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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No One But Us

Galatians 4.5  He came to redeem those who were under the law ...

Redemption is a central concept in traditional Christian teaching. It compares in importance to Nirvana in Buddhism or submission in Islam.

But there is a problem. Redemption is a term rapidly losing its power to reach and convince ordinary people.

Jesus and his contemporaries had little or no problem with the idea. Nor did Paul and the first Christians. It captured what they and everyone else witnessed in the market square whenever they went to town - the buying and selling of flesh-and-blood people, ordinary people just like us. 

Slavery was an unquestioned social institution. There is no record that Jesus ever spoke against it. Nor did Paul (Colossians 3.22) and the author of the Letter to the Ephesians (6.5). They advise slaves to obey their masters "as though you were serving Christ".

So used to freedom are many nations today, that most people can barely imagine what slavery was really like. 

First, it was usually for life. Second, a slave was subject to a master's absolute power - he or she was an instrumentum vocale, a "speaking tool". By some accounts, most slaves could be anywhere on a scale between miserable and dead. One possible escape was to buy oneself out or be bought out by someone else - that is, to be redeemed. Another was manumissio, a formal act of liberation often used by owners to get rid of slaves they could no longer afford.

Most of us miss a dreadful irony at the heart of this age-old institution.

We take it as read that redemption would have been welcomed by its victims. This assumption turns out to be questionable. A free worker was unlikely to find employment because he or she cost so much  more than a slave. So the apparently generous act of manumissio could result in poverty and starvation.

More important to us today than understanding and using the ancient image of redemption, is the realisation that all forms of subjection breed dependence and immaturity.

Survivors of Nazi concentration camps, for example, describe a strange but powerful reluctance to leave their hell-hole when liberation came. Similarly, some criminals re-offend just to return to a familiar, safe prison routine. Many a battered wife has gone back to a brutalised existence for similar reasons. And many a tormented husband has preferred the agonies of verbal and emotional abuse to the challenging isolation of a bachelor pad.

In a similar way, many discover apparent redemption through Jesus - only to plunge into other forms of captivity and resulting dependence. Some accept slavery to the Bible as God's truth manual; some to bishops as God's dictators; and some even to a dictatorial proletariat, as Christian communities can turn out to be. Others become dependent on a controlling, punishing father-figure-God they themselves have invented.

A few recognise that when Jesus "redeems" us, when we embrace independence, we can go on to grow into maturity.

Redeemed, we are rather like teenagers who leave home for a gap year or a job. Only we can live life once we have come of age. Only we can use freedom to make and learn from mistakes - no one but us.

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