|The Myths of Christianity - 1
The Broken Myth
One of the most significant and influential books of the Twentieth
Century was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
Kuhn argued against the common view of science as the steady and
incremental accumulation of observation, data, discoveries and inventions.
Instead, he argued that the history of science is characterised by
periods of peaceful and normal research punctuated by epochs of crisis and
transformation. He called these crises 'scientific revolutions'. What Kuhn
calls 'normal' science begins when a community of scientists agrees about
the nature of the basic entities they are talking about. They operate
within a constellation of basic agreements he called a 'paradigm'. A
paradigm is a scientific achievement universally accepted within a
community of practitioners that, for a time, provides solutions to certain
These paradigms are not permanent and unalterable descriptions of
reality. They work as long as they work or until they are challenged by
anomalies they cannot explain. It is the persistence of these unexplained
anomalies that precipitates a scientific crisis. Sometimes the going
paradigm can be made to solve the problem. Sometimes no solution can be
found and the problem is put on hold till a solution comes along.
But sometimes a new paradigm emerges that replaces the old one by
solving current difficulties - and so the process continues. Speaking in
very broad terms, and using astronomy as an example, we can see how the
Copernican paradigm succeeded the Ptolemaic, and was itself succeeded by
the Newtonian paradigm, by answering new questions and by providing better
solutions to new problems. It would not, however, be accurate to say that
the Ptolemaic paradigm was false or mistaken. It worked until it ceased to
work, as was the case with the Newtonian, mechanistic universe, which was
succeeded by the quantum paradigm. As far as I understand these things,
the current quantum paradigm no longer supplies satisfactory answers to
certain anomalies discovered at the sub-atomic level, and a more complete
paradigm will probably emerge. The new paradigm will, in time, be
succeeded by another that does the job better.
One of the important things to notice about Kuhn's work is that it can
be applied not only to science, but to human knowledge in general. And it
makes the notion of �truth� contingent upon who and where and what we are.
It does not seem to be the case that there is an absolute objective
'truth' about the universe out there waiting for us to stumble upon, the
way we might find a lost treasure in a sunken galleon. What seems to
happen is that a point of view works for us, answers our questions, helps
us to operate in life, so we hold it until it no longer does the job it
was designed for.
In fact, we come to realise, our viewpoints were not pieces of concrete
truth that we discovered and logged into our minds; they were practical
ways of working, ways of dealing with what lay before us, problem-solving
devices. And when better ways of doing things came along we transferred
our loyalties to them.
This notion that there is no fixed truth out there is extremely
difficult for many people to accept. Their anxiety may have something to
do with the normal human resistance to change and the overturning of
perceptions we have become comfortable with; but it probably has even more
to do with an ancient attitude to reality that has been around at least
This is the notion that there is an ideal, perfect, truthful,
transcendent reality out there and that we should struggle to get our
minds and wills to correspond to it. Kuhn's theory suggests that what we
think of as 'true' at any one time is always related to where we are in
history, so it is contingent, not fixed or absolute. The Platonic or
dualistic view holds that there is a steady state of fixed value and truth
somewhere, which in our present situation we only catch glimpses of, but
which we must constantly struggle towards.
Associated with the dualistic approach to truth or absolute value there
usually goes a system of authority, because a potent way to resolve the
dilemmas of actual human experience and the disagreements they generate is
to assert that there are agencies who already possess this absolute
knowledge and it is our duty to obey them and receive their revealed
insights with humility.
The history of philosophy would suggest that you are in either one of
these groups or the other. You are either some kind of idealist, who
believes that there is an absolute perfection of truth out there to be
submitted to; or you are a pragmatist, someone who sees 'truth' as
contingent upon where you are in history, as a way of talking about
attitudes that work for you or of which you approve.
As a matter of fact, most people seem to operate in the
pragmatic way, though they may claim to believe in an overarching
theory of absolute truth. Let me suggest an example of this anomaly from
the history of moral attitudes.
