The MWS Podcast: Episode 20, Don Cupitt

In this episode we are joined by the Christian theologian and philosopher Don Cupitt. He talks to us about how he understands religion and his non-realist position about God. He also touches on Jungian archetypes, agnosticism, Stephen Batchelor and how he views the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 20: Don Cupitt as audio only:
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About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

8 thoughts on “The MWS Podcast: Episode 20, Don Cupitt

  1. Thanks to Barry and Don. I was supervised by Don Cupitt when I was studying in Cambridge during the eighties, and he was an important early influence on my thinking, so I’m glad that we’ve been able to interview him and make a connection between his work and the society. He’s no less plain and forthright here than he used to be! I also very much admire his full recognition of the importance of relating religion to ordinary experience and avoiding alienating abstract beliefs.

    Nevertheless, I felt that Don rather dodged the question about the Middle Way, and does not seem to have any conception of it. There were also two other answers that seemed to be based on misunderstandings. He contrasted non-realism, which he said offered a “regulative view of religious truth” with agnosticism, but I can’t see any reason why an agnostic can’t hold a regulative view of religious truth. I prefer to put this idea of a regulative view in the form of ‘truth on the edge’: that is, the idea that we can find a claimed truth meaningful and thus inspiring, without believing that we have access to such a truth. The embodied meaning thesis is needed to understand how we can find a ‘truth’ meaningful in a way that is distinct from our beliefs.

    The other misunderstanding was about objectivity. Don immediately jumped to the conclusion that incremental objectivity was dependent on absolute objectivity, which is not the case (if anything, I’d suggest the reverse). I don’t think he really understood the concept of incremental objectivity, which is rooted in experience, not in God’s eye views or metaphysical claims. Elsewhere, Don actually talked about engaging with a reality beyond our current experience in a way that I would see as highly compatible with incremental objectivity.

    So, I still feel a lot of affinity of spirit with Don and his work, but there remain a lot of issues with the language and the philosophical framework he’s using. I don’t think that the modern philosophers Don referred to take us anywhere near where we need to be in bridging the gap between religion and secularism: rather they leave us with a postmodernist and relativist model of how we should understand ideas like value, objectivity etc.

  2. Hi Robert, Your phrase ‘belief is meaning, meaning is not belief’ came to mind when listening to him.
    I felt that you would compare and point out a difference of outlook with his view of objectivity and your view of incremental objectivity, I still have not quite grasped the idea of incremental objectivity, is it a gradual change of mindset that comes about as we understand more about treading a middle way route? Sorry to be perpetually confused.

  3. Hi Norma,
    Incremental objectivity is the way of talking about objectivity that is found in common speech if you ask someone to “Try to be more objective about it”. It is based on the recognition that we never have a perfectly objective view (a God’s eye view) but that nevertheless we can make progress.

    I would imagine that Don’s argument (if he reflects a common outlook on this in Western thought) might be that we don’t know what we’re making incremental progress towards unless we’re making assumptions about the final goal. I don’t accept this argument, as I think incremental objectivity can be recognised (provisionally and uncertainly) as we overcome metaphysical delusion. The type of delusion we can readily recognise is that of making absolute assumptions, which is an error in the way we make judgements, rather than in the things we make judgements about. So we make objective progress by increasingly being motivated by experience rather than dogma.

  4. Hi Robert,
    Thank you very much for your reply, I now have a better grasp of your definition of incremental objectivity and will try to put it into practice and be more objective.
    Having read your comment about the typical western philosopher’s view of objectivity, Don Cupitt’s for example, I searched online and listened to a talk by David Kelley of Princeton University, I understand only a fraction of what he said but here goes: Objectivity:- something exists in the world e.g. the sun, it exists without it being perceived, a thing is what it is, no thing lacks an identity – we can stay in touch with facts, reason is the source of objective knowledge, these facts are our guidelines which keep our minds aligned with reality, exisitence depends on consciousness in all its diversity and complexity. He disagreed with David Hume about causality, Hume said it did not exist as there could be varied results eg. a rock hits glass and breaks, but it could hit glass and not break on other occasions!
    Kelley also said that metaphysics is the fundamental nature of exisence, I do not think that is the middle way position. I really have got myself into a muddle, but somehow I hope to untangle the thoughts!

    1. Hi Norma,
      Your summary of Kelley does sound like a fairly typical philosopher’s definition of (absolute) objectivity. Hume did not say that causality did not exist, but rather than we make an assumption that it does based only on our experience of causes and effects, and we cannot observe or reason causality in itself. We don’t know by reason that the rock will smash the glass, only from habitual experience of similar events, so we may be wrong in our assumptions.

      Metaphysicians do indeed put forward claims about the fundamental nature of existence. Where I’d disagree with them is about whether those claims can be of any use to us, or are anything other than dogmatic speculation.

  5. Hi. I listened to this podcast today, and the above comments were helpful as follow-up reading after listening.

    Yesterday I quite independently ended up reading this transcript of a public ‘dialogue’ between Don Cupitt and Stephen Batchelor on ‘The future of religion’ from 2012. I’ve not really encountered Cupitt’s work before, although I’m familiar with Stephen Batchelor, and he sets out his thesis pretty clearly in the dialogue. I wonder what I would have made of these ‘unorthodox’ Christian ideas if I’d come across them in my teenage years after being brought up in a conventional protestant tradition? (No internet back then – but would that have made any difference anyway?).

    I liked his honesty in the podcast – when asked why do you stay ‘within’ the Anglican Church despite having a way of understanding that is so divergent from the orthodoxy, he basically says that he’s getting on in years and all his friends are there. I wonder what they (conventional Anglicans) make of him – I’m surprised that he didn’t migrate to the Quakers.


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