Spirit of the Age: The gospel according to Linda

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The Independent Culture
THE THING about Don Cupitt is that he always goes that bit too far. He does it on purpose. "I like being infuriatingly heretical," he said, as he sat in his office in Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he was, until his retirement a couple of years ago, the dean.

And yet this time the academic, whom the tabloids once tagged the atheist Anglican, thinks there is nothing terribly controversial about his latest book, The New Religion of Life in Everyday Speech. He is a rangy giant of a man, whose legs seemed too long for either the chair at his desk or the armchair into which he subsequently moved as our conversation became more entangled.

"I'm always treated as way out when I'm reviewed in theology journals," he said, ruffling the shock of vigorous grey hair that tops his head. "And yet all I'm saying here is what most ordinary people think. I'm only trying to persuade the reader of what he knows already."

His latest thesis is that the word "life" has replaced "God" in modern speech patterns - a change that he reckons amounts to "a major religious event" that has gone unnoticed over the last three decades.

Just as the contemporary cult of celebrity is the late modern return of the cult of saints, he pointed out, so other religious impulses have been refocused in our language. "Celebrities act out our myths, embody our causes, are our role models and have become the people after whom we name our children, just as saints once were," he said. Sometimes we make the connection consciously, as with the "Saint Linda" posters when Linda McCartney died, or the talk of the beatification of Diana, Princess of Wales. "So it is with words. There's a world view that is built into ordinary language."

To prove it he has studied 150 modern proverbs and epigrams which show how comprehensive has been the shift from the idea of life-after-death to "something that gives itself to us in the here and now".

The book lists phrases about life in 14 different categories, all of which correspond to the old ways of speaking about God. Life is a self- propagating power (as is revealed by phrases such as "a spark of life"); it is a mystery ("the meaning of life"); it is personified ("life's been good to me"); it is awesome and holy ("the sanctity of life"); it challenges us ("today is the first day of the rest of your life"); it demands total commitment ("quality of life"); it is a grave sin to despair against it ("you've got the wrong attitude to life"); it demands conversion ("an aim in life"); it is providential ("life goes on"); it prompts acceptance ("such is life") and also demands joy ("this is the life"); it contains an eschatology ("life is short"); it should not be tempted ("living dangerously"); and those without it are bereft ("life is passing me by").

"In the past life was hard and wretched, as the Prayer Book used to put it at funerals," he said. "But today, for most people, hopes of the future life are being realised in the present. What was restricted to the gentry in the 18th century and the middle class in the 19th has been democratised and everyone assumes the right to enjoy life rather than merely endure it in the hope of reward in the hereafter."

It has shifted the focus of the modern psyche. Gone is the idea of a world of gold and jewels where nothing ever fades. In its place is an invigorated appreciation of the transient. "Now even the Church is catching up with this - as with Christian Aid's slogan: `We believe in life before death'," he said. "Ironically the clergy have become one of the most enthusiastic users of the `life' vocabulary, particularly Catholic fundamentalists such as the Pope. But, of course, they are well behind what ordinary people have recognised instinctively."

Where Dr Cupitt goes too far this time, it seems to me, is that he is not merely content to describe this shift. Rather, while remaining a priest and a communicant member of the Church of England, he endorses it without reservation. "The old repressive and disciplinarian approaches, the notions of original sin which made people despise themselves, the insistence on conscience and duty, are being replaced. Instead we have human rights, lifestyle, coming out, self-expression and affirmation - a world where everyone has the chance to say their thing and to strut their stuff."

This does not exactly seem an adequate substitute. Whatever was wrong with the Nicene Creed, it needs to be replaced with something more substantial than the lyrics of "My Way". But Dr Cupitt was having none of that. Frank Sinatra is "the prophet of Nietzscheanism in popular song", he said, suggested that "the vocabulary of human rights is the beginnings of a pan-religious world ethic".

"Morality isn't built into the structure of the universe; we inherit morality like language," he said. "And, like language, morality changes. We live in a world of continuous moral change. Values are transient and are rethought by each generation. Some values live longer than others, just as some words do, though what they mean will shift subtly over the years. You don't need an external policeman to keep the English language in place. It's kept going just by being used. It's the same with morality."

I was not sure about this; left to their own devices people routinely behave badly. He disagreed. "Our need to get on with one another prevents us from developing a private morality, as it does a private language. In biology, natural selection produces livelier, tougher plants. So it will with morals. You have to trust in the processes of life."

If the analogies between language, biology and morality were exact then perhaps I might. Or, then again, perhaps I should just start to look on the bright side of life.