Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking (Cupitt, sm)

“A forceful and clearly-written call to open a new religious horizon suited to our time.” —George Pattison, University of Glasgow

"Living Generously," is an excerpt from Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking by Don Cupitt (Polebridge, 2015)

Creative Faith will be featured at a book talk hosted by Westar Fellow Arthur J. Dewey March 18 & 19, 2015, at the national meeting of the Westar Institute in Santa Rosa, California. Learn more and register.

At the time of his death at the age of 95 in 2013, Nelson Mandela was perhaps the most highly and widely esteemed person on earth. As the turnout of world leaders at his funeral showed, wherever you stood on the political spectrum you could not but admire the fortitude and the personal integrity of a man who had struggled for so long and amidst such extreme adversity—and then in his later years had triumphed so spectacularly, bringing his country through a major political transformation without bloodshed and becoming its first president.[1]

Naturally the event received vast and worldwide media coverage, and one expected journalists to enquire about the intellectual and moral influences that had formed this exceptional man. Where had he got his ideas from? What was his lineage? He had evidently been a figure of the kind that Hegel called ‘world historical’, a world moral hero whose significance transcended his immediate political circumstances and task; a man who belongs to all humanity. If there is anything at all in ethics and in the philosophy of life which is universal, such a man might be expected to embody it. So what is it?

We were not told. All we were given was a helpful reference to Gandhi as another figure of comparable stature, but no further details were forthcoming. Nobody asked. Along with natural philosophy, ethics is the oldest of all academic subjects, but it is not a subject to which people nowadays are ready to devote serious study and thought. The twentieth century was utterly consumed with vast ideological and national conflicts, huge worldwide population growth, and very rapid cultural and technical change. It was common by the later twentieth century to find that people at large had entirely forgotten the thought-world and leading ideas of the early twentieth century, so much had happened in the interim.

Nelson Mandela, like other African leaders of his generation, grew up after the First World War in the culture of Africa’s Christian missionary schools. We might call that culture humanitarian now, but in those days it was simply Christian. Mandela could not fail to learn about the Bible and about the various British humanitarian movements, often led by Quakers and by Evangelical Christians, which had struggled since the Enlightenment for the emancipation of slaves and of many other groups, such as workers, women, prisoners, the insane and children. These social and political reformers had more or less invented Christian social ethics as a subject and had given it a good name; and in addition a new weapon had recently been forged for them. That is, in the mid-1870s Leo Tolstoy ran into a period of acute mid-life crisis and began to study the gospels intensively. Supernatural doctrine was out of the question for him, as it had been for George Eliot a little earlier, but like her he was strongly drawn to Christianity’s last stronghold, variously described as ‘the Sermon on the Mount’ and ‘the teaching of Jesus’. Tolstoy’s study led him particularly to emphasize Jesus’ call for thoroughgoing simplicity of life, nonviolence, and universal love and reconciliation; and Tolstoy developed these ideas in a string of books and tracts, many of them published in the 1880s and subsequently appearing in translation around the world. Tolstoy became himself a world moral hero, and his religious books had such a reputation that in Britain they were included in the Oxford University Press’s World’s Classics series.[2] A number of Tolstoyan communities were established, and the ideas of nonviolent protest and passive resistance remained prominent in public debate at least until the heyday of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the 1960s and 1970s. I read Tolstoy’s religious writings in the Sixties, but they are not read now.

In India Tolstoy’s influence was even stronger, especially through M. K. Gandhi, whose appropriation of the ethics of Jesus into the Hindu tradition influenced the Congress Party, especially in the Nehru years of ‘non-alignment’ during which India led a large group of peaceable nations who sought to keep clear of the great military confrontation between the capitalist West and the Communist East. In addition, Gandhi’s early years of political activism in South Africa greatly influenced the emergent African National Congress (ANC)—and therefore the young Nelson Mandela. It is of course true that after the Sharpeville massacre the younger militants in the ANC could not be restrained, and there was some industrial sabotage, in which Mandela was involved. But the ANC did not embark upon the political assassinations and suicide bombings that have become so familiar to us nowadays, and from his later prison years onwards Mandela became even more a follower of the maxim: ‘love your enemy’. In a continent whose politics is often a by-word for violence and corruption, he was extraordinarily equable, persistent, rational and magnanimous.

