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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THE TRANSFIGURATION

A God of Small Things

2 Peter 1.16  We have not depended on made-up stories to make known to you the mighty coming of our Lord Jesus Christ

The story of how Jesus went up a hill with three of his followers and was there transformed is traditionally taken to be a sign which demonstrates the unique godliness of Jesus. Even though he was truly and fully a man, he was also able to transcend the usual limitations of humanity and enter into his rightful role as the Son of the Father.

For Christian teachers, the significance of the event has been heightened over the years  by obvious echoes of theophanies in the Old Testament. God's dazzling light shines on Moses when he climbs Mount Sinai. Elijah experiences the divine as "the soft whisper of a voice" while Daniel sees God's angel "whose voice sounded like the roar of a great crowd".

That we celebrate the Transfiguration at all is an anomaly. Few today know that the Feast of the Transfiguration is a recent invention by the Church. It dates back only to 1547 when Pope Callistus III ordered it kept to celebrate victory over the infidel armies of the evil Turks - hardly a good reason then or now.

A much more important difficulty is the nature of the story itself. Few scholars in the last two or three centuries have been able to give it a clean bill of health. It has been interpreted a "symbolic narrative" designed to express the disciples' conviction that Jesus was the Messiah. Some think it is an actual event of some sort which has been transformed into myth by credulous early Christians. Few can accept is as an account of something significant which really happened.

Today the story is generally greeted with at best suspended belief and at worst with derision as blatant untruth, a sort of ecclesiastical spin designed to trick simple people into believing the unbelievable. That is, far from illuminating Jesus to us, it has become a barrier between him and the ordinary thinking person. It requires tortuous interpretation to be understood.

What the are we to make of it if we pay any attention at all to the Christian year?

Perhaps it's best to simply pass it by - or allow it to pass us by with blank incomprehension and a weary tolerance of the Church's silly ways. At least that route allows us to turn our attention to matters which genuinely engage us.

Better is to recognise in the tale the expression of a way of understanding God's world no longer useful to most people. We don't resonate to myths and fables as our forebears once did - or at any rate, not in the same way. Such stories are in one sense merely quaint; in another they are useful metaphors to help us think about the world we know. At their best, myths enliven timeless questions and dilemmas, joys and agonies, triumphs and tragedies.

But we mustn't let biblical myths and fables obscure the person of Jesus, that flesh and blood person upon whose life and words Christians choose to base their journeys. 

A superhuman being who talks to God and his saints on a mountain top isn't much help. We are ordinary mortals, willy-nilly confined to the lowlands of human existence. That's where Jesus meets us most completely - and let's not forget it.

We don't need made-up stories to understand that the glory of God is found, not in strange or miraculous events, but in the ordinary and the mundane. Jesus has brought us a God of small things.

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