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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Sermons from the margins

The Rabbit and the Duck

"Because you have seen me, you believe. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe" (John 20.19-31). These words of Jesus to Thomas can easily be taken as a kind of accusation that seeing is easy but believing is difficult. And that doubting Thomas has let the side down by not believing the hard way - that is, without seeing.

That is certainly a possible interpretation of the passage from John's Gospel. But it is one that does not bear scrutiny.

To start with, Thomas is never a doubter. He is always totally confident of his position. At first he is a totally confident sceptic: "Unless I see � unless I touch � I shall not believe." Then he is the totally confident believer: "My Lord and my God!" That is the only place in the whole of the Bible where Jesus is unambiguously proclaimed to be God - and it is Thomas who says it.

Confident Thomas. Never a moment�s doubt.

Far more damaging to this interpretation, however, are the problems faced by any claim that "seeing is easy" and that somehow seeing robs faith of its saving power.

Seeing is not easy. Indeed, the evidence both of the gospels themselves and of modern scientific study is that "seeing" is a highly complex and difficult thing. You might even say it requires faith.

Consider first the gospels themselves, and in particular their accounts of the appearances of the risen Jesus. Time and again his disciples simply do not see him. Mary Magdalen thinks he is the gardener, until he speaks her name. Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus think he is a complete stranger, until he breaks bread at their table.

And even when they do see, that does not automatically mean they believe.

According to Luke, when Jesus appeared to the eleven on the first Easter evening they were terrified and thought he was a ghost. Even after he had spoken to them, and showed them his hands and feet, and told them to touch him, they were still disbelieving. And Matthew tells us that even when Jesus met with the eleven by appointment on the mountain in Galilee, and they saw him and worshipped him, "some doubted".

So for Thomas to see and believe immediately, all in one go, was a remarkable act of faith even by the disciples� own standards. And as I have said, this close link between seeing and believing is reinforced by modern scientific study.

We are inclined to have a rather mechanical idea of how human seeing works. We imagine ourselves to be like a camera, the passive recipients of images of external objects. If the camera is pointing at X, then X will appear on the photo. And likewise if our open eyes are turned towards X, we will see X.

But that is not what actually happens. We in fact see very little of what our eyes are pointing towards, and what we do see depends as much on ourselves as on what is objectively out there.

This has been shown in a variety of experiments. For instance, if they have been told to concentrate on something else, people with perfectly good vision will completely fail to see objects displayed on a screen - even though they are looking straight at them. And people shown two pictures in quick succession, pictures identical except for one major change, will as often as not fail to notice the change, even when they are looking for it.

In one such experiment, I myself completely failed to notice that the cliff behind a boat at sea had disappeared, and that in a view from the driver�s seat of a car, the white line in the middle of the road - very prominent in one picture - was missing from the other, although it was shown only a split second later.

The relevant point here is that what we "see" is not the sum total of what is in front of our eyes but a picture that we ourselves construct from among the visual cues we receive.

I have given examples where the external stimulus changes and we fail to notice it. Perhaps even more striking is the opposite case, where the picture stays the same but we "see" it differently. In one such famous example of such an ambiguous picture, we sometimes see a cartoon duck looking to the left and sometimes we see a cartoon rabbit looking to the right. Once we have "seen" both images, we can choose at will which to "see", but nothing in the picture itself changes as we flip from one image to the other.

We make the change. We make what we see.

I want to suggest that this kind of ambiguous picture offers us an important insight into the relationship between seeing and believing in the risen Jesus. The stranger on the road and Jesus breaking the bread; the gardener by the tomb and the Lord saying "Mary"; the cartoon duck and the cartoon rabbit.

Nothing external changes. It is what happens inside that determines what we, or Mary, or Cleopas, "see". Call that something that happens inside "faith". Thomas had it, and he "saw and believed".

So what of us? What does it mean for us to see and believe in the resurrection?

I suggest that it is not a once-for-all act but an ongoing attitude to the whole of life. We can see a pattern of words on the page or we can see the Word of the Lord; we can see our lives as a random series of events or we can see the guidance of the Holy Spirit; we can see a spontaneous remission from cancer or we can see an answer to prayer for healing; we can see a wasteful death or we can see a life breaking the bonds of time and space; we can see a stranger in the town or we can see the risen Christ.

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