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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The Malady of Not Marking

1 Peter 5.5  ... all of you must put on the apron of humility.

Talking about humility is difficult. Partly this is because we are each vulnerable to accusations of not practising what we preach; and partly because addressing humility tends to make plain the slightest lack of that virtue.

Traditionally, humility is the opposite of pride, which is thought of as rebellion against God. It follows that humility involves submission "under God's mighty hand" as the author of 1 Peter puts it. He echoes Paul, who saw Jesus as humble because he "... walked the path of obedience all the way to the end" (Philippians 2.8). An apron protects against the messiness of doing dirty work for others. We are here being urged to put on the universal badge of a servant, that most humble of occupations.

Both writers reflect the social norm of their time that it is right to keep to one's given station in life. Thomas Aquinas, for example, suggested that obedience to God implies moderation of ambition. We are all put where we are by the divine will, he argues. If our station is to change, God will arrange it. Until then, we should humbly submit.

The moral seems to be, "Don't make more of yourself than you should." This sort of humility comes to mind when an 18-year-old footballer, already a multi-millionaire, appears on television amidst much praise and adulation. How is he to resist an inflated ego? In a celebrity culture such as ours his fate seems sealed by the unflagging attention and praise he's likely to receive regardless of the way he lives.

If traditional humility is badly neglected it is for good reason, however. For some hundreds of years now, humanity has increasingly been seen as having metaphorically "come of age". Where submission and dependence were once the norm, autonomy and self-direction are now in the ascendant. Where God was a parent-figure in the sky issuing orders to obedient children, the divine is now firmly rooted in daily life. In the West, and increasingly elsewhere, very few now define themselves in terms of toeing the line, of kowtowing to the powers that be.

How does that change how we think about humility? Not much, if we continue to work from the Bible towards life, if we try to live life today as though nothing much has changed in two thousand years. The Bible derives from what we would today call an authoritarian culture, one which envisaged God as a heavenly emperor, to be blindly obeyed and completely depended upon. Its vision does not admit a modern standpoint. Instead, the modern must bend and conform to it - even if it breaks.

It makes more sense today to start with life as we know it and work from there to understanding Jesus. One such response derives from what we now know about healthy personality.

If any one thing marks maturity it is the capacity to be realistic about oneself. The more you and I see ourselves as others see us, the more easily we adapt to life's demands. A further question naturally arises. How does one reach self-knowledge? The answer is by being open to the feedback which our environment gives us minute-by-minute and day-by-day. That is a useful way of understanding the traditional metaphor of "God's voice".

Some of what is reflected back by God will be uncomfortable, some pleasing. But all of what we see and hear is God speaking to us. "Obedience" is possible only when God's voice is heard - and that in turn requires that we listen carefully. If the Christian faith is worth anything, this must yield good fruit. For faith is trust that God's creation is so designed to give us that feedback and, as it were, put each of us in our proper place. 

Humility, then, is the act of listening to God through the world. True listening requires putting one's own agendas on hold, cocking our ears to hear better, and noting with care what comes to us. Interestingly, none of the behaviours of traditional humility fall away. Arrogance and listening are poor bedfellows. Self-centredness (not the same as looking inwards) fails to notice the messenger at the window. Wealth still blinds and deafens. Bigotry still shuts the door on the stranger.

The opposite of humility for us today turns out to be not rebellion but willful deafness and blindness. It's not that the older perception of humility as obedience was wrong - far from it. It's just that it makes more sense today to think of Jesus as humble, not because he was obedient, but because he listened so well to God's voice that he could be obedient. That's what servants do at their best - listen in order to anticipate, if possible, the wishes of those they serve. 

We, in contrast, tend to hear but not take it in; we see but don't notice (Matthew 13.15; Isaiah 6.9). As Shakespeare put it, we are plagued by the "disease of not listening, the malady of not marking". 

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