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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A New Inquisition

1 Corinthians 12.1  Concerning what you wrote about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. I want you to know the truth about them, my brothers.

A great scandal has arisen in the Church. It has crept up quietly, noticed only by the most alert. Other apparently more pressing matters have tended to obscure it. While Christians agonise about homosexual bishops, child abuse, issues of social justice, and war, a much more important and fundamental matter is being largely ignored.

The scandal is the way teaching about the Holy Spirit is being used to demonise and exclude some from the Christian fellowship.

Paul says almost nothing about the nature of the Spirit. In fact, nowhere in his letters does he analyse who or what the Spirit is. He merely explains the results or "fruits" of the Spirit. These are the outpouring of love, peace, joy and guidance. We are enabled to dedicate ourselves, our consciences are ruled and we are energised and renewed. The Spirit is closely linked with fellowship (2 Corinthians 13.13).

A detailed theology of the Spirit was not developed until long after Paul's time. This theology contains certain assumptions which are foreign to a large majority of ordinary people today. The most important is that its proponents often claim that the Spirit has led them to absolute truth - either via inspired scripture or by some other revelation.

It follows that their hotline to God bestows a right and duty to correct those perceived to be in the wrong. Some Christians feel justified in condemning those who disagree with their teachings. And those whose behaviour doesn't match the standards supposedly revealed by the Spirit are likewise demonised.

The signs of a new-style inquisition are inescapable. Homosexuals are vilified. Sexual deviants are hunted down and punished. Schism is threatened unless the will of the inspired prevails. In the Church of England a tribunal to flush out heretics has been proposed. Divorcees are excluded. Missionaries urge those of other faiths to enter the Christian fold or perish in the fires of hell. 

In short, the fruits of the "Spirit" are proving in practice to be dissension, division, hatred, persecution and self-righteousness. These are not those to which Paul referred.

Paul writes, "There are inspired messages, but they are temporary ... there is knowledge, but it will pass" (1 Corinthians 13.8). Nothing is cast in concrete except love. Inquisitors fool themselves if they think they have somehow grasped absolute truth. As Paul put it, "What I know now is only partial" (13.12).

How can we think of the Spirit in the 21st-century?

Would-be inquisitors might revise their sense of absolute superiority if they were to recognise that the Spirit is hidden from them. It's a still, small voice in the wilderness (1 Kings 19.12). We see the dry bones being clothed with flesh - the results or "fruits". But we don't see what or who gives them life (Ezekiel 37).

Many today can't easily grasp the idea of "spirit" as some sort of non-physical being or aspect of the Godhead. Such concepts came more easily to a past age. But to us they frequently mean little or nothing - that is, they become irrelevant to our daily lives. 

Perhaps a better phrase to describe the Spirit would be "life-force". In other words, people all through the ages in every country and society have always seen and known the fruits of what Christians call "the Spirit". They have seen its results in every renewal, every urge to grow and develop, in the world's vast diversity. Every revival from personal disaster, each turn from a destructive to a productive way of life, every tiny or great movement of nature witnesses to the Spirit.

The world's life-force is not and cannot be confined within any formula, in any church, or by any government. It isn't a Christian possession or monopoly. It can't be owned or even grasped. It can't be described or defined. The work can be seen but not the worker.

The life-force which breathes into every fibre of our being, which invigorates and revives the depths of the natural order cannot, thank God, be imprisoned or killed by the new inquisitors. 

We have good reason to fear them, for they will often go to great lengths to force their will on others. But there is no reason to suppose they will triumph. 

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