Linda Woodhead interviews Don Cupitt

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This interview was first published in the 2018 Edition of the Emmanuel College Magazine.

The complete magazine can be found here:

Linda Woodhead is a Sociologist of Religion, F.D. Maurice Professor in Moral and Social Theology and Head of Department, Theology & Religious Studies at King’s College, London.


I’m with Don in his study on Park Terrace overlooking Parker’s Piece. Don doesn’t get out so much these days and his wife Susan has driven us here through the back gate on Park Street and along the side of the Paddock; Don’s joy at being in Emmanuel’s lovely spring gardens is obvious.

Don and Emmanuel

‘I’ve loved it here. It’s been a jolly good place. I came to Emmanuel at a time when the college was rising rapidly in status, until, by the ‘80s, it was becoming one of the leading colleges in the university. It’s been very friendly to me, very kind, through my troubles. There were periods when I must have been a bit of a bore to have around, been so obviously in mental turmoil. But I’ve survived, and here I am at 84, still in college rooms, which are a perk to have, and I still love to be able to come in here.’

Don is one of Emmanuel’s greats. A philosopher and theologian, he became famous for his radical thinking in the 1970s when he published books with provocative titles like Crisis of Moral Authority: The Dethronement of Christianity (1972), The Myth of God Incarnate (1977, co-authored) and Taking Leave of God (1984). He has been annoying the church authorities ever since, though he was a priest in the Church of England and Dean of the college.

When I was an undergraduate at Emmanuel in 1982 –85 Don was famous because of his BBC TV series and accompanying book The Sea of Faith (1984). It’s still a great introduction to his thought, and to the wider history of religious change in which that thought must be situated. Don’s fame grew in unexpected places; in the last couple of decades he has become very popular in China. But ‘the trouble with living too long is that you outlive your own reputation’, he says morosely. ‘Thank goodness most of us don’t have reputations to worry about’, says Susan.

Don was my Director of Studies, and he’s always been an inspiration. The older I get, the more I realise what I owe him. Many of the themes I’ve pursued in my own career as a sociologist of religion – the decline of the churches and the rise of alternative spirituality and ‘no religion’ – go back to him. Today I’ve come to interview him, and he’s happy to sit and talk. He was always a great talker and lecturer: clear, incisive and authoritative. None of that has dimmed. I want Susan to tell her side of the story too, but she’s proving elusive, downplaying her own contribution and trying to escape.

I tell Don about my very first supervision at Cambridge. The course was ‘Anthropology of religion’, and Don was my supervisor. Fresh out of a remote comprehensive school, I sat trembling in Don’s study in Front Court as he handed down from the shelf Evans-Pritchard’s book Nuer Religion : ‘Here you are’, he said: ‘Write an essay about this and come back the same time next week’. With a hazy idea of what an essay was and no idea at all what question I was meant to be addressing, I left the room in a state of perplexity.

Don smiles. ‘Evans-Pritchard was an old member of the college and a damn good anthropologist. The big interesting question about him is how could he interpret the Nuer (a tribe in South Sudan). How is it that this man can understand it, whereas Rodney Needham at Oxford and other modern anthropologists were saying we can’t actually understand, their worldview is so different from ours? The answer usually given, and given by Evans-Pritchard himself, was that Roman Catholics, to a high degree, are able to combine sophistication with primitivism, and that’s what he did. He was a Roman Catholic, and therefore he could make sense of Nuer religion.’ At this point I realise that I probably failed to give the right answer on that essay, 36 years too late.

I change the subject and ask Don how his intellectual career began. After ordination and a curacy in the Church of England, he was appointed to a lectureship in Cambridge. The first major statement of his thought was in the Stanton Lectures of 1967 –68.

Don’s thought

‘There was a strong emphasis on an old Platonic theme, the difficulty of using human language to talk about another world or another order of being. How is it possible to speak about God at all when the only vocabulary we’ve got is something evolved by human beings for purely this-worldly purposes? I was, much of my life, occupied with questions of what is language and in what ways does it shape our world; that already appears in the first book.’

