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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A Holy Conspiracy

1 Corinthians 15.5  He appeared to Peter and then to all twelve apostles. Then he appeared to more than five hundred of his followers at once ... Last of all he appeared to  me ...

The way the first Christians looked at the world and life differed greatly from the way we understand reality today. And yet many seem to think that they can - and everyone else should - ignore the vast changes which have come about.

A generation gap is natural. My grandfather, brought up in 19th century South Africa, could not absorb new ways of relating to Black people. My father never fully came to terms with the divorces of three of his children. And as for my own children - well, you'll have to ask them how well I've adapted to a new millennium.

In contrast with the normal generation gap, the gulf separating us from Paul and the gospels stretches over about a hundred generations. How great must be the changes over that enormous length of time! More importantly, almost everyone now acknowledges that the last three centuries have witnessed a revolution in our outlook. The gradual changes of previous times have accelerated beyond anything in the history of humanity. 

Only three centuries ago, for example, most people thought that the sun revolves around the earth. Today the Hubble telescope gazes out into a vast universe and looks billions of years back in time. In the same vein, we know that epilepsy is not caused by demons, despite what the gospels say. We know also that the Bible is the work of human beings. It was not written by God. Other instances of this revolution are too many to number.

This great gulf of perception and knowledge separating us from Paul is often dismissed. We tend think in a hard-headed, scientific sense of a resurrected Jesus physically appearing to Peter and others, which is what today's reading seems to suggest. But Paul didn't think of it that way. For him and everyone else then, there was a gradual shading of the physical world into the spiritual world and back again. So Jesus "appearing" to Paul on the road to Damascus was an instance of the unseen "becoming visible". In exactly the same way, he talks of Jesus "appearing" to others. The gospel authors thought of the resurrection in identical terms.

So there is no need, like the Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Far better is to feel at ease with differing from Paul and the gospels. The issue here is not "Did the resurrection actually happen?" but "Can we differ from Paul in our understanding of resurrection?" without going off-track and somehow putting ourselves at risk of some sort of ill-defined error. 

Doctrinal error is not small beer. It prevents many Christians from saying what they really think about this and other difficulties they might have with traditional teachings. The risks are not slight. Clergy depend upon the local Church for their living. It's dangerous to reveal from the pulpit exactly what you think. Similarly, laypeople don't fancy the prospect of criticism or even exclusion if they stand up and rock the boat of orthodoxy.

The result is a holy conspiracy. Clergy, mostly theologically well educated, keep mum about the foundation-shaking scholarly advances of the last two centuries. They fear suffering the consequences of telling it as it is. Instead they hint, duck and dive, and skate around the holes so that nobody's quite sure exactly what theology is being cooked in the kitchen. Intelligent, knowledgeable laypeople adopt an almost schizophrenic position, assenting to traditional creeds on Sundays and reverting to another set of truths for the rest of the week.

In Britain lately, controversy over the accuracy of certain reports has dented the otherwise high reputation of the independent British Broadcasting Corporation. And yet the BBC is still trusted much more than the Government - even though the latter turns out to have been less at fault in this instance than many once thought. One commentator made a telling point. The BBC is trusted, he said, because it admits its mistakes and promises to rectify them. The Government is distrusted because it consistently attempts to convince the nation that it is faultless.

There are two viable ways ahead for the Church. 

One is to insist that what we preach is absolute, not open to error or revision. Along this road marches a host of closed minds and heresy trials. 

The other is to seek the truth, even though it might prove elusive or impermanent, inconvenient or dangerous. This way is testing and uncertain for those who walk it, but it does not require a conspiracy of silence.

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