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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Trusting the Promise

Romans 4.17, 20   So the promise is good in the sight of God, in whom
Abraham believed ... His faith did not leave him, and he did not doubt God's promise ... 

The Church is no stranger to scandals. Over the centuries onlookers have often been startled and distressed by Christian behaviour. From Saint Augustine who self-righteously got rid of his mistress and child, to the  medieval Pope who kept wife and family from the public gaze, there has been no shortage of bad behaviour to remark upon.

I suppose, however, that it's not the bad behaviour as such which has raised eyebrows as much as a consistent gap between statements of belief and practice . "How can you preach about a loving Jesus," ask the sceptics, "and then behave so viciously towards others?"

It's all very well to excuse erring Christians by remarking that "... they're only human" or that "... salvation is by faith alone, not deeds." But such special pleadings sound like a cracked bell to the ears of the world.

Most Christians will witness that being a believer doesn't guarantee always behaving well. We do our best. We struggle and often fail. As Paul, our earliest witness, once put it, "I don't do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate" (Romans 7.15). It seems Christians have been hypocritical for a long time!

Why do I fail, I ask? Perhaps because I don't believe the right things. Or perhaps I don't believe with enough intensity. Maybe I don't pray properly or hard enough. Perhaps I should go to church more. It could be that I belong to the wrong denomination. Perhaps I keep bad company. Perhaps, perhaps ...

Where lies the problem? Many insist that something they call "belief" is the kernel of the Christian faith. By "belief" they seem to mean a mental acceptance of certain Church doctrines. "If you believe in the resurrection, you'll have life everlasting," they say. "Only believe and you'll be saved," they assure us. And so on and on, developing doctrines, making ever higher hurdles for others to jump over.

Like many others today, I can't accept that we go wrong because we're somehow contaminated by the primal sin of Adam and Eve. It makes no sense in terms of today's knowledge to claim that we're born evil. That's not how genetics works. And it's plain that many people are so damaged in their upbringing that it's hard or impossible to blame them for going wrong.

Nevertheless, surely Christianity is reduced to nothing if its adherents can't demonstrate in their lives the sacrificial love they claim is fundamental to the good of the world?

Whatever the case may be, Christians think that Jesus got the answer right. His life and words all point one way. He lived out his promise that God is loving, not cruel, petty, vengeful or simply unconcerned about insignificant you and me. Whatever we do, he said, whatever we believe, whatever we are, each of us is so highly valued we're worth dying for. 

If that's true then what I "believe" is of little or no account. The Church's emphasis on believing verbal formulas as a condition of salvation is, I think, entirely mistaken. We should note in passing that the Greek word usually translated into English as "believe" in the New Testament in reality refers to expectant trust, not to belief in man-made doctrines.

The idea of expectant trust has its modern counterpart. When I say "I believe in my wife," or "I believe in my friend Harry" I affirm the essential nature of the person, proclaiming that I know deep down what they're really, truly like. I can expect them to behave towards me in certain ways.

Paul in his letter to the Romans affirms that no matter how much we fail in life we can "believe" in God in the same way. Just as a man can believe in his wife, or a woman in her friend, so also can we believe in God. That is, no matter how far short of our own ideals we fall, no matter how ruinously we behave, we can trust deep down in God's promise to us - just as Abraham once risked all in response to God's promise to him.

When we trust in the promise by which Jesus lived and died, we are liberated to cope with success or failure knowing that love is the solid ground on which we walk. I suspect that only when we "believe" in this way does the Christian faith make good sense for today's world. Only then is the gospel truly good news. 

To "believe" is to trust the promise.

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