At our meeting on 20th January, our guest speaker was Don Cupitt, and he attracted a record attendance – around 50 – so that the room was packed, with people sitting on the floor.

Don introduced his latest book (out in July) ‘Theology’s Strange Return’. In all sorts of ways (he said), the Christian story is now expressed in secular terms. Our modern tendency (‘for instance, in this University’ he added) to test and criticise every statement, is a remnant of the old idea of God as judge. We are now our own severest judges.

The Jesus story is about God coming down to earth from the sky where he’d been banished, and in doing so, he dies. Now, everything is contingent and there can be no assurance, which sets Nature free to be more creative. We might say that this is the return of God as our maker, enabling us to see the world as innocent and good, and so comprehensible.

The modern world has seen enormous increases in the average human life span (29 in 1800, 48 in 1900, nearly 80 in 2000, 100 for those born now). The modern world is putting into effect the search for more abundant life. It’s in this world, not another. In the past, the cosmos seemed to be just irrational competing forces; then it was seen as beings, spirits, gods, the skyfather God; and now One God who is Nature. A unified cosmic order, in our control.

Don inspired some very lively questions from the audience, among whom were students from the University Atheist and Humanist societies......


Don Cupitt both inspired and helped to found the Sea of Faith movement in 1984. He has written many books on radical theology, the earliest ones of which I found all but incomprehensible (at the time – perhaps I should re-read them). His 1997 book After God: The Future of Religion, however, struck me as entirely readable and eminently reasonable. Since I've read nothing of his since then other than occasional articles in newspapers and journals, and since I conceived him to be someone whose ideas were continually developing and advancing, I looked forward to being illuminated and challenged by his Sea of Faith talk in Oxford.

In retrospect I probably set him up in my imagination with unrealistic expectations which were destined to be dashed.

Don talked of wanting always to say the opposite of the conventional opinion, but what he went on to say seemed to me either disappointingly banal and hackneyed or, in some cases, flatly counter-factual. Above all he seemed not to have progressed from his starting-position of reaction to a particular variety of Christian theology: his perception, like Richard Dawkins', seemed to me to be shackled to the very specific mind-set he was opposing, and he failed to present us with any wider vision, anything that was not centred upon a narrow rejection of (in his case) Anglican theology of fifty years ago. If anything, he seemed to have resiled from the more mystical and affirming spirituality of the last chapters of his 1997 book, in which he writes of "ecstatic immanence" in a way which, I thought, would resonate across the mystical traditions of all faiths.

It may be the case, simply, that certain of his arguments which might, ten or twenty years ago, have seemed startling, revelatory or radical have, since that time, entered the mainstream and been treated very effectively by other writers and theologians. The strand of Judaism which challenges and disputes with God, for instance, is now familiar from Karen Armstrong's writing, as are the different faiths' changing approaches to Deity over the past several millennia.

At several points Don made statements which seriously worried me. One of these was about the dogmatic and pre-critical nature of Islam: this strikes me as both simplistic and inaccurate, and reminds me of the monolithic, straw-man version of Christianity imagined by Richard Dawkins.

He also seems to hold uncritically to the assertion that without religion we would not have either ethics or the National Health Service. This is not even a "post hoc propter hoc" fallacy. In many cultures ethics and religion may have developed, or been codified, alongside each other, and in some cases by the same people, but there is no more logic to saying that religion is responsible for ethics than there is to saying the reverse – in fact, probably less. Ethics is the codification of what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour within particular (human) groups or societies, but such codes of behaviour are just as apparent in animals and birds as they are in humans: it would be very hard to sustain the argument that religion, in any form, pre-dated even that stage of human evolution which parallels the group behaviour we see in birds.

Yes, I expected too much. In a smaller group there were questions I might have asked, and I appreciated David Paterson's attempting to toss Don the ball of Paganism, but I think it rang no bells (to mix a metaphor) and it passed him by. I am reluctant to think that Don has simply lost his edge, however. I shall, at least, try his most recent book.