DON CUPITT

 

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)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... 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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Head to Head
Mission

Mick: The desire of Christians to convert others to their way of life is, I would say, as fundamental as almost any other aspect of their religion. Jesus is said to have told them to "Go out into the whole world and announce the good news to everyone" (Mark 10.15 - though this and other similar exhortations are not what Jesus said, but the teaching of early Christian communities).

The hero of the missionary movement is Paul of Tarsus. Some think that he was in a real sense the founder of the Church - though we now know that his missionary effort was only one small part of the rapid spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.

I am one of those who feel a deep sense of discomfort about "preaching Jesus Christ" (whatever that may mean). I would like others to experience with me the life which I lead in the footsteps of Jesus. And only then I will try to explain what are the important things I think Jesus lived out and talked about.

And again, I do my best to lead a life which is congruent with that of Jesus. I don�t know much about what he did. I know a little more about what he said. I must admit that historical information about him is somewhat slight. So in the final analysis, anyone who is interested in Jesus must be able to see him in me, as it were. And they should be able to confirm the basis for my life through the gospels. But it is primarily my interpretation of Jesus, my living out of a Jesus-like way of life in the modern world, which should be compelling.

To put this another way: It is not so much what I say that matters, but what I do. If, for example, Jesus lived a simple life as a poor man, then the way I live should aim to do the same as far as possible. I may preach about Jesus suffering on the cross with utter conviction, but if comfort and security are my priorities, I'm like a blaring radio, full of nothingness.

Something in me draws back, for example, from trying to convince Muslims, Buddhists, or Jews that my version of the world is inherently better than theirs. I feel the same reluctance to persuade so-called "secular" people that they should become religious. For I don�t have final answers to give. I have only a way of life which is founded on that of a pioneering man who lived two thousand years ago.

Rick: I was born and baptised into the Lutheran Church having roots in the immigrant Swedish Lutheran tradition of the USA. That immigrant church had a strong evangelic fervour. Yet, it was my experience that while the clergy publicly admonished us to "make disciples of all nations", we in the pews took a more passive stance. Maybe that is just being of Swedish origin.

I am not a "born-again" Christian. Since my childhood instruction there is a steady unbroken line of faith to the present. I gave the usual child-like assent to what I was taught. When I reached what I would call my "age of discernment" I still found my faith to be valid and valuable to me. So it is to this day. How unexciting you might say.

It has always been difficult for me to talk to others about my faith let alone convince them to accept it. Undoubtedly this derives from the reticence I observed in the old Swedes I sat with in the pews. I have always kept my faith "close to the vest" as it were.

I am reminded of the story of the arrogant Pharisee and the humble tax collector praying in the temple as recounted in Luke 18. Jesus said of them: "For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

Though this passage does not directly bear on evangelism, it demonstrates how an overt display of piety can be self-serving. Asking others to believe as I do, smacks of the same hubris.

Yet, I am in a quandary. If I value my faith, as indeed I do, I must recognize I am the recipient of the beneficence of others who evangelized me.

When one experiences something good, it is natural to tell others and to share the goodness. My wife, who is a world-class cook, often presses me to taste new things. I am grateful for her culinary evangelism as without it I would have missed a whole world of exciting tastes. Her insistence can still be occasionally irritating.

Thus it is with proclaiming Jesus Christ. If one considers him compelling there is an implicit impulse to share his story with others.

Mick, I subscribe to your low-keyed approach of teaching by example rather than exhortation. Emulating the simple life of Jesus ought to be the thrust of evangelism. Unfortunately, I have not lived such a life nor do I think I can. I live without excess but still require creature comforts and pleasures. Is there any hope for me?

Mick: We seem to share a laid-back approach to our subject, an emphasis on the doing rather than the preaching. Perhaps one way to differentiate would be to say that we're both mission-oriented but neither is sold on evangelism. We want to give and share, but we don't want to hector and harangue.

However, I want to put to you a more far-reaching problem. When we as Christians make contact with those of other faiths or of none, I suspect we tend to operate with a sort of unconscious double standard which affects our interactions negatively.

