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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Pay Now, Get Later

Hebrews 11.1  Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

The Scriptures are full of promises - promises of descendants, of wealth, of power, of revenge, of resurrection. Considering how much faith people over the ages have put into these promises, it�s interesting to note that they are rarely fulfilled.

If the Bible were a political manifesto we�d be pretty soon be looking for another god. Over time we see the writers of the Bible attempting to gloss over God�s failure to keep promises made. God is constantly saying to the Hebrews that he loves them and will never forsake them. But it doesn't take much to get him fed-up and visiting catastrophe upon the descendants of Abraham. Despite all that, they did not give up the notion that they were heirs to the promises of God.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews adopted this notion of God's promises. But instead of the fulfillment coming in this life, he extended it into a life after death. Only after death will all God�s enormous promises become available to those who have faith.

Although it's not fashionable to say so, I think we will do well not to underestimate the power of this promise of life after death. Convince somebody that they will receive a heavenly reward and they may be prepared to do many things. They may choose martyrdom, live a life of poverty, give up sex and children, and be utterly obedient to authority. They may even kill doctors who perform abortions, and fly planes into huge office blocks in New York.

In other words, in the 21st century these kinds of promises are still able to motivate people to both good and evil. Psychologists refer to this as "deferred gratification". If we�re honest, it's perhaps the promise of life after death which brings many older people to Church every week.

The pity is that for those near the edge of survival, such promises are a great way of organising social control. It's possible to tell people not to rock the boat now, not to question their poverty in this life - because one day in another existence they will receive their reward.

Similarly, Christians often talk about equality but rarely put it into practice. They may still sing with zest and vigour,

The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.

This is a verse from the hymn All things Bright and Beautiful, now rarely used.

Unfulfilled promises in the Bible of heavenly rewards have enabled unjust societies to exist for centuries, based on the premise that full equity and justice will be ours in the hereafter. Meanwhile, be satisfied with what you've got. Pay now, get later.

"Liberty, equality, fraternity" was the radical cry of the French Revolutionaries of 1789, perhaps the first social movement to attempt the overthrow of a complete system. Yet they found the courage to do so only once they had rid themselves of their Christianity. Likewise, Marxism was atheistic, pointing to the narcotic effect of the promise of heaven, of religion as "the opium of the people". Real attempts to create equal societies have generally been inspired by secular people, not religious.

In today�s Gospel reading (Luke 12.32), Jesus also promises a rosy future: "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom".

But he does so with an uncompromising challenge, worthy of a revolutionary. What he says does not make easy reading for those who wish the promise to remain entirely in and of the future. God wishes to give us a heaven where true riches are. On our part, however, it is up to us to sell our possessions and give alms. However, I'm not sure we help ourselves if we see this sort of radical behaviour merely as yet another way to earn now a future heavenly reward.

It is at this point that Jesus� teaching seems most to resemble that of the Buddha. This great mystic of the East also taught that if we can dispossess ourselves of attachment to material things we may achieve enlightenment.

Similarly, Jesus said that as long as we remain rich we cannot even glimpse the future kingdom. For if we have wealth, that, and not social equity, will always be our chief desire and treasure.

As he said, "Your heart will always be where your riches are."

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