This very brief sketch is sufficient to remind us that Mandela did belong to a lineage that runs from Enlightenment human- ism through such figures as Dickens, Tolstoy, Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer, Martin Luther King and then on to Mandela himself. Many other moral heroes might be added to the list: Byron, even Chaplin, and amongst the British humanitarians the early liberal John Locke, along with such figures as Coram, Clarkson, Elizabeth Fry, Hannah More, Wilberforce and Shaftesbury (the Seventh Earl). If we were to continue expanding and extending the list, it would begin to include many popular entertainers of recent years: Seeger, Lennon, Dylan, Baez, Geldof. In addition, we could incorporate mention of a host of courageous ‘aid workers’. But now we have enough, enough to make us think that even so unlikely a figure as the pope, by taking the name of Francis, hopes to be seen by us as admiring that same tradition. He’d like to be affiliated to it. He’d like us to see our modern activist humanitarian ethics as being through and through a product of the Christian tradition, and in particular as part of the legacy of Jesus and St Francis. He and the rest of them at the Vatican are well aware that after the collapse of neo-Thomism, Catholic Christianity is in acute intellectual trouble; but in its core moral values its appeal is as great as ever. Hence the striking fact that by putting doctrine on the back burner, and by foregrounding simple ethical gestures, Pope Francis has won world-wide praise—even from non-Christians.

We now have enough to see Mandela’s ethics in historical perspective. Historic Christianity portrayed itself as having been born, not from the tradition of Jesus’ ethical teaching, but as a supernatural hope. The faithful looked to heaven, awaiting the spectacular return of Jesus to establish his kingdom on earth. The believer was expected to be literally vigilant, and to spend much time in purifying himself so that he would be fit to meet the Lord. These early believers looked up to the supernatural world for their salvation: they were socially quietistic and religiously expectant. As for social ethics, it must wait till ‘kingdom come’—an event that soon seemed to be receding further and further into the future. By the Middle Ages the original advent hope had been almost completely forgotten. The Church be- came ‘indefectible’ and its dogma ‘immutable’; heaven itself was ‘the Church triumphant’, and the popes extended their own powers into the world of the dead by selling indulgences. Comparable ideas are also found among Protestants, who commonly held that during the present dispensation Jesus’ ethic of nonviolent endlessly-forgiving love could be lived in private life, but because of human sinfulness could not prevail in the public sphere until the coming of the kingdom. Till then the state must rule by force. Thus the Protestant layman lived by an ethics of law and the legitimate use of coercive force in his official public life, but could and should become a Christian living by the ethics of the gospel when he shut his front door behind him at the end of the day and withdrew into the bosom of his family. In effect neither Catholics nor orthodox Protestants were expected to live out the teaching of Jesus in full. Not just yet. Not until after death, or ‘kingdom come’. Hence it turned out that mainstream Christianity became essentially a private religion, whereas Islam still sees itself as essentially public.

Now look what happens. Classical Christianity developed almost no social ethics before the late nineteenth century: it developed only a penitential discipline and a ‘moral theology’ that was taught to priests in the seminaries and then applied to individuals in the confessional. The believer was chiefly concerned with self-purification. He needed to be ‘in a state of grace’, unsullied and ready; ready for worship, ready for the return of Christ, and ready for his own death. The whole system of thought and practice was in effect wholly and solely concerned with self-purification, worship and personal salvation after death. It was almost all worship and no ethics, in contrast with our more recent tradition of Quaker and Tolstoyan humanitarian activism, which can now be seen as a new secular version of Christianity that is all ethics and almost no worship. In this respect it has returned to the outlook of Jesus himself who, as biblical scholars are agreed, had no plans to found a new religion, and certainly not a religion based upon fanciful supernatural doctrines about himself and an even more fanciful cult of his own person.

The new activist Christianity follows the Quakers in protesting against the Church’s long alliance with the civil power and its use of lethal force. It also largely discards church doctrine. Instead, it becomes determined to show that the ethical teaching of Jesus can be made to work here and now, in this present age. Like the Marxists, these new Christians see themselves as being here, not just to interpret the world but to change it. The old and deeply corrupt church-Christianity shrank away from worldly ethical struggle and commitment, and instead gave priority to the worship of the Most-Real (ens realissimum) and to supernatural doctrine. The new kingdom-Christianity rejects existing ‘reality’ and actively posits and builds a new moral world, Jesus’ kingdom of nonviolent love. It plans itself to act out the long-promised passing away of the old world and the coming of a new world to replace it.

