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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Godly Delusions
by Paul Walker

I now work in mental health. The experience is beginning to bring me up short as a Christian Minister. I thought I might share some early thoughts.

Many patients who are considered mentally ill have what doctors call delusions. A patient on a hospital ward might, for example, believe that he or she is in constant touch with the Duke of Wellington. Such a patient may know a great deal about how the Iron Duke thought and acted. This patient quite consistently acts as directed by the Duke. For the patient such a relationship is absolutely real. Conversations with the Duke of Wellington are as valid as conversations with a nurse or a family member. The patient may find the situation compounded by a fear that health professionals are working for Napoleon. For those unfamiliar with the world of mental illness this may seem silly. Perhaps you the reader are allowing yourself to smile at the situation, with reason.

In reality there are unlikely to be many patients having conversations with the Duke of Wellington as such. Yet there are many with similar delusions. They often talk in a similar vein to pop, sport or film stars who likewise direct their actions in ways that to them seem very real.

One delusion seems, however, more common than most. It is a belief that the patient is able to communicate directly with God or with Jesus. An incredible number of patients have just this absolute belief - that their actions are directed by God. Such people are often well-versed in the Bible. Actions can therefore be quite consistent with an understanding of the biblical God. Such patients have a real and intimate relationship with God, who is just as real to them as their nurse or members of their family. The patient may find the situation compounded by a fear that health professionals are working for the Devil.

Here is the problem. Many people walking our streets also believe, with equal certitude, that God talks to them and that they have a real relationship with him (for it is still usually a he). I have no desire to commit to hospital people who have such a belief. I simply thought it worth pointing out similarities.

In this area are two extreme polarities with which I am not comfortable.

On the one hand there is the belief, held by many professionals, that any sense of a reality beyond the material is a delusion. On the other hand there are those whose religious faith appears delusional, in the sense that they seem to have an intimate relationship with a God who finds them parking spaces and explains to them that on any issue they are on God�s side.

These two polarities perhaps feed on each other. Many of us have a sense that there is more to reality than the material. At the same time we are aware that whatever might lie beyond the material cannot be explained in simple, or even in religious terms.

There is clearly no obvious and absolute dividing line between some forms of mental illness and some types of religious experience. But then again, I�m not sure that there is an absolute dividing line between mental illness and mental health.

Those of us interested in faith must, however, be aware that we are working at an ill-defined margin, not only between the material and the spiritual but between sanity and madness.

I wonder if it is not somewhere on that line that reality is to be found.

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