Saturday, March 7, 2015

Don Cupitt and the New Christian Ethics (or the Non-God Moral Argument): Part 1

Key terms
  • Realism: The idea that there are absolute (transcendent) values of knowledge and truth. Most traditional Christian belief is grounded in a realist worldview. A realist view of ethics would say there are absolute standards of right and wrong, typically grounded in what God is said to have commanded people to do
  • Non-realism: The belief that knowledge and truth is a simply a 'point-of-view'. A non-realist view of ethics would say there are no absolute standards of right and wrong, and that what is 'good' and 'bad' is largely determined and defined within the context of a particular social/religious community
  • Ontology: To do with what something really is (the essence of a thing)
  • Epistemology: To do with 'knowledge' and what we claim to know about something

Don Cupitt* was ordained to the Diocese of Manchester in 1959, and until the early 1990s was a priest in the Church of England**. He became widely known for his radical theological position in the book Taking Leave of God (1980), and over the course of his career he has shifted from a realist to a non-realist position in terms of religious and moral truth. This shift in thinking has come about mainly due to his critique of the nature of religious knowledge, which has also influenced his understanding of the nature of moral truth-claims.

Many people mistakenly think that Christian non-realists do not believe in God, but this is not entirely true. Although non-realists do not believe in a God 'out there' or 'in the heavens' (i.e. beyond this world), they do believe in the concept of God and the important role this has played in cultures around the world. Non-realists believe the idea of God is essentially a human creation. They also see more opportunity for this view of God to be a positive influence in the world today.

A new starting-point for Christian ethics

Cupitt's point-of-departure in New Christian Ethics is grounded in what he considers to be the cultural condition of the time:
“The end of the old realistic conception of God as an all-powerful and objective spiritual Being independent of us and sovereign over us makes it now possible and even necessary for us to create a new Christian ethic it is we ourselves who alone make truth, make value, and so have formed the reality that now encompasses us.” (Don Cupitt)
Christian morality has traditionally been grounded in realism, supporting the notion that there are moral-truths and a moral order independent of this world. Morality is not a human creation. We have been given commands to follow. God is to be obeyed. There is to be no negotiation about how we should live. However, while this has been the dominant view of things over the years, as religious and moral truths have began to be challenged (and rejected) in the name of what it is reasonable (or rational) to believe in, this has led to a rejection of absolutes.

The major challenge to the certainty and centrality of religious belief in Europe came as a result of the work of philosophers in the the 1700s. This period in Western philosophical history is known as the Age of Reason (or The Enlightenment).

The pursuit of finding what it is reasonable (or rational) to believe, in terms of matters of faith, has resulted in a decline in belief of an objective (other-worldly) view of God. The main reason for this is because humans are now acknowledged to be active in the knowing-process. We do not just passively receive knowledge but have a role in shaping it. In terms of ethics this has challenged the idea that doing good is about passively obeying a so-called God-given moral code, and has led thinkers like Cupitt to conclude there are no absolute standards of right or wrong. The bottom line for all of this (as far as Cupitt is concerned), is that we need (and have) a new starting-point for Christian ethics:
“There is no bedrock and nothing is fixed, not my identity nor my sexuality nor my categories of thought, nothing... There is external measure or value or disvalue - and therefore our life is exactly as precious or as insignificant as we ourselves make it out to be.” (Don Cupitt)
The non-God moral argument

In New Christian Ethics Cupitt rejects the idea of a God who resides in the 'heavens'. If such a Being were to exist, it would by its very nature as a 'law-giver' impose a morality onto us either directly (by telling us what to do) or indirectly (by knowing what we should do). Either way, if God exists then humans are not truly free to find their own way in life, and have no choice but to live the specific way God deems right:
“How can such a heteronomous faith ever be the means whereby I become autonomous and fully-liberated spirit? It is impossible. This appears to be a conclusive religious argument against the objective existence of God. An objective God cannot save.” (Don Cupitt)
Cupitt's argument is that the traditional Christian view of God as a Divine-lawgiver residing in the heavens is repressive, especially as this God is often believed to have planned the right way we should live. Either directly or indirectly, humanity is expected (by God and through the church) to become the sort of persons God wants them to be. This is why Cupitt suggests this view of God cannot save anyone. Salvation implies freedom from..., however this view of God implies nothing more than submission:
“The more God is absolutised, the more we are presented with the possibility of living under the dominion of a cosmic tyrant who will allow nothing, and least of all religion, to change and develop.” (Don Cupitt)
Furthermore, as Cupitt believes we are limited in what we can know about God, because God is logically beyond our realm of experience, even if there were God-ordained objective moral standards they would be useless anyway, because we would not be able to attain full knowledge of them:
“Where previously the nature of God had dictated what could and could not be said of him, now the nature of language dictates what can and cannot meaningfully be said of anything, God included.” (Don Cupitt)


* Official website:
** Despite his radical departure from what the Anglican Church believes, he still remains a priest of 'good standing'.

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