If we are "modest" Christians like you and I, we may go through the motions of being open and understanding. But lurking underneath is (as you infer) a hidden conviction that ours is the better vision. We have 20/20 vision while the others see less clearly.

And yet at the very core of our faith is the conviction that Jesus died for all, not just Christians. Jesus was a Jew. He was not supposed even to touch certain kinds of people. We know for certain that he absolutely refused to be bound by human barriers. Paul understood this clearly. Even the most basic barriers (slave/free, male/female, Jew/Gentile) are broken down by the pioneering life of Jesus.

I ask this: How is it possible to hold that all-embracing degree of acceptance as the crown of our faith and then go on to pronounce that others must become like us? Surely we are bound to accept them as they are first, and then go on living our Christian lives?

Rick: Oh how I wish your simple approach of universal acceptance could work and let all humankind live in peace and tranquility. My experience tells me the world, at least in the present time, just doesn�t work like that.

We live in a perpetual moral dilemma. While we might want to live and let live, others refuse to allow it. When a person or group of persons say you should be killed because of your beliefs, the ideals of non-resistance and acceptance seem na�ve and dangerous.

In these turbulent times we are forced to judge the rightness of our moral convictions. We cannot avoid the hidden conviction we have a better vision for humanity. How we handle that judgement is key. You and I would not force it on others. But when some ideology actively threatens us, it is necessary to resist lest we be swept away.

Mick: I think we have come to this point before in our debates. To illustrate, let's take a look at the word "ideology". It means something like "an integrated, systematic body of concepts about human life and culture". It seems to me that those who say they are Christian "believers" mean that they subscribe to an ideology.

The point I'm making is that Christianity is not an ideology. It has developed into that over the millennia, but it is essentially a way of life. True, any way of life derives in turn from a way of perceiving the world. But that's the crazy thing about being Christian. The ideology is itself anti-ideology. Christians have subscribed to that from the beginning. Paul made it clear when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge � but do not have love, I am nothing.

Love crowns everything for a Christian. We are bound to act lovingly towards those whose actions derive from ideologies different from ours.

Our hidden conviction is that love conquers everything, that no ideology is worth giving it up. We don't need to defend ourselves from those whose constructs about the world differ from ours. The person whose God is money can't force us to give our lives to it. The Muslim may force a form of words from our lips, but our inner love can't be touched. We may be persuaded that the Trinitarian formula is a word-game. But that does not necessarily affect our loving actions.

It's on this basis that I say that when we follow in the pioneering steps of Jesus, we are bound only to love. Converting others to forms of words or worship is pointless.

Rick: The word ideology has taken on an unfortunate pejorative connotation. I think there are good ideologies and bad ones. You are advocating an ideology of love to which I subscribe. Our focus here should not be on linguistics but on the means of mission. Ideology would be a good topic for a future debate.

However, while you and I prefer a low-keyed approach to mission we must still realize that the very fact of our non-verbal lives declares advocacy of our beliefs. We cannot hide behind a coy shyness or reluctance to intrude on others and say we do not stand for something.

I return to an earlier thought of what one should do if life is threatened by another who disagrees with our beliefs. Should we allow ourselves to be slaughtered without resistance? What if you were the last person on earth who loved? What would be accomplished if you allowed yourself to be eliminated?

It is one thing to aggressively proselytize. That is not my style nor is it yours. It is quite another matter to stand by in helpless passivity while the world crashes about us.

Mick: I think I now see more clearly where we differ. Mission in the usual sense means trying to change (convert) others to Christianity. You and I agree that we don�t like to do that, that we prefer our lives to attract others. We also agree that our faith is centrally important to us. We think it's the best thing since sliced bread and we will not stand by passively while the world crumbles. Jesus has brought something to our world which is critical to its future well-being.

What I'm trying to say is that I cannot refuse exactly the same attachment for a person of another religion or none. I don't want to discount his or her conclusions about what's important, about the great questions of life. If there is to be dialogue between us, I want it to be on the basis of total mutual acceptance - not with the hidden agenda that my faith is better.

If I grant to another what I claim for myself, then mission in the traditional sense is out.

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