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Living and Partly Living

John Mann reviews The Last Philosophy by Don Cupitt, What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, and The Bridge to Nothingness by Shlomo Giora Shoham.

Don Cupitt came into the public view in the mid- 1980s with his BBC TV series The Sea of Faith which also produced a radical religious network of the same name. Yet Cupitt’s new thinking began in the early 1980s with his books Taking Leave of God and The World to Come. In these books Cupitt, an Anglican priest and theologian, proposed a new understanding of Christianity. God, he said, does not exist ‘out there’ but is a part of our human reality, a personified ideal of religious values. Therefore we need a new type of Christianity – a Christian Buddhism – in order to explore this new understanding of God. The aim of this new Christianity is both to help individuals develop and to operate as a collective agency for progressive social change.

These themes have been developed in Cupitt’s steady stream of theological books, but have not substantially altered. In The Last Philosophy Cupitt attempts to make explicit the philosophy that lies behind this theology – a theology that has always been in dialogue with philosophy. Throughout his books Cupitt makes frequent reference to Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, and he has also written about such modern thinkers as Deleuze and Guattari, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan and Foucault.

Cupitt’s aim is to present his thought in “ordinary”, “democratic” terms with no “bloody jargon” (p.38) – on one occasion he admits “I’m using the usual bullshitting academic jargon” (p.18). To give readers a clue to his ideas he encourages them to make a thought experiment: sit quietly and try to observe your consciousness – it is a constant stream of language pouring out. Our life force is a language generator. His metaphor for this primal chaos is a cosmic fountain flowing with words, meanings, sentences and symbols – a huge eternal flow of energy. This, fundamentally, is life and when we see this we will embrace it and love it. Indeed, this is all there is, for Cupitt says his gospel (which of course literally means ‘good news’) is that “no news is good news, so my evangel is that there is no news” (p.16).

We can frame stories, artworks, theories and philosophies out of this flow – seek to capture a little of its force perhaps – but the meaning of life does not lie outside of life. In this empty gospel Cupitt’s Christian Buddhism moves in a more zen direction, in which enlightenment consists of the removal of the illusion that we are not already enlightened.

Cupitt’s vision is imaginative and almost hypnotically compelling; however as he continues his reflections on this metaphor he starts to betray two important weaknesses in his thought:

The insistence that language ‘goes all the way down’, so that there is no referent, no beyond; particularly for a religious thinker this betrays a disappointing barrenness of sentiment – the ineffable is too important to be written out of the drama.

Secondly, what Cupitt’s religion actually is always seems strangely evasive – he writes negative theology par excellence. However, the very strong eastern flavour of his philosophy may betray the true nature of his religion.

These lacks in Cupitt’s thought can be usefully illustrated by reference to the other two books under review here. Deleuze and Guattari explore what is beyond language, and Shoham examines the shape of modern spirituality.

Deleuze and Guattari’s What is Philosophy? is a unique and intriguing book, perhaps a book Nietzsche would write if he were alive today. It is grounded in a similar vision to Cupitt’s fountain of life, for beyond language and culture, beyond consciousness and order lies a “chaos” (p.201), “the land of the dead” (p.202), “delirium, madness” (p.202). Deleuze and Guattari present philosophy, together with science and art as a means of framing this chaos, to provide “a little order” (p.201) – a way to avoid drinking from the fire-hose while still getting some water.

In the section on philosophy they explain how philosophy relates to this chaos. They define philosophy as “the art of forming, inventing and fabricating concepts” (p.2) and the philosopher is not therefore a discoverer of truth, but fundamentally a creator. The truth of philosophy must therefore consist of our being true to our own concepts – concepts we bring forth from within ourselves. As we attempt to articulate these unspoken reasons and laws within ourselves we each create our own world, which Deleuze and Guattari call a ‘plane of immanence’:

“In the end, does not every great philosopher lay out a new plane of immanence, introduce a new substance of being and draw up a new image of thought, so that there could not be two great philosophers on the same plane? It is true that we cannot imagine a great philosopher of whom it could not be said that he has changed what it means to think” (p.51).

Deleuze and Guattari elaborate on this almost ‘fictional’ character of philosophy with a discussion of ‘conceptual personae’, for example the Socrates of Plato, the Zarathustra of Nietzsche, Pascal’s gambler and Kierkegaard’s ‘knight of the faith’. These are not aesthetic figures, but “powers of concepts” (p.65), and the philosopher needs a “taste for concepts” (p.78) the way an artist has a taste for colours.

Being atheistic anti-Hegelians, Deleuze and Guattari have deliberately set up philosophy, art and science to oppose Hegel’s ‘big three’ of philosophy, religion and art. For not every grid and framework, they say, is an authentic medium for appropriating the chaos. There are hallucinations and illusions – the illusion of transcendence, the illusion of universals, the illusion of the eternal (p.49). For Deleuze and Guattari, then, religion is an illegitimate practise since it is inherently transcendental and – following Nietzsche – the death of God means the loss of transcendence.

