Jesus and Philosophy or Jesus the Slow Burner

Review of Don Cupitt's (2009) Jesus and Philosophy, London: SCM Press
Adrian Worsfold

It is difficult to decide whether Don Cupitt's latest book on Jesus is a frustrating even annoying book or a very clever book that just about convinces at the end. He must realise that readers who know something around the subject of the historical Jesus are going to become irritable as he applies categories of Western philosophical thought to a Jesus who would never have heard or understood them or their context, and who consider Jesus as someone living his thought forms within a highly supernatural culture with end time beliefs. Yet at near the end of the book Cupitt attempts to disarm the objections, particularly the Schweitzer one with limited application and success (so not comprehensively enough) and one wonders if the book should not have been written back to front.
For the once postmodern Cupitt, this book confirms his restoration into something of the world of realism, pragmatism and even objectivity. Since 2006 he has reacquired the use of Western secular thought patterns as givers of information, not just for a viewpoint for living more successfully, and this work on the historical Jesus is confirmation. To go to the end of the book is to see the stance, as Cupitt says, of a recovered Jesus:
[H]e prompts an afterthought: perhaps the nineteenth-century idea that the historical Jesus, when rediscovered, may become the basis of the reform and renewal of Christianity does have a future after all. (Cupitt, 2009, 100)
Recently I have presented a series of papers to a church theology discussion group (see Worsfold, 2009a), and after presenting an 'Introductory Issues: Ethics and Doing Theology Today' starter, it moved to a narrative of the nineteenth century theologians who, as a whole, showed the limitations of the historical method, especially regarding the construct called Christianity. The narrative then went to Anglican controversies, starting in 1860 in Oxford around theologians of similar liberal kind who, it has to be said, were basically Anglican Unitarians trying to connect new, emerging, critical intellectual disciplines with theology, after whom Charles Gore then tried to patch things up regarding their failing Incarnation doctrine with Lux Mundi (1899), drawing from them and the Oxford Movement (Worsfold, 2009b). Ever since the liberal end has struggled and failed to maintain sufficient doctrine. John A. T. Robinson ended up asking the Church to address how the Incarnation doctrine that he continued to assert could be upheld (Worsfold, 2009c), The Myth of God Incarnate authors were confused into layers of myth and trying to find a way of saying a functional Jesus was distinctive or unique (and we are not fooled - distinctive is a subjective assessment, and is not unique) (Worsfold, 2009d), and then Don Cupitt had an entirely different drop the Platonic doctrines approach by using postmodern textual plurality representing an end but a potential rebirth point of doing Christianity. Well, he gave up: he became more secular, realist again, stopped taking communion and went Quaker (Worsfold, 2009e). And the poor David Jenkins couldn't square the reality of history now, with its secularity, which God would not abandon, and the reality of history then, with its supernatural categories, from which comes the view that God acts, as in the resurrection. But he just faced a Church going backwards and they hated him (Worsfold, 2009f).
So Cupitt was, for twenty six years, a postmodern response to an historical failure. He tried to rescue the edifice, but then decided his critics were right, and now we have a different Cupitt, one that is not unlike his thin, high and dry, earlier than 1980 position, but one that is not theist at all and who regards the whole construction of Christianity as little more than a cultural legacy. He tried and he failed, like they all did (Worsfold, 2009e). In a sense he joins Michael Goulder, except that Cupitt continues to find driving forces towards ethics in the spiritual resources that great people and their ideas have offered.
He is the one theologian who has been the most influential in my thinking. His radicalism from 1980 until 2006 can be classified as Nihilist Textualism, which means he is the equivalent of the avante garde language and arts pursuing theologian Mark C. Taylor in the United States. He probably hasn't given up entirely on this, and he may want to reassert some aspects. Cupitt is easier to follow than Taylor, and does his material via philosophers, and tries to make his writing easy to read. He has always been rather repetitive, so one book sets off and covers much previous territory, as this one does on autological and heterologial reasoning (see Cupitt, 2006), to then make adjustments and changes at the margin, variously being a narrow or a wide margin. Coming deeper into his retired older age, born in 1934 and having retired in 1994 with some ill-health after extreme ill-health (that had visionary white light religious impact - but one that connected with his past excitement), he seems however to have taken quite a step back and joined some pals in the Jesus Seminar and, to some extent, John Spong. Well, we all need friendly company.