I ask about his ‘solution’ to this epistemological issue. ‘When we say “God is father”, we don’t mean that he has a wife and so on. We’re making an ethical recommendation: think as if a father were watching benevolently over your life. So, to say “God is father” is an ethical statement about the spirit in which you should live. This I sometimes call the regulative view: life-shaping uses of language. Religious language co-ordinates human beings, gets them all looking in the same way, to harmonise their lives. So, yes, I gradually came to see language in that way and got more and more agnostic about supernatural belief.’

Linda: ‘Do you believe in extinction at death and then nothing?’

Don: ‘Of course. Yes. I call it “un-get-behind-ability”:

Unhintergehbarkeit , “outsidelessness”. Wittgenstein said there’s nothing beyond culture, this human life world of ours made by language is outsideless with nothing beyond it, just …You can’t get behind the scenes – the scenes have no behind. That’s a key idea in my own thinking. You’ve simply got to forget all the old ghosts like God.’

Not surprisingly, this so-called ‘non-realist’ approach to religion proved highly controversial. I ask him to remind me what the headline was that the Cambridge Evening News once ran about him.

‘“God is Dead, says City Dean.” What the reporter had said to me was, after I’d explained the non-realist view of God, “So, there’s no old man in the sky”, and I said “No”, and she took that as the basis for writing her headline. I rang up because I knew it would mean trouble for me.’

‘You didn’t really mind, or did you …?’

‘Well, I could see it meant trouble for me.’

‘And did it?’

‘Yes. John Robinson had trouble too, even though what John was saying was worth thinking about. But religious controversy is horribly violent and bitter. Religious ideas are burnt into our heads with such force that they’ll only change with great mental upheaval and that’s very painful.’

I asked whether Don was involved in the Honest to God controversy of the late ‘60s, and what he thinks of John Robinson’s book now.

‘It wasn’t near enough to my interests, which were more strictly philosophical. But I did know John Robinson quite well. The book’s dated rather badly, but you could see that it was a great opportunity to encourage public discussion. [Archbishop] Michael Ramsey made a very bad mistake. He should have said, “This is a great opportunity to have a discussion”, and recommended parishes up and down the country to talk about it, because when you go to church ordinarily you’ll get nothing of any intellectual interest or quality at all. Ordinary believers are never given an opportunity to try to find out what they themselves think.’

‘And why didn’t he?’

‘He was frightened of the evangelicals, who thought that the church courts would always find for the most literal reading of the formularies of the Church of England. And Rowan [Williams] said that to me once, when we were involved in the television discussion of the resurrection, before he became archbishop of Canterbury.’

‘At that time, he himself said that he didn’t think anyone should hold office in the Church of England as a priest unless he believed in the empty tomb, the literal walking again of a dead body, and I said, “But, surely, when people preach about the resurrection, year after year, they have to give it an ethical meaning because there’s nothing else you can do with it because, otherwise, it doesn’t bear upon our experience at all.” Saint Paul always treats the resurrection purely as an ethical reality, a new life we ought to be living and can live with the help of the teaching of Christ. Put it that way round, it makes sense. So, literal supernaturalism, to my mind, is quite wrong.’

‘And what did Rowan believe?’

‘Well, he said you had to believe in the empty tomb, that the dead body got up and walked about again, and he must therefore hold that the body simply ascended into Heaven, as it says in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, which do say that Jesus’ human body rose up to Heaven where it sits on a throne.’

‘When do you think people widely stopped believing in that picture of the universe?’

‘In Cambridge in the 1680s and 1690s there was serious discussion of the problem created by the fact that there was no space for heaven and hell in Newton’s cosmology. But there was serious talk of putting hell on the Sun, or heaven on the Sun. They didn’t know what else to do! We still don’t have anywhere, really. Because if you start saying the heavenly world is an entirely different dimension, totally discontinuous with this world, it can never be “before” or “after” this world: we’ve no common timescale. That’s an argument you commonly get in my books against life after death. Once you have a Newtonian cosmology of continuous space and time, or modern physics’ account of continuous space and time, life after death is out because there’s nowhere for it to be, because you cannot have any before and after between this life and another life in a totally different universe.’

I ask Don what becomes of eternity in this way of thinking.

