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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Karl Marx - God's Prophet

Philippians 3.4  If anyone thinks he can trust in external ceremonies, I have even more reason to feel that way. I was circumcised when I was a week old. I am an Israelite by birth, of the tribe of Benjamin, a pure-blooded Hebrew.

A heading such as this is enough to get me labelled a Communist - not these days a popular affiliation to have. But it was provoked by a surprising insight that Paul and Marx seem to have come to similar conclusions about religion.

The Hebrew people in Jesus' time had a conception of religion common to almost all peoples of their era. It was something like this:

  • If one transgresses the laws of human rulers, one may be punished. God rules over us in the same way as do human rulers. 
  • To avoid God's punishment one must adhere strictly to the precepts of divine law as communicated by religious intermediaries.
  • One can propitiate God's wrath and turn aside punishment by sacrificing to the divine - that is, through religion.

I leave you to ask yourself if this concept of religion may have survived even to this day.

Underlying all this is the idea that we can influence God, a principle which powered Hebrew laws about sacrifice. Just as one could placate someone with a gift, so also if one gave something to God, one might avoid punishment.

Similarly, if one touched a corpse or a menstruating woman one could be contaminated and rendered unacceptable to God. The religious cure was to wash, giving rise to purity rituals.

So when Paul decries "external ceremonies" his point is revolutionary, undercutting the entire religious system of his day. When he urges us to accept God's freely-given love, he's putting aside a complex religious system designed to make us acceptable to God.

Marx made what seems to me to be the same point in the nineteenth century. As an ex-Christian with deep Jewish roots, he attempted to look past the religions of the day to address the intense distress of ordinary people caught up in an industrial revolution. His secular theology focused on practical ways of eliminating the stark gap between rich and poor. He wrote:

Religious distress is ... the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world ... It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion is required for their real happiness.

But both Paul and Marx are of less account to Christians if they don't build upon and develop what Jesus started.

Responding to a teacher of the Hebrew Law, Jesus is reported as saying,

The most important rule is, "Listen, Israel, the Lord your God is one Lord. You've got to love the Lord your God with your whole being - with your whole heart and every ounce of energy." And the second most important rule is, "You must love your fellow human beings as much as you love yourself." No other rule is greater than these two.
(Mark 12.29-31)

With these words, Jesus abolishes religion of the sort which tries to cajole God into doing our will. He pioneers the way for Paul and, much later, for Marx as they point out that religion can neither buy God's approval nor bring social justice.

The upshot for us today is, I think, to recognise that religion in churches on Sunday doesn't define how we are to be Christian. Nor is the Christian way of life defined by an ability to believe seven impossible things before breakfast.

But Christians are defined by a choice to love - rather than by obedience to religious laws (says Jesus); by a willingness to abandon the security of external ceremonies (says Paul); and because they have gone cold turkey on the drug of religion as a substitute for social justice (says Marx).

The Old Testament prophet Micah asks the rhetorical question (6.6):

What shall I bring the God of heaven when I come to worship him? Shall I bring the best calves to burn as offerings?

and provides an answer answer identical to all three:

No ... What God requires of us is this: to do what is just, to show constant love, and to live in humble fellowship with our God.

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