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: #6
Richard Holloway

What's the Use of Heaven? [Continued]
I cannot resist recalling that famous incident when Thomas Merton when Thomas Merton describes a walk along the street in Louisville, Kentucky:

At the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the centre of 
the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed 
with the realisation that I loved all these people, that 
they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation is a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The sense of liberation from a illusory difference was such a relief and joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.

If attention is the first duty of those who want to love the world, then repentance must be the second.  The truth that lies at the heart of all these theologies of rejection and loss we have thought about is the horrifying damage we have done to one another.

In these lectures I have used the Holocaust as the great paradigm of human evil, but there are many others that would have done just as well, such as slavery. The West has not yet confessed its responsibility for this great evil that still reverberates in our own day, in the racism that so disfigures our society. One of the great paradise longings of humanity is the desire to rewind history, to make it as though the evil had never happened, to bring back that deed, to recall that word, to get back to the time before the serpent put it into our mind to perform the act that destroyed our peace and sent us forth from Eden.

We can recall not only the slave trade and the Holocaust, but also the killing fields of Pol Pot's Cambodia and the Rwandan genocide of a few years ago. A task of an honest theology of life will be to remember those crimes and cry for a collective repentance. As humans we are implicated in them all, but our particular tribal pathologies will necessitate specific acts of sorrow and repentance.

This is beginning to happen in some cultures, but so far we have resisted any collective apology to African people for the slave trade that so disfigured our history and continues to stain our relations with black people. But repentance must not be the final word.

The final word must be the remaking of the earth. This is the task to which we have been summoned by Jesus. John Dominic Crossan makes an important distinction in his interpretation of the work of Jesus. I have already talked about the apocalyptic tradition in the New Testament. I suggested that Jesus had tried and subsequently discarded the apocalyptic programme for the transformation of the earth.

Let me draw this series to a close by quoting from Dominic Crossan's discussion of the subject:

The apocalyptic is a future Kingdom dependent on 
the overpowering action of God moving to restore 
justice and peace to an earth ravished by injustice and oppression. Believers can, at the very most, prepare or persuade, implore or assist its arrival, but its accomplishment is consigned to divine power alone. And despite a serene vagueness about specifics and details, its consummation would be objectively visible and tangible to all, believers and unbelievers alike, but with appropriately different fates.

The sapiential Kingdom (Crossan's name for a programme of this-worldly transformation) looks to the present rather than the future and imagines how one could live here and now with an already or always available divine dominion. One enters that Kingdom by wisdom or goodness, by virtue, justice or freedom. It is a style of life for now rather than a hope of life for the future. There is therefore an ethical Kingdom, but it must be absolutely insisted that it could be just as eschatological as was the apocalyptic Kingdom. Its ethics could, for instance, challenge contemporary morality to its depths.

Such a kingdom is just as world-denying as the apocalyptic or rejectionist theologies, but the world it denies is not this world as such, the only world we know, but the usurpation of this world by the forces of evil and injustice that claim it as their own.

The heaven we long for and must work to achieve, is God's dominion of justice and peace on earth and goodwill to all its peoples. Beyond our grasp, I know, but what else is a heaven for?

Richard Holloway
25 March, 1999

Copyright Professor Richard Holloway: This publication may not be reproduced in any form whatsoever without written permission from the author
[1] Becoming Divine, Grace M Jantzen, Manchester University Press, 1998
[2] Cited by Jantzen, Becoming Divine, p.151
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid, p.152
[5] Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, T Merton, Doubleday, NY, 1989, p.156
[6] The Historical Jesus, JD Crossan, Harper Collins, 1992, p.292

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