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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EASTER 5

Finding the Way

John 14.4  You know the way that leads to the place where I am going.

In the African bush getting lost is easy and dangerous. When walking through the bush it's essential to constantly stop and look behind you. The reason? On your return the bush will look completely different because you'll be facing the way you came. So on the way out you must store a mental map of the terrain you will see on the way in. 

At the end of a day's walk as a boy in central Africa, I recall reaching what I thought was the area from which I had set out early that morning. In the sub-tropics it gets dark fast. Familiar contours and colours quickly fade. I didn't know quite in which direction home lay. The sense of relief as I saw the lights of the farmhouse in the semi-dark valley below was considerable.

The author of John's Gospel probably had in mind a similar experience when he worked out the image of Jesus as "The Way". His readers would have known better than we the dangers of travel. Their world was much less safe than ours. But more than that, as new Christians they were covering completely new ground in life. They were travelling a road never before taken, full of unknown hazards.

We don't easily recognise after 20 centuries how revolutionary Jesus was, and the swiftness with which ordinary life-maps of the day became outdated.

The Hebrews expected a glorious Messiah who would impose God's rule upon the entire earth. What they were given was an unclean, trouble-making peasant who died a disgraceful, cowardly death at the hands of the Roman oppressors.

Roman and Greek Christians knew only the many, colourful gods of their civilisation. They anticipated a glorious, civilised, thousand-year Reich led by an Emperor-god. Instead, they got an Israelite, a low-born foreigner, who expected them love even barbarians as though they were family.

In such a situation it wasn't difficult to feel lost. The pilgrims were at the beginning of a journey. Jesus was for them something like the reassuring lights of the farmhouse I saw as a lad in the dusk across the African savannah. He is offered as a reference point for a radically new way of life.

In the 21st century we can look back and chart a history full of both self-sacrifice and cruelty, of burgeoning love and selfish ambition. But though we can look back, we can't go back. Ours is a one-way journey through time.

Nevertheless, the air is thick with the cries of those who want to do just that. "Go back," they say. "Go back to the days when the faith was pure. Return to the Jesus of the Bible who is the True Way." Some of these cartographers claim to have an infallible map which shows us the straight and narrow road to heaven.

There is now a strong consensus that, contrary to their claims, our map is in fact rather like maps of the world made in the 14th century. The general outlines of the continents can be recognised. But critical details either aren't there at all, or the legend simply says, "Here be savages."

Since John wrote his Gospel map of Jesus as "The Way", at least two major things have changed.

First, while the terrain of life is no more difficult then before, the potential penalties of taking a wrong path seem greater. How do we navigate the terrifying storms of nuclear war? What ethical mountains must be scaled if euthanasia becomes the norm? Where is the fertile land which will feed ten billion people? How will erratic and often meagre water supplies be justly shared out?

To say glibly that "Jesus is the Way" simply doesn't wash for most people in the face of such issues. One test of this fact is that mass-produced "Jesus maps" are worth nothing in the market place. They can't even be given away.

Second, how we read maps today is different. We know more about the routes taken by travelers over the centuries than anyone ever has. Our maps of the past are more comprehensive than any before them. But it's clear that life remains as uncertain as it always has been and always will be. No map can tell us where we will go, but only where we might go if ever we choose to set out.

Jesus-maps used to be highly valued because they were thought to contain clear directions to the Golden City in the Kingdom of God. Very few people today are persuaded - or can be persuaded - that such maps are anything but fanciful. These people aren't completely correct, for the Jesus Map does contain some genuine geographical features. But those features are only broad guidelines to life's journey.

The truth is that we are increasingly challenged to live life as we find it. The way can't be known in advance. We can refer to Jesus as "The Way" for a hint about this perilous mountain track and for some idea of that dangerous river crossing. But life will always be largely uncharted territory. The road is constantly changing. "The Way" has to be discovered and pioneered before it can be mapped. 

And what we learn along the way is the art of travelling and mapping, not how to read ready-made maps.

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