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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Religion on the Level: #3
Richard Holloway

What is the Use of Jesus? [Continued]
"Release yourselves from that bondage", the voice on the cross says, "lay down the burden of hatred, forgive; lay down the burden of guilt, accept forgiveness, and the future will be a new country".

Though I am still a bit baffled about where people find the grace to  forgive in the kind of horrifying circumstances we have been thinking  about, it is increasingly clear how important forgiveness is to a healthy private life; even more importantly it is essential in political life,  especially in situations of chronic conflict.

Who could ever pick their way through the ancient antagonisms of Northern Ireland and produce an accurate check sheet of the rights and wrongs of that tragedy? It can never be done. The accounting mentality simply destines the tragedy to continue unless there is forgiveness, something that the peace process is slowly working away at.

Fortunately, there is s good example to hand of trying to make political forgiveness work. South Africa is a country whose history is drenched in blood and hatred, but a remarkable experiment took place there called the Truth Commission. Here we see the politics of forgiveness at work. It seemed to them that the only way to bury that terrible past was not to forget it but to forgive it, so the Commission guaranteed amnesty for those who owned up to their offences, and so created the very circumstances in which the full horror of the past could be owned by both the agents and the victims, so that all could move on into the future.

Great emphasis is being placed on the healing of memories, but that healing cannot happen if the truth of the past is not acknowledged and confronted. The report of the Truth Commission is full of examples of  this process at work as South Africa tries painfully to heal its past by the radical political application of the dynamic of forgiveness.

Denis Healey wrote that you never reach conclusions in politics, but you have to make decisions, you have to get on with things. The instinct for political forgiveness is close to that insight. It knows how complex our sins and mistakes are, and knows how impossible it is to draw up a balance sheet. Forgiveness gives us the courage to draw a line under the past, so that we can walk away from it at last, and move into the future.

The centrality of forgiveness in the teaching of Jesus is entirely appropriate in someone who came to set people free and make their lives more abundant. It was that passion for enlarging the lives of those who had been diminished and beaten by life that is the other element in the teaching and example of Jesus I want to look at tonight, by reflecting on some aspects of the birth narratives. Let me begin by reflecting on the nativity of the current President of the United States of America.

Not many people had heard of a small town in Arkansas called Hope, till Bill Clinton, who was born there became President of the USA. However, the town of hope in Arkansas will, for citizens of the USA, have a particular historical significance from now on, no matter what they think of the current resident of the White House.

Becoming President of the USA confers fame upon the place from which his journey to Washington started. And the legends start building.

"That's the desk he studied at and those are the boots he wore when he walked every day to the old school house, six miles there and six miles back. He had his first fight over there, behind Kelly's bar; and he kissed Darlene Chisholm, the night of the school prom, on the back seat of this here Pontiac station wagon, belonged to her dad; you can still see the scorch mark right here on the upholstery".

The technical term for this process of reading legends back  into the early years of historic figures is called retrojection. It is a natural instinct to read back a person's greatness into the early years; to look for or invent signs of what was to come. The precise detail of the stories doesn't matter, as long as they are consistent with what we know of the later life. They have to fit the theme of the life, express something of the nature or history of the famous person.

This is how we ought to approach the stories of the birth of Jesus. The question we should ask as we hear the stories of the nativity is not, "Is this really how it was?" but, "What do these stories tell us about the meaning of life?" In other words, we should go for the spiritual or theological meaning, not the historical, because that is no longer available to us.

Luke is in no doubt about where the significance of Jesus lies, and loads his birth story with that meaning. He was born in Bethlehem, the least of the cities of Judah. Shepherds, the travelling people of the day, mistrusted and feared by the settled, were the first to hear of his birth. And he was placed in a manger in the part of the house where the animals slept because they were probably staying with relatives who, though poor themselves, welcomed them under their own roof.

Luke at the very beginning of this boo places Jesus at the bottom of the social pyramid. And pyramid it was.

The economic setup of the time was a domination system, a social pyramid, and the whole structure was designed to serve the needs of the people at the top. Until fairly recently most societies were domination systems, and there is a certain logic in that. In the struggle for life it is the strong who come out on top. That wouldn't be so bad if they were honest about it and told us that they liked being on top and would fight to stay there, but they do more than that.

They develop theories and theologies to justify their privileges. They say, "God put us here, because this is the best way to run the world; we are really up here, not for our own sake, but for everyone else's; it is for their sake that we have accepted the burden of privilege and leadership". The powerful always do this; they justify their privileges with theories, but they hold on to them with their muscles.

One of the most powerful arguments against Christianity is that it has often leant its support to whatever system was on top and anointed it. It preached resignation, not revolt. The strange result is that by  preaching self-denial to the people at the bottom in order to justify the privileges of those at the top, it has given the impression that Christianity is a religion of world-denial and repression.

We are against pleasure and fun; we are against the instincts and sheer joy that says yes to life and grasps it with both hands. That is why the papers love all those ministers that come forth every December to denounce the exuberance of Christmas. Our history is filled with that kind of denial of life and its energies and joys, like the American fundamentalist sect that wanted to ban sex because it might lead to dancing.

But all that crawling, creeping, breast-beating, "we-know-our-place" kind of Christianity is profoundly contrary to the spirit and example of Jesus.

The thing that offended them about Jesus was that he refused to conform to the system himself and he denied that it had any divine legitimacy. It was a human not a divine creation and should be challenged and overthrown in the name of the God who longed for justice. He preached what he called "the kingdom of God"; he wanted things done on earth as they were in heaven, that is, with love and mutual kindness; and he told the poor that the revolution would start with them.

Interestingly, he was the original example of a political phenomenon that has often been remarked on. Aneurin Bevan, the great Welsh socialist, was dismissed as a "Bollinger Bolshevik" because he enjoyed the good things of life. He replied that there was no contradiction in his enjoyment of the privileges of the rich because he wanted everyone to be able to share in the world's good things.

And Jesus was no pining ascetic either. They called him a wine-bibber and a glutton, and he did not deny the charge. Life was a wedding feast and guests don't fast at a wedding; but this feast was for all, and he had come to compel the outcasts, those we now call the excluded, to gatecrash the party.

That is why following Jesus is both joyful and serious. It is about the enjoyment of life and all its colour; it's a banquet, a bash, a cosmic party. But it's one to which everyone is invited and that means work, sometimes dangerous work, because there are many people at the party who don't want to let anyone else in and would, if they got their way, get rid of some who are already there.

Jesus came to raise people up, not to exclude them. That is why those who use the example of Jesus not only try to practise forgiveness but try to learn to look at people differently, to practise imaginative compassion, to see the world as it ought to be and not simply to accept it as it is. Seeing it that way round is to see it the way he saw it; and if enough of us start seeing it that way, why it might even come to pass.

Richard Holloway
2 December 1998

Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced
 in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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