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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Spiritual apartheid

1 Corinthians 1.18  The message about Christ's death on the cross is nonsense to those who are being lost; but for us who are being saved it is God's power.

Apartheid seems natural to human societies. That is, the separation of people into superior and inferior seems to happen everywhere in all times.

In southern Africa, separation was until recently on the grounds of race. In the United Kingdom it's common to rank people on the basis of upper and lower social class. In the United States degrees of wealth seem to determine position on the social ladder. In Northern Ireland an accident of birth into so-called religious camps can spell discrimination or even death.

The culture into which Jesus was born took one-upmanship to the limit. Hebrews claimed to have been chosen as extra-special by none other than God. The Gentiles - that is, everyone else - "walked in darkness."

Even Paul, who declared that separation between Hebrew and Gentile had ended (1 Corinthians 12.13), seems to have slipped unawares into a yet deeper separation. He thought that those who make sense of the cross are better than those who don't.

For two thousand years these two strands have competed for the attention of the Church. One has proclaimed that all are acceptable, that separation into top-dogs and under-dogs isn't God's intention. Another strand has insisted that humanity is separated into the saved and the not-saved, the heavenly and the hellish.

A powerful lobby today looks at nature and observes that humans are at the top of the food chain. Just as we dominate and exploit other beings, so there are those who rightly dominate other humans. That there are top-dogs and under-dogs is merely a fact of nature, they say.

If we look at the New Testament we find the same curious mix. Sometimes Jesus is portrayed as the light of the world without whom people walk in darkness (John 8.12) and don't have access to true life. He can consign people to God's judgement (John 3.36) and has authority over everyone (John 17.2).

Some parts of the Gospels are not history but the teaching of the early Church. That is, they don't tell us what really happened. Many reputable scholars now acknowledge that parts of the Gospels (and especially John's Gospel) are not what Jesus actually said and did. They are the ancient equivalent of PR images created to explain what the leaders of the early Church thought about Jesus.

But some parts of the Gospels do tell us what actually happened. There the picture is crystal clear. Everyone, without exception, is acceptable to God (Mark 2.15). Jesus defied convention and freely associated both with the dregs of society and with high-ranking socialites. He refused, it seems, to live by values which rank some people as intrinsically better or worse than others.

We each have to choose which of the two strands to follow. It hasn't been decided for us by some infallible authority. It's up to us to choose how we live our lives.

I suppose we can feel superior (saved) only if we're certain beyond doubt that we can see the light and others can't. One of the greatest Christian teachers, the author of John's Gospel, told the cautionary story of the woman caught in adultery and about to be stoned to death. In his story, Jesus says, "Whoever is innocent can cast the first stone" (John 8.7). 

Perhaps, then, we may not judge others as better or worse than ourselves. If I attend church worship and try to stay on the straight and narrow, does that make me better than anyone else? If I boast about Jesus' role in giving meaning to my life, perhaps that's no licence to claim that those who don't give him the identical role are in some way inferior to me. 

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