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


Mediaeval philosophers are alleged to have spent many hours disputing how many angels could dance on the head of pin. If this had merely been a twelfth-century version of "How many tenors can you get in a telephone box?" then such speculation would have been pointless.

But it was not. It was a particular example of a much more general question: How does the physical world relate to the spiritual world?

And that question is still as important now as it was then. There are three possible answers.

The first is to say that spirit and matter are two totally different kinds of "stuff". On this view - championed by Plato in the ancient world and Descartes in the seventeenth century, and still held by some people today - angels are pure spirits and pins are entirely composed of physical matter. Therefore any attempt to link the two mathematically is quite literally nonsense. It is like asking how many thoughts it takes to weigh a kilogram.

You might think that this dualism, as it is called, is an obvious and even necessary attitude for a Christian to take to this question, but this is not so. Indeed, in some ways this sharp dualism sits rather awkwardly with the much more holistic understanding of the world and human nature that we find in the Bible.

The second way to relate the physical and the spiritual is to deny the separate existence of the spiritual altogether. In its strongest version, this approach will insist that only the physical is real, and that all talk of spirits and souls - and even of minds - is a mere sentimental hangover from a pre-scientific age. Pins are real; angels are mythical.

A less aggressive version treats spirit and matter as two ways of looking at the same thing. It does not deny the spiritual dimension to life, but says that those things we currently attribute to it will turn out in the end to be entirely explicable in physical and scientific terms. Either way, the spiritual realm and its angelic representatives are of no ultimate significance.

A third possibility - a bridge between traditional and skeptical views - is the one that I commend to you on this feast of St Michael and All Angels. It acknowledges the reality of both the physical and the spiritual and sees them as intimately entwined.

On this understanding, spirit evolved with and emerged from matter, and in turn directs and inspires the material world out of which it arose. Spirit and matter are distinct from each other but dependent on each other.

So angels and pins do not belong to totally different realms (as in the first view); nor may the one be reduced to a mere aspect of the other (as in the second).

Rather, they represent the twin poles of our own ambiguous existence - the physical body without which we would have no life, and the spirit without which that life would have no purpose or meaning.

To "sing with the angels" is thus to rejoice in the spirit, and to focus on the highest and best that human endeavour can achieve.

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