‘I prefer transience. Just as I prefer a small English wild daffodil to either a cultivated daffodil or a plastic one, so I prefer the actual transience of life. I’d sooner, as I put it, go up and off like a rocket, burn out and fall to Earth unnoticed. I’m now sceptical about the self, have been for 30 years. I don’t believe in the immortal soul. We are the impression we give by our words and deeds and our interaction with other people. We’re made of words, in the same way that Hamlet is made of words. He is what he says in the play. So, we are radically transient. It’s the Buddhist view of the self, and one of the reasons why I like Buddhist spirituality and have Buddhist friends.’

The future of religions and the future of the world

I ask: ‘What do you think of the so-called world religions, do you think they will continue, will they disappear, will they get re-interpreted?’

‘They’re all badly out of date now, and incapable of regenerating themselves on the scale required. Steven Batchelor is doing his best in Buddhism and it’s pretty good. I’ve tried to do what I can in Christianity. Spinoza did Judaism very well: all in one hit, he was a genius.’

I ask about Islam.

‘Islam has a lot to give, yes. The trouble is, it’s been so illiberal and narrow for the last two or three hundred years because the Turks failed to understand what was happening in Western Europe. They had their contacts with Europe only through Venice really, and they were not told about critical thinking and they didn’t see how critical thinking could possibly be compatible with Islam. They didn’t realise what difficulty they were getting into; but then, along came the railway and the steamships and the telegraph, and suddenly, the Ottoman-Turks, the Ottoman Empire was out of date and going to collapse. It collapsed completely because its sense of its own perfection and superiority was too strong. So the crucial thing, rather, is to understand what critical thinking does to every religion. There’s still a lot of material there that one may want to salvage, but it’s got to be arranged into quite different patterns.’

‘Would you still say that you are a Christian?’

‘I’d still say that I am, emotionally and intellectually, strongly Christian and remain so, but I’d see things very differently from the standard church view. I like the present pope but he’s, unfortunately, become a bit tired and unable to beat down the conservatives in the Vatican.’

‘What will happen to the Catholic Church? What’s your prognosis?

‘I wonder. I wonder. It’ll linger on for a bit, but I suspect Rome will simply collapse. I think that our civilisation is running into crisis anyway: that’s the point of my last book ( Ethics in the Last Days of Humanity , 2016), expecting that everything will collapse in one or two generations from now, possibly three.’


‘A large range of issues and the growing ungovernability of mankind, because the rise of critical thinking also breaks up society and has us questioning all social authority, so that failed states and societies which simply can’t govern themselves coherently or agree with themselves are spreading all around the world. That’s happening at the same time as dozens of things: rising sea levels are leading to flooding of coastal cities; climate change; global warming; desertification; general pollution of the environment by all sorts of things, like plastics; the destruction of half the wildlife, both on land and in sea, across the world, has already taken place, and the rest is going very fast: ie we are racing towards our own destruction at a faster pace than we can cope with. We can’t turn the great big super-tanker around in time, so the book argues, and it says, to get through the bad times that are coming, we must cling onto our values. We must not abandon all of our values as soon as things get a little bit difficult.’

‘But what values will protect us from all those problems?’

‘Values of humanity, so that when refugees arrive, you let them in. Hospitality towards the homeless stranger and towards the refugee and the alien is engrained in all cultures all round the world and always has been. Nowadays, people have abandoned it almost overnight: ie people’s level of loyalty to their own values is desperately low. But if we abandon our own values, we will all die off. We’ll never be able to build a better society.’

‘What becomes of our science-based societies that have been so successful?’

‘They will disintegrate. We’ve got to decide how much of our science to keep and in what way to use our science next time. I remember [the philosopher] Elizabeth Anscombe saying once that it just happened that it was mechanics and motion that were the first sciences to develop a modern history, and they were always interesting to governments who wanted to use them for military purposes. So, science became aligned to the military from the very beginning. You could describe the flight of a cannonball, that sort of thing. But suppose the first science to be developed had been biology, we might have a better world now, if Darwinism had been discovered much earlier on. But as it is, we’ve wiped out more than half of what there was in the sea and on the land, worldwide. We’re really destroying the Earth astonishingly quickly.’

