Wednesday, September 17, 2003


Has the church grasped the central ethos of the message that formed it? Or is it constantly in danger of betraying the freedom and love of God in a world crying out for such things? These questions re-asserted themselves in my mind when I read, in the Church Times, a review of a book I co-edited a couple of years ago with Graeme Smith ('Christian Mission in Western Society', CTBI, 2001). The piece was written by Robin Greenwood, and the heading -- possibly not of his creation -- was 'Back to Jesus now that religion's done.'

At one level I feel uneasy about the simplicity of that. I want to say that there is no way 'back', only ways forward. And 'Jesus' can be a sticking plaster... and in many cases religion is far from 'done' (whatever we might wish). The questions linger.

Yet the more I think about it the more I have to accept the truth in this incidental but crucial phrase. Historic Christianity is, indeed, in crisis. And its salvation is not abandonment, but the recovery of its foundations -- which are in a person and a dynamic, not a dogma and an institution.

"The defining logic of Jesus is, in fact, God. In particular, it is the self-giving of a God who is wholly beyond our manipulation and (mostly in hidden ways) closer to us than the murmering of our hearts.

"How such a God is to be understood and responded to in an age of secular reason and irrational faith is, for the theologian, the key issue. And problem. And opportunity.

"Without doubt many have, for a variety of reasons, given up on God. And many of those who haven't given up (and who couldn't even conceive of it) have turned God into an ideological weapon of their own convenience.

"This is, sadly, as true in Christian communities as it is in those of other great faiths. 'Religious' or 'spiritual' people are not immune from falsehood. Actually, they may be prey to it in especially dangerous ways, because their wrong-headedness can quickly acquire a divine sanction – thus becoming invulnerable.

"To re-discover God through Jesus helps in this regard, because believing in Jesus' Lordship becomes, paradoxically, an essential means by which we can be empowered to disbelieve the ruling ideas (and most especially the ruling religious ideas) which currently imprison us as human beings, or even as Christians.

"Put simply: if God (whatever else God is about) is like Jesus, or more accurately, if God comes to us in and through Jesus, then we have some basis for knowing what God is not.

"We know, for instance, that God does not inflict violence and suffering. Quite the opposite. God endures and absorbs it. That is the meaning of the cross and the hope of the resurrection.

"To discover God in Jesus is also, through prayer, reflection and action, to discover that God is actually nothing like the God we thought we believed (or disbelieved) in.

"Who God finally is remains beyond our capacity, of course, because God’s ‘being’ is absolutely unlike ours. But the promise of the Gospel is that, in terms which can be made flesh, God is not less than God is in and as Jesus – that is, God is not less than infinite, uncontrollable, non-violent love.

"And that is just the beginning of a renewed hope which might make a vital difference for us and for our world -- if we, as followers of this Jesus, can develop the courage and the capacity to act on it. " From: To change the world.

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