So he has moved from a highly postmodern, pluralist, symbolic-language based position, so that (for example) there were many Jesuses, and where Buddha is brought in (not as many a Buddhist might) to build the non-realist view. Now he says something like 'let's be realistic, not too picky, see the history dug out of the fluid and multivariable world we live in' (always the liberal pluralist position) (Cupitt, 2009, xiv).
When one reads that secret postmodernist, Rowan Williams, dealing in narrative right into the detail and making it as realist looking as possible, and fooling a number of silly evangelicals along the way, the conclusion emerges that his is just one gigantic construction not a few inches from the equally reconstructive Christian imperialists of the Radical Orthodox. Rowan Williams in his job as Archbishop of Canterbury, and when continuing to theologise, arguably throws ethics and its people behind the Church requirement. Not Cupitt, and Cupitt finds in his Jesus the ethics-first man.
Yet here is an objection: that Cupitt carries out the crime related to Albert Schweitzer (George Tyrrell on Alfred Harnack) of staring into the mirror as he produces his liberal take on Jesus. Jesus looks not a little like the revised Cupitt himself. Time to look at the case in detail.
The first point is the prioritising of the sayings over the biographical, and the reliable sayings are those red and pink ones agreed by the Jesus Seminar. Sayings are the earliest material, as in Q and within the Gospel of Thomas (about a third of which can be from Jesus); it is the sayings that matter, as Mark invented the pseudo-biographical genre of Jesus (Cupitt, 2009, 22). So we are very limited to knowing that Jesus wandered around a few years (why not around one year - appears in Galilee, brings his local crowd-pulling to Jerusalem to confront, criticises the centre of things and is picked up and killed off?), and his teachings were accompanied by open meals and healings and some criticisms of the Temple to enact the nearness of the new moral order he taught (2009, 23), a moral order removed from heaven and placed in the human heart (55).
In antiquity he is of a radical humanist ethic, for us to be free at last, where the dream of Jerusalem (with a Blake-like meaning - 24) matters more than the means of delivery (19). Jesus is the most important pioneer of the radical humanist ethic (73). He is a secular teacher, not appealing to religious law, and almost not relying on a supernatural apparatus (24) - thus, a one world person, a seculariser and a moralist of now (32). A much laboured contrast between present human reality and supernatural hope is unnecessary and thus Jesus is not a "swivel-eyed apocalyptist" but a person raising our moral awareness to remove negative emotions (25). In the core of his teaching he does not mention the Torah or Moses but rather speaks like an Eastern sage (26).
One asks, if this was so, what was Jesus's motivation for doing what he did: why was the teaching and the healing urgent? But what, for Cupitt, does Jesus's secularity, being like an Eastern sage, mean?
In terms of tradition Jesus followed John the Baptist, but once alone and in charge he was anti-traditionalist and non-conformist (79). By wanting to step outside the reality he faced, as a transgressor (78) from ordinary morality, he became a nihilist and extreme voluntarist who makes the new world by sufficient decisive act (79, 82) reinforced by the fact that much of the treasure on earth/ treasure in heaven material is popular wisdom anyway, wrongly ascribed to Jesus (82). Comparing Jesus was recent Anglo-Saxon philosophy, he is an emotivist and voluntarist (88). He is an expressivist with his parables, where reality flows out from us, when also he is not mirroring heaven in a Platonic sense (81).
