[Jesus said:] You have learned that our forefathers were told … But what I tell you is this … Matthew 5 vv21-22
When I was at school, back in the 1950s and ‘60s, my numeracy lessons had features that today’s young people would find unfamiliar, not to say astonishing. We were still using the ancient, pre-metric measuring system, with distance measured by12 inches to the foot, 3 feet to the yard, 1760 yards to the mile and so on, and weight by 16 ounces to the pound and 14 pounds to the stone – not to mention a currency which divided the pound into 240 pence by way of 20 shillings. Huge effort was put into teaching and learning this hopelessly outdated system as we sat in class and chanted these arbitrary relationships. No-one dared tell us that there existed a metric system that radically simplified this nonsense. And then: imagine trying to compute how much 4 pounds 12 ounces would cost if one ounce cost three shillings and fourpence; especially imagine trying to compute it without a calculator. Not having calculators meant that even when we came to do maths as distinct from arithmetic, a large part of our time was devoted not so much to understanding the principles and applications of maths as to improving our accuracy in doing the necessary calculations unaided; yet when calculators became affordable and common, there was still great resistance to allowing children to use them in class, let alone in exams. Of course, the old systems could be, and were, made to work, even though society’s need for measuring systems had long ago far outstripped their ability to deliver them efficiently; and calculators were, demonstrably, not strictly necessary to doing calculations.
We could speculate endlessly about why British society hung onto outdated measuring systems and resisted the use of calculators in schools. Let’s for a moment just be astonished by this behaviour and remember that it happened in our own society, and well within living memory. And then let’s see how this can help us to understand aspects of religion. Jesus’s teaching, in effect, told his Jewish society that it could abandon its religious equivalent of feet and inches, pounds and ounces. It wasn’t that the old ways were necessarily wrong in themselves, or that they didn’t work at all. Sacrifice and temple ritual and all that went along with them may have been a useful innovation once, and they could obviously carry on being practised indefinitely. But they didn’t need to go on being practised; there were other, newer ways of achieving the ends that the ancient practices had been developed to attain. What’s more, focusing on the old methods and the effort expended in maintaining them took attention away from what was actually more important. I don’t know whether Jesus expected that this obviously good news to be universally welcomed, or whether he was amazed as well as disappointed when those in charge rejected it. Still, at least large numbers of ordinary people who didn’t have a stake in maintaining the old ways did embrace his teaching, even if some of them were later persuaded that this kind of modernisation was a danger to their way-of-life, rather as some people even today can be persuaded that metrication is the final nail in the coffin of Britishness.
It’s important I think for us to realise that what Jesus was not combating some odd, ancient aberration that was specifically religious and Jewish. It seems to be a human pattern for us to sometimes get so committed to one way of doing things that even when some better method comes along we can’t let ourselves abandon the old ways, a pattern that is especially noticeable when the old ways are bound up with our sense of community, whether as a religious group or as a nation. This is not about simply abandoning the old ways because they are old; it is about abandoning them when their time has passed, which requires both keeping the old ways under review and having the boldness to let them go when they are no longer effective because times have changed. And that is why the work of Jesus is never done: the times never stop changing.
When in the 1970s and 80s the mathematical modernisers got the bit between their teeth, there was a tendency to feel that maybe maths wasn’t really all that necessary to successful living; you could after all get along pretty well with a modicum of arithmetic ability, aided by a calculator. Appreciating the beauty and power of trigonometry and algebra was not exactly a survival skill; they could surely be dropped from the syllabus without much loss. And who needs to know anything about calculus except those really rather odd people who devote their time to things that don’t have much use in everyday life? What began as the entirely laudable aim of making what mattered in maths as easily accessible as possible came to be a tendency to think that nothing mathematical really mattered at all, except to professionals. You will guess that my point is that we can do much the same with religion: we can abandon the mumbo-jumbo and in doing so discover that we can no longer remember what was the point of it all, except perhaps to the vicar. While Jesus thought that old religious observances needed to be replaced, he certainly did not think that what they had gestured towards did not matter at all, or that you could get on perfectly well in life, not only without religious observance, but without the Awe and Love and Truth that it pointed to. You might survive without them, but you could hardly be said to live, and you certainly could not flourish.
So we face two challenges: first to examine our ways of doing things to see how and when they need to change, and second to think about how, as we make the necessary changes, we can avoid throwing out the baby of faith with the bathwater of religion. If traditional religion is less and less effective in helping develop real faith, what methods is society going to use instead? Or are we going to have a go at seeing whether faith will simply develop in people without organised help? Would you try that with maths?