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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Life Before Death

Ezekiel 37.14
  I will put my breath in them, bring them back to life.

Perhaps the most distressing experience anyone can have is to watch life become death. All living things die. Thus an ancient question asks which is greater - life or death?. 

Death is all around us. A household pet dies and parents must somehow help young children come to terms with the event. A farm brimming with life falls silent as livestock is culled to prevent disease. Innocent women and children die in a revenge attack, a suicide bomber kills herself and others, the Twin Towers episode kills thousands. The reality of death forces itself on us, like it or not.

More difficult, perhaps because we ourselves are alive and tend to take life for granted, is to to be constantly aware of new life around and in us. But it's there, flowing silently yet strongly and joyfully. 

One aspect of life is sometimes forgotten - that it demands from us constant response and adaptation. In return life gives itself without reservation to those who choose to seize it. Only when we die does change cease. Attempting to prevent change is as it were to freeze life. Though that response may be understandable, it is essentially life-denying.

That's what Ezekiel understood. What greater transformation could there possibly be than for a ditch full of dry bones to come to life? What more gripping a scenario than to see the bones "covered with sinews and muscles, and then with skin ... Breath entered the bodies and they came to life and stood up" ? The prophet was affirming that the glass is not empty or even half full - but brimful of vitality and energy constantly overflowing, transforming and renewing us.

Ezekiel, like most until modern times, thought of life as a kind of force or energy which God gave and took away as he wished. What is clear to us now is that all life is inter-connected. It forms a great web spread across the face of our planet, complex, shifting, changing and growing. To be pro-life is much, much more than to protest about abortion, for example. It's to recognise and affirm in every possible way that we are curators of the Garden of Eden. Life on earth is our gift and our responsibility.

The test of what's worthwhile to us in daily living is how we feel at peak times in our lives. We talk about the "depths" of life, recalling perhaps how bad we felt when things looked bleak, when deep emotional attachments were broken, or when failure stalked and then pounced.

But on the peaks of life, it's different. Then we look out on the world with excitement and joy, marveling at the wonders of all around us.

Looking forward to Easter as a festival of life, it becomes clear that life has a quarrel with those who regard Lent as a time to "give things up", to discipline ourselves anew. The quarrel arises because restriction and control of life is the opposite of what makes Jesus so attractive. His impact has grown over two millennia not because of tales of miracles, or wise teaching, or the Church, but because so many have recognised in him life which can't be destroyed. They want that life for themselves.

Through the witness of Jesus and countless others we know that life comes before death, abundant life, a cup of life brimming and running over - as the Gospels so frequently remind us. I doubt that Jesus would have got much out of a traditional Lent, so often sombre and negative as it is. Whether we look at a Jesus of history or a Jesus created and interpreted by his followers, one thing is clear: he was pro-life in the broadest sense. He seems to have had so strong a grip on life that some people were convinced he couldn't die.

Life, says the Christian faith, can't be restricted or tamed or imprisoned. Beware of those who preach a God of limitations, of ideas and virtues set in concrete, of a reality once and for always defined by authority.

Shaka, the great chieftain of the Zulu nation, is reputed to have been horrified by the Western practice of imprisoning criminals. "I am more merciful," he's supposed to have said. "I give them death." Perhaps he realised that imprisonment is a sort of living death. The first thing John reports Jesus saying when Lazarus is raised is, "Untie him!" Unless we can explore life, live it out fully to the best of our abilities, we will find it hard to discover the joy of being.

Lent, then, isn't about getting into training to keep the rules better, as I've so often heard it said. It's about "turning around" to live life more fully. Repentance isn't repentance unless it brings new life - which is why we regard Easter as the high point of the Christian year.

Easter is the time each year when those who call themselves Christian join many others throughout the world to reaffirm that life is the point of it all.

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