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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The Danger of Sincere Religion
A sermon preached by Richard Holloway at 
St Marks Church, Broomhill, Sheffield (UK) in 2003

The trouble with the Parable of the Good Samaritan is that it is too familiar and we think we know what it means. Bits of it have actually gone into the language. We talk about "passing by on the other side". It's a phrase that's used to describe a kind of indifference and we have persuaded ourselves that this is a parable, this is an indictment of religious insincerity and religious hypocrisy: of people who profess one kind of conduct but actually do not perform it; they pass by on the other side, they are hypocrites, they are insincere.

I think that is precisely to turn the parable upside-down, because the really cunning and subtle thing about the parable of the Good Samaritan is that it is not about the danger of insincere religion and religious hypocrisy, it's about the danger of sincere religion and religious sincerity.

I want to try and justify that claim. But to understand the claim at all, we need to do a little bit of background thinking here.

The remote background is the purity code that was the most important aspect of the Jewish religion and it characterises lots of religious systems in the world. There are objects and people and races and foodstuffs that render the practitioner of a particular religion unclean and impure.

And to the Jew there were a number of objects, a number of persons that did that, that created a kind of psychic, spiritual pollution requiring cleansing before life could go on. And Gentiles were impure in this sense. You could not touch a Gentile, you could not eat with a Gentile, without gaining this kind of infection which then had to be cleansed. And you could not touch a dead body without receiving impurity from it and being cleansed; that's the remote background.

The particular background to the question, however, concerns three categories of people in the religious community of Judaism.

The priest was probably going home to Jericho from Jerusalem where he had probably been doing his fortnight's duty, his fortnight's priestly course in the temple at Jerusalem. He was riding back on his donkey to Jericho and it's a very foreboding and forbidding road, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. I've done it several times, it still is spooky: lots of twists in it, things that could be round the bend.

This is a good man, a sincere priest of the Jewish faith going home after doing his duty in Jerusalem and he comes round the bend in the road and he sees a body lying on the other side of the road stripped naked, apparently unconscious, possibly dead. This is a good man so he asks himself the question that the lawyer asked Jesus: "Can I be a neighbour to this man, can I get involved with this man according to my religious code?".

And that religious code forbids him to touch a Gentile or a dead body. He doesn't know whether the man on the other side of the road is a Jew or a Gentile because he is stripped naked, there are no distinguishing recognisable characteristics, he doesn't know whether he is dead or alive because he is unconscious. He knows according to his code that he can go up to five feet towards a dead body but no closer, because if he goes up to four feet he is rendered impure. If he touches a Gentile or a dead body he has to turn his donkey back round, go back to Jerusalem, cleanse himself and then ride back on to Jericho.

He's left his mobile phone in the sacristy; he can't phone his wife; he can't say "I'm going to be another couple of weeks darling". He makes a calculation, he makes the traditional calculation "Can I be a neighbour to this man?" and the traditional answer according to his religion is "No".

His decision arises out of sincere religious conviction, out of the practice, not the abrogation, of his code. And so he passes by a discrete, five feet at least, away from the possible dead Gentile on the other side of the road (and we never find out who the guy is anyway).

The next person on the scene is a Levite. Now he is lower down the pecking order. He isn't going to second guess the guy in front. He probably saw what was happening, the guy in front on a donkey. He's lower down in the pecking order, he's on foot, and he will make the same calculation because he too is a sincere religious practitioner of his faith. He will make the ethical, the spiritual, the theological calculus "Can I be a neighbour to this apparently, possibly dead body on the other side of the road?". "No". According to a sincere calculation he passes by on the other side.

Then comes the first surprise in the story, because according to the pecking order the listeners would expect Priest, Levite, Israelite (that would be a bit like Bishop Priest and Deacon in the Anglican hierarchy), it would be Priest, Levite, Layperson, - Priest, Levite, Israelite, - that's what they're next expecting.

They expect there's maybe a wee twist in the story because this guy Jesus is always twisting stories, but this they don't expect, because a Samaritan is not in any kind of Jewish hierarchy. A Samaritan is precisely one of those impure people that you can't have anything to do with.

I won't go into the particular history of the schism between the Jew and the Samaritan - it goes back to the mists of time in the Exile. But there are many, many modern examples of exactly the same phenomenon.

We have exactly the same kind of split in Northern Ireland between "Nicks and Prods" - between Catholics and Protestants. We saw the same thing, in the Bosnian wars between Orthodox Christians and Catholic Christians and Muslims. History is disfigured with these apparently pointless feuds between inter-religious, inter-tribal groups that become demonic and destructive - and this one was a long running battle.

A hated figure next comes along and the interesting next twist in the story is that he follows exactly the same code as the others, the same God, the same law, a slightly different version of scripture and understanding - but basically the same code. He should be making exactly the same calculation, coming to exactly the same decision. He too should be passing by on the other side, sincerely, religiously.

