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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Co-operate or Else!

Mark 4.41  Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

There can be hardly one of us who hasn't become aware at some point in our lives that we have been mislead by someone else - perhaps someone we admired and trusted. In a way this can be something of a saving grace. At least we can blame the other person for the unfortunate consequences of a bad choice.

Those who wrote the gospels upon which we depend for almost all we know about Jesus did not intend to mislead us. Unfortunately they did just that with stories such as Jesus stilling a storm. 

This is one of those cases where the fact that an account also occurs in two other gospels doesn't add to its historicity. A great majority of New Testament scholars agree that Matthew and Luke took their versions of this story from Mark. So we have only one account, not three.

Lest someone think that the Mark set out to mislead us, it's important to note that he and the other gospel authors did not think about the world as we do. On the contrary, they thought it their duty to beef up what seemed to them unquestionably credible accounts of the great deeds of Jesus. Unlike the man himself, and almost certainly unlike his first followers, they had concluded that Jesus was divine. Nothing could be more natural to them than that he stilled a storm.

Moreover, they saw clearly that this tale unmistakably parallels God's action in parting the Red Sea as the Israelites escaped from Egypt. It's quite likely also that they also had in mind similar tales in Greek and Roman literature. And we know that a certain Apollonius of Tyana was highly regarded at the time for his reputed ability to master storms, fire and other natural hazards, as were other famous men.

So while Jesus' power over nature was remarkable to them, the fact that such stories were often told in those days about great men is not. And if these stories were exaggerated, it was done with the best will in the world, as a service to those who were to come after.

The trouble is that modern people are heirs to an intellectual tradition which doesn't allow such things to happen at all. Everything we know about the universe indicates that this is not how nature works. Even though many today still think that such miracles can and do happen, the general trend is towards an outlook which recognises that storms can't be stilled in the way this story describes.

Such tales tended for many centuries to give the unintentional impression that human beings (or at least one human being) are in some sense masters of nature. It is not surprising therefore that when the first scientists began to learn how to manipulate and control natural events, they should also conclude that they would one day have total control over nature. There was no strong cautionary thread in Christian teaching to give them the slightest pause.

Christian people have generally gone along with that outlook for the past two centuries. They have on one hand reaped the benefits of science-based technologies; and on the other they have credulously supposed that their exploitation of nature would have no consequences that couldn't be managed.

As we advance into the 21st century, however, it is becoming daily more clear that we are not masters of nature. Far from it. The human race cannot exist, never mind prosper, unless we consciously and deliberately play our part in that vast natural system which is our world.

It is tragic that by far the majority of those who today battle for us to wake up to an uncertain future are not Christian. In contrast, the churches sound an uncertain trumpet about ecology. Perhaps they are fearful lest they lose yet more adherents if they don't stick rigidly to "the faith". At any rate, Christians by and large have refused any suggestion that they make do in life with the least they can. Instead, they have followed the herd as it scrambles to gain ever more wealth and illusory security.

Every Sunday many thousands of preachers rattle on about this or that miracle, to the sleepy satisfaction of their congregations. Meanwhile planet Earth must willy-nilly make rapid adjustments to our invasive presence.

We need to remind ourselves that a central pillar of the Christian faith is that our universe was created. It is not merely the result of combinations of mysterious forces - though it is that as well. Our world is not fortuitous. God designed it the way it is. If this were ancient Israel, perhaps the prophet Hosea might be shouting out in the stock exchanges of the world an ancient message about the laws of God's natural order:

With silver and gold they made idols
for their own destruction ...
For they sow the wind
and they shall reap the whirlwind. (8.6-7)

The message God is sending us through the inexorable processes of nature is that to do God's will requires co-operating with the greater system of which we are but part. We should be warned that there are negative consequences to messing up our Garden of Eden.

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