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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God Forgive Us

Acts 7.60   Stephen cried out in a loud voice, "Lord! Do not remember this sin against them." He said this and died.

Occasionally one comes across something truly startling, something which cries out loudly, which sets lights flashing. Such was a recent report in a British newspaper [1]. It told of a man being left outside to die in the cold while a Christian congregation feasted inside their church hall.

An easy response is to condemn the sixty or so older people and their minister concerned. This, one might say, is not what Christianity is about. Jesus healed the sick and welcomed the outcast. So should his followers.

But wait! The people were elderly. They did telephone the police. The man was nude and behaving threateningly. He was given a blanket, a hot drink and a sandwich. But he was shut out of the hall and was dead of hypothermia some five hours later.

So a more difficult response is first to try to understand why these good people behaved as they did. Their neglect doesn't make sense. On the face of it, because they were Christians, they should have behaved differently.

It's too easy to explain it by saying that they were afraid (the minister's excuse), or that they couldn't handle the man's aggressive behaviour (the people's reason). Somewhere far in the background is something more subtle, less easy to identify. These were not hard-hearted people. Nor was their minister unaware of the demands of his religion. Something else must have subverted their goodwill. 

Strangely, a possible reason is located in Stephen's call to forgive his killers as told by Luke in The Acts of the Apostles. Stephen's words echo those of Jesus as he died on the cross: "Forgive them, Father! They don't know what they're doing" (Luke 23.34). Luke was making a theological statement in these two passages. He was saying that it is God who forgives sinners, not us. We forgive others in some sense, but it is God who does the real thing.

To dig yet another layer deeper is to recognise that many Christians see themselves as set apart from the sinful world. Christianity is often equated with going to Church, with worshiping God, with prayer and with holiness. Leaving a man to die outside is entirely consistent with this outlook. For if one is primarily concerned with spiritual matters, then the demands of this world tend to lose their urgency and immediacy.

It seems uncharitable to state it like this. But this conclusion or something very like it is inescapable. Holy people separated from the world may find it all-too-easy to pass by on the other side.

But if we are to encounter this world anew, it is we who have to learn forgiveness, not God. God forgives whatever we do. What miracles might there have been, for example, if Christians worldwide had publicly affirmed forgiveness of the World Trade Centre attackers, instead of trumpeting condemnation and retaliating violently?

There has always been this tension between openly welcoming sinners on one hand, and building walls to keep them out on the other. One part of the Church has always claimed forgiveness for itself - and then refused forgiveness to others, excluding them from the family meal. To this day we condemn our Muslim brothers and sisters; we shut out gay bishops; we prevent women exercising a full ministry; and we feast while millions outside starve and die.

It is instructive to notice what so-called sinful heathen, naked and distressed outside in the cold, do in fact take notice of. Not of spiritual people worshiping God, set aside in a holy building. Not of doctrinally impeccable sermons, nor of loud calls to repent.

On the contrary, they immediately recognise Jesus in Mother Theresa's ministry to the sick and dying in Calcutta. They know without effort when they are accepted and welcomed to the feast in the name of Jesus. They need no persuasion then.

Forgiveness is ours to give to everyone, a gift direct from God. And we all need it.
[1] London Times, 6 December, 2003

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