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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In the Grip of Sin

Romans 7.14
   I don't do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate.

A mail flyer I received recently  proclaims that in Reading, England, an event of "massive fasting and prayer that will rend the heavens and change the nation" will take place in July, 2002.

Calls to fasting and prayer go back thousands of years - at least to the early days of Judaism. We know (Acts 14.3) that the first Christians fasted. The practice continues to this day. 

I wonder why. 

It seems from the Gospels that not fasting was one thing amongst others which distinguished Jesus and his followers from John the Baptiser and the Pharisees (Mark 2.18). 

Why should Christians attribute to fasting the power to change anything, including an entire nation?

The answer lies, I think, with the way Paul thought and taught about the nature of human beings.

One source describes the tradition of fasting as "A penitential practice designed to strengthen the spiritual life by weakening the attractions of bodily pleasures." Another says that fasting "is a training in Christian discipline, and specifically against the sin of gluttony." 

This approach derives directly from Paul. We know that he thought sin comes down to us as a sort of spiritual virus from the rebellion of Adam: "Sin came into the world through one man ..." (Romans 5.12). A consequence of the sin-virus, thinks Paul, is a corruption of will. "Even though the desire to do good is in me, I am not able to do it," he writes. "What an unhappy man I am ... Who will rescue me from this flesh that is taking me to death?" 

When the diagnosis is that bad, we can be forgiven for getting depressed about ourselves. 

Now let's look again at fasting. As far as I can make out, Paul thinks human nature ("the flesh") is at odds with things spiritual. He writes, "A person becomes the enemy of God when he is controlled by his human nature" (Romans 8.7). On the one hand is corrupt "flesh" and on the other holy "spirit" - two forces at war within us all. If he's right, one can be forgiven for thinking that fasting and other ascetic disciplines might help tame our wayward and sinful passions.

I wonder if the enthusiastic Christians who will fast and pray to change the English nation think along similar lines. If so they are very much in tune with the Church over many centuries. Christians thought that holiness requires our natural self to be subdued, put in its place, chastened, denied, starved.

I am disturbed by what lies behind Paul's self-disgust. He seems to conclude that we are inherently evil, that our "human nature serves the law of sin" (Romans 7.25).

Everything we know today about human beings indicates that this is false. This is not to say that Paul should be condemned for being wrong. It's doubtful that he could have understood sin any other way.

Nevertheless, which of us today can credit that a new-born child is in any way evil? We know that genetics doesn't work like that. Who can blame a six-year-old in Northern Ireland who says she hates Protestants? We know that children absorb social prejudice as a sponge absorbs water. They can't be blamed for a natural process. Our natures are given. We can't choose how we start life off.

Looking back, I recall (like us all, I suppose) incidents in my childhood life which distressed my parents - when I played truant or pegged a friend's foot with my new sheath-knife, for example. I became aware of new parental laws I had to obey or upset the the big people. But I was not yet to make a free, adult choice between sacrificial love and self-centred indifference.

I recall a period (rather than a fixed point in time) when I gradually became aware that "I am me". At the end of it I was conscious of being adult. Only then, I think, could I truly sin. 

In other words, sin is a state of being which we choose as adults, usually over a long period through a gradual process. That's what it is to be in the grip of sin. It is not possession by a sin-virus inherited from our parents and society. 

If a nation is in the grip of sin, no amount of prayer and fasting will loosen that grip. Only citizens who turn away from unloving lives can bring an entire nation to God. If you or I are in the grip of sin, then punishing or denying bodily needs will achieve nothing. Only turning to sacrificial love will do.

Or, as Paul puts it, "There is no condemnation now for those who live in union with Christ Jesus" (Romans 8.1).

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