Against this there is a response. Suppose André Breton's definition of surrealism is taken as something like freedom and transformation of human consciousness and that Jesus's dreamworld of a future ethical state is just that, a disinterested play of thought (see Breton, 2006):, would it be right to call Jesus a surrealist? Of course not, because surrealism is in the context of what came before, and is understood later regarding what came after. The same must be true in regarding Jesus as secular, expressivist and the rest. He really is set in his time (93), and that is where he must be understood.
Matthew's gospel took a contrary view: Jesus not only observes the Law but tightens it all up (27). This is all so doubtful, and we get to Jesus's generosity which parallels ahimsa, which such as Gandhi understood (28, 33). Jesus does break the sabbath rules (rather than observes them because he is healing, saving life, which surely would be permitted) (27) and it is all about the milk of human kindness that has to be spontaneous (33). Indeed, he disrespected sabbath Law and ritual purity (78). Jesus's ethic was never about reciprocity, because you do something for the person you do not know (29). He does not advocate the later Christian piety of a double life - of a secret heavenly world, but instead you put on a brave show (32) if one combined with critical self-consciousness (33). Jesus understands that a motivating force for our actions is our ego-ideal (before its Freudian invention) in our self-preservation (42), and such is the stuff of the novelist and Jewish traditions, coming to synagogue Judaism new in his time in which he was also a radical humanist (43).
Is this presentation convincing? Not really, because it is equally possible that the Pharisees get a rotten press in the gospels, and that the historical Jesus was as they were, busily debating with them. If so then he is asking what the Law is all about, in its force, essence and spirit, rather than disrespecting it.
In one of Cupitt's best ever books, The Debate about Christ (1979), that followed on from his Who Was Jesus? programme and book (1977), Cupitt tells us that just about everything about the arrest and trial story of Jesus is wrong, including the point that a claim to messiahship (if it was made or assumed) was not blasphemous and that the Jewish-Christian conflict was projected back on to the narrative (1979, 78). Now in this approach, Jesus is a blasphemer (at least by implication - 2009, 37) and was punished for it, as was Prometheus (36). The passion narrative is still very largely a fiction of many layers, but Jesus's criticism causes him to be handed over, though we don't know how as so much of it is written after 70 CE and the destruction of the Temple (47). The first generation of Christians would have been puzzled by why Jesus was arrested, and later came a belief in resurrection making Jesus an alive, vindicated and exalted Messiah-designate (36). They knew Jesus had died a shameful death and few took any notice of Mary of Magdala's early vision (so she had one?) - and we have such visions reported to this day (60). Knowing Jesus's radical attitude to the Torah, it was possible to see Jesus had led the Jews astray - and Gentiles were joining up into this religion (36-37), and also Jesus's revolutionary ethical teaching causing indignation (and grumbling - 56) at the time may have been transmitted on as the equivalent of blasheming (47). Yet the early tradition doesn't know of blaspheming (56)! Jesus did follow Jeremiah and Ezekial in considering the moral irrelevance of avoidance behaviour to preserve ritual (47) and he radicalised their view in effectively secularising, humanising and historicising the tradition.
What Cupitt is doing here is relativising, and reducing, the passion narrative that takes up so much space in the gospels and is the key to the new community in the New Testament. He does more than this, in his priority of the sayings over the biographical.
Therefore, whilst there is an authentic Jesus, a mind of the sayings (86), the Christian religion is something different, and its chief inventor is probably Paul (87). Paul knew nothing of and had no interest in the earthly Jesus but promoted a supernatural version (64-65). It is, as the saying goes, Jesus who preached the Kingdom but the Church ended up with Paul (92). The synoptics use the method of telling of a holy man in antiquity, worked up the Old Testament stories and related these to the early Christian groups, preserving his words but saying nothing of value historically or about his personality (65). Mark invented the form, and we get late theological fiction (85). Jesus's utopian radical humanism was closed off by a personality cult within a generation that went on blurring his essential tradition. However, this essence has still influenced people greatly, and the decline of Churchianity has made the message much clearer (83). Becoming a salvation religion about Jesus was probably inevitable, given the tendency to confuse reading someone's words and their presence (91). Like reading the Gospel before the Eucharist, when people stand up, the Bible and iconographic art make the error of confusing their output with presence (91) but it was deifying Jesus that "destroyed" what Jesus stood for (92). Yet no moralist has had such a wide and enduring impact on people's social hopes, a vision upon which modern political movements wanted to build, and part of the vision of America of being free and fraternal is from this origin (87). Ethics-first means moving away from taking cosmology-first and its religious based law (87).
