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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TRINITY
11
Grandiose Claims

Matthew 14.25  Jesus came to the disciples walking on the water.

We all probably know of the advice sometimes given that to get out of trouble one should make one's excuse as fantastic as possible - on the grounds that genuine, ordinary ones are not usually believed.

I sometimes wonder if some Christian claims are not similarly motivated.

For example, some assert that prayer will heal - but don't test their results. Others shout from the rooftops that God loves us - but avoid hard questions from those who are remorselessly buffeted by life's perils. Yet others proclaim the attractions of life after death - but fail to reflect that only the dead know the truth.

Many of us, and I'm one of them, dislike grandiose claims.  Over-inflated claims prey - albeit often unintentionally - on those who are not used to weighing up pros and cons. To others who have limited capacity for abstract thought, they may appear true even though they are actually little more than fantastic.

Some carefully-phrased grandiosities succeed in attracting even the most thoughtful when they are in trouble or sorrow. "Perhaps," they reason, "just perhaps, there's something in it. It's worth a shot."

Maybe I'm being too cynical. But I nevertheless think it's worth asking what we are to make of the claim in today's Gospel that Jesus walked on water. Isn't this a grandiose claim? Doesn't it go against everything we know about the world we live in? Might it not mislead some people?

One helpful observation might be that this tale would not have been incredible when this Gospel was written. Such wonderful stories were common in those days. And because both ordinary and educated people then had no inkling of what we now call "science", an event like this would have been believed by many as an account of what really happened.

So what may seem to us a grandiose claim was ordinary to the author of Matthew's Gospel. To him and others such events were "wonders" and "signs" of divine, but not uncommon, intervention into our world. In other words, it is we, not they, who regard such tales as miraculous. In their eyes it was wonderful that Jesus could have walked on water. But it was not contrary to the way they thought the world works.

What are we in the 21st century to make of all this? The trouble is that if we insist that this story tells of a miracle, a violation of the way the world usually works, there may be a number of unfortunate consequences.

First, a claim of a miracle is likely to be regarded as ridiculous both by most ordinary folk and by a majority of well-informed thinkers. It becomes a grandiose claim, not worth its salt. It becomes just one of those fantastic things which gullible religious people tend to believe despite all evidence to the contrary.

Second,  those of us who are committed to Jesus and who recognise the impossibility of the act described here, are sometimes driven to esoteric explanations. One such might be, for example, that Jesus probably wasn't walking on water but on a shallow sand bar. It wasn't really miraculous, it only looked that way. Well, one can go this route if one wishes - but it's essentially a fudge, replacing one bad answer (it was a miracle) with another bad answer (it was a mistake).

A similar claim might be that "Jesus was God and could therefore do anything he liked." To assert this is to abandon two thousand years of human learning. We know that to be truly human Jesus had to be as limited as we all are. We know how genes work; we know much about evolution, gravity, the surface tension of water and a host of other things which render this escape route worse than useless.

Third, it encourages some people (perhaps more than we realise) to split off their faith from the rest of their lives. With one part of their minds they believe the literal truth of today's Gospel. With another they live a life which includes knowledge of the surface tension of water - a tension too weak support the weight of a human being.. They divide knowledge into "religious" and "secular" parts. In effect, they become a religious schizophrenics.

Fourth, it encourages some to make today's Gospel into allegory. "This is a story which tells us to be ready for the unexpected," a preacher might say. I think this device, however potentially entertaining, is little less than placing personal thoughts on a hanger labelled "God's Word and therefore to be believed without question." 

It's worth reiterating that Matthew's author and his fellow Christians of the 1st century were not dishonest. Their understanding of how the world works was seriously incomplete. They were limited  - but they were not trying to spin a yarn. 

It's difficult to explain such distinctions. But unless we try to do just that, we have only ourselves to blame if Jesus is ridiculed. If we make grandiose claims of miraculous events, we have only ourselves to blame if we're reduced to gullible fools in the eyes of God's children.

What then is to be done? 

Perhaps honesty is the best policy. 

Perhaps admitting that walking on the water is impossible will be more productive than trying to dress the Gospel up in emperor's clothes. 

Perhaps saying that this is no more than a story which meant something two thousand years ago, but is now not of much use, is a better way.

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