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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Living in Eden

Isaiah 35.2
: The desert will sing and shout for joy. Psalm 146.6: Creator of heaven, earth, and sea, and all that is in them. Matthew 11.6: How happy are those who have no doubts about me.

We're coming up to Christmas, the time of "peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased" (Luke 2.14). But lurking ominously behind the crib is a gaunt and horrible spectre.

As the world gets smaller, so to speak, we in the West tend to be more aware of its difficulties. It's hard to ignore the death of tens of thousands in natural disasters. We're increasingly aware how fragile our existence is, how easily the equilibrium of nature can be disturbed. We realise that we're each of us here today and gone tomorrow.

Over the many ages of humankind, the question has been asked again and again, "Why is it this way?" Some rephrase the question slightly, asking, "Why did God make it this way?"

About 1 700 years ago a famous leader of the Church, Augustine of Hippo in North Africa, battled with the same question. He concluded that Adam and Eve were driven from Eden into the "real world" which was, he thought, infected with virus-like evil because of their rebellion. 

Since then, a radically different way of perceiving the world has come about. We have begun to recognise the truth of the declaration in Psalm 146 that God is the "creator of heaven, earth, and sea and all that is in them".

It's nearly impossible today for an educated person to think of nature as corrupt. We know enough of the origin of things and how they work to draw only one conclusion: that's how it is. There may or may not be a Creator. But if there is (and nobody can prove it) then that's how it is. God is pleased with it - viruses, elephants, insects and the magnificent human race - all of it.

We live in Eden. This is the garden that God created. There is no other. We have never been driven from it. To think of nature as evil is, in a sense, to try to escape from Eden. There never was a better world, and there never will be. We must make the best of it because that's the way it is.

Isaiah expresses it poetically when he says that a desert can "sing and shout for joy." Even the driest, most lifeless land reflects God's pleasure. Even those places and natural events most hostile to human health and happiness are there by God's design. Whether we live or die we are invited to rejoice in them.

Peace can be celebrated in Advent because God is pleased with creation and with us. We are created as part of nature. We're an integral part of "heaven, earth, and sea and all that is in them."

A temptation today is to doubt that God and his creation are good. If we think of ourselves and nature as intrinsically corrupt it's hard to go with Jesus of Nazareth and his good news. His message to John the Baptist that "the blind can see, the lame can walk ... the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life" rings hollow if we think of ourselves as what God didn't intend to create. We are not, as Augustine would have it, "... the Devil's fruit tree, his own property, from which he may pick his fruit ... a plaything of demons."

Yes, we all know that things go wrong, that humans ignore and obstruct the way God does things. We know that the consequences of doing so can be terrible. But humanity and the world we live in are not intrinsically bad. Life is not nasty, short and brutish but the joyful reason why the universe exists. That's the way it is.

This world is our Eden, God's gift to us as it is. The central message of "life in Jesus" is that God loves the world and is pleased with us - despite anything and everything we do. That's why we can rejoice in life, in the world, in all of nature, in everything that has been given to us. That's why we can celebrate a season of goodwill.

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