Don Cupitt, published in Face to Faith, December 1994
An indignant correspondent more concerned to score a point than to ask a question writes: "What do you non-realists actually worship?" That's an easy one to answer: Love. I know a parish church in New Zealand which has produced its own hymn-book of non-realist hymns. It is the most nearly up-to-date parish church in the world. They draw up their own services, and have voted out forms of words they feel we can no longer use honestly. You can worship there and say nothing untrue.
There is already plenty of non-realist worship in Hymns Ancient and Modern. Track down all the hymns that simply personify Love as God. These are the ones that begin: "Love", "O Love", "O perfect love", "Come down, O Love divine", "Immortal Love" and so on. There are many such hymns, all teaching the purest Sea of Faith theology: Love is God, Love takes human form in Christ. Love conquers and redeems all things. There is no God but Love, and to believe in God is to believe in the divinity of Love. (Of course, to believe in something is quite different from believing that something exists.)
Non-realism is quite simply the core of Christianity. "Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heaven to earth come down", and so on. And it is equally prominent in our poetry. In Love Bade Me Welcome, for example, Herbert does not mention God, but only Love. In Little Gidding, Eliot doesn't mention God, but only Love. Nobody dreams of questioning the orthodoxy of either poet.
The main source of all this is familiar enough. In the New Testament, in the First Letter of John, we are told that the words Love and God are convertible. You can't slip a knife between them. If you love your fellow human being, you know God and are in God, whereas if you don't love, you don't know God. The word God doesn't designate a distinct metaphysical being; it is simply Love's name. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, "Thou shalt read this book in a spirit of wooden-headed literalism."
Christian doctrine, then, is or was simply a poetry of love: "O Love, who formedst me to wear The image of thy Godhead here," says the hymn - and, so far, nobody disagrees. But surprisingly, when a clergyman (Anthony Freeman) spells it out clearly in a book (God in Us) - a book that attracts notice, forsooth - then it turns into the most damnable heresy, and he has to be turned out of his office.
How did it come about that ways of speaking which a few moments ago seemed uncontroversially and quite centrally Christian, are now perceived as threatening to the authorities? Suddenly the core of the Gospel is no longer the old biblical poetry of Love: it is instead the maintenance of a system of spiritual power, supported by realistic dogmas. Reading a lot of obsolete realist philosophy into the Bible, people even come to think it teaches these dogmas. But often it doesn't.
Those who, like Matthew Arnold, have urged us to read the Bible simply as literature were probably right, and the best Protestants. When protestantism said, "God is known only in these words, and only by faith," it was on the right track. It recognised that we have only words, and there is nothing altogether beyond language. Words, and the way they shape the world and guide our lives, are all we have and all we need.
Unfortunately, people want more than that. They want authority and reassurance. They want justifications for spiritual power and privilege. Benjamin Disraeli made the point amusingly when ticking off a notoriously liberal clergyman: "All very well, Mr Dean, but remember, Mr Dean, no dogma, no Dean!" While they are singing hymns people may be willing to perceive Christianity as a sacred poetry of Love. But in the real world only power counts, and spiritual power can regard as orthodox only that doctrine which feeds it and strengthens it. Power is for its own sake, and always desires only more of itself. The Church becomes a hierarchical institution, and as Voltaire once said, the higher clergy regard as orthodox those doctrines that are in their own interest.
So the conflict between realists and non-realists is serious. They worship opposite gods, and Christianity is a religion now profoundly at odds with itself. The god of the realists is an infinite concentration of actual spiritual power: Blake's Urizen, the ruler of this world. The god of the non-realists is Love, which lives by dying, by continually pouring itself out, and giving itself away: what I call "solar" love.
In a Universe in which everything, but everything, burns and burns out and passes away, there is nothing to hold on to. There is no point in clutching. In the end everything must be given up, in such a way as to turn loss into oblation. That's non-realism: love unto death.
See also the Sea of Faith homepage
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