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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Blaming it on the Snake

Genesis 2.13  The snake tricked me into eating the apple.

A strange finding of modern psychology concerns a way of getting people to honestly describe themselves. The difficulty psychologists face is that none of us likes to be absolutely open and frank about our self-perception. If so, how can they know what we really think?

One method of getting an honest opinion is to ask subjects to look at photographs of people they don't know and describe the characters of those they are looking at. Because of a lack of real-life information about the person in the photograph, subjects tend to project their own self-image onto that person. The surprising discovery is that in attempting describe the other person, they in fact describe themselves more accurately than if they were trying to do it without the photograph.

We're all familiar with the mechanism of projection, first detailed by the great psychologist Sigmund Freud. Parents experience it in the childish refrain: "It's not my fault! Johnny made me do it." Most of us recognise a tendency, even when we're adult, to project onto others responsibility for our actions.

The reason? We don't like being caught out doing something wrong or unacceptable. In the past, men and women were convinced rules could be made about right and wrong. However, the self-blame which comes from making and then breaking rules can be hard to live with. Paul, writing about how he tended to break the rules, exclaimed, "What an unhappy man I am!" 

For some the burden can be too much to bear and they may give up on life completely - which is what we call despair. For all of us it's sometimes more comfortable to pass the burden of our guilt for breaking the rules on to others.

This sort of projection is as old as the hills. The ancient story of the temptation of Adam and Eve is a classic example. First Adam blames Eve; and then Eve blames the snake for tempting her to break God's rule about the tree which gives knowledge of what's right and wrong. And so the Devil, that "sly snake", was invented to lift from our shoulders the burden of guilt for breaking the rules.

Many today tend to think of right and wrong in terms of breaking God's rules - from a confused and anxious teenager whose sexual experiments lead him or her astray, to an 80-year-old who looks back on life in agonies of regret about having willfully crossed various lines between right and wrong.

When religion proceeds to make some rules absolute (like divorce or abortion being "always wrong" regardless of situation) then it must needs also invent a hell for those who fail to keep the absolute rules. Paul's "unhappiness" can then become a terrible agony of fear add to the remorse. In such circumstances, blaming it all on the snake is a natural and understandable defence mechanism against an intolerable burden.

Jesus was keenly aware of this terrible trap. He stood out firmly against those who use rules to condemn others. Paul, to his everlasting credit, made the same keen awareness central to his mission. Jesus said that rules about ritual cleanliness which banished people in his day from society are nonsense - even though they were considered vital to the Jewish religion. Paul took the great Jewish rule about not mixing with Gentiles and proclaimed that had Jesus lived and died for all, regardless of ethnic origin or religion.

Underpinning both Jesus and Paul was a realisation central to Christianity - that, in Paul's words, we all have the undeserved gift of "Not guilty!" when we break mankind's rules. Temptation of a sort is with us always because we continually face choices to love or not love others as we love ourselves. But failure to love does not condemn us to punishment. God's love, says Jesus, is greater and stronger than any set of rules. Love overcomes everything. Nothing can come between us and God, says Paul.

The upshot is that as we move into the Lenten season, we can be more aware that repentance isn't about wallowing in agonies of guilt. Nor need we seek to blame either ourselves or others for breaking whatever rules others have set up for their own ends. 

The essence of being Christian is to live out life free of guilt, without making self-righteous projections. We don't need to project hellish consequences onto others to make ourselves feel better. Because God's love isn't bound by man-made rules or anything invented by religion, the snake has not an ounce of power over us.

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