If we think about the status of women, for instance, we can see the
matter from several different angles. If you are a dualist, who believes
that there is absolute truth or value somewhere, you will probably believe
in the existence of what you call 'objective standards', independent moral
realities that stand somewhere on their own, irrespective of where we
happen to be, and it is our duty to correspond to them, obey them.
But then anomalous things begin to happen. The objective standards may
indeed still stand where they did, but we keep moving. The authoritative
systems that mediate these objective standards have conveniently, if
fatefully, provided documentary evidence to support their claims upon us.
In the case of the status of women, for instance, these authorities will
probably have defined them in very precise and specific ways, usually as
helpmeets to men, with carefully circumscribed roles.
This is the certainly the case with the Hebrew and Christian
Scriptures. For instance, in Genesis 3.16 God says to Woman, after she has
caused the Fall of Adam: 'I will greatly multiply your pain in
childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire
shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you'. Paul's version of
this is found in I Corinthians 11.3ff: 'I want you to understand that the
head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband...for man
was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for
woman, but woman for man'.
You don't have to be Einstein to see how these prescriptions for women
clearly had their origin in a specific historical context. At a certain
stage of historical development, biology will dictate an absolute destiny
for most women, so that the exigencies of developed theories or
explanatory myths to account for this fact. The narrative in the Book of
Genesis about the disobedience of Eve and her seduction of Adam to the
same sin is the classic explanatory myth within the Judaeo-Christian
tradition. It offers an explanation for the laborious lives of women in
primitive societies, as well as the pains of childbirth. The Fall
narrative is what Kuhn would call a paradigm or a set of basic agreements
that explain the way things are.
However, history is not static and one of the things it has clearly
done in our culture is to deliver us from absolute biological necessity,
so that we today define ourselves less by the pure processes of nature and
more by the dynamics of human culture. As far as women are concerned, this
means that they are increasingly liberated from biology to become agents
of their own destiny, within the usual limits that define us all.
In Kuhn's language, what we then begin to experience is a bad fit
between the old paradigm and the new reality. The paradigm of biological
necessity, or of objective gender standards, no longer answers the
questions women are asking or solves the problems created by the new
claims they are making. Since the old paradigm cannot resolve these
anomalies, a revolution in our attitudes takes place and a new paradigm
emerges. In the case of women today, there is a generally accepted
agreement that they should no longer be totally bound by reproductive
necessity and the gender roles that developed from it, and should be seen
to be, at least in theory, the equal of men.
It is obvious that this kind of paradigm shift in gender roles creates
difficulties for groups who do not understand or refuse to accept the
historically contingent nature of truth claims or of so-called objective
moral standards, as they have related to men and women.
The chances are that if you adhere to one of these systems you will be
experiencing considerable unease today because, while you have probably
accepted many aspects of the new paradigm, your belief system or
underlying theory of life is probably diametrically opposed to the new
One way of dealing with this discomfort is to retreat within a moral
community that is firmly rooted in the old paradigm or state of
development. This is best done by the process of cultural separation that
you get in certain ethnic groups, such as the Amish in Pennsylvania (USA)
or the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn (New York) and
It is less easy to do that when you are actually living fully within a
society that has accepted the new paradigm and organises itself
accordingly. Here, there is bound to be considerable inner tension, as is
the case, for instance, within the Roman Catholic Church, the majority of
whose members in this country are clearly influenced by the new gender
paradigm in most aspects of their lives, except in the religious sphere.
Metaphysical dualists tend to belong to communities that follow, at
least in theory, some version of objective or enduring standards, so they
are prey to the particular discontents I have described above. What is
more frustrating, however, is not their personal discomfort, but the fact
that they will probably be operating fairly competently within the new
paradigm, which is based on an action or practice approach to truth, while
continuing to adhere to a theoretical metaphysic that contradicts it in
theory. This is an example of what Paul Tillich called the dishonesty of
'the unbroken myth'. Tillich's analysis of the role of myth in religion
bears close parallels to Kuhn's paradigm theory, and it is to Tillich that
I now turn.