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 7

A Wide Embrace

Romans 8.10
  But if Christ lives in you ...

Observation of our surroundings is, and always has been, a critical survival skill. The world is unimaginably complex. To fully appreciate it we need to train and strain our senses. Stimuli can be both subtle and demanding.

Awareness and alertness are no less crucial in city life. The din of traffic, fumes and the media assault and dim our normal senses. We instead tune in to new wavelengths, as it were. A businessman may listen intensely for signs that a client will buy his goods. A mother will no less intensely scan a crowd of children for her offspring.

More difficult as we pursue our daily lives is to lift our awareness to higher levels. Not many look for the signs of the times. The scale is larger, the cues more subtle, the signals more ambiguous. And yet our well-being often hangs as much on the drift of large currents in time's river as on the tiny eddies of our lives.

Paul's great strength was to lift his awareness from religious minutiae to the bigger picture. He saw that Jews could no longer claim exclusive access to God. You'll recall that he met the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15) to insist that they, like Jesus, embrace both Jew and Gentile.

It's hard for us to understand just how revolutionary that was. The Hebrew race, we should understand, thought that to consort with Gentiles was to risk deep spiritual contamination.

But despite his upbringing, Paul was able to tune his hearing to the still, small voice of God through the religious static. He wrote that "When I saw that they were not walking a straight path in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all ... 'How can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?'" (Galatians 2.13). And so the Church was born, soon to spread far beyond its Jewish origins.

Tragically, the vision of Jesus' wide embrace was quickly blocked - by Paul himself.

He wrote later, "If Christ lives in you ... If the Spirit lives in you ... If by the Spirit ..." (Romans 8). And suddenly, access to Jesus was once more closed off - conditional not on obeying Jewish Law this time, but conditional on complying with Paul's way of relating to Jesus.

Christians preserve to this day Paul's distinction between those in whom Christ lives and those in whom he doesn't. It's as though a spotlight shines only on Christians. They are bathed in light while in the darkness around them hover a multitude excluded from the light of Christ.

A consequence is that Christian senses are primarily tuned to their own religious wavelength. By tuning out those who don't perceive the world as we think they should, we inevitably desensitise ourselves to them. Our faculties no longer pick up the full range of God's work in the world.

So in focusing his attention on one great vision, Paul failed to see an even larger one. He excluded the possibility that Jesus relates to all regardless of who they are, where they are, when they are, what they believe, and what they do.

The time is coming, I think, when Christians will have to face up to the possibility that the embrace of Jesus is wider than that of the Church.

Without that awareness we are inevitably short-sighted. We cannot see the earnest devotion to God of those without religion. Our hearing is dull. We don't listen to the joyous song and hubbub of devout Hindu worship. Our sense of smell is numbed. We don't notice the subtle scents of Buddhist incense. Our touch is dulled. We become insensitive to the gentle touch of Islam, noticing only its defensive blows.

But we need not limit ourselves because Paul's awareness was limited. Nor do we have to be bound by Paul's short-sightedness. Our vision can be limited or broad, fuzzy or clear, inclusive or exclusive. Our embrace can be narrow or as wide as that of Jesus. It's up to us.

I doubt if anyone can be prevented from accepting  the embrace of Jesus - and particularly not by any conditions we impose. A coming revolution of equal proportions to that which Paul began may be a recognition that Christians don't have a monopoly on truth. If we tune our senses to a wider spectrum we will perceive clearly that God is greater than any Christian theology or church.

Christians interpret the world through Jesus of Nazareth. But that's not necessarily the only interpretation. There are other wavelengths, there are other pictures, there are other tastes, there are other symphonies. To insist otherwise is to claim that only we have "Christ in us."

If we will only sharpen our senses we may see all those included in the wide embrace of Jesus.

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