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 Proof of the Pudding
by Paul Walker

Having done a little work with Muslims recently I have been struck by how they can interpret their laws so differently. As a result we see the many ways people live out an Islamic faith. Likewise Jewish people interpret the Talmud differently and so we see groups of orthodox, conservative and liberal Jews, each divided into sub-groups.

The divisions of both Jews and Muslims arise out of the various ways divine law is interpreted.

Some Christians look at this and smugly imagine that they are not the same. "We live by grace, not law," say Christians. We as Christians do not get hung up about precisely how to keep Sabbath or about dietary laws. St Paul is quoted that "All things are permissible." Stories are drawn from the gospels relating to Pharisees and other Jewish lawyers seeming to be extremely pernickety..

And yet, as a matter of fact, many Christians are even more legalistic - not about how to behave, but about what to believe.

Let us for a moment consider definitions of a Christian. Almost all depend not on lifestyle but on belief system. "Are you a Trinitarian?" is a typical question. As far as I can work it out, you can read your Bible every day, pray for several hours, and attempt with every atom of your being to live as Jesus taught. But if you do not believe in the Trinity, in three persons "consubstantial, co-eternal", you are not a Christian according to most churches.

If we imagine that this is irrelevant, let us for a moment consider Nazi Germany.

During the Third Reich an embarrassing number of churches fully accepted Hitler�s doctrines. Frighteningly few Christians spoke out against the genocide taking place under their noses. Most blessed the soldiers fighting for their fatherland.

And yet one group of religious people, who believed themselves to be acting as directed by Jesus, were persecuted because of their absolute pacifism. You might expect Christians to be proud of such a group, whose faith was such that thousands of them perished in the gas chambers for following Jesus.

And yet we rarely, if ever, hear anything about these people because - they were Jehovah�s Witnesses.

Increasingly the message that the churches are today giving to the media seems to be that all that matters is what you believe. So we see churches apparently trying to rehabilitate paedophile priests, while shunning those who have taught liberation theology. Similarly, in Britain a man was recently prevented from being a bishop, not because of his homosexual practice in the past, but because he refused to condemn that past.

In other churches it is argued that your faith depends entirely on whether or not you have given your life to Jesus regardless, for example, of how wealthy you are. Your entry into heaven is dependant upon a decision made with your mind, even though Jesus taught that a fat wallet would prevent your entry.

This problem has dogged Christianity since its early days. Instead of reading the gospels and asking ourselves "What should I do?" Christians have asked "What should I believe?"

Hence a Muslim is a person who keeps the five pillars of Islam, that is who declares his or faith, prays five times a day, fasts during Ramadan, gives a proportion of their income to charity, and attempts once in their life to go on the Haj. A Jew is a person who keeps the Law, however interpreted.

A Christian, on the other hand, is a person who believes the Nicene Creed. I wonder which of these impresses God the most.

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