Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Head to Head
The Church preaches about how we're supposed to live. One of the most important directives is the "Love God, love your neighbour" rule. But does it make sense? What about the everyday struggle to survive? Rick and Mick go head-to-head on the subject.

Mick: As you know, Rick, I'm deeply concerned that the Church is failing to bring Jesus of Nazareth into the 21st century. One of my gripes is that traditional theology if taken seriously makes ordinary life impossible for Christians. That's why so few today want anything to do with Jesus.

I refer in particular to the need to survive. Survival requires each of us to compete to live. Sometimes we have to kill or be killed. The weak go the wall - though, once they're there, Christians are encouraged to be kind to them.

I have never come across an official Christian doctrine about day-to-day survival. It is as though we are expected to live in two worlds. One is secular, where we live normally. The other is religious, where we are holy.

The Church's central message, if I understand correctly, is that we should "Love God with everything we've got, and others as we love ourselves" (Mark 12.-29-31). Now, anyone who has ever been in business (or war) knows all-too-well that this not only doesn't, but cannot work.

In other words, this important rule for being a "good" Christian is full of holes. What do you make of it?

Rick: The issues you raise impinge on the basic questions, "Is human life meaningful, does it have purpose and can we obtain happiness in this life?" If the answer is yes, how can we bring this about?

I believe that the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth provide a critical guide in this quest.

What is meant by survival? Perhaps it means personal success on a physical, economic or prestige level, derived at the expense of others. If so, we are talking about a Darwinian animal-world, not one made up of conscious, rational humans who have the capacity for moral action.

If the principle of "love your neighbour" is no longer relevant how are we different from animals and what other principle could supplant it?

Competition cannot and should not be eliminated. It is a fundamental human quality. If leavened by moral responsibility it can be a force for good. To be sure, we have not yet achieved perfection. We wage war and kill, we cheat, we dominate, we do not love.

These imperfections used to be included under the rubric of sin. How do we bring these faults and imperfections to a conscious level so we can take effective remedial measures.

Mick: I'm not going to be side-tracked into discussing sin. That way there be dragons. Let's stay with survival.

I agree that competition is a "fundamental human quality". But aren't you still avoiding reality? It doesn't make sense to step aside for those who are less able than me. Even in the sacred sanctuaries of the Church, clergy compete for power like anyone else. They preach "love your neighbour" - but nevertheless strive to be top-dog.

A just society is one where the playing field is as level as possible. I admit that there should be social equity. But not equality. If I'm fitter, I am right to shoulder the less-fit aside. That's the way God made the world, as the whole of nature witnesses. We are animals, set apart only by superior intelligence. The latter does not liberate us from the demands of survival, though it does give us an advantage over other animals.

I maintain that the old Hebrew "Love your neighbour" rule reiterated by Jesus has to be understood anew. If not, it must be dismissed as nonsense.

Rick: About 50 years ago, one of my professors of philosophy gave a talk about Christian love. He pointed to colleagues in the audience and said there were some he didn�t like - but that he loved them all. He distinguished personal affection from the need to treat his fellow humans with concern and justice. Maybe the meaning of the word "love" is a sticking point.

When we compete, as we often must, we should be mindful of this principle. If love and affection occur together it's wonderful. It is not disaster when they don't coincide.

The "Love your neighbour" rule is already dismissed by many as nonsense. But that hardly justifies abandoning it. Maybe distinguishing love from affection will help some to survive competition with a sense of integrity.

Mick: Perhaps we're getting somewhere. I want to take up two points.

First, may I test you on the phrase "Christian love"? It seems to me that love is just love. There is nothing specially Christian about it. People love whether or not they are Christian. Love is independent of the Church. Jesus didn't invent love. It wasn't absent before his birth and somehow present afterwards.

Second, I maintain that love and survival are complimentary. It's not true that when we love others we're good, and that we're bad when we do what we must to survive. Those who love best, survive best. To survive best, it is best to love well.

Your philosophy professor presumably knew that. After all he was a professor. He was paid more; had greater prestige and power; like the Centurion he was able to tell others to come and go. I bet he knew that some listening to him would have taken his job with hardly a backward glance.

But to advance a little. Are you equating "love" with "concern and justice"?