But there's a single verb at the heart of the parable that is weakly translated in English. Translation never works as we know, but this is a particularly feeble translation. In the Greek it says that when the Samaritan came and saw the man lying by the side of the road "his guts writhed with compassion", "they churned up" " they turned over".

We say "he was moved with pity". But what happened inside him was an explosion of mercy and what it did, this explosion of mercy, this absolute compassion and empathy for the man on the other side of the road, was to blow the code apart. It simply obliterated the religious code that the other two had sincerely kept and which he according to his religious profession should have been keeping too. It blew it out. It rendered it meaningless and he goes across the road and he ministers to the man.

That's the story, that's the scandal at the heart of the story.

Now let's pause for a second here to think about our codes, our religious rules and regulations. We need them. We need our codes because we are a potentially chaotic people, we humans. We do terrible things to each other. We need discipline and order. We need highway codes in order not to kill each other on the roads and we do that even so. We need our codes.

And the history of human culture is the history of the codes that we have devised to keep ourselves from destroying one another, to keep some kind of co-operation and peace and love and human community. But there is something else that we also learn, that the codes themselves are means to ends and never should become ends in themselves, because otherwise they become stupid.

Jesus said to people that he was arguing with about the Sabbath (which is a good example of a good code, because people need a rest): it was made for us, not us for it. And there may come times when we have to abrogate in order to be ministering in love to the fullness of humanity - but we do this all the time in unimaginable ways.

I do not know if you saw that modestly amusing movie Meet the Parents with Robert de Niro and Ben Stiller, but there's an amusing little episode in it. These are the in-laws from hell. He goes to visit them one weekend and Robert de Niro turns out to be a kind of psychopathic CIA agent, so he flees from the family and he decides to go back home. And he gets to the airport and he goes into the departure lounge and it's completely empty, there's no one else in it. And the woman, the official, comes to the microphone to say "We are now going to board the plane"- completely empty departure lounge- "and as is our usual practice, we will board by seat row rotation. Will all passengers from seat rows 10 and above please step forward and board the plane".

There's no one in the departure lounge so Ben Stiller steps forward, and he's in row 9, and he hands his ticket over and she says, "I'm sorry sir, we are boarding only seat rows 10 and above".

"But there's no one else in the bloody departure lounge."

"I'm sorry sir our regulations state that we board only by seat row rotation."

No one gets on the plane. She says "We are now ready to board the rest of the passengers. Will those in seat rows 1 and above please step forward" - and he hands over his ticket. (Now that's an example of allowing a sensible code, because it is a sensible way to get on planes, but it doesn't always make sense, especially if there are only two or three people).

It's an example of a code that has become tyrannous and has actually imprisoned us.

And what Jesus wants us to do, therefore, is to understand the function, the purpose of these codes, to hold them firmly enough for them to guide us but not so tightly that we can't discard them when the need arises.

And the first lesson is one of the first examples of this happening in the Christian community, is precisely illustrated in Acts Chapter 10. It's a great little short story. I hope you'll go home this afternoon and read it after lunch, if you're still sober. It's quite a long chapter and like all good short stories it has several scenes - a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It begins with Cornelius, this Gentile, therefore unclean, therefore out of the system, who has heard about the Jesus Movement and wants to get into it. So he sends messengers to this guy Simon Peter. He's heard that he's around, he's visiting Joppa. He wants to find out more about the Jesus Movement, and may want to come into it.

And in the middle segment of the story, Peter is on the roof-top at Joppa praying and therefore falls asleep (which is what happens to me) and in his sleep he has a dream. And the deep unconscious background to Simon Peter's dream is precisely the struggle that's going on in the young Jesus Movement about whether to admit Gentiles - people like us.

Because it was until that moment merely a sect within Judaism and there was a debate raging in the Christian church. It had its radical, Paul, it had its conservative, James of Jerusalem, and it had Peter stuck in the middle - like your average bishop - who didn't know which way to go, so he went both ways at once. When he was with Paul he was a radical when he was with James he was a conservative and didn't know how to decide. "On-the-one-hand-and-on-the-other-hand-itis", you know that kind of psychological disease that can afflict church leaders.

And he has this dream. A great sailcloth is let down from heaven and on it there are all sorts of things that are impure to a Jew, things he may not eat, and he hears the voice, and it's the voice of God. He hears the voice saying "Rise Peter, kill and eat".

And one of the most piquant elements in this story is that Peter quotes God back at God. He says "I'm sorry God, you have already forbidden Jews to eat this stuff. I can read it to you in Leviticus: you're supposed to have dictated it, and I cannae eat this stuff, it is forbidden, it's unclean, it's profane." And the famous statement by God: "Thou must not call profane what I have cleansed".

