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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Smiling At the Back of the Crowd

Matthew 25.11  The other girls arrived. "Sir, Sir! Let us in!" they cried out. "Certainly not!" the bridegroom answered.

It's sometimes asserted that Jesus did not intend to found an institution, that his primary concern was for a loving way of living. People, it is said, were his primary focus.

Matthew's story of the wise and foolish girls raises questions about the nature of the loving way. 

Matthew's main point is clear from the start. Some of us will not make it - just as the foolish girls weren't recognised by the bridegroom. The way God does things, he says, is to exclude anyone who doesn't meet God's standards. 

The door which shuts out the foolish maidens is a definite boundary between an accepted in-group and an unacceptable out-group. The sheep are separated from the goats and some are excluded from the wedding feast. The ninety-nine are protected, while the one is lost.

The Church has followed Matthew's lead and excluded some people from its fellowship from the earliest times. 

Similarly, in exasperation at the behaviour of converts, Paul recommends the exclusion from the Christian fellowship of those who don't change their ways. The Letter of James rails against the rich. The First Letter of John differentiates between the children of God and of the Devil: "Anyone who does not do what is right or does not love his brother is not God's child." To this day, strict rules and barriers exclude from the Church those who don't meet certain criteria.

Perhaps, I speculate, this long-established norm of exclusion is similar to the "tough love" practised by some parents of drug-addicted teenagers. There comes a point, they say, when the young person must be excluded from home and hearth. For one thing, the damage done to others is too great if they remain in the family. For another, only they can kick the habit. No amount of love and care from others will achieve that for them. Maybe, then, Christian exclusion is similar to tough love.

Another possibility is that exclusion is necessary to preserve the purity of the gospel. Institutions like the Church have to protect themselves from false teachings and immorality. 

But in so doing, the Church may have down-played the very thing it was formed to promote. As Richard Holloway puts it:

The Church has the impossible task of developing an institution and its logic of power in order to preserve the memory of one whose mission was to oppose the processes and sacrifices of power and its ethic of expedience, even at the cost of his own death [1].

So one can forgive Matthew and his successors for getting it wrong (or only partly right). One way or another, I suppose we all miss the mark like that in our lives.

Nevertheless, Christians inside and outside the Church are today faced with an even more severe challenge to the universal ("catholic") acceptance and inclusiveness which is central to a loving way of living.

For more than a century, the Church's sects (more politely usually called "denominations") have tried to unite, They have mostly failed. Meanwhile, the issue of Christian unity is being left behind by a slow realisation that Church as an institution is itself part of a larger whole.

One way of putting this is that God, often through those outside the official Church, is presently reaching out to other religions in a way which threatens Christian exclusiveness to an unprecedented degree. Christian congregations, isolated and insulated as they are by a defensive Church hierarchy, for the most part haven't recognised the challenge. And even when they have, they have hastened to once more raise high the barriers.

Let Richard Holloway take the point further:

One of the heartening things about our own day is that there is an increasing army of Christians whose love of Jesus and the outcasts he celebrated places them on the critical edge of the Church, neither comfortably in nor comfortably out. It's not a bad place to be. Sometimes, right at the back of the crowd, it's possible to see Jesus himself, smiling.

When we re-look at Matthew's story, we discover that Jesus isn't the bridegroom but the man smiling at the back of the crowd of shut-out girls, prepared to challenge an entire society based on exclusion and religious purity.

In the loving way of living, nobody is expendable.

[1] Richard Holloway, What's the Use of the Church?

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