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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Keep On Dialing

Colossians 1.15  The Christ is the visible likeness of the invisible God.

An old saying, "Like father, like son" always hits me between the eyes when I meet my own son. It's not only that he looks rather like me: it's also that I see in him my own personality, my own body language, and even similar spoken phrases.

Having said that, he also shares much of his mother. I don't have to look hard to see her in him. I look very much like my mother. Despite that, I recall a friend of my father's remarking that he was constantly catching glimpses of my father in me.

This is, need I say it, not what Paul was getting at when he  wrote that the Messiah is like the invisible God. He was using metaphor to suggest that just as one can catch glimpses of each parent in a child, so also one can glimpse God in the Messiah. Note that Paul didn't say to the Colossians that they could see God through Jesus the man. His point was a theological one about the Jewish Messiah - expressed with typical verbosity and lack of clarity. 

Many theologians write as though Paul is an authority on Jesus of Nazareth. They portray him as having special knowledge. 

Nothing could be farther from the truth. We have no evidence that he knew Jesus personally. If he had, I think we can assume that he would have mentioned it. As it is, his only knowledge appears to have been through meeting Peter and James and perhaps others who had first-hand knowledge of Jesus.

Nor, need I say it, did Paul know God first-hand in the same way that we know other people. None of us knows God in that way. God the creator by definition cannot be known or described - except in terms of the creation. Which is why we use pictures from the world as we know it.

All this is, I suppose, fairly elementary. A problem arises because we become used to talking about God using traditional metaphors and images. In so doing, we seldom reflect that they don't describe any thing or person. They attempt to express the inexpressible in ways that mean something to us.

Fortunately, Christianity is not essentially about God. It is about Jesus - a real person like you or me, who really walked this earth, who really lived and who died as we all do. The Christ/Messiah title was applied to him by Paul. This was only natural, since Paul thought as a first-century Jew. Similarly, Paul applied the "Son" title to Jesus, using a religious metaphor typical to both Roman and Greek culture.

Christians are unique in their allegiance to Jesus. That they use vivid images and metaphors in their God-talk is not unique. The method is shared by almost every other religion world-wide. Jesus belongs only to Christianity. But God belongs to every religion.

The "likeness of the invisible God" is for many no longer a viable way of thinking about Jesus the man. In the West, we are rapidly moving into an era which is described as "secular" or "of this world". The result is that the old models are failing.

What is to be done? How do we avoid throwing out the baby with the bathwater? There will always be new images and metaphors for God because life provides a rich resource. But how are we to relate to Jesus if the ancient titles like "Son of God" and "Messiah" no longer ring true?

Part of the tension many Christians feel today is the difficulty of finding new ways of talking about Jesus. Current responses include a new vision of the Jesus of history. We are attempting to go back to the historical person and to invest him with meaning in terms appropriate to our increasingly global culture and age.

But even more important at present is a willingness to be like a telephone line. The line stretches out from the old and familiar off into the distance. We're not quite sure where it will end and who will answer when we make the first call.

Meanwhile, we have to keep on dialing.

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