The new Christian ethic
In removing the old (objective/realist) view of God, Cupitt has cleared a path towards religious and moral freedom:
- Morality can (and must) be creative: Defining what is moral (and what morality is), is our new task. We accept that we never had a morality given to us by God (despite what people might believe), nor will we ever have one given to us. Instead, it is up to us to discover what is right and wrong for ourselves, within the context of our different societies/communities. As we are not bound by any fixed or limited/limiting divine moral codes, we are essentially starting again; creating our values literally 'out-of-nothing' (ex nihilo).
- Morality can (and must) inject value into life: Morality cannot be self-seeking. We are all unique creatures, and as such we should respect and value everyone equally. The old moral order was life and person denying. Now it can (and must) seek to embrace the fullness of the human experience, which includes everyone (and everything) living in the world.
- Morality must be prophetic (not passive): Prophets speak out against the static, fixed and (wrongly) accepted norms of society. The new Christian ethic must speak out against the old prejudices (E.g. homophobia, patriarchy, lack of respect and care for the world). We must not accept moral codes simply because they are 'moral codes'. We must decide for ourselves what is right and wrong for us in each age. In doing so, we will make morality practical, rather than theoretical.
Re-grounding morality in religion
It is a mistake to accuse Cupitt of being anti-God, and anti-religion. Although he is clearly a revisionist when it comes to what has been traditionally believed about God (and morality), he still believes it is vital to retain religious symbolism when it comes to ethics, as this has been proven to be capable of developing good and moral people in the past:
“The human being acquires a dignity and status that is directly derived from the ancient holiness and worshipfulness of God. God indeed just was such a symbol of the goal towards which our moral development is heading and of the dignity to which we should ultimately attain.” (Don Cupitt)
Cupitt believes non-realist ethics should be religiously-based, because (at present) secular humanism has not got the proven and necessary symbols of value in it. For example, through Jesus Christ the Christian message is that God is fully human, and therefore knows and understands us intimately. For Cupitt, this is a powerful image and one which can give hope to those who are feeling hemmed in by an oppressive (realist) Christian morality. If God understands our humanity, then it follows that God will be more understanding (and less judgmental) of us.
Realist ethics was always about pursuing the Ideal; about learning who God is in order to understand what we should become like ('Be holy, because I am Holy' - 1 Peter 1:16). Such a morality was also largely built on contemplation and avoidance behaviour, as exemplified in the lives of monks and nuns. As a result of this the body became viewed as something which was easily swayed by sin. For example, people were encouraged to avoid relying on their feelings, as they could distract them from doing what God wants, or to avoid certain places and activities which were deemed sinful, potentially leading them into sin. All this is a rather negative view of things, and offered little incentive for considering oneself and others in a positive light.
The new world
“Our task, then, is to redeem people from the old masochistic 'orthodox' Christianity by curing them of the sense of sin, restoring their self-esteem and vindicating Christian action.” (Don Cupitt)
So what would a world built non-realist ethics (or new Christian ethics), look like? Firstly, life would be seen as an endless striving of activity, or endeavour. As there are no moral absolutes, so there is no expected outcome to life. We are not expected to become something, but simply to live our life. Secondly there is also no 'final success' or Ideal. This means there is no ultimate standard against which we can be judged or feel condemned by, because there is nothing to achieve or fall-short of. We simply 'fight until we drop'. Thirdly, no-one can claim perfection. We cannot look at others and judge their actions to be less-than perfect on the basis that we alone are living the moral life. No-one can make such a claim! Rather, we will simply acknowledge the choices some people have made and those others may not have made. Ultimately we should be aiming to remove the notions of 'sin' and guilt' from our thinking.
Finally, we are to be artists! Our life is to be one of moral creativity and imagination. We are to become absorbed into our work. We are no longer to have one eye on the 'clock' of life, against which we might feel the pressure to change things 'before it is too late'. We are simply to live our life to the full in each moment, and be content for it to end whenever that may be. We are to become like the sun, burning brightly, expending our energy ceaselessly until we are finally spent.
In his book World Views and Perceiving God (1993), Joseph Runzo offers the following critiques of Don Cupitt's non-realist ethics:
Non-realist ethics encourages us to engage in self-deception
If you do not believe in the objective reality of God, why bother to continue with any form of religious belief, or revise the content of religious language to make it more palatable?
“Whilst acknowledging that God does not exist, we are to continue to use traditional language about God.” (Joseph Runzo)
Why be a Christian humanist? Why not simply be a secular humanist?
“Religion, [Cupitt] says, provides a supportive symbolic and institutional context for ethics… [however, this] appeal to a known fiction; [is] to encourage self-deception.' (Joseph Runzo [Brackets mine])
Non-realist ethics provide little check against moral anarchy and 'isolated idiosyncratic views’
If there are no moral absolutes, on what basis can others tell the Nazi or the Klansman that their moral take on things is wrong?
“If worldviews are incommensurate and there are no shared objective cross-schema moral standards, relying on 'one's own vocabulary' would count the Klansman right and allow for moral anarchy.” (Joseph Runzo)
God's existence does not imply 'blind obedience'
Runzo also argues that Cupitt is wrong to suggest that God's (objective) existence is morally oppressive. He argues that we often follow a person's advice because we trust them, and because we believe they are wise.
Non-realism fails to say why we should take the moral position
Cupitt claims it is rational to act morally. Runzo points out that it is also possible to be both rational and to act immorally! Cupitt's arguments appears to be unable to give any reason why someone should not be logically immoral, for if he did, he might be verging onto the territory of moral absolutes (which he resolutely denies the existence of).