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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Citizens of Heaven

Philippians 3.19  They are proud of what they should be ashamed of, and they think only of things which belong to this world.

The leaders of early Christianity, in the days before there was a Church as we now know it, viewed reality in a way foreign to many people today. Their negative perception about the natural world has greatly distorted the Christian vision in modern times.

Essentially, they thought of reality as spread across a spectrum. Part of that spectrum was invisible to human beings. It was rather like the light spectrum of which we humans can sense only a small part. Other animals are far more aware of the marvel of light than are we. Similarly, they thought of godly people as those able to see a spiritual light not visible to ordinary people.

This other, unseen world is the world of God the Emperor of all, and of his myriads of subjects whose main job is to praise him. It would today be rather like a parliament or senate applauding and cheering a national hero. Only the citizens of heaven do it all the time, unceasingly, night and day.

It's hard for us to fully appreciate the impact this way of seeing the world had on teaching about how to be a good Christian. For if there are two worlds (so to speak), and if one world is godly and the other has been invaded by Satan, then those who "think only of this world" are obviously not godly.

In turn, godliness becomes the capacity to put this world aside and to focus on the world to come. The struggle to survive and prosper is a curse upon humanity, a punishment for rebelling against God the Holy Emperor. The godly person's back must therefore be turned on the world. Prayer, meditation and worship become signs of a holy rejection of things like sex and money-making. The latter are things to be ashamed of.

In short, to be citizens of heaven we must first give up our citizenship of this world. John Bunyan's Pilgrim reached the heavenly city only after having made his way through a myriad of gross temptations.

This way of looking at the world has now changed radically. It's true that many - perhaps the majority - still retain the ancient world view. Many more tend to compartmentalise their lives. Part is given over to godliness as rejecting the things of this world; and part deals happily with the grubby realities of earning a crust and bringing up the kids.

But the truth is that a rapidly increasing number of people recognise two things which turn the ancient Christian teaching about godliness on its back.

First, they know deep down in their hearts that God's world is good. They accept that the Creator knew what he (or she) was doing when volcanoes, earthquakes, spring blossoms, chocolate cake and death were made. Suffering is a puzzle and human evil a curse. But who would change this world for another, and who would prefer a bland existence without struggle and strife?

Second, there is a growing awareness that God's world is both good and one. That is, we are part of a total unity. The world can't be split into separate parts. We humans are part of a greater whole which we can help to make or break. Every part of our world is linked to every other part. To ignore this is to damage the environment and to reduce people to the status of objects to be used instead of living beings to be grown to maturity.

Christianity uses metaphors to help make sense of the swarming, buzzing complexity of God's creation. One such is the image of the heavenly city, of which godly people are citizens - provided they reject this world. It will no longer do.

A new image has to be lived out now. Perhaps it is something like a dance or carnival, a hugely complex pattern in which everyone is bit player and without whom the whole would cease or degrade into chaos.

Or, to put it another way, to be citizens of heaven we have first to be citizens of earth.

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