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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Sermons from the margins


One Turn of Pitch and Toss

"Sell all that you have and give to the poor � and come, follow me" says Jesus in Mark's Gospel (10.17-31). Some have heard those words as a direct challenge and command to themselves to give away every worldly possession and follow Christ in poverty.

Among them was Saint Antony, a third-century Egyptian who became a leading figure among Christian hermits. Another was Saint Francis, who nearly a thousand years later renounced the lifestyle of rich Italian playboy and embraced poverty with an altogether new thoroughness.

Saint Benedict, the founder of European monasticism, placed his monks in small communities as a way of quelling the competitive asceticism that too often characterized the solitaries of Egypt. Benedict gave a domestic flavour to the movement. He envisaged a family of twelve monks under their elected father, or abbot. Like the early church in the Acts of the Apostles, they were to share everything and live a simple balanced life of prayer, study, and manual work.

By the time of Francis, although technically without possessions as individuals, the monks were members of an international monastic order that had huge corporate wealth and was not afraid to flaunt it in prestigious building projects at sumptuous abbeys.

Appalled by this, Francis insisted that his community of brothers, or friars, were to own nothing at all, either as individuals or as a community. Like Jesus himself, they were to have no home of their own, but be wandering preachers dependent on the alms of others.

But as the Franciscan order itself became a popular and international movement, there was fierce rivalry between the beggars (the friars) and the "possessioners" as they were scathingly called.

But whatever their disagreements, the religious orders together provided the wider church with two great assets. At the individual level, they provided an outlet for the enthusiasm of young hot-heads who "got religion" in a big way and were dissatisfied with the humdrum routine of parish life. And at the institutional level they saved the church as a whole from having to face up to Jesus� challenge to "sell all" in order to follow him. The religious orders became a representative minority, vicariously embracing poverty on behalf of all Christian people.

Basing their ideas on the story from Mark's Gospel, but using the slightly different language of Jesus in Matthew�s account, theologians drew a distinction between those who (like the man in the story) wished merely "to inherit eternal life", and those who wanted to go further and "be perfect".

The Christian church officially became a university of life, in which one could choose to read for a pass degree as a layman, or for first class honours as a member of a religious order. It is easy to mock, but at the practical level this worked well, making it possible for everyone to be Christian at their own level of commitment.

With sixteenth-century Reformation, and the abolition of the religious orders in Protestant countries, the challenge to "sell all" again became directed at every Christian. One solution was to extend the Apostolic and Benedictine principle of common ownership to all Christians. In England this was openly advocated by the "Levellers" at the time of the Civil War. But it was never going to be a political reality - or even a religious one - with both Cromwell and the King opposed to its revolutionary sentiments.

The answer lay elsewhere, in a shift of emphasis from the material to the psychological level.

There is in the First Letter to Timothy a text which says, "money is the root of all evil". But read the whole verse and you find that this quote is only half the sentence, and is misleading. What the writer actually says is that "the love of money is the root of all evil".

That is a very different matter. Wealth itself is not wicked, but only the love of it. In a similar way, as the pragmatic worldly-wise interpreters of Mark's Gospel tell us, it is not your possessions themselves that Jesus is telling you to abandon, but only an undue attachment to them. Your psychological and spiritual attitude is the crucial thing, not your bank balance.

The British writer and poet Rudyard Kipling summed up this attitude:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch and toss,
And lose, and start again at the beginning
And never breathe a word about your loss �

And in practice I suppose it is the line I take myself. I seriously considered becoming a monk when I was younger, but I became a priest instead, and married, and have led my life in the world - never wealthy but never very poor either (at least not so far).

Yet I confess to a niggling doubt, that this spiritualizing way out of the challenge might be just a bit too convenient for middle-class Christians who belong to a church that is still very much into possessions.

My consolation is that neither the challenge of poverty, nor the spiritualizing tendency to soften it, are new.

Go back to the Gospels themselves. In Luke�s Sermon on the Plain, Jesus tells the people: "Blessed are the poor". Full stop. No messing about. This is real poverty, and real blessing. In Matthew�s Sermon on the Mount the parallel verse reads: "Blessed are the poor in spirit".

Perhaps Jesus himself was uncertain. Perhaps he said both things. All the same, he is nowhere reported as having blessed the wealthy.

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