We thus open a very large question. Historically, our major religious traditions have contained two great themes or dimensions, namely worship, the systematically-ordered cult of the gods; and ethics, the government of human personal and social life in this world by religious values, or religious law.

In classical Christianity the single most influential text on the religious life was the Rule of St Benedict, composed at Monte Cassino in about 530 ce. It says in effect that the Christian ideal is to live a life that is overwhelmingly dominated by the Divine Office—basically, worship every three hours from now until the end of history—with only a token ethical supplement. In today’s popular Christianity, the same idea is still current. Christianity is churchgoing, and that’s all. We should keep our heads down, mind our own business, and keep out of politics. Politicians praise ‘moderate’ (which means privatized and other-worldly) religion. From Christians they still get a good deal of political acquiescence. But when they commend ‘moderation’ to Muslims they are on very shaky ground, because Muslims have always attempted comprehensively to Islamicize the public, social world. And, as we have seen, many Christians and activist post-Christians are nowadays tending to move in the same direction. For them Christianity is no longer an adoring celebration of what is presently Most Real, but an ethical decision to struggle patiently and lovingly to produce a new ‘reality’ in this life.

Now the big question which I need to address in this book at last comes into view. We are talking about a whole world-view—or rather, perhaps a whole view of life, in which instead of metaphysics (and in particular, ontology) coming first, ethical rejection of the world as we have received it comes first, with a decision to fill the resulting void with moral striving. We are talking about an ethics-led, rather than a metaphysics-led, way of life and vision of the world. In a post-philosophical and post-traditional culture such as ours now is, religion, philosophy and ethics—in short, everything, must eventually come out differently. We conquer today’s moral dissatisfaction and pessimism—and even today’s nihilism—by love, and not least by loving the utter transience in which we moderns are all of us immersed. We don’t aim to conserve the self, preparing it for eternity: we simply expend it, by living generously. We are transient, and must let go.

What is all this like; or, what is it going to be like? During the past three hundred years faith in our received church Christianity has been growing more and more ironical, and our allegiance to it is now maintained for cultural reasons only. We love it for what it used to be: we love it for its legacy. Since the 1830s, or perhaps since Chateaubriand’s Génie du christianisme (1802), Christianity in its European heartlands has been entirely replaced by a mood of yearning nostalgia for itself. We love that lost childhood world of neo-medieval architecture, of boy sopranos in surpliced choirs, of nativity plays and Christmas carols. Odd that as recently as Jane Austen’s Emma (1816) Christmas can come and go without any of it—because it all expresses not Christianity, but nostalgia for a lost sacred cosmology. The great Christological dogmas of the divine Son’s eternal generation, co-equal divinity, incarnation, saving death, resurrection, ascension, heavenly session at the Father’s right hand and so on come to us as reminders of a lost world-view; whereas the cluster of values that we associate with the teaching of Jesus (or perhaps rather, as some would say, with Luke, the third evangelist) have, in our modern world-moral-heroes, in much of our social practice, and in our great international aid organizations, become more authoritative and attractive than ever. Christos Pantocrator, Jesus as God’s divine Son, dressed up like a Roman Emperor and sitting on a rainbow may still be a figure of some interest to art historians. Otherwise the Risen Lord is dead, whereas the dead Jesus lives: in the modern world, his ethic has largely conquered. His pioneering humanitarian ethics of love, and his dream of the possibility of a truly good society on earth only a step away, made possible the modern state’s acceptance of moral responsibility for the education, the health and the welfare of all its citizens. Jesus’ ethic permeates the whole service sector in modern Western economies, and especially all the institutions that care for the young, the elderly, the sick and others of the most vulnerable. We are not always successful: as I write we are failing to help Syrians as much as we should. But at least we do know that we ought to be doing something about their horrifying affliction.

Since Jesus and Philosophy (2009) I have argued that Jesus’ critics were quite right to see his teaching as ‘blasphemous’ and as incipiently atheistic. Few facts about Jesus are as well-attested as the fact that many of his contemporaries, and especially many religious professionals, regarded him as a very bad troublemaker and heretic; and also the fact that the early church—presumably influenced by him—did indeed rapidly discard most of the old Jewish religious law, drawing a sharp distinction between religious law as a preparatory discipline, and the adult freedom of the gospel. The early Christians perhaps found it hard to appreciate what a big shift this was, for ethical monotheism was very strongly linked with the idea of the Creator as being first and foremost the cosmic Lawgiver. God’s Word really was law. In the beginning the Creator’s commanding utterance had imposed his own regular order upon the primal chaos. In the more developed account, God imposed physical law upon the material world, the natural moral law upon finite spiritual substances (spirits and human souls), and also had given his revealed written law to his elect people. Against this background Jesus’ distinctly free and easy attitude to the law was incipiently a revolt against God, as the great early theologian-heretic Marcion clearly saw.[3] And Matthew would not have made Jesus deny that he came to abolish the Law unless there were many people who were claiming exactly that about him.

