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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A Direct Line To God?

1 Thessalonians 1.6  You imitated us and the Lord ...

The exasperated cry of a parent, "Do as I tell you," must be familiar to us all. If you're anything like me, you'll recall the sense of anger you experienced as a child or teenager when you heard the refrain. And if you're a parent, you'll probably know how a teenager can look at you as though you're a species from another planet.

Reflecting on the times I've used the same phrase with my children, it occurs to me how often over the years I have unconsciously imitated my parents, how I've done as they told me to. I suddenly become aware of a gesture, a tone of voice, a phrase which catapult me back into the past.

Imitation is, of course, entirely natural to us all. Without the facility to imitate others we wouldn't get off first base in the often harrowing and tortuous process of growing up. Learning language as a child is probably the most fundamental imitation of them all.

I suspect, however, that the natural gift of imitation through which we learn to be human isn't what Paul meant when he points out that the Thessalonian Christians had imitated how he, Silas and Timothy "lived when we were with you" and had in turn "become an example to all believers in Macedonia and Achaia."

When Paul talks of being an "example" for others to imitate, he is saying that he and other leaders had a God-given right to be imitated. He maintains that the right is initiated and preserved "with power and the Holy Spirit, with complete conviction of its truth." In other words, it comes straight from God. 

Paul was putting his finger on a basic aspect of the culture in which he and the first Christians all lived - an aspect which is well on the way to disappearing in the West today. They thought of a hierarchy of wisdom extending from God downwards through his inspired leaders to us ordinary followers. In such a universe, imitation of those above and by definition better than ourselves proves to be a natural course of action. 

Thus on the rare occasions Paul talks about personal choice, as in his letter to the Romans (2.18), the right thing is to do "what God wants". And, of course, what God wants is what Paul says is right. Paul is unambiguous about this. He often talks about himself as "... an apostle chosen and called by God to preach his good news" and similar phrases. He warns the Galatian Christians (1.8) that "... if anyone preaches a gospel that is different from the one you accepted [from Paul], may he be condemned to hell!"

As the world of the 21st century is westernised, so this way of perceiving life becomes more and more alienating. Though few of us recognise it, this is because something strange and new (thinking in terms of centuries, that is) has happened to us in the West.

We no longer easily think in terms of imitating wise men and women as a sure way to God. Unlike most people who have preceded us in faith, many of us have adopted an entirely different way of relating to the world. We regard ourselves as not only able to to choose for ourselves without reference to a higher authority, but as less of a person if we don't work out our own way ahead in life.

It's not as though we refuse to seek counsel. We do that today more than ever before - through friends, counsellors and other professionals skilled in the art of helping us understand our needs and responsibilities. But we have a diminishing need to imitate others because they claim to have been given the right way by God.

Ask yourself this: If you have a life-choice to make, or if you need to work out what's right or wrong in a tricky personal or social situation, do you automatically seek out God's representatives on earth? And if you do, are you willing to accept their advice or ruling simply because they claim to have a direct line to God?

I think few of us now do what once came naturally to most religious people. Imitation of godly people is no longer a priority for most of us - which is perhaps why so many nowadays have ceased to look to the saints as examples of how to live the Christian life.

In short, autonomy and not imitation is our norm. God is for us no longer a power who determines what and who we should be, but a presence who affirms and supports us in our mature life choices. To put it another way, we're no longer in bondage to the law, the "right way" given by the Church. 

Instead, we're free to discover how God works in the world and to harmonise ourselves with the wonderful working out of universal purpose.

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