Bishop's letter: Issues of Image

First published 6th June 2016

Some years ago in the USA, I preached a sermon to nine million people! Admittedly all but about 2,000 of those people were listening in on radio. The sermon was entitled Whose Image anyway?

The text was taken from Genesis Chapter one and verse twenty-seven:

So God created humanity in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

The direction of the sermon was to speculate as to whether in modern America or indeed, throughout the developed world we had thought it a better plan to re-make God in our own image?

In 1906 Albert Schweitzer produced a book entitled, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. The book sought to track all prior work on the question of the historical Jesus, starting with the late 18th century. He points out how Jesus' image has changed with the times and with the personal assumptions of the various authors. His conclusion is that Jesus defies any attempt at understanding him by making parallels to the ways of thinking or feeling of modern men.

This is interesting to me. Luther, one of the great reformers, maybe somewhat optimistically encouraged the Church in relation to Scripture to, Let the text speak for itself. But can we? We all come to the text with our pre-suppositions and assumptions and read it with our cultural spectacles on, so to speak. I think thats a given. It always upsets me when people tell me the Bible is unreliable, because the truth is, more often than not, that it is we who are unreliable.

The temptation to read Scripture through our own cultural lens may be unavoidable, but we do need to be aware of this. What Schweitzer discovered was that Victorian theologians in search of the historical Jesus ended up with a character who looked very like an upstanding Victorian gentleman!

The God of our own image tends to be affirming of the way our culture thinks, but rarely challenges it. Often I have found myself thinking that this is a convenience for us.

The Church is often accused of being too middle class. As one bishop put it, The Church of England is dying of good taste! The way we think, the way we are and the way we do things reflects a kind of culture. In consequence we find it difficult to make connections with those who are not of that particular cultural worldview.

This past week there has been much in the correspondence column of the Guardian from humanists arguing that a healthier world is more likely to be brought in on the back of humanism rather than the untrustworthy vehicle of religion. They play much on the fact that religion has too often been the source of division. They question whether claims about religion, in general, and Christianity in particular, being a source of goodness and virtue is actually correct.

I do have a concern in all this. I do worry that the Christian faith in the west is sliding gently towards a sort of tepid humanistic faith which ignores some key, though uncomfortable Biblical themes:

Why is the world the way it is? Is it all just a ragbag of fatalism or is there something unmistakeably flawed in us?

Does atonement with God have any place in the Gospel of the Western Church today?

Do we have any sense of God's judgement? Does it matter?

Is eternal life a fact that shapes us now or a vague hope that eludes us in the present?

Much else could be said

I cant help feeling that the God we create in our own image will do little other than affirm us in the way we are. Maybe we need to get focussed on the bits of Scripture we naturally disagree with rather than simply use it as a text book for our own version of worldliness?


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