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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Isaiah 49.6-7
  A light to the nations - so that all the world may be saved.

We often forget that the Old Testament is not Christian. One of its fundamental ideas is that the Hebrew nation was a cut above the rest. Their God was exclusive. If the world was to be saved, it had to look to the Hebrew nation as a "light to the nations".

The New Testament is a curious mixture of Old Testament superiority and a radically new way of life.

On the one hand there is a triumphalist vein which proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as the final solution for all and for all time. To use John's imagery, Jesus is the unblemished "lamb of God" whose sacrifice cancels the sin of the entire world. Jesus is the only complete answer to life's problems.

On the other hand, Jesus himself again and again refused to allow barriers of religion, ritual cleanliness and ethnic origin to rule his life. His God was not a God of a superior people, but one to whom all could relate. His approach was the opposite of the exclusive dogmatism of his fellow Hebrews and generations of Christian missionaries.

Paul was successful precisely because he continued in Jesus' way. If he had followed the Hebrew way ("I am a pure-blooded Hebrew" - Philippians 3.5) he would have preached Hebrew superiority. And if he had championed Jesus as a Hebrew Messiah, I suspect Christianity would have died as a Jewish sect.

Some Christians today still operate from the Old Testament vantage point. They insist that the Christian way is the best. Often speaking from unawareness of their own pride of place, they preach that others must accept Christ as the final answer or pay the penalty of eternal suffering in a fiery hell.

Superiority requires submission from those who differ. Absolute truth by definition denies others the right to question. It cannot allow independent thought. Dogma taught by the superior must be accepted willy-nilly by the inferior. It cannot affirm that others may relate fully to God without Jesus.

The Christian claim to absolute truth persists today as it has for many centuries. One of our defensive tricks is to blame others for "not listening" to our final answers. The truth may well be instead that we will not listen to them, focused as we tend to be on our own pride at being saved.

Humility, in contrast, grows best close to freedom. It listens, asks and explores, knowing that answers are provisional. It remains willing to accept that others may flourish in God's eyes even though they grow and attain holy maturity in other than Christian soil.

Humility faces outwards, not inwards. It is open, not closed, to questions and answers. To be humble is to acknowledge that, in the end, one has more questions than answers. Humility will not sacrifice another on the altar of dogmatic rectitude. It is the only stance, I think, which patterns itself in each unique situation on the person of Jesus, who himself "was humble ... all the way to death" (Philippians 2.9).

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