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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When It's Wrong to be Right

Matthew 18.18     What you prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on earth with be permitted in heaven.

Verses eighteen and nineteen of today's Gospel reading always tend to induce in me a sense of incredulity. I don't find it easy to credit that anyone could be so sure of themselves as to make such large claims.

I suppose we've all come across people who appear certain that they have final answers to the world's key questions. In a way I envy them. What consolation there must be in knowing beyond all doubt that you have found even a single absolute answer to the dilemmas of life! The sense of security must, I suppose, be deeply consoling.

Fortunately for the majority - the doubters, the fumblers, the haplessly uncertain - these are almost certainly not the words of Jesus himself. It's generally agreed that they are an insertion by the Gospel's author. They reflect a way of handling disciplinary problems in a local Christian group of the first century, probably one with a Jewish background.

Many scholars now recognise that members of such groups would have been under great pressure to renege on their new-found faith. They would have found unswerving allegiance to the strange new Messiah difficult. Family and friends, the local synagogue leaders or the town council, may have regarded such people as a corrupting menace to the established order. 

It can be difficult for today's multi-cultural city dwellers to understand just how resistant to new ideas small, relatively homogeneous rural communities can be. Many today take for granted the freedom to think and behave as a independent individual. That freedom is much more limited in an authority-based, hierarchical social order.

With this in mind, it's easier to understand that the earliest Jewish-Christian groups would have had to be tightly knit to survive. Members of the group who "sinned" by lapsing into their former ways would, it seems, have been disciplined by a system of excommunication and re-admission (see also Matthew 16.19, John 20.23). That is, a particular situation dictated a particular response by the early Church. These verses reflect that response.

When one understands that this Gospel reading makes sense for the situation in which it was written, its apparently inflated claims are cut down to size. We can't today easily sympathise with the needs of the small groups of Jewish Christians struggling to survive a hostile environment in the decades after the death of Jesus. But we can, I hope, understand the degree of reassurance they may have needed, and have got, from passages such as this.

An ongoing problem is, however, that today's reading tends to be used for purposes other than its original intention. It is quoted to justify the actions and confirm the assumed power of some Christians. I refer, of course, to those who quote it as justification for their sense of absolute rectitude in relation to contentious moral matters and in support of certain teachings. 

In essence their argument runs like this:

God can't be wrong. Right? God's will has been revealed to me by the Holy Spirit or the Bible or both. Therefore my permissions and prohibitions  must be right. And if I'm right then you're wrong if you disagree with me. In that case I have the right to put you right. And if you think I'm wrong to try to put you right, then please just refer to Matthew 18.18 and that will put us all right.

A clue to the validity or otherwise of this chain of thought is, I think, to be found in something we can be almost sure was said by Jesus. 

He refused to judge others and advised us not to do so (Matthew 7.1). To judge others right or wrong from some absolute standpoint is precisely to take God's place, since only God can know anyone or any situation to their depths. Only God can know the multi-variant circumstances, including our personal choices, which have lead to a particular action. 

Jesus did not claim either the right or the ability to do this.

As a society we must judge those who have broken the law, and we have to do so consistently and impartially. The practice of debating what's right or wrong is gradually becoming ingrained into some cultures. In the end we all have to come down on one or another side of an issue. Even sitting on the fence is to take a position.

But that's not the same thing as assuming God's mantle (to use an image from 2 Kings 2.13) and claiming that we have a God-given ability to pronounce absolutely on anything. To do so is to revert to a way of dealing with the world which never worked very well and which certainly doesn't work well in the 21st century.

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