Cupitt, Don - Theology's Strange Return

  (18 July 12)

Theology’s Strange Return



Don Cupitt Theology’s Strange Return (SCM Press, 2010)


A review by Peter Bore



(Reviewed December 2010)



If you have read any of my previous reviews of Don’s books you will not be surprised to hear that I think that in this book there are thoughts that are absolute gems which will inspire, there are bits that I cannot understand and of course there are a few items with which I would strongly disagree. I was wondering how I might construct a review, when I came upon Lloyd Geering’s review in the SoF NZ Newsletter. It encapsulated my thoughts well and enunciated them more lucidly and more eruditely than I would have done, so I will restrict myself to quoting two of the gems that I noted and then, hand over to Lloyd.

In chapter 2 Don considers again one of his favourite themes – the primacy of language. One example of this is the conversion of spoken word into an act or a creation. The king says build a castle and a castle is built. God says let there be light and the sun is created.

When science came along this was turned around and the acts and the things preceded the words. Also science is couched in the plainest of language, it is precise, it uses defined terms and excludes expressions of personal feeling. Any competent observer looking at the same thing would describe it in the same terms. Indeed science becomes defined and thus limited by the methodology upon which it rightly insists. Objective i.e. scientific truth is something that can be independently observed by many impartial observers usually at different times and in different places.

The success of science led people to adopt a view that in religion too, words must describe an objective reality so god had to be considered as real object. But the objective world is not the whole world. The schizophrenic hears voices. No one else can objectively verify that he hears them but we do not doubt him just as we do not doubt that one person loves another because no one else can objectively experience that love. We do not reject justice on the grounds that it is a human construct and not an objective reality that can be handled, dissected, photographed and universally agreed upon.

This insight that science was responsible for, at least in part, the perception of god being changed from commitment to an ideal into an intellectual acceptance of an objective reality is ironic when science now argues against the idea of god as an objective reality. We can now see that squeezing the abstract concepts of god and religion (remember Don defines religion as a view of life and humanity which enable us to make sense of the world in general and our own lives in particular) into the box of objectivity was never going to be viable in the long term.

Towards the end of the book Don says:

[I]n the Palaeolithic period there was no way of dragging a lazy and confused ape out of his immersion in raw Nature and giving him more self‑knowledge and better control of his environment….. other than by splitting his surrounding Other into two levels: the natural world, and a world of spirits that inhabited, haunted and controlled it.

This resonates with Feuerbach’s words:

Religion is the disuniting of man from himself; he sets god before him as the antithesis of himself….in religion man contemplates his own (divided) nature.

And with my view that

Imagining God provides us with an external framework which we can use to contemplate the human condition… The ‘god view’ assists us to see the world not from our own personal perspective but from the standpoint of someone looking at the world from without. It thus helps us to see ourselves as individuals amongst many similar individuals. This is a prerequisite to formulating an ethos about the value and rights of other humans.

Like Lloyd I am not surprised at theology’s return nor do I think that it is strange in the sense that it was unexpected. If religious thinking is a construct of the human mind and a device to help us understand human existence, then it was unlikely that it would ever go away. It is only strange in the sense that it is unfamiliar because it is now clothed in different words which are more appropriate to the knowledge and values of the present time.


I am completely of the view that religion is a human construct, i.e., like social science concepts, e.g., sociology,it is an aspect of human phenomenology. Therefore, language used to describe these phenomena must be suitable for purpose. Concepts used in traditional religion to which discussion has become accustomed, for example, "God", "faith", "redemption" and the like, comes with too much baggage. Therefore, the "non-realist" discussion of religion is required to not just provide new meanings for these words, but should strive to provide new words. I believe that Paul Tillich set a pattern with his theology of "Being". This must be further developed if confusion is to be avoided. (Northampton, U.K.)

Posted by Robert Culbard

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