Is this becoming an account of the originality and the uniqueness of Jesus? Not really, but if not, then a great deal is being placed on his shoulders about ethical invention. What about the Jewish tradition from which Jesus drew, itself cluttered with supernaturalism but of a developing ethical heart? So what if Jesus is the one we do know about, thanks to Paul's transmissions and twist in the tale: what about all the people we don't know? Do not ethics stand alone to be worked out, or do they have to come from the mouth of a pioneer, or (more to the point, and thus the importance of the biography) are not ethics realised when they are lived - if only we had the historical information about how Jesus lived! There is so little information, but Cupitt has information based on the sayings about who Jesus was, which is itself a 'confusion' of presence (behaviour) with the words.
Jesus himself represents the big new idea that thought moves from round-about to direct thinking, from incapable humanity to capable (58), with God handing over something of himself from the beginning (59), so that the final revelation is the Kingdom of God and the disappearance of God (60), although Christianity involved a remythicisation and severe distortion of Jesus (60) using that mistake that a person's words are animated by presence and intention (61). After such a detour of tradition over centuries comes improvement as people search for the historical Jesus (62), and our hindsight sees a direct line between Jesus's teaching and the death of God (63). Direct talk (autological) means a focus on the ascent of humankind, not the round-about talk (heterological) of God's self emptying (74), one being about ourselves aspiring and the other from revisionist Christianity (76). Jesus's own ambiguity is the reading that he forsees his rejection, that his message of peace causes conflict, and he receives ressentiment when he preached against conflict (77).
Anyone looking at Jesus in these gospels (that have so little support elsewhere), knows the problem of the theologised miracle stories along with the healing ones. We as readers are now practical, this-worldly, technologically influenced people: science explains and technology does, social science organises it and us and the arts (like glossy religion) enchant. So what of all this miracle material, via the sayings?
For Jesus to heal the sort of person he met is like the late Diana shaking hands with an AIDS victim (45). His healing legitimises, is of performance art, is a social vision, and less about miracles and medicine (45). Yet he shares his time's belief in evil spirits (66) and heals, whilst his stories are secular and comparatively secular given the beliefs of his day as he acts out the Kingdom (66). He was an extreme sociable (49); table fellowship was also a social vision, used against barriers between people (46). From a Latin and Greek stance, Jesus appears unspiritual (denying an inner and secret relationship with God), and he is no proper Platonist either in stance (49) nor foundationalist regarding his ethics (54). Justice as a vendetta and vengeance is what Jesus teaches against (51) and you need to go beyond justice (52) and show love to those who do not reciprocate. The reversal sayings are antithetical parallelism (66-7). He is not ethnocentric, but the Jewish/ Gentile division will end in the coming dream world (68).
This is where the old one about absence of evidence not being evidence of absence comes in both ways. First of all, Cupitt is guilty of this in giving so much priority to the sayings, when the biography (or at least parts of it) matter, and that despite absence of evidence some supernatural reconstruction of Jesus's self-understanding within a tradition is still reasonable. On the other hand, there is an absence of evidence that Jesus is an extreme sociable and works his healings like performance art. Perhaps he was and did. Except we do have some evidence, and biographical. It is that Jesus learnt something from the Syrophoenician woman. Considering Mark 7:25-30 and also Matthew 15:21-28, Jesus is exposed as interested only in his own ethnic tribes. He is no universalist. This is such an embarrassing text of an engagement with a Gentile that it surely carries some authenticity. Taught a lesson by the woman about inclusion, that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table, he transmits a distant healing to the woman's daughter. Jesus is exposed here as imperfect, and not quite the utterly self giving and non-reciprocal that Don Cupitt wants us to believe.
