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: #4

What is the use of the Church?
In a series of lectures delivered in London in 1998 just before he died, the great Catholic New Testament scholar Raymond Brown pointed to this paradox. Jesus was only interested in the lost. He was prepared to leave the ninety nine in the wilderness in order to go after the one outsider. He forgave not seven times but seventy times seven, or for ever. He expressed God's insane love for those outside the great institutional enclosures and their ethic for survival and power, and he went after them, lived among them, died as one of them.

But, as Raymond Brown pointed out, that is no way to run anything, not even the Church! The Church has to care more for the ninety nine in the sheepfold than for the one who is lost, not only because they pay the bills but because of the utilitarian logic of institutional life which 
says that losing one to save the ninety nine makes mathematical sense. It is hardly surprising therefore that churches follow the Caiaphatic logic of expedience in order to keep themselves together; and how can we 
condemn them for their compromises when our own lives are so cowardly?

The difference between me and Jesus is that he paid no attention to relative cultural or institutional values. He always went after the lost, the ones outside; but, and this is one of the heart-breakingly beautiful things about him, he understood the corrupting compromises institutions and their leaders have to make; he had compassion on their need to follow the ethic of expediency, forgave them the necessity of his own  crucifixion, smiled at Pilate and kissed the pale and bloodless lips of the Grand Inquisitor.

It is the unconditionality of Jesus that is so breathtaking. The pain of being the Church comes from recognising that we are supposed to mediate that divine unconditionality and its promise of acceptance of all, while knowing that the mediation system we have invented to do the job will have to operate conditionally, and go on choosing the ninety  nine rather than the ones outside.

So, in trying to embody the unconditionality of God's love we have to contradict it. No wonder that Paul said that the Church was an impostor through whom the truth was spoken. The truth of God's unconditional love does get through the Church, often in spite of its own efforts to prove the opposite. The thing that is most baffling about 
Christian history is the way the unconditionality of Jesus was, in time, converted not only into the conditionality of the Church, but into cruel conditionality.

Worldly institutions operating the Caiaphatic ethic, throw people onto the human scrap heap of unemployment in order that the company may not perish. The Church absolutised the same ethic and threw them into hell. Jesus opened the heart of God who comes running to meet us in 
our brokenness, and we ended up in his name proclaiming a God who seemed all too eager to get rid of us unless we happened to stumble on the right salvation programme.

How did this happen? It clearly has something to do with the logic of institutions that we have already looked at; but there is something else going on as well, something that is intrinsic to religion itself. The curse of all religious systems is perfectionism and the guilt it induces. Religion seems to attract insecure personalities who are so afraid of getting  things wrong that they live in constant fear of sin or having the wrong ideas about God and reality, so they create these cruel systems that rule them, telling them how to act and how to think, how to qualify for God's approval.

They are obsessed with that need to be right that kills the spirit. All the competing religions try to persuade people that they alone have the right programme, are the place where, finally, we will be right: "Join us and you'll be saved from the anger of God", they say.

Two of the prophetic geniuses of this century recognised the fundamental irony of the nature of institutional Christianity and its claim to universality. Simone Weil had a mysterious unconsummated love affair with Christianity. She was such a lover of Jesus and was so 
identified with him that she chose to stay outside with the eternal outsider rather than be baptised and join the institution that both bore and contradicted his name.

She wrote:

�in my eyes Christianity is catholic by right but not 
by fact. So many things are outside it that I love and 
do not want to give up, so many things that God loves, otherwise they would not be in existence. All the immense stretches of past centuries, except the last twenty, are among them; all the countries inhabited by coloured races; all secular life in the white people's countries, in the history of these countries, all the traditions banned as heretical�[4]

The other great soul I want to quote is Thomas Merton. He was writing much later and to someone else, but he might have been replying to Simone Weil herself in what he said:

You don't know how well I understand what you 
say about not wanting to declare yourself a Catholic 
and wear the label, which is a political one more 
often than not, and which implies a certain stoical 
stand, and an attachment to certain institutional forms, with God far in the background. The only trouble is that this is not the meaning of the word Catholic. It is the complete evisceration of Catholicity, but one which has been expertly and thoroughly performed by Catholics themselves. Thus I feel a certain equanimity and even smugness at the thought of my own possible excommunication. I cannot be a Catholic unless it is made quite clear to the world that I am a Jew and a Moslem, unless I am executed as a Buddhist and denounced for having undermined all that this comfortable social Catholicism stands for: this lining up of cassocks, this regimenting of birettas. I throw my biretta in the river.[5]

The paradox, of course, is that we could not hear these prophetic voices, could not be in touch with the spirit of Jesus, were it not for the institution that carries his memory and meaning through time, however 
much it obscures it in doing so. It is an excruciating tension for us all, particularly for those who represent the Church in some official capacity.

That is why we have to go on forgiving one another while we try to live the crucifying paradox of Christianity, which is an essentially compromised institution driven by the logic of its own survival, yet one that embodies the absolutely unconditional love of the God who is 
always on the side of the lost and rejected.

To be honest Christians, we have to allow ourselves to feel both ends of that tension. We have to meditate on and try to follow the way of unconditionality; yet we have to have compassion on the compromises our weak natures make, remembering that we are more likely to be  clear about the compromises made by others than those we ourselves make.

We have to remember the forgiveness of Jesus for the ethic of expediency that crucified him. But Jesus not only went after the lost; he challenged those who thought they had been found.

So we must also remember that we are not here to preserve the Church from conflict and challenge, not even those of us who are bishops, because we should always be trying, imperfectly and through compromised institutions, to express the absolute unconditionality of God.

One of the ways that gets expressed in Christian history is by prophetic minorities who find themselves in the Church as signs of contradiction. One of the heartening things about our own day is that there is an increasing army of Christians whose love of Jesus and the outcasts he celebrated places them on the critical edge of the Church, neither comfortably in nor comfortably out. It's not a bad place to be, and 
sometimes, right at the back of the crowd, it's possible to see Jesus himself, smiling.

Richard Holloway
25 February, 1999

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

[1] George Mackay Brown, An Orkney Tapestry, p.11
[2] John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus, Harper Collins, p.229
[3] Ibid. p.105
[4] Simone Weil, Waiting on God, p.30
[5] Thomas Merton, The Courage for Truth, pp.78,79

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