Stephen Mitchell reviews Impossible Loves by Don Cupitt

Polebridge Press (USA). 2007. 104 pages. ISBN: 9781598150018. Available by post for £9.00 inclusive of p&p

‘And yet . . . as our lives pass we cannot help but become aware of the extent to which we continue to yearn after and pursue various impossible objects, loves, dreams, and projects. Why do we do this - and indeed do it more and more? What is the role of these impossible loves in our lives?’

What, even Don Cupitt? But of course. We do exactly that. We all do. Even Don. It is this extraordinary, searching honesty that have made Don Cupitt’s books such a powerful read. This book is no exception and takes us on a new and extraordinary journey of self-discovery.

Those who think they know every turn in Cupitt’s philosophy of life, may be tempted to skip the first chapter So Far. Before doing so they should think twice about the chapter’s heading. So far. How far? That far? Even here we are beginning to suspect a looking-back, a looking-back that is slightly amazed at the distance travelled. So far that the starting point is almost lost to sight. So far that we may not be quite aware of where we are. For ‘We are always in arrears: even self-awareness is always in arrears, as is shown by the familiar example of the athlete who has already decided upon the correct stroke and has begun to execute it well before he has become conscious of the flight path of the ball coming towards him.’

There are four classes of impossible loves that we are to explore, the dead, God, various unattainable or forbidden love objects, and various impossible dreams or ideals. Between them ‘they consume a surprising amount of our time and emotional energy, especially as we grow older – that is, live past 70.’ So be warned, this is not an easy read, even if you’re nowhere near 70 – yet. It is an easy read in the sense that this is one of the most easily read Cupitt books. The words, the ideas, the writing are easily accessible. Almost too easy. We’re tempted to turn the pages too quickly. But, if we are going to engage in any way with this book, then we are going to pause and reflect and explore ourselves.

We begin with perhaps one of the most painful of impossible loves, love for the dead, especially those ‘very dear to us . . . They are reference points. We think of them daily, and somehow cannot help imagining that our thinking of them is a form of communing with them, and that is a very good thing to do.’ And then on, on to our great loves in Great Love, and Eternal Separation. No quotations here. If you want Cupitt on marriage, buy the book.

This is book written, of course, from one of the newest and most atheistic visions of the world. It’s written by someone who has constantly striven to be rid of every vestige of the old world-view. But even ‘the world after God will go on being haunted by the ghost of God, much as the self-styled unbeliever admits by is very use of the term ‘atheist’ that God was there before him.’ ‘I must confess,’ writes Cupitt, ‘that I myself have not yet found a satisfactory way of describing the new vision of the world and the new religious outlook that does not secretly presuppose the primacy of the old God and the old view. So I am stuck in an impossible intellectual love-relationship with an impossible God. And I’m not sure that I even want to be cured.’ Now learn to live with that impossible love. That is freedom. That is life.

It’s why everyone of us who boast that we have travelled some way into this far country, who have liberated ourselves from so much of the oppression of the past should read the book. Without this kind of rigorous honesty and humility, we deceive ourselves and . . .and, yes, if you finished that phrase the ghost haunts you still.

But I mustn’t give the impression that is a heavy book. The writing is full of Cupitt’s wit and lightness of touch, the lines of poetry, the playing with words and rhetorical flourishes. . . ‘Contemplating all these impossible loves,’ he says, ‘helps me with one vital task of learning how to end by being content with what I have been, what I have had, and what I have done, be it little or much.’ And are these the final words? Of course they aren’t . This is just the starting point for a future reconstruction of the human world.

Stephen Mitchell is Chair of the Trustees of the Sea of Faith Network and author of 'God in the Bath'.

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