Faith and Reason Cupitt's arrows lie blunted by the reality of reasoned discussion

The last Faith and Reason column of the year comes from the writer Pete r Mullen, who argues that non-realist philosophy really cannot be right.
The "Sea of Faith" school of theology, associated with Don Cupitt and Anthony Freeman, is interesting and controversial, but incoherent and finally self-defeating. Cupitt and other writers of this school frequently refer to their thought as "non-r ealist" by which they mean that "God" is not the name of a Being, but a short-hand word for describing desirable qualities such as love, compassion and unselfishness.

"Non-realism" is an odd phrase to describe this position. Surely the writers cannot mean to suggest that love, compassion and unselfishness are unreal? The Sea of Faith writers seem to be confusing what is real with what is physical, or quasi- physical; whereas traditional Christian thought says that what is most real - God - is spiritual. What Jung once said about the literal-minded Protestants of his day might also be applied to the Sea of Faith people: "These men cannot bring themselves to believe that spiritual things are really real!"

Therefore, Cupitt and his associates have only a hollow victory over their theological opponents: for they busy themselves in the denial of something which their opponents - the traditionalists - do not believe. Orthodoxy states that God is "without body, parts or passions" and that He is a spirit. The Sea of Faith theologians have indeed a victory of sorts - but it is only a victory over utterly unimaginative fundamentalism and the most brute anthropomorphism. Both sides in this futile dispute are arguing over the existence of an idol - or a grammatical fiction.

But there is a more serious argument against the whole philosophical basis and structure of Sea of Faith theology, and it is an argument which may be directed against postmodern philosophy in general, of which Sea-of-Faithism is a sub-species.

According to this way of thinking, there is no getting beyond the web of language to any sort of reality which language might be supposed - by less sophisticated philosophers - to represent. We are, it is claimed, stuck fast in a Maya of words. Any attempt to refute this argument is bound also to be only another stream, or screen, of words.

There is a gentle argument against this view, and then there is a rough one. First, the gentle argument, which is that nowhere does Cupitt adequately demonstrate that we cannot get beyond language to a non-linguistic reality: he merely states the proposition as if it went without saying. So he begs the whole ontological question in his own favour.

The rough argument - which is a sort of Johnsonian, Chestertonian argument - is, I think, far more devastating, and it is this: if Cupitt says that there is no getting beyond the web of language, then do the words "There is no getting beyond the web of language" themselves get beyond the web of language? If they do, then Cupitt's argument is self-defeating; if they do not, then they are no more valid as a philosophical proposition than any other half-dozen words which we might pluck out of the air.

It is precisely as if he should say: "There are no true statements - except this statement." In this, Cupitt exactly follows Derrida, who famously and explicitly said, "Texts do not have meanings." To which we are invited to reply, "But does the text in which you say `Texts do not have meanings' itself have meaning?" If it does, then Derrida has refuted himself - and if it does not, then he is talking gibberish. The same, by extension, goes for Cupitt's argument as well.

The other week in the Church Times a defender of so-called non-realism in theology complained that traditionalists are simply missing the point. They come out padded up for a cricket match, and do not notice that the game that is going on is football. Cupitt himself once said to me that Aquinas's reasons for the existence of God are coherent, but that they are out of date.

There is too much of this sort of chat: as if an argument might be discredited not only for invalidity but on the grounds of its age. According to the Sea of Faithists, we are living as it were posthumously: "postmodern", "post-Christian" and even "post-philosophical", that is to say in an age when the old arguments have not so much been disproved but have instead merely evanesced, evaporated, disappeared.

This is nonsense. Arguments do not fade away, like so many old soldiers. An argument such as Aquinas's proof of the existence of God from the existence of meaning may become old and unfashionable. Perhaps it can even be refuted. No matter. All that does matter for the purpose of reasonable discussion is that it may be allowed to put itself up for refutation instead, as it were, of being told to go out and collect its pension.