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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ALL SAINTS' DAY

Saints Alive!

Psalm 24.3   Who may enter God's holy Temple? Those who are pure in act and thought, who do not worship idols or make false promises.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta has been beatified by the Pope. Some quarter of a million faithful crammed into St Peter's Square to witness the ceremony. They were not alone. Millions more worldwide noted and approved, whether or not they were Christian. She is widely regarded as a saintly person.

Theresa cannot be officially proclaimed a saint until a miracle has been attributed to her - that is, until an act is identified which sets her apart from the rest of us. She must, says the Church, be "holy" in order to be a saint.

The first saints were, according to Paul, ordinary people in the pews. He never talked of a saint - always of the saints, those "set apart" from the world. 

But it wasn't long before his teaching was twisted and exaggerated. Grazier monks lived apart in forests in order to be holy. Dendrites perched alone in trees to sanctify themselves. Saint Simon Stylites separated himself for 37 years on a tiny platform atop a 20-meter pole to get closer to God and further away from people. All in the name of holiness.

The requirement of a sanctifying miracle for sainthood derives largely from medieval times. Miracles were and still are a way of creating a sort of spiritual Apartheid, a separation of the good from the not-so-good. It's all part and parcel of the idea that the best people are not of this world. They are spiritual super-athletes.

But beneath the traditional idea of the "holy" there lies, buried too deep to be easily discovered, a deadly error. It is that the world in which we live isn't good and is therefore best escaped from. According to one thread of Christian teaching, saints are those who turn from this corrupt world into prayer, fasting and meditation. Miraculous deeds are signs of holiness because they bypass, as it were, the messy, uncertain processes of nature. The message is that real life isn't woven upon the glorious tapestry of the world, but lies somehow behind it.

If "holiness" in a traditional sense is a suspect concept, how might Mother Theresa be immune from this mistaken view of the world? Why is it that the thread of her life stands out so vividly in the ordinary cloth of our lives, so that most people recognise something special in her?

If she is remembered 100 years from now it will be because she epitomises that strong thread of sacrificial service, woven into the very fabric of Christian life for two millennia and into the human tapestry since the dawn of time. She spent forty years caring for the poor in a teeming, poverty-stricken city. The destitute, the sick and the dying were her special concern. 

That made her stand out from the rest of us - not a world-denying "holiness". Theresa's group has now grown to over four thousand. These women have offered themselves because she and her companions have lived out one of the fundamental aspects of the life of Jesus - that everyone is acceptable, regardless of race, origin or wealth. Theresa is regarded by millions as a saint not because she was religious, or because the Pope has pronounced, but because we see in ourselves the destitutes she served.

In other words, the life of Theresa affirms something deep in our hearts. That something is an instinctive awareness that life is more precious than anything else. She brought life to the lives of those without a life. She brought it not just to some lives, not to just the lives of the privileged or the famous or the clever or the beautiful - but to all she encountered.

Some say that saints are those who give up their lives for others. That's true - but it's only part of a bigger picture. The bigger picture was captured well by the scientist, Harold Horowitz when he wrote:

Life is the property of planets rather 
than of individual organisms.

Every life given for the enrichment of another is a tiny contribution to the greater life of the world. Theresa worked amongst the detritus created by those who exploit our planet for their own gain. Her family were the sick and dying in a world which could be paradise if we so wished. Fritjof Capra, writer and scientist, had this bigger picture in mind when he pointed out that ...

The root causes of hunger around the world
are unrelated to food production ... world hunger is not a technical but a political problem.

Sainthood wrongly conceived, then, can become a superstitious cult which infects the world like a deadly virus. It can suborn good men and women to avoid real life rather than engage it. We can pray, go to church, be holy - and yet pillage the planet.

Contrary to the views of some, then, the idea of sainthood isn't in itself mistaken. What is mistaken is to suppose that saints are those who reject our world and escape from it in various ways, that they are "holy".

On the other hand there's nothing wrong, as most of us instinctively recognise, in venerating those who affirm life with a capital "L" through sacrificial service. They are, in a different sense of the word, pro-lifers.

Theresa of Calcutta and all the saints deserve our reverence not because they turned more to God than others, but because they engaged the world more fully, because they immersed themselves as best they could - and perhaps better than we can - in its joys and woes.

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