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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Know Then Thyself

Matthew 4.1  Then the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the Devil.

Alexander Pope, famous for his poetry, was crippled for life at 12 years old. Tuberculosis stunted his growth and deformed his spine. And yet he turned out to have a particular genius for stating "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed."

The aim of the author of Matthew's Gospel is similar. His story of the temptation of Jesus by Satan imagines "what oft was thought" by people of the late first century. They were puzzled by the human tendency to break the rules of right behaviour.

Though it may be hard for us today to fully understand, Jesus and his contemporaries thought of the world as crowded with invisible spirits, good and bad. To stay right with God one had to know how to get the support of the good spirits and ward off the attentions of the demons.

We can't be sure, but Matthew probably used what we would today call a "myth" from another culture as a template for this story. To the ordinary early Christian his tale would have rung true. It could not be, they thought, that the evil we do derives entirely from ourselves. There just has to be an outside agency who dangles temptation before us.

It is possible today to think about life just as Matthew did. Many millions do. But most find the idea of demons difficult or (more likely) impossible to go along with. How then can "temptation" be better understood?

One of Pope's phrases, still strikingly fresh 250 years after his death, is helpful here:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man. [1]

These lines illustrate a radical change in our perspective today. Instead of wondering what "out there" causes us to sin, we now question what it is about ourselves that sets us on the wrong path. That is, to understand sin, we should study humanity and not the supernatural. One implication of this change is that knowing yourself is vastly more important than, for example, knowing Church teachings.

Although there are today many and varied theories about human formation, one aspect has been broadly accepted. It is that everyone internalises norms of right and wrong as a child. We are programmed this way or that by parents and others. What we "should" do is imprinted upon our brains and emotions during our early years - and constantly reinforced as we grow older.

What then of temptation as we enter the Christian season of Lent? How are we to think of it?

There are at least two ways ahead:

  1. Grow up: It is childish to seek partial absolution by blaming an external tempter. After all, the good news is that Jesus gives us freedom from "the ruling spirits of the universe" [2]. We alone, not a hypothetical Satan, decide to do right or wrong.

  2. Know ourselves: It is now possible to be keenly aware of the parental and social forces which make us who we are. The dynamics of the "shoulds" which provide us with an awareness of sin are there for the understanding. 

Many effective ways exist of resisting "Satan and all his works" - or, to put it differently, of knowing our weak points and guarding against them. Sadly, traditional Christian teaching displays few of them. 

Nevertheless, Lent can become a time when you and I can venture into the sometimes scary business of self-knowledge. Pope's "proper study of mankind" is the key to metaphorically crushing Satan under our feet [3].

[1] An Essay on Criticism, Epistle 2.1.1
[2] Galatians 4.3
[3] Romans 16.20

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