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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Crossing Boundaries

Matthew 15.23  Jesus did not say a word to her. His disciples came to him and begged him, "Send her away! She is following us and making all this noise!"

If asked what the overriding theme of the Old Testament was, I would answer "covenant". 

The books speak of a bond between God and a nation, a bond that is seen to exist no matter what the ups and downs of life; through exile, invasion, kings good and bad, times of famine or plenty, the Old Testament thunders out its message: "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". 

This theme sets the Hebrew people apart as a race, establishing, at least to their satisfaction, that they are a special people chosen by God. A Jew remains a Jew, before citizenship, or cultural or national identity.

The "chosen of God" idea is also the root of much of the persecution the Jews have suffered throughout the ages, culminating in the holocaust of the Second World War. Their distinctive identity has moulded them into a successful and formidable race. Many of the business names common to Europe stem from Jewish roots - and there is nothing like success to breed resentment and jealousy. 

Ironically, it is the conviction that they are indeed a "chosen people" that has been both the cause of their persecution but also their means of coping with it. People with a strong sense of God in their lives, whether personally or corporately, tend to cope with suffering better than most, safe in the knowledge that God walks with them. With the Jews it was covenant, with the early Christians it was the resurrected Christ who gave hope and comfort.

It is quite likely that when Jesus began his ministry he understood himself as primarily leading the lost people of Israel back to their roots, back to their covenant status with God. 

Indeed, that lies behind today�s gospel reading; the Canaanite woman asks for Jesus� help, but Jesus ignores her because she is not a Jew. The woman begs for his help, recognising that even though Jesus may be mainly concerned for his own race, surely she can glean the scraps of his powers. Jesus relents, and the woman�s daughter is healed.

One of the questions the woman�s action raises, is how far are we open to the ideas, wisdom and philosophy - perhaps even healing potential � of other religions and philosophies? 

The Canaanite woman recognised something within Jesus that was, one can assume, outside the scope of her own culture. Yet she pursued her instincts, confronted Jesus and found satisfaction. 

In our own world, many of us are suspicious of other viewpoints to the extent that it stifles us. We might find something helpful in other religions or philosophies, but we fear making the enquiry. The woman crossed cultural and philosophic boundaries because she gleaned something of salvation on the other side. She risked ridicule and rejection in pursuit of her enquiry. And it paid off.

It was an act of some bravery when the recent Anglican Bishop of Jarrow in England announced some years ago that he was going to read and study the Koran as part of his discipline for Lent. By-and-large, the letters to the press were hostile. He was said to be making enquiries where he shouldn�t be. Yet the Bishop knew well enough that truth is something that is lived, not just something read about. 

Enquiry doesn�t make one a devotee of any religion. Living it does.

There is enormous ignorance in the world of faith when it comes to what others believe. Part of that ignorance is purposeful, for the idea that another faith, or even denomination, may contain wisdom or truth is a threat to many. They would rather not know, and thus rest safely in their unknowing. Many resort to flippancy and ridicule, as if adapting such a tone somehow reduces the intelligence of the person on the receiving end. 

I have recently read (on the Internet) comments about Bishop John Spong, a radical theologian. The remarks were on an evangelical site, and I would have to say that the rhetoric was not only unfounded, but positively hostile. One could sense the hatred filtering through the words of the review. 

I so often find that those who insist that their particular viewpoint is �biblical� and the sole path of truth are often the first to use �unchristian� language and invective. There is such fear in the religious world, fear that cherished and lived-by beliefs may not be based on �eternal truths�, fear that life may be meaningless, other than what we make of it, after all. The ultimate human predicament is the fear of death and the consequence of ceasing to be.

It has been said many times on this site that it is best to view Jesus as our prototype or pioneer; not someone to copy, but to build on. The same should be said of the Bible. Few in their right mind would attempt to �copy� life in the Old or New Testament. Our lives would be in turmoil! 

But to seek wisdom, ideas, and to reflect upon it, is another matter. Surely the Bible should be viewed as a book of faith, a book to learn from, a book in which to discover, dare I say, just how wrong people�s theology can be � as well as how right! It is its sheer breadth of ideas about God, his activity (or otherwise) in the lives of people, which makes it such compelling reading.

And the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman?

Surely Jesus acted in an �unchristian� manner in choosing to ignore her. The woman, in her wisdom, said something that set Jesus thinking and thus changing his mind. She "put him right", to everyone�s satisfaction.

That was rather lovely. People crossed boundaries and learnt from each other. He, the Sinless, and the Messiah, learnt a lesson from she, the pagan, the unclean. Not only did he learn, he put it into action - he healed her daughter. That was putting practice before ideology. 

That was true religion. Food for thought for us all.

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