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Cupitt-A Reply to Rowan Williams [MT-1984]

Cupitt-A Reply to Rowan Williams [MT-1984]

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Published by: JohanSaxareba on Jun 28, 2012
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06/28/2012

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Modem
Theology 1:1 1984
ISSN
0266-7177 $3.00
 A 
REPLY 
TO
ROWAN
WILLIAMS
DON CUPITT
 ΐη his article "Regligious Realism" Rowan Williams has discussed my books
Taking Leave of God 
(1980) and
The
World 
to
Come
(1982), finding in them
many 
things that surprise me. A full-dress reply would be inappropriate. Once a book has grown up
and
left home the author can do no more for it. It may die a natural death or it may wander for years before it finds the reader to whom it can open its
heart,
but in neither case can it be helped. Besides, who dare claim today 
either 
that a text has just one correct interpretation or that the author is the best person to supply it? Whatever clarity of writing may be, it is an illusion
to
suppose that one can use it in order to coerce a reader into reading a text
in
just one way. What is more, the two books in question are among thoseof my writings which, for a religious reason, were actually composed asequivocal riddles. Jacques Derrida has a few relevant sentences which, asusual with him, go
swiftly 
to the heart of the matter:Just as there is a negative theology, so there is a negative atheology. An accomplice of the former, it still pronounces the absence of a
centre,
when it is play that should be affirmed. But is not the desire for a
centre,
as function of play 
itself,
the indestructible
itself?
And in the
repetition
or return of play, how could the phantom of the centre notcall to us?This enjoyable, ambiguous dance between affirmation and negation
or,
more
precisely, between an affirmation of God which is obliged neverthe
less
to seek to negate
itself,
and a denial of God which also by its owncumpulsive backward glance tends constantly to negate
itself 
and becomeaffirmation again has long seemed to me to encompass something of themystery of theism. It was already prominent even before
The Leap of 
Reason
 was written in 1973. I like the idea that a sense of the presence of God iscuriously hard to distinguish from a sense of the absence of 
God,
and even
more
do I like the fact that the one may function in a person's
life
in much
the
same way as the other. The silence of the early Wittgenstein, the
The
Rev. Don Cupitt, The
Dean
of Chapel, Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
 
26
Don Cupitt 
Wittgenstein of the
Tractatus
and of the house in Vienna, captures thisambiguity beautifully.Yet at precisely this point I wonder whether Rowan Williams can disagreewith me. He has little to say in favour of theological realism of the the typethat I have criticized, and produces no classical-type metaphysical arguments in support of it. Instead he speaks of 
religious
realism. On theevidence of his published writings, all this means is that he is a religioussymbolist who takes his symbols seriously. A doctrinal rather than aphilosophical theologian, he clings to realism in order to postpone havingto face the crisis with which my books deal, namely the end of theologicalrealism. But as Karl Barth's writings long ago made clear, religious realismwithout old-style metaphysical underpinning remains within the sphere of what Derrida calls 'play'. And Rowan Williams himself effectively concedesthis by deciding to discuss my books at the level of spirituality; that is, bysetting aside questions of dogmatic metaphysics and talking as I do in termsof the way our religious ideas work out in our lives.Rowan Williams is of course correct in setting aside attempts to providethe old pre-critical type of metaphysical underpinning for realism. It is toohopelessly discredited by now, too incorrigibly vague and self-deceiving todo the job required of it; which is just as well, because if it were to succeed itwould destroy faith in any case. For an objective, realist God is precisely
not 
the God of religion, who is
essentially
a my-God, bound to the believerwhose god he is. And I think that Rowan Williams probably realizes this. Sohow do we differ? By my many express statements, as well by the fact thatwe both practise the same faith and recite the same Liturgy, it is clear that Ias well as Rowan Williams affirm the value of 
religious
realism
within thesphere of play. And he as well as I acknowledges that such religious realism(linguistic, attitudinal and so forth) needs to be qualified by irony, and issubject to built-in checks and balances
that also operate within the sphereof play. So it appears that there is no significant difference between us, andI am left wondering why he should need to begin his article by saying thatthe books under discussion are unpopular, 'represent a challenge' and soforth. On whose behalf is he taking up the cudgels, and why? I shall try todemonstrate that his vestigial and groundless attachment to realism putshim on the side of Christendom against Christianity, and I shall urge him tochange sides.It should be said at the outset that the two texts in question are verydifferent in their intellectual standpoint.
Taking Leave of God 
is stronglyKantian, and reflects the influences of Mansel's theory that religious truth isregulative, and of Wittgenstein's interpretation of Kierkegaard. In retrospect I now see it as completing a development which began as far back as
Christ and the Hiddenness of 
God 
(1971), and even earlier.
The World to Come,
by contrast, reflects the recent joining of hands between American andFrench philosophy as seen, for example, in what Rorty has lately beenwriting about Derrida. Standing within the post-Nietzschean tradition, it
 
 A Reply to Rowan Williams
27 .represents a new departure. Thus (if the author's view of the matter isworth anything)
Taking Leave of 
God 
rounded off what I had been trying tosay for the previous dozen years, and it was followed rather than precededby the conversion which led me to write the second book.However, alongside these intellectual differences there is also a strongresemblance between the two books. They were both designed not asworks of spirituality but rather as spiritual exercizes; not only indirectcommunications but also 'existence-communications', in Kierkegaard'sphrase. They were supposed to be tools for bringing about religious changein the reader, and are thus themselves examples of that instrumentalismwhich Rowan Williams rather mysteriously deplores (and it is only becausethey have so signally failed to work that I am going as far as this towards'explaining' them).
Taking Leave of God 
was a brisk forced march along thenegative way intended to be a purge for our engrained eudaemonism andthereby also to purify the concept of religion (a subject which had muchoccupied me in earlier books).
The World to Come
was intended to be a morespecifically and purely Christian work. Encountering modern nihilism, andexperiencing it as Holy Saturday and the end of the world, it enacts thepattern of death and resurrection. It seeks to lead its reader to die withChrist, to experience the Nihil, and to come to such a pass that he sees thatthere is no other recourse left him but to choose the values of the Kingdomof God on the far side.Naturally, the underlying question is this: in the Nihil, why choose thevalues of Christ rather than those of Schopenhauer, or Nietzsche, or Sartre,for example? That is a very interesting question. An answer is attempted inthe book, but at the time of writing I did not yet realize how much help isgiven on this point by Albert Schweitzer, for I did not know how seriouslySchweitzer had wrestled with Nietzsche around the year 1900. I shallcorrect the injustice of Schweitzer in another place.To resume: within
The World to Come
various literary tricks are used. Somereaders may have noticed them in Chapter 3, for example, where they wereset close to the surface: note the different literary levels of the threesections, and the ironical title. The point about the chapter-title is that I wastaken aback by the public reaction to
Taking Leave of God,
so I was heresignalling that the second book was so strongly Christian that there was nolikelihood of its being understood. And so it has turned out; for
The World toCome
was indeed an absurdly ambitious attempt to Christianize modernnihilism by incorporating it into, and making of it an episode within, theclassic mythic dramas of death and rebirth, the end of the world andthe coming of the Kingdom of God. Nietzsche had taken these dramasand dechristianized them: I was attempting to wrest them back fromhim.It is because of all this that I see faith not as a privileged way of gainingreassuring supernatural information - as, in short, a superstition
but asan ultimate and creative choice made in a moment of darkness in which all

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