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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A Titanic Struggle

Matthew 22.40  "The whole Law of Moses and the teachings of the prophets depend on these two commandments."

Few are more than vaguely aware of a titanic struggle which has been joined in the Christian fellowship in recent years. In the West there is a sense in the Church pew that that empty seats and depleted coffers denote something seriously wrong. Elsewhere, many Christians have a sense of being besieged by hostile forces.

It might be argued that ordinary people like you and me should leave great issues to great men and women. That may be true - and yet there is a real sense in which each of us is caught up in and affected by these events. Whether we will or not, as we pray, worship and live our lives out, we contribute our tiny piece to the eventual outcome of these larger times and tides. We are engaged even if we don't want to be.

As I think of the issues at stake, it occurs to me that a simple yet profound truth, which has tended to elude humanity over the ages, has been discovered. A precious few have grasped it in every century. But not until our times has a significant number of people consciously realised that the only constant in life is change. Not only that, but the pace of change is now faster than ever before.

I'm aware that this is a truism, that many have said it already, that it has become something of a mantra. But I think it important that Christians wherever they are stop to ponder how change affects them, and why.

All struggles on the larger scale are comprised of struggles in microcosm - in the myriad ways each of us faces up to new things in our lives. It seems to me that the greatness of Jesus is comprised in part of a hyper-awareness of the constancy of change, and of the evil which comes of trying to replace trust in God with devices which protect us from the world which God created.

Of all such devices, none is more powerful and insidiously corrupting than the idea that God has fixed in concrete certain ways of thinking and behaving. Of all groups in the world, none is more wedded to this concept of life than religious people. Christians in particular claim to know, for all people everywhere and at all times,

  • what's right and wrong, whether it be the Ten Commandments, or the precepts of the Bible, or the pronouncements of Church authorities;
  • how to make contact with the divine; and therefore
  • the best courses of action for everyone, to the point of being able to tell statesmen what their momentous choices should be.

Many Christians act as though they are an island of stability in a flood of change. If this bishop or that synod, this council or that cardinal, this assembly or that pastor, legislates this or that then the flood is diverted around an island of unchangeable certainties.

Both Jesus and Paul were entirely familiar with this approach to life. They called it "the Law". It was a set of absolutes which could be interpreted, but never changed. The Law ruled humans. In exchange it provided apparent security. And yet, as Paul says, "No one is put right with God by doing what the Law requires" (Galatians 3.16).

Jesus was equally bold. The entire Law is itself ruled by love, he said. It is superceded, overcome, and replaced by an entirely different way of living. He proceeded to demonstrate this truth by dying for it.

The Law defines the response before encountering the person. Love encounters the person first, and follows with a response which seeks the good of the other. Love calculates the right response to life; the Law prescribes the response. The Law elevates principles over people; love sacrifices principles in the service of others.

The difference between love and Law can, I think, be well expressed by the difference between a lifestyle which seeks security and stability above all, and one which accepts the uncertainties of loving others as we were first loved.

The struggle, then, is not so much between the old and the new, or between Western and African Christians, or between Islam and Christianity. 

Rather, it is between those who perceive themselves as having arrived at the gates of a heavenly city, and those who still travel the hard road, whose destination is uncertain, and for whom no maps have yet been made. It is between those who claim access to final truth, and those who recognise that God's way, the way of love, moves and shifts eternally.

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