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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Spiritual Steroids

1 Corinthians 9.25  Every athlete in training submits to strict discipline, in order to be crowned with a wreath that will not last; but we do it for one that will last for ever.

The image Paul uses to invoke what he thought of as the ideal Christian way of life endures to this day. What could be more topical now than an athlete's highly disciplined training schedule as he or she prepares for fame and fortune?

It seems that some things just don't change - even over two thousand years. A Greek or Roman sports champion could be as well-known in Paul's time as he or she would be today. It seems likely that the supreme sportsman of those times was the gladiator. He would have been adored by many thousands. His trainer would have treasured and pampered him on one hand, and demanded strict discipline on the other. At the peak of his career (which tended, as now, to end rather abruptly) he would have been the David Beckham of the amphitheatre.

The greatest prizes usually come only at equally great cost, however. That's what Paul refers to here. There is physical pain, the sacrifice of a balanced life, and the motivation-sapping boredom of doing the same thing over and over again.

Paul's vision of a "crown that will last for ever" must have been appealing to his hearers. Those who take Jesus as master and mentor will prevail in the ongoing contest against evil powers, says Paul. Theirs will be eternal joy and fulfillment. "The last enemy to be defeated is death," he writes (1 Corinthians 15.26). This is the Christian's great prize.

Paul's image is sharp, clear and relevant to any age. But what exactly is the sort of training to which he refers?

Many Christians think of Paul as an innovator when he used the lively picture of an athlete in training. But the idea of disciplined training (askesis in Greek) was intrinsic to the ancient world. The word could refer to athletics, to the clearing of the mind for philosophical debate, and to religious practices which purified the human spirit. The best human life was lived in the spirit of askesis.

So Paul was making an utterly familiar point which would have resonated with all. Some three centuries later, however, his essentially positive message had been radically changed. The askesis of the Christian became a calling to escape from ordinary, earthy life into a rarified spiritual realm.

The ascetic St Anthony, for example, has been revered since the fourth century by Christians as a super-athlete. His biographer (reputed to have been the famous Athanasius) wrote of him that he

... possessed a very high degree of apatheia - perfect self-control, freedom from passion - the ideal of every monk and ascetic striving for perfection. Christ, who was free from every emotional weakness and fault was his model.

This model of life persists for many Christians to this day in this peculiarly distorted form. That is, the ideal Christian is one who is spiritually athletic. 

The "strict discipline" about which Paul writes has been more and more confined to a particular small corner of life called "holy" or "spiritual". If a Christian is to be commended, first and above all she or he must worship, pray and meditate. A good dose of these spiritual steroids, it is said, will produce a godly way of life.

Despite this emphasis on things spiritual, what increasingly makes sense today is the idea that the discipline of askesis operates at every level of our lives. The time has passed when we can split life into "spiritual" and "physical" parts. Life doesn't consist of the flesh and the devil on one hand, and holiness and God on the other. It consists of a whole, to which the idea of askesis can and should be applied.

What then does askesis - holy discipline in every department of life - consist of in the 21st century?

The answer can't be expressed briefly. But to give an example: How does a Christian practice askesis an a society (such as the one in which I live) which is dedicated to the ruthless over-exploitation of natural resources? One response is the difficult askesis of living as simply as possible. 

Such a life may appear foolish to a consumer society. An ascetic person may be mocked. To deliberately consume as little as possible in one's circumstances may even be feared as a threat to established ways. But it is closer, I think, to the pioneer Jesus who lived a simple life than to the fantasy Christ who is regarded as special because he prayed, meditated, fasted, performed miracles and rose from the dead.

The underlying root of askesis, then, is an attitude which embraces discipline in life as a whole. The true ascetic doesn't just dose up on spiritual steroids but recognises that all "spiritual" practices are merely aspects of a totality we call life. To be holy isn't to abdicate from life but to engage in every aspect of it with holy discipline.

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