‘You don’t believe in evacuating Earth and going off to another planet?’

‘No. That’s absurd really. The cost is far too high. And in any case, to live on another planet would be awful, in such an unhospitable environment. Human beings are cultural, profoundly. I remember, in the Arctic I once wandered away from the shore where human beings live, into the hills, and became utterly horrified by the fact that nothing around me had been named. It was all complete wilderness.’

I comment that we are back to language and our worlds woven in and through language-games: the recurring theme of Don’s thought. It situates him in the ‘ordinary language’ tradition of English philosophy, with J L Austin, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others. In mid-career Don wrote some wonderful books based on our new ‘religious’ language: The New Religion of Life in Everyday Language (1999), The Meaning of It All in Everyday Speech (2000) and Kingdom Come in Everyday Speech (2000). His ear for everyday discourse and his ability to interpret what it says about our emerging worldview is remarkable.

‘Yes: I’m hoping we’ll keep the major world languages and some materials, but not too much because, otherwise, people will merely try to re-create the old civilisation and that wouldn’t be any good.’

Don and Susan: on needing a wife

At this point Susan, who has escaped briefly into town, returns. ‘I’m still being grilled!’ says Don. I see my opportunity to get Susan’s voice into the mix, because she’s a remarkable person in her own right, as well as Don’s steadfast companion and supporter. I can’t think of Don without her.

Linda: ‘What year did you get married, you two?’

Both: ‘1963.’

Linda: ‘Where did you meet?’

Susan: ‘We met through my brother because Don and my brother, Roger, were up at Catterick together doing their National Service.’

Linda: ‘And when did your eyes first meet?’

Don: ‘I remember Susan as a large, very blonde, rather plump 16-year-old, in Roger’s shed at his home in Prestwood, Bucks. She watched us with admiration as we played table-tennis.’

Susan: ‘Admiration!?’

Don: ‘Well, I was a real male other than her brother.’

Susan: ‘And I didn’t come across many of those, that’s quite true, because I was at boarding school at the time.’

Linda: ‘Did you watch her with admiration as well? Doesn’t sound like it.’

Don: ‘Don’t remember. I became conscious of girls a bit late anyway because I was so preoccupied. It was ideas that mainly preoccupied me, from the age of about 16 to about 29, when I suddenly realised I hadn’t married.’

Susan: ‘Had to do something about it, so … Where could you possibly find some bird?’

Don: ‘I remember my supervisor, George Wood, saying to me, “Don’t let them keep you so busy that you never get round to getting married”. He was the beloved Dean of Downing College, a charming man, but he was very sorry that he’d just forgotten to get married.’

Linda: ‘So how did Susan break through into your inner life?’

Don: ‘I was very lonely at Westcott House in the vacations. The whole place emptied, and I was trying to get some sort of meals for myself out of an empty college.’

Susan: ‘“Where can I find some woman who will do this for me?!”‘

Linda: ‘So you tell the story from your point of view, Susan.’

Susan:  ‘Oh, well, Don was pretty dishy when he was young, and he was a friend of my brother’s.’

Don: ‘I was over six foot four. Susan is tall herself, so I was a catch for a tall woman because tall women don’t find it so easy to get a good husband.’

Susan: ‘And then he phoned up one evening and he said he’d like to take me out to dinner at the Dorchester, because of course he had very few skills to do the business of wooing women: he just didn’t know how to go about it, and he thought dinner at the Dorchester was what you had to do.’

Don. ‘We went back to your place for coffee afterwards.’

Susan: ‘I remember. You proposed, without any warning at all.’

Linda: ‘Just like that, the same evening?’

Susan: ‘Well, he was desperate for a wife, you see, he was desperate.’

Don: ‘Susan suddenly shut up and put her coffee down. For perhaps the first time ever, Susan felt the need to collect her thoughts.’

Linda: ‘And what did she say?’

Susan: ‘Well, it did come rather out of the blue. You expect a certain amount of, well, to put it crudely, foreplay; you expect a certain amount of going out and so on. But he was so insistent, I thought, golly, this man’s going to go off and kill himself if I don’t say yes, so I said yes, because men do go at you and …the only way of getting rid of them at the time is to say, “Okay, okay, okay”, and then, the next day, when everybody has sobered down, then you can approach the matter again …         And then, over a period of a few weeks, we got to know each other and then decided …okay, we’ll go ahead with it.’

