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
13
Supporting Act

Romans 12.2   Do not conform yourselves to the standards of this world, but let God transform you inwardly by a complete change of your mind.

Changes advance upon Christianity like a swarm of buzzing wasps around a honey pot on a warm afternoon. It seems to me sometimes that the faithful are rather like picnickers trying ineffectually to swat the marauders. But change, like persistent insects, doesn't go away.

The phrase I've chosen from Paul's letter to the Romans (12.2) is about change. It renews in me a conviction which, when I mention it, raises hackles and elicits protests like few others. It's rather like criticising an Archbishop of bigotry while taking tea at Lambeth Palace, or questioning the motives of the President of the United States in front of the TV cameras.

To get a better idea of my conviction, it might help to look back at the world in which Paul worked.

It was one in which the first Christians were under attack. They mostly thought of themselves as Jews who had found and now followed the long-awaited Jewish Messiah. Traditional Jews did not like this - if only because it seemed nonsense to them that the Messiah could have died a criminal's death on a cross at Jerusalem's rubbish dump.

Understandably, the young Church came to perceive itself as a bastion of light and truth in a world of moral darkness and false teaching. Many Christians still think of themselves this way. But I suspect that Paul didn't mean us to go this route when he wrote wrote, "Do not conform yourself to standards of this world ..." 

In my dealings over many years with fellow-Christians I've concluded that we seldom pause to wonder what are some possible consequences of relating to others from an "I'm right, you're wrong" position, as the Church does so often. I can understand the early Church's need to take this stand. But must I do the same? 

Although it's often a struggle, and though I as often fail, I conclude that it's not right for me to judge others. For that is what I do if I preach at them from a "saved " position, as though I can somehow bring God to them through my own power.

First, I know I feel bad when someone else preaches at me. Why should anyone else feel differently when I come to them as one who has what they need? Second, I'm reminded that Jesus didn't do it and that he counselled us not to do so either. Third, anyone worth their salt is likely to resist being devalued as a person, which is what happens when we take centre-stage as so-called "people of God."

In short, it seems to me that I am utterly mistaken if I think that anything I can do - especially from a holier-than-thou position - will transform anyone. That's God's job and Paul is absolutely correct in counselling us to "... let God transform you inwardly." 

So if we feature at all in God's transforming process it's in a supporting role at most. You and I may succeed in altering an opinion here, shifting an entrenched position there, and lifting a veil somewhere else. But transform another person? Hardly likely!

I say we can't do so for two reasons:

  • Whatever standards I may preach, it's those I live out day-by-day which in the end really mean something. A life without words is powerful. Words without a life are empty, blocking the "complete change of mind" Paul is addressing. 
  • How God goes about transforming us all, without exception, is no secret. We call the method "life." Every life that has ever been lived has contained within it all required for the person living it   "... to know the will of God - what is good and is pleasing to him and is perfect." Transformation - not magical, or spiritual, or miraculous, but astoundingly normal - is readily available to us all every day of our lives.

So if the world is a stage and we are actors in it, it's worth keeping in mind that the play's the thing. God is the leading character and is bound to steal the show. We're just bit-players in minor supporting roles. Life itself does the rest.

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