“Bad Influences” is a segment in which the author pays tribute to the people and texts that contributed in specific and memorable ways to the decline of her Christian faith--or, depending on how one looks at it, the burgeoning of her authentic self. As you’ve probably figured out, the title is somewhat ironic.
At some point during my tour of seminary, or perhaps right after, I came across a book I had never heard of by an author I had never heard of in an expansive “sale” section that the local independent bookstore had temporarily set up. How I found it in that giant mess of texts, shelved with no apparent rhyme or reason, I’ll never know. Serendipity? At the time I was still a theist, and thus attributed it to God. That logic got a little messy once I actually started reading the book, though, so the question remains.
The book was Don Cupitt’s Taking Leave of God. It’s a relatively thin text at 181 pages, plus a short preface and a few notes at the end. It was originally published in 1980, though the version I acquired was a 2001 re-issue that included a new, additional preface by Alison Webster. Cupitt is an interesting figure, but I'm not going to get too much into his biography here. Rather, I want to give you a taste of the text and talk a bit about how it affected me personally.
The book is, in essence, about questioning doctrine. It is no surprise that Cupitt, being an Anglican priest and theological scholar himself, would embark on such a voyage. What was surprising to me, though, as I made my way through the book, was Cupitt’s seeming conclusion. He writes of the inadequacy and immaturity of Christianity as a doctrine--that is, as a series of beliefs that make up one’s ideology (e.g. that there is a discrete being that is “God”, that there is a heaven, that Jesus was literally part God, that somehow through Jesus’ death our sinful nature--oh, and that humans have sinful nature--is totally forgiven by the aforementioned God, etc. etc.)
Instead of prioritizing the veracity of said tenets, Cupitt explores the possibility that what we’re really supposed to get out of this whole Jesus thing is an experience of rebirth of the mind, a moving beyond an adherence to doctrine--which itself becomes virtually irrelevant--into “autonomous consciousness”. This notion triggered in me the idea that, maybe when Jesus was talking about being born again, it was being born OUT of religion (away from the status quo, leaving the institution) instead of INTO it. After all, Jesus did not found a church (or temple). Christianity as we know it today was not started by him.
Cupitt also, in his preface, mentions the utter impossibility of returning to old, dependent ways of thinking once “autonomous consciousness” has been achieved. This too struck a chord in me. In my slow walk away from the church, I found the prospect of eschewing my new, non-Christian understandings to be not just self-suppressive but immoral. It would mean pretending that I had not realized all that I had realized; it would mean deliberately choosing ignorance. I could not do it, not just in the interest of dignity but also in the interest of conscience.
Cupitt’s book was, for me, a windfall and a salve. I haven’t read it cover-to-cover in quite some time, but I heartily recommend giving it a try to anyone who is craving the wisdom of someone--someone articulate and dutiful--who found more freedom and peace outside of Christianity than within it.