The dream ends and, of course, if you're a good Freudian you'll understand what's going on. Simon Peter is wrestling sincerely in his unconscious with this great issue that is to confront him. He wakes up. There's a knock on the door and the servants from Cornelius are down at the gate asking to come in to the Christian community. Do you see what's happening here? God is coming to Peter, not from the past, but from the future.

They are knocking at the door, asking for entrance - and the old code doesn't provide him with an answer to the new challenge that is coming.

And the history of religion, the history of the Christian religion, is precisely the history of a God who comes to us from the future. And we are not capable of recognising him because we are fixated on the God who is come to us from the past. We quote the God of the past at the God of the future.

The greatest Old Testament scholar alive today, a guy called Bruggeman says the Torah, the law, corrects the Torah, scripture corrects scripture. There are elements in scripture that jettison other elements: " Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed"

And the history of change in Christianity is a history of groups knocking at the door, seeking entrance, and we quote at them the old scripture. Slaves knocked at the door for 1,800 years before we realised that the scriptures that appeared to justify slavery contradicted the scriptures that made love the primary element in Christian living. We finally heard that knocking at the door and we abolished slavery 1,800 years after Jesus came to tell us not to be imprisoned by codes.

Two hundred years later there was another knocking at the door - this time women, because scripture, God in the scripture, clearly tells us that women are subordinate to men. They are instruments of temptation, gateways to sin - all of those things because, of course, it was Woman that plucked the apple, tempted by Satan.

Men have been blaming women ever since. "The woman gave me and I did eat" - and so we kept them down. We allowed them in the sanctuary to do the flowers and to scrub the floor but never behind the alter. Never in the nice green frock, although they look better in nice green frocks than some people, I can tell you. And we finally opened the door to women five minutes ago, only five minutes ago and still grudging. We don't give them the big hat yet do we?

What's the next group that's knocking at the door. The gays, the lesbians. They're knocking at the door. They're downstairs while we are upstairs struggling with the issue. The primates at Lambeth Palace, up on the roof at Joppa - downstairs gays knocking at the door-" Call thou not unclean what I have cleansed".

They don't get it yet, do they? God comes from the future, and the challenge to us, the Jesus challenge to us, is to know when the old code is over, when there is someone lying at the side of the road and you have to go to that person's rescue, no matter what the code says and mercy has to obliterate the imprisoning code, that maybe made sense at one time or other but makes no sense today.

So as you go down that Jericho road, the Jericho road which is life, the Jericho road which is a journey into the future, you have to be alert to the person that may be lying on the roadside round the bend, the person that comes from God. Or if you're on the rooftop at Joppa, you may have to be alert to the knocking at the door downstairs as God comes to you out of the future.

So this is the day of decision, a moment of decision for our church. Will we go into God's future or will we simply lock ourselves into the past, into the old ways of understanding, into religious sincerity.

And of course that's the way we let people off the hook when they are prejudiced against other sections of society. It's religious sincerity because it's in the code and it is in the code. The Bible says terrible things about gays and lesbians, as it does about all sorts of other groups that we've accommodated ourselves to. Possibly people like ourselves, because we ourselves may be in odd relationships, condemned by scripture. We may belong to these marginal groups that so love Jesus because he was for the marginal.

It seems to me that that is the essence of the Christian movement, the Christian journey through life, going down that Jericho road, always alert to what may lie on the other side, and its quite tragic that the very leaders of our communion don't get it. They hold the code, they don't respond to the naked bleeding body lying on the other side of the road.

I want to leave you with a few lines of verse I got from a refrigerator door. You know how you get lots of good advice on fridge doors. Its usually about diets and things, but occasionally its about something more profound. This was on an American refrigerator door the size of a small truck, as American refrigerators are. You get whole kind of theological theses. I'm thinking of writing a book called "Fridge door Theology"

This was a gay friend of mine who had held on in the Christian church against all the pressure and ugly things that had been said by his Church over the years. It all happens in the American church as well - although the American church in many ways has wrestled with it more honestly than we have over here.

And I saw this on the fridge door a few years ago. It had kept him in the church when he might easily have left because the church, as it were, described him as unclean, as impure, as that which may not be had communion with, as that which may not have sexual communion with people whom he loved. But he had hung on in, he had not left the church and he pointed to this verse and he said "That's what keeps me going", and I copied it into my commonplace book and I commend it to you.

This is how it goes. It was written by a minor nineteenth century American poet, the only thing in his life that was memorable, but good to have even that:

They drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win,
We drew a circle that took THEM in.

And it seems to me that if we can draw a circle of the love of Jesus as widely as that, we might even bring in the bigots and the homophobes and one day the Christian community will be as wide as God's love, as big as the biggest heart in the world.

Brothers and Sisters, draw your circles as wide as God's love. Amen.
Richard Holloway: This article may not be reproduced  in any 
     form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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