By questioning whether a religion of strictly-applied divine law could ever create people who could live entirely without ressentiment (a French word borrowed by Nietzsche to signify ill-feeling of every kind) in a truly good society, Jesus started something—a tradition in which God abdicates by becoming human and dying, in man and for man. God, who in Christ has assumed generic humanity, then also pours himself out as living, highly-conscious Spirit into the whole human race. So Jesus started the ball rolling, and the Christian tradition has duly evolved into international (i.e., not ethnocentric) secular humanitarianism, today’s dominant ethic. And it is not likely to be superseded. Jesus the dead teacher has done better than the divine Christ: he has converted almost the whole of humanity.

The one great exception to all this is Islam, which may be seen as the last and grandest attempt to create in public space the kingdom of God on earth without permitting any kind of humanist dissolution of God. God is not human, and does not become human. God remains God, and Islam—although it has accepted some influence of Jesus’ teaching, for example by creating some philanthropic institutions such as the Red Crescent— has not wished to forget about life after death and become as intensely, emotionally, humanitarian and as much in love with this life’s transient visual beauty as we others are.

Today we seem to be at a moment of decision. Looking at the world’s main faith-traditions, ask yourself: Would I rather, along with Pope John-Paul II, turn away from Buddhism and turn first of all to the Muslim, because he like me believes above all else in the unity of God and in God’s revealed will? Or, alternatively, would I rather (possibly along with Pope Francis, but who knows for sure?), would I rather turn first to the Buddhist, and discuss with him the similarities and differences between our mystical and our ethical traditions?

Which way you instinctively want to turn in the triangular debate between the three faiths has become a very urgent and important question. For my own part, my anti-realist philosophy and thoroughgoing humanism lead me to look towards Buddhism; but the history of Islam shows us a tradition that was formerly much broader and more varied than it sometimes appears today. We need to remain open to Islam, and to the possibility that Islam in diaspora in the West may soon have a lot more to say than we have yet heard from it.

I turn now to a different issue. Much of our discussion has turned upon the beliefs, firstly, that we can broadly describe the ethical teaching of the historical Jesus; secondly, that we can legitimately see modern Western humanitarian ethics as its lineal descendant; and, thirdly, that there is at least a broad analogy between the human condition as it presented itself to Jesus’ first hearers and as we know it today. We need here to recall just how vehemently many modern theologians, and especially New Testament scholars, will reject all I have said.

For example, Albert Schweitzer argued that many nineteenth-century scholars had pursued ‘the quest of the historical Jesus’ in the belief that when they had found him he would serve as the basis for a reformation and renewal of Christianity. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the most plausible reconstruc- tion of Jesus’s teaching was the theory of ‘consistent eschatology’ put forward by Johannes Weiss (1863–1914) in his book The Preaching of Jesus about the Kingdom of God (1893). Jesus’ whole task and message had been to proclaim the imminent and spectacular arrival of a supernatural kingdom of God, in which he himself would be manifested as the world-Messiah. Jesus had been found—but he was a figure whose highly counter-cultural world-view could never be taken seriously by modern people. Schweitzer endorsed Weiss’s theory; but then went counter-cultural himself by leaving Europe and becoming a missionary doctor in Africa. So Schweitzer duly became himself a world moral hero, and a prominent modern follower of the very Jesus whom he had declared too strange to be followed by a modern person.[4]

A century later, there are two or three comments to be made upon Schweitzer’s claim that Jesus’ eschatological world-view is utterly strange to us. Even in Schweitzer’s own day, not everyone was a long-term optimist about our human prospect: on the contrary, he knew all about Nietzsche’s great pronouncement that ‘Nihilism stands at the door’,[5] an idea Nietzsche works out with terrifying thoroughness (and accuracy). Schweitzer also lived in a world in which Schopenhauer was highly influential, and Oswald Spengler would shortly publish The Decline of the West (1918–22). As for more recent years, I once tried to write down a full list of all the reasons why, between ‘the atomic bomb’ in 1945 and ‘climate change’ today, it has been widely feared amongst us that our world may soon be coming to an end. I gave up at fifteen. Far from being confined to Jesus’ generation, talk of a catastrophic end of the world has long been part of our culture.