This denial of thought’s ability to make itself its own object raises the question of how Deleuze and Guattari can avoid assuming some transcendence when dismissing religion as an illusion. Their solution is the concept of ‘becoming’ – philosophy may be judged in terms of its relation to the ‘becoming’ movement of thought:

“…there is extracted from chaos the shadow of the ‘people to come’ in the form that art, but also philosophy and science summon forth: mass-people, world-people, brain-people, chaos-people” (p.218).

“We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present. The creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do not yet exist” (p.108)

“For the race summoned forth by art or philosophy is not the one that claims to be pure but rather an oppressed, bastard, lower, anarchical, nomadic, and irremediable minor race.” (p.109)

“The artist or philosopher is quite incapable of creating a people, each can only summon it with all his strength. A people can only be created in abominable sufferings, and it cannot be concerned any more with art of philosophy. But books of philosophy and works of art also contain their sum of unimaginable sufferings that forewarn of the advent of a people. They have resistance in common - their resistance to death, to servitude, to the intolerable, to shame, and to the present.” (p.110).

Yet such language has at least echoes of a religious sentiment. Are Deleuze and Guattari right to deny religion a role in mining chaos? In terms of traditional religion – the dogmatic, creedal stereotyped religion – the answer must be yes, yet the modern consciousness that has learned to value ambiguity, irony, complexity, uncertainty and plurality can also find such values in a different religious tradition – that of mysticism. As Karen Armstrong points out in her book A History of God today it is the mystical traditions in Islam, Christianity and Judaism that are alive and developing while traditional theology grows more and more bizarre. Modern views of language appear remarkably similar to mystical religious language: for example Cupitt appears to have a fundamentally unsayable ‘vision’ of God which he nevertheless attempts to articulate in his succession of books. This is the experience of every artist (in the widest sense of the term) that they are possessed of an ‘idea’ or ‘vision’ which they seek to give expression (through language, music, art etc.) yet each expression somehow falls short of the original passion (“the thought expressed is a lie” Nikolas Berdayev).

This is somehow the other side of scepticism – not that we cannot know, but that our expression of knowledge is never complete. We can never finish expressing what we know, and each expression must be supplemented, explained, qualified, perhaps revoked, rephrased and so on.

The topic of mysticism takes us on to our last book, The Bridge to Nothingness by Shlomo Giora Shoham (a Jewish writer who has written more than fifty books on criminology, law, religion, literature and philosophy). This stimulating and spiritually subversive book provides a clear example of how modern mysticism can be grounded in a ‘plane of immanence’. By following a Jungian combination of psychology and religion the primal experiences of birth and early childhood create the psychic economies expressed in myth and mysticism. Shoham describes the purpose of the book as follows.

“I have tried to show in the present work that the most important task of man is to discover how he can counter the threats of unbearable pain, madness, and death posed by the demiurgos with rebellion, revelation, and creativity, and thus to absorb the grace of the Godhead. Man thence becomes a true dialogical mate of God.” (p.391).

By creatively using themes from both Gnosticism and the Kabala, Shoham develops a language for modern spirituality to work with. He writes of a blemished God exiled by the scattering of divine sparks into the mires of profanity requiring humanity to heal itself though healing its God (p.133). Shoham also uses existentialism, particularly Kierkegaard, to spiritualise the modern experience of the loss of God through renunciation of attainment (“Moses perpetually longing for a promised land he shall never reach… a Messiah who has not come is a much more powerful incentive for revelation than a Messiah who is believed to have appeared” p.143).

Elaine Pagels has shown in The Gnostic Gospels (one of the most challenging books of the last twenty years) that it is the tradition of Gnostic Christianity which is most closely in tune with modern Christian sentiments. Now Shoham has added to Gnosticism the Kabbalistic tradition as another rich source of modern spiritual renewal, through an exploration of western mysticism.

The crisis of modern religion is exactly this gap between the ineffable religious experience – religious chaos – and some form of language or expression that will allow the experience to be framed. Note that belief in God is not irrelevant here but should be compared to belief in art – we experience art because we believe in it, yet we are not conscious of this belief because, generally, the linguistic infrastructure of the art-object has not broken to the extent that religious language has broken. There may be genuine godatheists, as there are art-atheists, but if religious language is healed they should be as rare. What is required is a dissemination of mystical language to allow people to begin engaging with spirituality, to articulate their spirit-chaos and restart their own religious language generator.

Of course for some people traditional religious language still works – the modern sensibilities of ambiguity, uncertainty and pluralism are expressed in terms of faith, hope and belief. Yet increasingly traditional language is experienced as restrictive and monophonic. Mystics like Shoham suggest ways of thinking about God and man, good and evil, faith, holiness, forgiveness and love that retain a fluid, dynamic and vibrant life – an intensity and poetry though which our spirituality may flow.

© John Mann 1997

The Last Philosophy by Don Cupitt (SCM 1995) ISBN 0334 025 869
What is Philosophy? by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (Verso 1994) ISBN 0-86091-442-4 (hb) 0-86091-686-3 (pb)
The Bridge to Nothingness: Gnosis, Kabala, Existentialism and the Transcendental Predicament of Man by Shlomo Giora Shoham (Associated Univ Press, 1994) ISBN 0- 8386-3396-X

John Mann lives in Suffolk and works as a computer programmer.

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