Jan 31 2010

Sea of Faith: the BBC TV Series

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The Sea of Faith TV series was written and presented by Don Cupitt and broadcast on BBC television in 1984. In six episodes it presented the way in which modernity has undermined traditional Christian belief. The title comes from Matthew Arnold’s poem Dover Beach, which lamented the loss of traditional faith:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

(See here for the full poem.)

Episode 1, The Mechanical Universe, looked at how the Copernican revolution in cosmology has revolutionized our understanding of the universe. Cupitt explained the medieval view of the cosmos, with the perfect motion of the heavenly spheres, now replaced by a mechanical view, with earth no longer at the centre and movements governed by mathematical laws, no God needed. Pascal and Descartes responded in different ways to the new cosmology, one with an intense, personal faith, the other with reason and knowledge. With them, faith and knowledge, previously a unity, fall apart.

Episode 2, The Human Animal, began with a look at how geology has undermined a literal reading of Genesis, then went on to examine how Darwin, Freud, and Jung have revolutionized our understanding of what it is to be a human being.

Episode 3, Going by the Book, looked at how our understanding of sacred scripture has changed. Luther drove a wedge between scripture and tradition, and Albert Schweitzer, not only a missionary doctor in Africa, but also a biblical scholar, wrote a major book reviewing nineteenth century efforts to write a life of Jesus and concluded that they had all projected their own ideals back onto Jesus. Jesus, for Schweitzer, was a figure with strange beliefs not at all congenial to us moderns.

Episode 4, Prometheus Unbound, looked at two diametrically opposed thinkers. For Karl Marx, society was central and individuals are mere products of society. For Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, the individual was central and needed affirmation against the crowd. Marx saw religion as the opium of the people, an expression of the alienation experienced in capitalist society which would fall away in the coming communist order, while Kierkegaard sought the truth of religion in inwardness and subjectivity.

Episode 5, Religion Shock, looked at the effect of other religions on traditional Christian faith. Medieval society was barely aware of other religions, but in the modern, pluralistic and multicultural world the question is unavoidable: With so many religions, how can one be the truth? Cupitt visited the annual London Festival of Mind Body and Spirit, and found there a marketplace of new religious movements. He then picked three figures to illustrate the effects of religion shock: Schopenhauer, who rejected Christianity but was enchanted by Eastern religion, Vivekananda, the first Hindu missionary to the West, and Annie Besant, vicar’s wife who became an atheist feminist activist, then an anthroposophist.

Episode 6, The New World, presented the aggressively anti-Christian philosopher Nietzsche, author of the famous parable of the madman who proclaimed the death of God, and the philosopher Wittgenstein, who takes an austere, rigorous approach to language, and is deeply suspicious of the theory that religion has built around itself.

Laurie Chisholm February 2010

One response so far




One Response to “Sea of Faith: the BBC TV Series”

  1.   Nora Krugeron 27 Apr 2013 at 8:39 am

    Dear Laurie,
    The BBC TV series sounds wonderful; we’re going to try and obtain it. One point, just a tiny one, but important to a retired librarian like me, the quote from Dover Beach is just a part of the longer poem. Persons unfamiliar with the poem might think this is all of it, and miss the beauty of the whole poem. Perhaps a note that this quote is a part of the poem? So easy to on Wikipedia and read the whole poem.
    Peace, Nora

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