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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Dover Beach
by Matthew Arnold (1822-88)

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; - on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch'd land,

Sophocles long ago
heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round the earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl'd.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


Dover Beach Revisited
by Edward Compton 

Arnold! The Sea of Faith
Is ebbing still. Now, as then,
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
Bemoans, to disillusioned ears, the death
Of God: its waters brackish, muddied
By slow erosion of the trampled shore,
Its currents crossed, muddled
By moles and groynes misplaced by men.

Experience, not faith, reveals
That in its own good time
The tide will turn,
Facing about, as one reborn,
Flowing again from blessed isles
Which purge and purify: returning home
As pilgrims, shriven at some distant shrine,
Dance on their way, unburdened and serene.

Yes, Arnold, your night was drear.
You did not see --
Because backsliding pebbles sounded harsh
You could not hear --
The nascent counter-surge, which we
Detect when tempests hush
At dawn -- when noise
Gives way to wavelets' still small voice.

The ebb tide was a scavenger
Washing away cast-iron certainties
Worn rusty, holed and cracked.
The coast grows clear. A whispering messenger,
The shoreward backwash, tells
Of distant mysteries
Won from forgotten Nerieds' cells
And salvaged from our long neglect.

Now we may understand
How little we can comprehend;
Loosening the threadbare blindfold called Belief,
May see with awe and reverence
The unaccountable advance
Of waves across the thirsty sand -- find life
In salty pools bewildered bright,
Beneath the dazzling miracle of light

[From Sea of Faith website]

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The poem was written in 1867 after Arnold had become a school inspector and been exposed to social conditions in England.