The Leap of Reason

Written by Don Cupitt Reviewed By J. D. Dengerink

Cupitt deals in his book with the problem of the nature and meaning of religious belief in a pluralist society with its immanent tendency towards relativism. Must not a pluralist society drift towards relativism and subjectivism? How can I at once hold some moral opinion on a matter of great importance with a full and rational assent and yet, in the same breath, courteously allow that of course everyone is entitled to his own opinion? Am I not almost contradicting myself? (p. 3).

The key to an understanding of Cupitt’s own position is on page 98, where he speaks of the two levels. The programme of active religion contains within itself an assertion of its own relativity, it will not allow itself to be regarded as a final set of answers. God is pure spirit, we are flesh. Our ideas about him are comically inadequate. Precisely because God-in-himself is unknowable, the spirit is forced back to the programme and to this-worldly action as the nearest to him that we can come. God cannot be known directly, so he must be loved in the neighbour. There is a distinction between the level at which we must be silent, and the level at which we must speak in parables.

Every particular religion proposes a particular programme to the aspirant believer, a belief-system or an interpretative framework. Such a programme does, however, not claim to be absolute. A great religious tradition asserts its own relativity and is conscious of the limits of thought, which consciousness is the mark of a truly spiritual believer (p. 39). Christ too always insisted on his own relativity, not because of his relation to God, his Father, but by his teasing humour! (p. 102).

For Cupitt religion is the same as having such a belief-system, interpretative framework, comprehensive world-view or philosophy of life. The principal condition for attaining a religion is an intellectual conversion, a mental jump (p. 40). A religion is a complete universe. We can not take up a neutral standpoint from which we can survey the varieties of dogmatic folly (p. 63). The interpretative framework with which you approach life decides what meaning you will perceive in life: the programme you set out decides the results you will obtain (pp. 51; cf. 58, 59, 60, 64, 73).

It seems, that Cupitt is aware of the central meaning of religious motives for life and thought. His own motive is a typically rationalistic one, though compensated by an existentialistic one: the sharp distinction between the (rationally) knowable and the non-knowable. Rationalism manifests itself in the identification of self-consciousness and thought. In fact in self-consciousness a man can ‘climb above’ himself and look down upon himself, making himself the object of his own thought (p. 36). This self-transcendance is what Cupitt calls the ‘leap of reason’ (p. 35). As such it is a purely intellectual act. In this respect Cupitt has his legitimate place in the long tradition of western thought from ancient Greece until the present time: man is basically a rational being and thought is principally autonomous within its own boundaries (pp. 38–39).

In Cupitt’s thinking there is a lack of a Christian anthropology. Such an anthropology makes it clear, that thought is only one of the different functions of man, functions which have their proper concentration point in the heart as the religious centre of man. This knowledge of man is, as Calvin has already taught (Institutes, I, 1, 1), dependant of our knowledge of God and of His Revelation. According to Cupitt, however, knowledge of God is not possible or only in an indirect sense. For this reason all our knowledge is for him relative, not in the sense that it is dependent of something or someone different, but that it is in principle unadequate. We saw already, that Christ too insisted always on his own relativity. Cupitt has tried to overcome relativism in the traditional sense of the word, but has deprived himself of the proper foundation which would make this possible.

J. D. Dengerink

Dr Dengerink is a lecturer living in Driebergen in the Netherlands.