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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Born Free

Ephesians 5.11
  Have nothing to do with the worthless things that people do, things that belong to the darkness.

The Church in all its diversity is a strange institution. More than any other it is starkly self-contradictory. 

It speaks of freedom, while curbing free speech and expelling dissidents. A powerless man is its leader, yet its leaders engage in power struggles. Love is preached while many of its members appear largely indifferent to suffering and oppression. It seeks to draw the world to Jesus, and yet holds itself apart from the world.

This incongruent institution has in recent years been opened up to the public gaze by the searchlight of the media. We can now see clearly as never before an ongoing contest at the very heart of Christianity. It is between those who wholeheartedly live in the world and those who see themselves as in the world but not of it.

The Letter to the Ephesians is our earliest evidence of the latter emphasis. Its author urges Christians to protect themselves from the world just as a soldier protects himself with body-armour. They are to live in the holy light while the world blunders around in satanic darkness.

This version of the Christian life is winning the day as the 21st century gets under way. The Church competed with secular authorities in the pre-modern era. Today it can no longer effectively do so. Instead it attempts to wall itself off from disturbing social and political influences. Those who are too different in conviction or lifestyle find themselves either exiled from the Christian fold, or living as secret aliens within it.

The symptoms are many. Local congregations display a narrow-minded concentration on worship within the walls of a building. At local level, Christians shadow-box each other about unity and co-operate half-heartedly. National churches increasingly attempt to guard against anything which threatens traditional teachings. What loose international connections they may have are barely holding. And the Roman Catholic Church, alone in having a unified global structure, is dominated from an authoritarian centre.

It's tempting to propose a change of heart, to proclaim that Christians should stop their nonsense and get in touch with a "genuine" Christian way of life.

But that won't do. The Church is what it is and change is inevitably slow. Any viable change will be a mutation not a revolution.

Where does that leave the majority of Christians - those who are exiled from the Church or abiding uncomfortably within it?

It's too early in the current cycle of change to know for sure. At the local level churches are gradually emptying. The elderly remain and the young stay away. At the top, the hierarchy desperately tries to defend the crumbling walls of the Christian citadel.

Nevertheless, outside the city walls those who are alienated from the Church, can if they wish, discover new life through an important, fundamental truth.

It is that we are all born free. Only in freedom do we have choice. Prisoners are by definition unable to choose. So we can allow others to dictate the terms of our Christian life - or we can recognise that the free life is one of adventure, uncertainty and self-discovery. 

Freedom is essential to our growth. Getting right with life does not depend upon being right with state, university or Church. It depends upon growing into the person I'm intended to be, free in choice and free to trust in Jesus regardless of where that leads.

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