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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Being Right With God

Romans 5.1  Now that we have been put right with God through faith ...

I'm not sure that I want to be "put right with God" or "counted innocent" before God. In saying that, I don't intend to cock a snoot at anyone. Nor do I claim to be holier than thou or perfect in any way. Nor do I intend to criticise or contradict anyone else.

At one level I hope to reflect, however inadequately, the unexpressed feelings and perceptions of many today. I suspect that they, like me, might be Christians on the fringes of, or entirely outside, the Church.

Perhaps if more people did want to be put right with this God, there might be greater pressure on the empty pews of many congregations. Perhaps an increasing number of ordained men and women, instead of experiencing isolation and a sense of futility in their ministries, might feel more fulfilled than they often do.

Or, on the other hand, us exiles may have failed to grasp the free gift of reconciliation which is ours if only we believe the Gospel tradition once and for always delivered to the saints. Or perhaps all we have to do is open ourselves up to God's Spirit and, as Paul once was, we'll be swept up to Paradise (2 Corinthians 12.3).

But such options somehow don't feel right to me.

To put it another way: I share with many others a radical break from how God has been thought of for many centuries. As far as I can tell, until comparatively recently (thinking in terms of centuries) a large majority has perceived God as an other-worldly monarch, a superior being who regards us lower humans as servants or subjects. God lays down what we must do and be. If we meet God's standards we are counted as good, judged as righteous.

However, if we fail to meet God's standards and priorities, it seems we open ourselves to divine displeasure. In extreme cases a person may be condemned to separation from God (exile from "the Kingdom of God") or some other punishment. In particular, if a person fails to accept Jesus of Nazareth as personal saviour, the immediate outcome is likely to be unpleasant.

In such circumstances it's obviously important to be on God's side. As Paul says in today's reading from his letter to the Romans, "Christ died for the wicked" (that's us) and has now "made us God's friends." That is, we're no longer enemies of the heavenly ruler. We can put aside guilty feelings for having double-crossed the guy in the sky. We have been "put right with God" provided we talk the talk and walk the walk.

This rendering may be a caricature. Nevertheless, it seems to me that this or something very much like it remains when clever, elaborate theological language is stripped away.

If I cut still deeper, I must admit that every fibre of my being resists the idea of capitulating to God as if to a powerful monarch. Nor do I wish to be disciplined or forgiven like an errant child by a heavenly parent-figure. I don't think I'm alone in this. A God who requires from me humiliating obedience, or child-like dependence, isn't attractive. 

A Church modelled upon such a God-figure is repellent. That it also tends to demand that I abandon good sense to believe in silly or irrational teachings isn't good news for me. And I'm not surprised it isn't good news for a host of others.

In summary, when I think of a traditional God, I don't want or need to be put right with him or her on the terms quoted, thank you very much.

However, I do want to be right with God. By which I mean that I want my life to be as far as possible in harmony with the universe. The only God I know has been shown to me through my experience of the world around me. To be right with this God is to strive to integrate myself with the world in whatever way I can, to be on the same wavelength as the creation of which I'm part.

Those who, like me, struggle to integrate with the way God does things (in traditional language, be part of "the kingdom of heaven") will no doubt often stumble and stagger in the attempt. Perhaps some will, like me, experience more failure than success. Given our genes, upbringing and personal choices over a lifetime it may often appear impossible to achieve our aim. And there will be times when, with due deliberation, we will consciously frustrate the way God does things on planet Earth.

The good news is that even though we may fall short of our God-given potential, we're able count absolutely on the nature of the creator of the world we live in. God need not be perceived as a vengeful monarch demanding obedience, or an exacting judge requiring conformance with laws of right behaviour, or as a stern parent teaching us the lessons of life. 

I am not required to abase myself in order to qualify for forgiveness. The truth is that we are already right with God and always have been. That's how things are.

And I'm a Christian because I take seriously the lead of a certain Jesus of Nazareth. He was well-integrated as a person and with his world - perhaps perfectly so. It seems to me that everything he said and did, conveys one way or another the truth that we are all, without exception, acceptable to God.

Jesus lived and died with that conviction at the centre of his being.

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