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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LENT 5
Dangerous Perfection

Philippians 3.5-6  As far as the Hebrew Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee, and I was so zealous that I persecuted the Church.

The zealous person is a dangerous person. For Christians, this statement may appear counter-intuitive. Shouldn't they be "zealous for the Lord"?

Paul gives a terse response. He was once so zealous that he took it out on those he thought were falling short of the perfection required of them. Recall that he was a Pharisee - one of a small group highly committed to the Hebrew Law.. What more choice a target than a bunch of renegade Hebrews calling themselves "Of the Messiah" (Christ-ian)? He has now changed. The answer is no longer to strive for perfection but to rest in God's total acceptance through Jesus of Nazareth.

The passion for perfection displayed by the younger Paul has found a place in the Church, rather like a stone in the boot of a hiker. Christians have always been torn between perfection as a necessary personal goal, and the reality of what humans actually are.

The demand that we strive for perfection is as old as history. The ancient Greeks struggled with the gap between what should be and what is. Plato solved the problem by deciding that our world is a mere shadow of the perfect. Roman Stoics taught that subduing all passion and relying totally on reason leads to perfection. Both these solutions were taken up by early Christians. The so-called "Counsels of Perfection" eventually emerged. Christians who are poor, celibate and zealous are more likely than others to reach perfection.

The psychotherapist Eric Berne identified in the 1960s that the injunction "Be perfect!" is a common theme in the upbringing of Western children. Some people attempt to put this injunction into practice in adulthood. The results can be traumatic - ruined health and broken relationships being the least of them.

And so it continues to this day in the Church. Christians are supposed to be better than non-Christians. Ordained people are expected to rise above ordinary laypeople. Bishops and the like should be still more perfect. Woe betide anyone who fails spectacularly enough to attract attention.

The position is somewhat complicated by the apparent words of Jesus in Matthew 5.48: "You must be perfect - just as your Father in heaven is perfect!" Fortunately, all the evidence is that these are the words of the Gospel author. He is expressing the teaching of the community he was part of. This is not an injunction which need carry absolute weight for us.

In apparent contrast is the position of St Augustine of Hippo. We must realise, he taught, that we are all corrupt. All humanity since the rebellion of Adam and Eve is infected with sin. Only Jesus can rescue us. Any journey towards perfection follows a mirage.

What lies behind both these visions of humanity? It is that we should be what we are not.

To put this another way: One of the great discoveries of the modern age is that the world is as it is not because it has declined from perfection, but because perfection doesn't exist. We are part of nature. And we have been created by God through a process which doesn't admit the kind of perfection which, because we seem to fall short, tends to breed in us a corrosive sense of guilt.

This is not to say that we don't willfully miss the mark, that we don't fall short from time-to-time. But there is little or no point in setting ourselves up for failure by creating imaginary standards.

What is, is perfection. Jesus himself reassures us. We are not like old cloth which can't be patched; or like old wineskins which can no longer hold wine.

His conclusion was this: "The way God gets things done is like this: it's like a man sowing seed on his land. He gets up every day and goes to bed every night, paying little attention while the seed sprouts and matures. The process is automatic - first comes the shoot, then the head, and finally a mature ear of grain. When the grain is ripe, the man acts quickly, calling for his sickle, because it's time to harvest."

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