Linda. ‘And so you did. And three children and a lifetime later … here you are. I remember going to see you, Don, when I was a postgrad and struggling over whether to pursue an academic career or have children, and asking you: “If you had to choose between your work and your family, which would you choose?” Unusually, you paused for a long while, and then and you said, “I can’t answer that because I couldn’t have one without the other.”‘

Susan: ‘Oh, really? That’s comforting.’

Don: ‘Yes, well, it did become necessary, yes. And of course, the family became a refuge increasingly from the stresses and problems of work too. The family base and the on-the-whole supportive base of the college helped me to endure the storms I got from the outside world.’

The consequences of truth

Don’s alluding to the hostility he faced, not only from the church, but also from academic theologians, even within his own faculty in Cambridge. I’ve always thought it quite remarkable that he’s not more bitter about the way he was marginalised and not even made a professor. I ask Susan how it affected her.

Susan: ‘I was busy with the children, and with work (Susan is a German translator and teacher, and in later life has made a reputation for herself as a potter). This was Don’s work. It’s only recently that I’ve learnt a lot of this. He didn’t share it, which is one of the reasons why I think he found life so difficult, because he wasn’t sharing it with anybody.’

Don: ‘No, no, you wouldn’t. You don’t discuss the problem. Because of my own “solar ethics” (an ethic of generous outpouring of life, of energy), I could not publicly express indignation or whatever. I had to just endure it without being upset, and that’s still my policy. Eventually, I did decide I should leave the communion of the church but remain a member of the church.’

Linda: ‘What does that mean?’

Don: ‘I think Christianity has to move on another stage in its traditional evolution. The old idea was that the church was a watchdog organisation, a disciplinary organisation, keeping the faithful organised, while they wait for the coming of the Kingdom on Earth. But the next stage is when Western people have a purely one-world conception of reality. The Kingdom becomes ethical, the Sermon on the Mount becomes liveable: you have a kind of different attitude to ethics.’

Linda: ‘So Susan, you have listened all your life to Don’s thought.’

Susan: ‘Oh yes, even at breakfast!’

Linda: ‘How important is it to you?’

Susan: ‘Very important, because it seems to make very good sense, but I am not a church-goer. I decided, very early on, that I would enjoy my life on this beautiful planet and take what came, as you might say. So I’ve got no religious aspirations at all.’

I comment on how remarkable it is that Susan came to this position independently and before she had even met Don, and I hazard the thought that she might have been an inspiration behind his idea of solar ethics: the idea of religion as generous, self-giving outpouring.

She puts me right immediately. ‘“Generous?” No. I think, as I said, I take what comes.’

It strikes me again how very Christian still Don is, despite what his critics say, not least in his self-effacing, self-sacrificing ethic, and his deep commitment to speaking the truth whatever the cost. I realise that this has been an inspiration to me in my own career, this insistence that you have to stick closely to the truth as you see it, however much trouble it may bring.

I think of Don as rather like Mr Ramsey in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: the lonely, heroic thinker, with his crowd of disciples cluttering up the house. And the image of Jesus turning towards Jerusalem, refusing to moderate his words even though it will lead to crucifixion, also comes to mind.

Earlier in our conversation Don had said to me:

‘I remember saying, in the mid-’80s, “The better I do, the more trouble I’m in. I’m on rails for destruction.” Because, the better my books got, the more clear it was that my career was ruined, and I had difficulty surviving in the faculty.’

I ask: ‘What were the most painful aspects of it?’

Don: ‘I think it was a feeling of being trapped, and I couldn’t get out of it. You can’t deny your own thinking. I remember when I finished writing Taking Leave of God , I knew it was a good book and it would get me into trouble, but still, I felt I had to publish it, couldn’t not do so.’

No wonder Don is grateful to Emmanuel. It gave him stability for his writing, a base for teaching, and a refuge from controversy. And he, in turn, has dignified it with his emphatic presence and fierce quest for truth.