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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Recognising God

Luke 24.31  Their eyes were opened and they recognised him.

Wormwood is an apprentice devil in C S Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. In this delightful book the reader is told of Wormwood's trials and tribulations as he learns how to tempt a human soul. His uncle, Screwtape, as the Abysmal Sublimity Under Secretary of the hellish dominions, writes to advise his nephew how to tighten the noose on his hapless victim.

But in the end the temptation goes wrong. Screwtape exclaims, "You have let a soul slip through your fingers ... It makes me mad to think of it." He agonises that "... this thing begotten in a bed, could look on Him. What is blinding, suffocating fire to you, is now cool light to him, is clarity itself ..." At last the man is released from the restrictions of his human nature and sees clearly what he has before only been able to guess at.

The theme of a hidden God is ancient, featured in countless folk tales and myths. One such is from Ovid, a Roman poet who lived about the same time as Jesus. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how two men unwittingly entertain Jupiter and Mercury with the best hospitality their poor means can manage. Only when the jar of wine is miraculously replenished do they recognise the two gods for who they really are.

The same theme occurs in the Old Testament. Abraham entertains three men. When two leave to go to Sodom, the third stays and is finally recognised as the Lord God (Genesis 18.1-22). The author of the letter to the Hebrews appears familiar with the theme. He writes, "Remember to welcome strangers in your homes. There were some who did that and welcomed angels without knowing it" (13.2).

The author of Luke's Gospel in today's reading tells a similar tale. True to the folk story, two travelers to Emmaus fail to recognise Jesus until he shares a meal with them (Luke 24.35). Jesus vanishes the moment they realise who he is.

The divine isn't easy to recognise. It's a "still, small voice" which has to be listened for with the greatest of care (1 Kings 19.12). We somehow know that God is with us, and yet are frustrated by not being able to see the divine clearly. Most of the time it's as though we glimpse God out of the corner of an eye - here one moment and gone the next. 

Folk-tales of the past, charming and in many ways instructive, don't carry the weight they once did. Today many feel cut off from visions of God. It's as though however hard we try, we fail to recognise God in ordinary, everyday experience. We often feel blind and deaf to the divine in our tough, materialistic, scientific world.

Some have tried philosophical arguments to "prove" that God exists. Their answers turn out to be nice brain teasers but otherwise almost useless. Some try to turn back the clock as though little or nothing has changed in two millennia and that the old tales still have a punch. Others shrug and go about their business, declaring that bothering about God is a waste of time.

A large part of the attraction of Jesus seems to have been his clear and certain vision of God. His relatives and neighbours wondered where he got it from. But how does that help us today, two thousand years later? We are not now so fortunate as to have him to sharpen our blurred sight.

No, there are no neat answers. God doesn't appear to us as a full-blown vision. That never has been and never will be. To Christians, the person of Jesus is recognised as Emmanuel, the Hebrew word for "God is with us". If anyone wants to know what God is like, say Christian sages, then the vision of Jesus is enough.

But is Jesus enough? He's long-dead - and unless one perceives the world as somehow in contact with a supernatural dimension, only a shadowy historical figure is left with us today.

The truth is much more challenging. It is, I think, that God has chosen to be other-than the universe and the world of which we are part. God is unknowable by us, quite literally beyond our ken.

If that is true, then God can be recognised only in and through creation. God has as many faces as the people we meet. The divine lies deep in the heart of each us, if we will only search. The God of our fathers nestles both in the immensely large and in the almost infinitely small aspects of nature. God may come to us unannounced, or may have to be sought after with determination.

Recognising and attempting to harmonise ourselves with the divine is, if Jesus, Paul and a host of Christians are to be believed, the point of human life. The rest of nature does this automatically. We, on the other hand, must freely choose to do it.

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