Rick: Christians do not have a corner on love. Nor does any religion. Each religion lives on different flanks of the same great mountain called God. Each sees the mountain from an individual perspective. All contemplate the same mountain. As individuals we reside on one side of the mountain by accident of birth or circumstance. Choice may move one from one side to another. Hence, when I speak of "Christian love" I refer to the version exemplified by the life of Christ. That is my particular view of that great mountain. It is the light I was handed to illuminate my particular path through darkness.

Language is often weak and ineffective in defining concepts such as love. I include "concern and justice". But descriptors such as clemency and patience are among many possible others. Love is a state of mind. It shapes our actions toward others. It maximizes the possibilities of fruitful life and happiness, not only for the loved but for the lover as well.

I don�t think that showing love necessarily results in a good outcome. By proffering love we are not buying an indulgence. If our motive for giving love is to manipulate others for our own advantage it is no longer love.

As for my professor, from the perspective of 50 years I think he would chuckle at the idea he was exercising power or prestige or that anyone would want his meagrely-salaried position.

Mick: Do I understand you properly, Rick?

  • The need to survive is indeed a fact of life.
  • Jesus of Nazareth lived a loving life.
  • Christians follow Jesus. So they also should love others.
  • Love is a state of mind. It shapes how we behave.
  • It issues in concern, justice, clemency, patience and other good behaviours.
  • It excludes manipulation for personal advantage such as survival.
  • Love may not lead to a "good outcome".

With reservations, I think I can go along with you up to the final point. Will you explain what you mean by it, please?

Rick: Yes, Mick, you have fairly represented my position. Implicit in my previous remarks are the criteria by which I would judge the "outcomes" of love. I begin by excluding love exercised for personal gain. It is not the kind of love demonstrated by Christ. To reiterate, love is fundamentally a state of mind geared to "... maximize the possibilities of fruitful life and happiness, not only for the loved but for the lover as well."

The love equation is first and foremost composed of two persons, the lover and the loved. For the equation to be balanced, the lover must be genuine, selfless and with pure intention. The loved should demonstrate evidence of the effect, namely a fruitful and happy life. It is this binary relationship of two persons that constitutes the cells of which other bodies are made such as society, churches and complex organizations.

If the lover is unsuccessful in eliciting the hoped-for result, solace may still be found in having fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith.

In closing I once more cite the example of Christ. He is the genuine lover. But many of the loved have not responded.

Mick: Fair enough. Now, you'll recall that I wondered why the Church has no doctrine of survival. It does teach about "love" and I wondered if survival and love are compatible.

I think we agree at one level. Goodwill as a "state of mind" must precede loving action, both interpersonal and social. The latter application of love we call "justice".

At another level I sense we differ radically. Yes, love must be generous, giving, caring, clement, patient and so on. But just producing at list of loving actions will not do. What of the exceptions?

Maximising life requires hard choices.

In war it may be right to decimate one city to save two. Cutting jobs to overcome or contain competition may be a just action in business. A marriage may be rightly broken to save children. Murder may be right to keep others alive. It may be right to take a professorship at the expense of the less-competent. It might even be life-giving to give your life ("commit suicide").

I say that we love when we first calculate and then take the most life-giving action. Augustine of Hippo wrote: "Dilige et quod vis, fac". That is, "Take loving care - and then what you decide, do." So provided I have goodwill, and when I have weighed up the options as best I can, whatever I choose is loving and therefore right.

That is also most likely to result in individual and corporate survival.

Rick: Your thoughts bring to mind words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

It is worse to be evil than to do evil.

The quality of moral action and the responsibility for it finally resides with the individual. Moral decisions ought not be the result of going down a check list but should be tailored to fit the real-time circumstance. A survival plan or plan for living cannot be formulated into a stagnant doctrine with check lists, just as love cannot be.

I find an analogy in my experience as a physician.

After a long and pedantic education I was abruptly sent out to treat patients. My encounters were never structured and clear cut. I was expected to act appropriately and get a good result for the patient. Although I had been given many facts and check lists to follow, they were for the most part in the subconscious as I acted intuitively in real time. I was given immense freedom of action by the public I served, with their implicit understanding I possessed sufficient knowledge and character for the task.

Is it not similar in our daily lives?

Through our learning and nurture as children we develop our personalities and character. Hopefully we are mature by the time we are cut loose to survive. With fingers crossed we hope to meet each moral and survival challenge as it arises in a manner consistent with our character. The only standard to be applied in our decisions is the example of Christ.

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