Is Jesus this man of an intimate relationship with God? Jesus was social and unmystical (69). The Kingdom of God tells us nothing about God (70). A few phrases of the Lord's Prayer go back to Jesus (70) so there is little of God there. We ought to live like nature without anxiety: this does not mean God will look after us (like he is taken mistakingly to look after the birds) - so there is little of God there either (70). Jesus does not advocate simple faith or the kind of anthropomorphism assumed in the 'abba' word for Father (70). Thus the intimate-believing theistic man of prayer is wrong (71) and whilst Jesus is no atheist God is understood in the context of the Kingdom of God and Jesus's teaching (71). Jesus radicalised the Hebrew prophets, taking God's promise to relocate himself within the human heart, which thus involves the death of God and the end of the world (88). It needs an absolute choice, a reflection of God creating the world out of nothing, and it's about choosing life (88).
Really? Again it comes down to motive. If Jesus is motivated because, actually, he believes a coming Kingdom of God is real, then who is he to go around preaching it? There are two alternatives. One is that he is heralding God and the coming of the Son of Man, and like the Baptist he will be in some sense 'chosen' for this role. The other is that he is chosen as that Son of Man, to be transformed possibly after suffering. What did he tell his disciples, so that they might be waiting for him after his death to return quickly? Again, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence - nor of presence either. We guess. A good guess is that he was intoxicated with his task, and it was urgent, and that he was telling of something to come, involving a messiah, and that people were healed to rid them of demons and therefore the sin that could exclude them from becoming angelic in the Kingdom made real and so close you could taste it. About this Jesus was wrong, of course, as was Paul, who revised his revisionism (possibly) about the end in the context of the twist regarding Jesus and how people could be saved.
Don Cupitt understands that there are objections to all of his presentation. This is the point where an utterly frustrated reader might be a little disarmed. There is the Albert Schweitzer objection that the historical method had failed (88-89) where the Jesus found by him was one to be useless, of the Son of Man coming on clouds of glory to a world ending violently; such a man is remote and strange and this Schweitzer tale has become a sort of orthodoxy about Jesus the failed prophet (89). Cupitt admits that Q contains early eschatological material, with apocalyptic Day of Judgment imagery used by Jesus and the disciples to judge the twelve tribes of Israel (89). For Cupitt, as a student of Kant Schweitzer should have seen that Jesus but morality before nature in a very radical manner (90). I answering Schweitzer, Cupitt concedes that Q does contain material where theology can develop about Jesus's person and about him regarding salvation (91), and there is even some John like talking as if by Jesus. New Testament specialists answering Schweitzer will say that the eschatological material in Q is later, and such is a reply to Schweitzer, but for Cupitt all that matters in dealing with Schweitzer is to say that Jesus puts ethics first (90). Ordinary people, not letting natural facts stand in the way of their dream, also put ethics first, despite the idiom of the Zoroastrian and Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic (90). But Jesus challenges by choosing ethics and by so doing brings them about (90).
Schweitzer may have produced an over-rounded story of his own, but between him and, say, the realised eschatology of Charles Harold Dodd, whom Cupitt sometimes resembles on this Kingdom of God question, it is Albert Schweitzer who is authentic regarding the local, cultural, world-view. Social anthropologists cannot travel through time, but when they travel through space they have the difficult task of essaying the world-view within which their subjects live, to do so in enough narrative clarity from their rich notes, and this has to be so with Jesus. Far from being a radical humanist, Jesus is bound to be strange.
There is a Q question. Q reflects the Jesus tradition of 50 to 70 CE, before the temple was destroyed and has a Christ doctrine closer to Galilee and is undeveloped contrasted with Paul's Greco-Roman deliberations (91). Jesus points away from himself and others get hooked on the Derrida mistake about presence (91). We should go with Q, Cupitt says. But is this the main Q question? Mark Goodacre and Michael Goulder would ask the really big Q question, and conclude, that Q isn't a Quelle (source) but a phantom.
