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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Those Ungodly Bastards

Romans 8.13:  If you live according to your human nature you will die; but if by the Spirit ... you will stay alive.

An Anglican bishop recently pointed out that there is a strain of genuine cruelty in religion. In the Christian religion it's as though people become so focused on the spiritual that they tend to forget the frailty of the flesh.

This is not surprising. The bishop thinks that religion is intrinsically paranoid. It splits the world into rival forces of good and evil, insiders and outsiders, the flesh and the spirit. This outlook may derive from the dawn of human consciousness, he thinks. Humans were then relatively defenseless, threatened by a host of mysterious forces. It was particularly difficult in such circumstances not to divide the world into "us" and "them", the good and the bad. 

Paul preserved this division in his theology. He opposes "flesh" against "spirit". From corrupt "flesh" comes "no good thing". Our transitory human nature - which is what the term "flesh" actually means - is too weak to cope. It leads us into sin and death. Anyone living according to human nature cannot please God. 

From the more enduring Spirit, on the other hand, comes self-control, peace, freedom and life itself. Those who live by the Spirit are God's children. They are acceptable to Christ.

This view of the Spirit harmonises both with the Old Testament and with traditional Christian theology. The prophets of old were those who, inspired by God, fearlessly exposed errors into which the Hebrews and their rulers had fallen. Similarly, early Christians tackled their fellow Hebrews for not recognising that Jesus was their long-awaited Messiah.

The Church carries on this prophetic tradition to this day. The Archbishop of Canterbury tells off the British Prime Minister for his policies and actions. An ex-Archbishop likewise takes Muslim countries to task for not properly following the spirit of Islam. An evangelist slates homosexuals for depraved sexual practices. The battle of good against evil, of spirit against flesh, continues as it has throughout the ages.

This is all no doubt fine. Except that nowadays there is a snag not often recognised - and if recognised, almost never acknowledged. 

It is that for all the speaking and prophesying "in the Spirit" by Christians, few outside the fold are listening. The words may be heard - but they are seldom if ever heeded.

The Church's knee-jerk reaction to its lack of impact is to blame the corrupt human nature of a so-called secular world. It's not our fault that so few listen when we speak, cry the Christians. We are God's children. Those outside must come into the holy family. They are spiritually deaf. They have turned off their God-given hearing aids.

But let's apply a test at this point. What happens when the secular world criticises the Church, when the prophetic process is reversed? 

To take only one of many possible examples, national leaders have pleaded with the Pope to encourage the use of condoms by Roman Catholics to combat HIV/AIDS. What's the reaction? It is the assertion by the bulk of the Church of absolute and perpetual rectitude in this and many other matters. The attitude is common throughout Christendom. We are the prophets, they are the sinners. Our human nature is redeemed, theirs is fallen. Us and them - a great gulf fixed between.

God's lawful children, it seems, cannot tolerate the idea that their father has other offspring. And that these others might be better able to hear the Spirit, might have something to say about how God does things, is rather like legitimate children discovering that their father has left everything to his bastards.

So as Christians gather for the holy festival of Pentecost, they might do well to consider the possibility that God is speaking to them in a voice they find hard to hear because the dialect is strange and the tones unfamiliar. 

Their ears are sometimes deafened by loud hymns, fervent prayers and impassioned sermons. But still, small voices speak from the slums of Johannesburg and Delhi, from politicians in Congress and Parliament, from economists and stock exchanges, and from those driven from the Church by bigotry. There is also a non-Christian majority out there - bastard children of a Father who dares sow his seed outside the family.

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