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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Why bother to think about religion?
Tony Windross

Is religion a complete waste of time? Does it make claims that are reasonable or ridiculous? Important question - but how can we get answers? All sorts of people make all sorts of claims on behalf of all sorts of religions. They can't all be right, but are any of them right?

Many people find religion an awesomely mysterious business, dealing with matters so profound that it takes their breath away. Religion can give other people a sense of peace, but it can also give them a sense of certainty, making them deaf to new ideas or perspectives. When religious certainty is combined with religious zeal, the result can be bigotry and division, even persecution and bloodshed.

Although its role has changed, religion still occupies an important place in our society. Everyone, whatever their views about religion, ought to give some attention to the nature of religious claims. The general term for such reflection is "theology" (literally, "God-talk"). There's not nearly enough of it about, perhaps because theology is hard work. Theology requires a willingness to read and to think and to discuss. It also demands that we be open to new ideas.

Unfortunately, lots of religious people see religion as their anchor in an uncertain world, and rather than work at theology they cling on desperately to what they've got. They use the Bible as a sort of textbook with clear rules for living, which were laid down by God. They are sometimes called Fundamentalists. Their "fundamentals" of the Christian religion grew up in response to the scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. Science seemed to undermine what the Bible said.

An obvious way of dealing with this threat was to reject the claims of science. This clear and simple approach has been popular. The more sweeping the claims made by the Fundamentalists, the more people poured through the doors of their churches. But at a stroke the Fundamentalists also showed that such an approach to religion was impossible for critically intelligent people.

Opposed to fundamentalism are the theological liberals and progressives who want nothing to do with any form of dogmatism or authoritarianism. But they have a problem. In an age characterised by the sound-bite, their reluctance to make sweepingly bold theological claims is seen as weakness by those unable to understand their caution.

Generalisations are always risky, but in very broad terms we could say that the Church is a continuum, with conservatives at one end and liberals at the other.

The former are split into two groups: Evangelicals (including Fundamentalists) and those who call themselves Catholic or Orthodox. Both kinds of conservatives oppose granting equal rights to practising homosexuals and to women.

The liberals try to see all sides and aren't opposed to anything, except intolerance and injustice. It may come down to a matter of psychology. Some people have a much greater need for certainty than others and are natural religious conservatives. The others are able to breathe thinner air and are natural explorers.

A liberal is typically someone who emphasises the need to travel lightly and who is happy to do his or her own exploring, whereas a conservative is more of a package-tour traveller who rarely ventures off the main roads.

Throughout history, the Church has been able to accommodate all manner of different theological perspectives. The conservative critics in its midst constantly complain about its doctrinal openness, saying that the liberals and progressives don't stand for anything at all. But this simply shows how low a priority such people place on the ongoing search for truth and how little time they have for genuine tolerance.

The breakdown in the late 1970s of the broad political consensus, which had prevailed in Europe and North America since 1945, brought a new stridency of public utterance to the fore. This unrestrained discourse was echoed in religion by correspondingly shrill outpourings from both ends of the religious continuum. The measured, thoughtful approach was replaced by confident oversimplification, which had (and continues to enjoy) wide appeal. A willingness to do the hard work of theology might have prevented some of the worst excesses.

A study of theology helps to guard against religious arrogance because it makes us aware of how fragile are the positions we adopt. All theology is human, in that all God-talk is talk by us. It's all tentative, it's all provisional - and it all comes down to us.

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