Record of meeting, 25 February 2009

We met on 25 February at David Lambourn’s house. Present were David Belcher, John Challenor, Sara Clethero, Paul Graham, John Howard, David Lambourn, Simon Mapp and Stephen Williams.

As agreed we discussed The Meaning of the West by Don Cupitt (and had an interesting and stimulating conversation, even though several of us had not got round to reading it yet, myself included). For those who had, it is clearly an important book engaging us with significant ideas, and perhaps one of Don Cupitt’s most important books to date.

Inevitably, when several of us are quite familiar with a lot of Cupitt’s work, a new book is looked at not just for what it says but for what it tells us about the progress of his thinking. It was suggested that The Meaning of the West is in some ways more orthodox (unless it’s orthodox thinking catching up) but it also includes Cupitt’s final abandonment of the prospect of church-Christianity ever being reformed to speak relevantly to the modern world. Instead his central theme is that the West has been shaped by Christianity in spite of the Church and that in fact it is only with the collapse of the Church (and of ecclesiastically authorised theology) that the true progressive message of Christianity has been able to be realised in the contemporary west. It is as though a hidden thread has preserved what is best in the words of Jesus (on social justice, the rights of women etc -– a kingdom rather than a church) notwithstanding the efforts of institutional Christianity to suppress it.

There is a lot that is attractive in this idea, but in our discussion we weren’t sure that it all stood up. This “West” seems to belong in post-war northern Europe inspired by Beveridge-style welfare states and collective reconstruction; few Americans would recognise it and much of that spirit has been superseded in Europe. The Meaning of the West is less an achievement to be celebrated than the basis of a critique to be applied to the world we find ourselves in. It was also felt that insufficient regard was paid to the multifaith character of the modern west and that the book presumed the superiority of Christianity. If, however, Christianity is able to take this surprising turn at this late stage in its history, we should be open to similar surprises in other faith traditions. A criticism from the opposite direction was that the book’s focus on the institutional “Church” overlooked other long established forms of Christian organisation such as Quakerism with its consistent social agenda; and even the Church is still a force for social action in particular localities.

We noted the tendency throughout Christian history for the person of Jesus to be reinterpreted to reflect the preoccupations of the age. We cannot objectively recreate the historical Jesus but must always rely on our own and others’ images of him. Making sense of the message of Jesus is therefore at least partly an exercise of the imagination. It was pointed out that the period of the emergence of the West was marked not just by innovative science and philosophy but also by the arrival of the novel (Descartes and Cervantes were contemporaries -– David L recommends The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera). In that context, the story of the West is about the creation and reinvention of new narratives. This thought prompted us to think about the significance of writing and still more of printing. The written record fixes thought -– without it fundamentalism probably couldn’t exist. On the other hand writing gives the writer space to depart from the rigidity and discipline of an oral tradition and introduce something new. In fact we need both writing and live interpretation (“leapfrogging”); at its best a sermon was about interpretation but sadly has become an object of ridicule.

Whatever our criticisms, The Meaning of the West certainly succeeds as an imaginative reinterpretation of Christianity and deserves the kind of discussion we gave it. Those who haven’t read it will now probably want to.

For our next meeting just a few days before the event, we agreed to discuss the meaning of Easter. No-one could suggest a single book or reference for us to focus on so it was left to us separately to sort out material that might be relevant. That meeting will be on Wednesday 8 April 2009 at 1930 at David Lambourn’s house, 28 Frederick Road Edgbaston.

The meeting after that will be on Wednesday 20 May.

PS The latest edition of Sofia is now out and with it literature for the 2009 Conference. There is also a review of The Meaning of the West.