There is much more to add. Modern scientific naturalism has led, especially since late-Victorian times, to a general loss of belief in life after death. This has led millions of us into a very acute horror of death, coupled with an equally acute sense of our own utter transience and insignificance on a cosmic scale, and also to a number of eccentric attempts to cheat death by, for example, freezing severed heads until we have the technology to revive them.

Add also the fact that ordinary people who are having a very bad time are always apt to see life as the scene of a great war between the powers of good and evil, and it is clear that people in all ages, including ourselves, have found reasons for fearing that their life is profoundly threatened by its traditional uncertainties and limits—in short, Time, Chance and Death. To such people, Jesus’ remedy is to say: ‘Let go of your fears and horrors, and worries; pour yourself out into your own transience, live like the sun, live by ‘coming out’, abandon all negative feeling, live expressively, live by the heart, live out emotively, live by love. You’ll be living a dying life, passing away all the time along with everything else; and when you have identified yourself completely with the transience that so threatened you, you’ll start to see it as mystically beautiful. This immanent mysticism of secondariness is profoundly consoling, and you’ll find yourself living in a world that, like the heaven of the Bible, is all light, with nothing hidden or dark at all.’

Next we should briefly consider the objection that since Schweitzer’s famous early book appeared there has been another century of intensive scholarly debate about the gospels, but it cannot report any gains. After source criticism, form criticism, redaction criticism, and even canon criticism, the common consensus is that the gospels as we have seen them are the product of several decades of intensive and fast-moving debate. There are so many layers of interpretation that they leave us with no prospect of ever finding a single face behind all the masks. For generations early Christianity was a running argument between many different schools of thought. It took centuries for a canonical ‘orthodoxy’ to evolve, and the more we study, the more we realize that the quest for a normative point-origin is vain.

That is true. It is also true that all ancient historians, biographers and storytellers freely invented the direct speech they put into the mouths of their characters. Accordingly, I do admit that the person of the historical Jesus is now forever inaccessible to us, and in any case I seek to avoid the cult of his person. All I need claim is that at the centre of the evolving tradition of his teaching there are unforgettably vivid themes and values that even church-Christians know all about. These sayings have created a moral tradition that endures to this day, and is admired around the world.

* * *

For many years I have felt that the Jesus of St John’s Gospel and of much popular piety is an embarrassingly pallid, androgynous and unconvincing figure, and now I feel the time has come to rescue Jesus the moral teacher from what his own followers have made of him. It is not an easy task, because we cannot hope to hear more than very faint after-echoes of his original voice. In practice, we have only the history of the sayings-tradition to guide us, and I take the view that the Jesus of history remained strong in the tradition until the rise of the Easter faith and the conversion of Paul in the late 40s. Thereafter the supernatural Christ of Faith takes over, and the Jesus of history is quickly almost forgotten. But he needs to be heard again.

Read more about Creative Faith: Religion as a Way of Worldmaking




Don Cupitt is a Life Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge UK. He was ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1960, but in 1962 he returned to Cambridge to teach and, since then, has stayed put. Creative Faith is Cupitt’s fiftieth book, and perhaps his most accurate and careful statement of his life’s chief purpose, which has been to transform our understanding of life, of religion, and of Christianity in order to reach a faith appropriate for today’s world.[/two_thirds][column_break]


1. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (London: Little, Brown and Company, 1994). This is a political autobiography, and not a spiritual or intellectual one, so that there is not as much detail about the religious and moral influences that shaped Mandela’s thinking as one might wish to have. He went to a Methodist mission school, and remained an avowed Methodist, but later on gets to know Anglicans such as
Huddleston and Tutu.

2. In the Oxford World’s Classics series, Tolstoy’s principal religious writings are published under the following titles: A ConfessionThe Gospel in Brief, and What I Believe (vol. 229); What Then Must We Do? (vol. 281); and The Kingdom of God and Peace Essays (vol. 445). Elsewhere, they may occasionally be found with different titles, but I have to confess that their popularity was part of an early-twentieth-century world which is now completely forgotten.

3. There are presently signs, especially in the United States, of a revival of interest in Marcion. Jason BeDuhn recently published the first English reconstruction of Marcion’s edition of the New Testament, The First New Testament (Polebridge, 2013).