There is also the Paul question, about his misrepresentation of Jesus and how far. But Paul did maintain an instrumental view of the Law that Jesus taught, and grace replaced Law (91). Against this, he reverses Jesus around again, so that God's initiative comes first and theology precedes ethics (93).
What Cupitt does is accept that Jesus sat in his place as a historical character, which would be dated, but philosophically extracts out, which is not dated (93). It sounds like idealism. The problem with ideas is that they come from collective language negotiated between and spoken through biological units absorbed in a culturally flavoured soup. You cannot simply extract out ideas - there are no vitamins in ideas alone. They are always of their material place. It is why Jesus is not a surrealist, of course, nor an expressivist, nor approaching a non-realist, or any such else. He is not secular because there was no such category: secular depends on the Enlightenment carving up the sacred from the secular. He is an ethical Jew, and the ethics are mixed into in the context of some very funny (peculiar) ideas for our ears.
So where does this leave us? Cupitt then has his own objection: that such unreciprocated spontaneous ethics, such a dream, cannot perform in a working society except slowly. If we all sell all we  have, who will buy (see 98)? The Buddhist Sangha works as a society without ressentiment (is he sure: these monasteries can be pretty humanly sinful places!), and Franciscan friars can live by love, but who will provide the food (97)? So it is that a practical ethic runs slowly, and as the Church declines and the Western (er, European) state provides for its people, we have one of the most Kingdom of God-like societies now in history (98-99). And such depends on taxes, like the supported religious and working secular world of the Middle Ages (99). We owe this improvement, this better society, most of all to Jesus (100). To keep this system going, paying, as a creation side, means a conservative end to ethics, whereas on the redemptive side is the dream of the better world, as by Jesus - who thus was no short-termist (100).
This is quite a powerful case, ignoring Jesus's apparent long sightedness. We complain about the banks and greed, and look for reciprocal justice, but Western society has become good, just now, whilst surely it lacks purpose for many, is very uneven with its distribution of poverty and life-chances. It takes a lot of building up, this redemptive side, and many would knock it down for the creative side. Plus Western society could be yet another chaotic system, running along with some sort of equilibrium that becomes stretched until a tipping point sends it back into something much nastier again.
Does Jesus have this long term impact? Yes he does, surely, via reading his reversals sayings, ethical stances and aspects of the mediated biography. Curiously Don Cupitt's argument therefore just about holds, even though it doesn't in detail. Perhaps he could have a word with Rowan Williams about detail (or perhaps not). It holds in the sense that we make it all up: we steal from Jesus, and elsewhere, out of context, and put it together for ourselves. Religion, as Cupitt might have said in an earlier incarnation (or should this be an unpresent manifestation?), is like art. Unfortunately too, it is the doctrinal Churches with their heterological thinking, being generally full of clutter and huge misdirection, that transmit the ethical nuggets still from this man, though at this time the Churches really do seem to be incredibly unethical in their sectarian decline. We really do need to rescue and reinvent some sort of thin, liberal Protestantism, providing for an open-to-all discussion and debate about ethics, but with some colour and enchantment just to warm things up, to keep a clearer vision alive among the various visions we receive.
One day, Don Cupitt, before he rebirths, might take up the cause of James Martineau, who moved from these Oxford Unitarian Anglicans and historicist others into the subjectivity of conscience, a tipping point into individualist conscience-based, with collective liturgy, ethical religion. Perhaps Don Cupitt is correct, since roughly 2006. The nineteenth century is a good place to go for religion, but like a busted equilibrium religion did so tip over with subjective rationality and collective romanticism into the art that supports ethics and makes ethics free. We are just about sufficiently close to these nineteenth century folks to know where we have come from: and we are their children. Don Cupitt certainly is one such child, despite all the past denials! Jesus's ethic says, 'Welcome back to a once lost liberal.'


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Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful