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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An Empty Cross

Galatians 6.14  I will boast only about the cross of our Lord Jesus the Messiah.

These words were written by Paul. Most of his letters seem to have been dictated. Some think he had poor eyesight - which would explain why he exclaims earlier, "See what big letters I make as I write to you now with my own hand!"

That he wrote this section of his letter to the Galatians himself perhaps illustrates just how seriously he took the theme it deals with. Paul uses the cross frequently as a metaphor for the change of heart and direction required of new Christians. It stands par excellence for the essence of the Christian way of life.

The cross conveys that to become Christian is like dying. For Paul and almost everyone of his day this metaphor would have been striking. It would have penetrated deep into the mind of those who considered it. 

There were several reasons for this.

First, crucifixion was freely used by Roman authorities to kill off any and all opposition. Everyone then alive would have heard of crucifixion or seen it happen. They knew full-well that there are few worse ways of dying, and none more shamefully public.  Becoming a Christian, then, is rather like dying a painful, humiliating death, says Paul.

Second, the cross metaphor encouraged all to recognise that Jesus is unusual. He was a great leader who died like a common criminal on Jerusalem's rubbish heap. This was not the traditional Hebrew concept of the Messiah. To Greeks it was a nonsensical idea of kingship. So, according to Paul, becoming Christian isn't (perhaps shouldn't be) a way of achieving celebrity status or a high profile. It's just the opposite. Paul suggests that the Christian way of life may take us to the bottom of the pile, not the top.

Third, the cross picks up the ancient theme of God's "Suffering Servant" popularised by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. In other words, Paul maintains that to become a Christian is to take on the role of service in society. Anyone who has done that knows that service and a degree of suffering go together like tea and cakes.

So powerful has the image of the cross been that two millennia later it remains the most important Christian symbol. On a building, or on an ambulance, or hanging from a bishop's neck, it proclaims the Christian way of life.

Or it should.

In fact, the cross has become for the vast majority just a symbol and little more. That is, it now stands for something long dead and gone. It is a dim shadow of the past, largely emptied of the content it once had. The cross is like last century's fashion in clothes, a curiosity to be lectured about and gawped at. A sure test of this is that it now has to be explained. Long sermons must be preached about it. What it means is longer longer obvious to all. It exists only in the Christian imagination, not as an experienced fact of life.

The cross will nevertheless no doubt remain Christianity's most important symbol. But what is to be done to ensure that its original meaning isn't lost? As Paul maintains, being a Christian demands a whole new way of life as suffering servants. The world-wide Church may pass away - but this must endure. The Pope may fall into heresy, all worship in every church building may one day cease - but this must endure.

That's another way of saying that though the image of the cross fades and becomes feeble, the Christian obligation to service doesn't cease. Be it in a high or a low position in society, humble service makes for what Christians call "the way of the cross".

This line of thought also implies that what really matters is not being called a Christian, or right belief, or proper ritual, or valid authority, or worship or prayer - or any of the things trumpeted by well-meaning clerics and others as essential to Christianity. 

What is essential, what makes the Christian way of life, is cross-like service. Even though the symbol may have lost much of its original impact, lives of service and suffering are what keep it alive.

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