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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Waving A Little Flag
by Paul Walker

We know that there is a huge gap between traditional Christian understanding and atheistic understanding of the world. For many this is inevitable. It would be worrying if it were not so, because both Christians and atheists seem keen to distance themselves from each other.

For those of us who wish ideas around religion to be taken seriously, it causes a degree of concern. I thought I might quote two ideas which bring into this divide into stark contrast.

First, Richard Dawkins is an outspoken scientist who believes that science leads inevitably to atheism. He writes:

Nature is not cruel, pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous - indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose.

Second, I quote from a runaway best-seller in the United States called The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. The first sentence of Warren�s book reads, "It�s all about God". He argues that to understand the purpose of life you have to begin with God and his revelation through the scriptures. The scriptures can help us to understand absolutely what our purpose is as part of God�s plan, and to live accordingly.

So we have two opposing camps.

In the red corner are those who argue that life has no purpose whatever. It simply is. In the blue corner are those who argue that there is a great being outside ourselves we call "God" and who we know through revelation. God is the purpose of our lives and in turn gives our lives an absolute purpose.

On the face of it I can understand why Rick Warren�s book has sold so many more copies than any work of Richard Dawkins. For when I read these two ideas I fear my heart is with Warren and brain is with Dawkins.

There may or may not be a purpose to life. But as Dawkins suggests, I cannot admit that this is the case. On the other hand, if the purpose of life is so simple that a small Semitic tribe had it all worked out two thousand years ago � then how come the world is so complicated?

As I pondered this question, I started to tie myself in knots. I was seeking to reconcile these ideas and to wonder if there could possibly be a bridge between the two.

Eventually I realised that of course there will be no bridge. This is because Warren and Dawkins are incredibly similar to each other. They both claim to know what life is about. Granted, their conclusions differ. But they are both certain of the origins of the universe and that they fully comprehend it.

In a sense they are both fundamentalists. And as the world is learning to its cost, fundamentalists do not enter into dialogue.

I wish at this point to wave a little flag for agnosticism.

I find that I cannot look at the universe and conclude that it has no purpose. Nor can I conclude that there is a knowable God behind it. I simply do not know. The Greek for knowledge is gnosis. Hence those who do not know are a-gnostic.

Yet I would also call myself a Christian. This is not because I believe that Christianity has answers to the questions of the origins and purpose of life. Those we will never know. Rather, I find that there are forms of Christianity which help me make sense of my existence.

Let me illustrate. The year 2005 sees the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. What are we to make of such an appalling thing? Perhaps callous existence occasionally throws up societies which commit genocide. Such an event has no meaning. It just happens periodically.

Then again, perhaps it was all part of God�s plan to help us learn compassion and put the "people of the book" back in the land that God promised to them.

To both conclusions I say no. Maybe my heart dominates my head, but I can do no other.

At its best I understand Christianity to respond to such things as Auschwitz by speaking of compassion, of justice, of love, of hope, of reconciliation.

Jesus lived and died in a world of equally harsh brutality. Yet he still preached divine and neighbourly love. His response was to accept people as they are and to draw them to each other and to a God who broke down the barriers that divide people. This for me is still a viable way of dealing with the horrors that existence can bring.

I am convinced that we cannot understand the universe. But asking questions about it matters. We should allow people like Dawkins and Warren to make their claims and in a sense leave them to it.

The rest of us who make no claims to understand the purpose of life should still seek together to live lives which give it real meaning. Let�s also live as if the meaning we give life is the very purpose of the universe.

You never know it might just be!

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