coined the post-modern concept of O-void, which developed “Being” as “Becoming” through both masculine and feminine energies (p.87). Such creative forthcoming can thus overcome Nhilism and Religion can become a midwife of Being, bringing forth new life to people (p.86). Cupitt explored these creative processes in his books, The Religion of Being (1998) and The Revelation of Being (1998).

    Ordinary language was the concern of stage 6 from 1999 to 2000. It was also the concern of Philosopher Wittgenstein, who observed that the common peoples’ picture of the world and their beliefs can be seen in their ordinary, day-to-day language (p.7). Cupitt in turn and in reaction to accusations of being Gnostic or claiming unique, mystical insights into Higher Truth, affirmed that “nothing in all philosophy can surpass the subtlety and beauty of the most ordinary English idioms” (p.91). In fact, Cupitt preferred to replace the concept of Being with Life and the concept of “God-centred” with “Life-centred” (p.92). Another concern was to distinguish traditional Ecclesiastical Theology, with its stress on transcendence, dogmas, creeds, hierarchy, an infallible canon and ineffable mysteries with Cupitt’s Kingdom/Queendom Theology, with its immanental, visionary, egalitarian, global and explicit perspectives (p.97). These vital issues were featured in Cupitt’s two books, The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech (1999) and Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech (2000).

    Finally, stage 7 from 2000 onwards took up the challenge of the Religion of the Future. By 2001, Cupitt was presenting his seven principles for empowering a non-dogmatic religious outlook (p.103). What Cupitt calls “The Teaching” includes such principles as the following: [1] The whole of life is religious; [2] Life is outsideless but we should commit ourselves to our transient lives; [3] Salvation is found in expressive, solar living, as inspired by the graciousness of the light-shedding and life-giving sun; [4] Life and death are mingled and life involves the awareness of the closeness of death; [5] Humanism and humanitarian ethics are expressions of a new global religious way of life; [6] Ecclesiastical Christianity is to be replaced by informal religious associations, which emphasize sharing one’s story and Kingdom (and Queendom!) values; and [7] There is no absolute religious object, but there are valid religious attitudes towards Be-ing and Becoming (p.104).

    These Principles were articulated in his book Philosophy’s own Religion (2000) and he explored other issues such as the need for academic biblical scholarship, post-Christian agendas, globalization and the decline of the First Axial Religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam in such books as Reforming Christianity (2001) and Emptiness and Brightness (2001).

    The Value of Human Life in an Indifferent Universe

    At the Sea of Faith Meeting in Melbourne during April 2012, Nigel Leaves was able to provide an update to the number of books by Cupitt, which now total 48. He also mentioned Cupitt’s original vision for religion, which was to affirm the value of human life and of human dignity, in the face of the indifferent universe. In relation to the future of religion, he drew from Cupitt that the “Church is irreformable”, so the Western secular, de-supernaturalized world, which constitutes the “Kingdom/Queendom Religion”, is the reformation of Christianity.

    Cupitt’s Formative and Turbulent Years

    Cupitt reveals in his “Forward” to this book under review that he has “been boiling with ideas for thirty years” (p.vii) and that his “intellectual and personal history has been turbulent” (p.ix). His many books have therefore displayed much variety and many challenging ideas, including his view that “religion everywhere is just a human creation, and as such, remains very important to us” (p.ix).

    Leaves in turn presents Cupitt as “a spiritual wanderer, restlessly creating new religious thought in our postmodern world, where we can free ourselves from the constraints of orthodoxy” (p.xi).
    This turbulent life of Don Cupitt becomes clear already when his early beliefs and attitudes are noted. He was born in 1934 in Lancashire, England and his education at Charterhouse combined both the English Establishment culture and the Established Anglican religion. The school’s Chapel was the largest War Memorial in England but for Cupitt, this was also an early source for his life-long love-hate affair with the Church of England (p.14). His education here included dualistic Platonism, which was used to support dualistic Christian teachings relating to the celestial realm of absolutes and the terrestrial realm of appearances (p.15). However, his move to Cambridge University in 1952, where he studied the Natural Sciences, was soon followed by his conversion to Evangelical Christianity, with its “rigid emphasis on knowing the Lord”. However, he eventually became aware of the intellectual emptiness of evangelicalism (p.16).

    Soon other forms of religion began to interest him, including mysticism as a path to finding God. His “Ladder Realism”, which involved a quasi-ascetic and contemplative path up the ladder, included meditation, contemplation, rapture, ecstasy and mystical union (p.17). This religiosity inspired Cupitt to study Theology at Wescott House and he was ordained in the Anglican Church in 1959. When he chose industrial Lancashire for his curacy, religious difficulties arose during his hospital visits, when he was faced with having to endorse supernatural explanations and cures for medical problems within the context of the hospital’s secular medical interpretations (p.18). He married Susan Day in 1963 and in 1965 he became Dean of Emmanuel College.

    In the context of his increasingly liberal Christian attitude, he “abandoned literal belief in the Devil” in 1967 (p.19), went on to write his radical book Taking Leave of God in 1980 and by 2000, he was able to present “The Teaching” in his book Philosophy’s Own Religion. Such was his pursuit of the turbulent life of deconstruction, reconstruction and reformulation of religion which engaged him during his seven intellectual stages as described above.

    This brief review and summary of Don Cupitt’s many books and changing ideas cannot be a substitute for reading Nigel Leaves’ very informative book or Don Cupitt’s 48 challenging books for our post-modern world. However, this review should indicate that there are still many religion-related issues from the past, which require honest analysis and relevant applications and appropriations in our present, post-modern world. Becoming more aware of Don Cupitt’s many Writings would be a very good start to such an honest analysis.

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