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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ADVENT 1

God's Utopia

Isaiah 2.4
"They will hammer their swords into ploughshares and their spears
into pruning-knives." 

Each one of us has at some time or other longed for things to be different. "If only," we say to ourselves (and often to others as well), "if only my husband (or wife) could be different. If only my children were better behaved. If only my boss were more considerate. If only I had more money."

The Jews of the Old Testament prayed for better and more prosperous times just as we do today. Hoping for things to be better is a perfectly normal thing to do. Experts think that the human capacity to reflect on ourselves is what sets us apart from other animals. And if we reflect on ourselves and our situations, we're bound to come up with ways of improving our lives and methods for achieving a brighter future.

The Greek philosopher Plato is his book called The Republic proposed how to improve society. His plan was to control people more to make them behave better, a method followed by dictators of all sorts. We know all too well where that road ends up.

Sir Thomas More (killed by Henry the 8th of England for getting in the way) wrote a famous book called Utopia, a title which in Greek means "Nowhere". Samuel Butler, who lived in Queen Victoria's time, wrote Erewhon, which is of course "nowhere" spelt (more or less) backwards. Both authors envisaged, rather sadly and tongue-in-cheek, a perfect society - just as the prophet Isaiah once hoped that war would one day cease and weapons be turned into ploughs. As we know from experience, his was an unrealistic hope.

In Jesus' time, Palestine seethed with the idea that God would shortly bring in his Utopia (the "Kingdom of God") to fruition. At the head of God's Utopia would be the Messiah. This Christ, they thought, would rule the entire world with absolute justice. The Jewish nation would, of course, be top of the pile. It's commonly thought that Jesus believed he was the Messiah. If so, we might suppose he thought he would be in charge of God's Utopia, right at the very top of the pile, the king of the castle.

However, it's not certain that Jesus did think this way and make that claim. Early Christians certainly did. They believed that Jesus would soon come in clouds of glory from heaven to establish the New Jerusalem. They counselled each other to be alert for the Second Coming. However, many scholars now think that the words from Matthew that "The Son of Man will come at an hour when you're not expecting him" were not what Jesus actually said but were part of very early Church teaching.

If they are correct, this sort of editorial licence on the part of the gospel authors shouldn't bother us. We know that they didn't think about recording historical events - including what Jesus said - as we do now. It was the done thing in those days to put words into the mouths of great people if you were certain they were true words. Nobody then thought badly of the practice. Of course, if a person were to do that today, he or she would be laughed out of court.

But being top-dog of God's Utopia somehow doesn't match the Jesus we know from elsewhere in those parts of the Gospels which are good history. He just doesn't seem to have been that sort of person. In fact, it's very clear that he didn't like it when people were enslaved, controlled, lorded over - by the pettiness of the Jewish Law, for example, or by rules about ritual uncleanness which isolated innocent people from their loved ones and from all social contact.

It's not fashionable nowadays to be utopian, to hunger and thirst for what is right - perhaps because what is right may appear very far from achievable. A once-famous writer put it this way, however:

I believe the quiet admission ... that because things have long been wrong it is impossible they should ever be right, is one of the most fatal sources of misery and crime.
(Architecture & Painting, Ruskin)

Jesus followed a long line of utopian prophets. That is, he was one of those who sees clearly what is wrong, tells those around him what is right, and proposes how to achieve it in the future. He was put out of action by the Roman authorities for doing just that.

Jesus, in other words, started something - and that something Christians (and many others) attempt to pursue in their lives. We may not be utopian as were the early Christians, but we can still seek for the right way to live our daily lives. 

When we do that we each push forward towards God's Utopia a little bit more.

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