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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The Sixth Paradigm  (Continued)

Kung's fourth paradigm is one we're more immediately familiar with - that of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. It happened to coincide with the discovery of the Bible by ordinary people. Once the new printing presses had swung into action, many thousands of copies of the Bible became available to the person on the street. It was very soon translated from Latin into the vernaculars.

Just as the Roman institution had provided Christians with a feeling of absolute assurance, so also some people found a similar assurance in the words of Scripture. The absolute institution was replaced by texts which were perceived as the absolute truth straight from the mouth of God. The fourth paradigm promoted the same need for authority as did the third paradigm and pandered to the same fear of freedom.

More profound than such similarities is the way adherence to scriptural inerrancy prevents attempts to do theology differently. In order to preserve its internal consistencies, this paradigm must perforce retain an absolute commitment to a pre-scientific paradigm of how this world works.

In this paradigm the sun must be able to stand still, people must be able to walk on water, and the dead must be able to rise again. In contrast, institutions like the Roman Church can change and yet pretend they haven't. But how can anyone move off a doctrine of scriptural inerrancy without admitting it?

From study of the Bible as God's Word to humankind came the great theory that Luther evolved in contradistinction to the fundamentalism if the institution. It's nearly impossible for many Christians today to read Paul's letters to the early Church except through Lutheran eyes, so compelling was Luther's interpretation of the infallible authority of the Bible.

Luther taught that God saves us not through any of our own works or good deeds, be they pilgrimages, or masses or earnest prayer, but only through God's grace by the sacrifice of the Father's son. That really was a paradigm revolution for those times. It blew away the monolithic medieval Christianity of Roman Catholicism.

The Reformation church is today perhaps the most dated in feeling of all the churches.

I don't know if you ever go into a United Reformed Church building or a Presbyterian church. A few have developed new liturgical forms and norms, but on the whole the classic churches of the Reformation are, as we say in Scotland, very dour. They're heavy. You get long sermons. They may be very thoughtful sermons but they're long. It's all minister-dominated. There's no colour or brightness. It's very heavy, it's serious, it's intense.

That is also it's enduring value. It produces very serious people. Presbyterian Scotland was a very serious country which, by dint of focused effort over many years, produced a strongly democratic consciousness.

It also gave birth to the Protestant work-ethic. This was fundamental to Scotland's experience and self understanding. From this paradigm sprang also a well-educated public. John Knox, the Scottish Protestant reformer, wanted a school in every parish and largely succeeded in his ambition.

Despite this enduring value, the Reformation remnant of the fourth paradigm remains depressing and sexless. If you want to have a good time, don't go to one of these places on a Sunday morning. For unless you're solidly masochistic you'll come out feeling pretty rotten about yourself.

I often think that if you want a great exemplar of the virtues and maybe of the downside of the Reformation paradigm, look at Gordon Brown, the United Kingdom's Chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to the Minister of Finance in other systems). He is a deeply serious man. There doesn't seem to be any frivolity in him. He's deeply committed to his project - but he's not exactly a laugh a minute (although I'm told that with some decent malt whiskey beside him he can be quite good company). But there's no sense of frivolity of skittishness about him. In many ways he's a brilliant exemplar of the best of the fourth paradigm.

The fifth paradigm is the modern paradigm, that of the 17th - 19th centuries. It is still powerfully with us, busily influencing and interpreting how we perceive the world and our lives. Nevertheless, we're increasingly able to regard it to some degree dispassionately as we sail into new and unfamiliar seas.

This paradigm can perhaps best be identified as a heroic attempt to steer the Christian vessel between the hard rock of scriptural and institutional fundamentalism and the deadly shoals of the cultured despiser's rejection of all religion as irrational and infantile.

It's often called "liberal Christianity" and generally refers to an amorphous group within the Church which seeks to accommodate traditional formulations of Christian teaching within the strictures of Newtonian science and the thought and culture of modern times.

One is reminded of the well-known crack about Adolf Harnack, the modern German Church historian and theologian. His critics envisaged him looking down the well of time to discover the real Jesus - and seeing only himself reflected there.

The great difficulties of adapting tradition to the demands of analytical thought do not, I think, invalidate the liberal Christian project. All versions of Christianity, without exception, ultimately see themselves reflected at the bottom of that ancient well. Discovering a civilised, liberally-minded 19th century European thinker there is no worse and a good deal better than some of the other characters seen down that well.

Despite its honourable history, however, liberal Christianity is probably the most terminally ill of all the five paradigms. Not only is it attacked from within the Church, but those outside the traditional fold also like to have a go at it. Strangely, and rather like a sewage worker inured to strong smells, the secular detractors of religion often claim to respect and to admire the sincerity of those who still adhere to an outdated way of interpreting the world - even though they don't like it at all.

But the people they really despise are not those who cling to the old paradigms in spite of the ways these have been falsified by subsequent developments in human knowledge. They can quite easily tolerate those they dismiss as cranks, albeit well-intentioned ones. They truly despise those who try to adapt religion to contemporary knowledge.

This, says the cultured despiser of religion, is not possible. No translation of religion into contemporary language can succeed. There is no Rosetta Stone to transform pre-modern concepts into today's way of perceiving the world. Not even an approximation is possible. The two world views are utterly incompatible.

As they see it, to be a Christian today one must install in one's mind a set of first-century assumptions, rather like an outdated computer program being put into a new computer. They know and we know that these assumptions are false. The computer will reject outdated software. It simply can't be read by an up-to-date machine. Therefore, the only honest religion is dishonest religion. The only valid religion today, they, they would proclaim, is obsolete religion. Religion itself is a relic, sometimes charming, sometimes scary, of a long dead world-view.

In addition, the mild-mannered, gently rational and somewhat hesitant mode of the liberal Christian (at his or her best) doesn't sit too well with the strident, macho contemporary communications culture, with its straight talk and snappy, sound-bite responses. Generally more mild and unassuming, the liberal Christian voice tends to be drowned out in an all-pervading racket.

And yet the liberal outlook on life and faith endures and no doubt will continue to endure despite its conceptual difficulties and often low impact. Many tend to dismiss the earthy, complex nature of humanity, regarding men and women more as minds on stilts than anything else. They forget that our capacity to think, and all that springs from it, is the most distinctive thing about being human. After all is said and done, it is aspects of the way we think which set us aside from all other living beings.

When it has finished trying the fit a modern set of clothes onto the alien body of the past, liberal Christianity will no doubt retain its nobility. It will do so through its conviction that honest religion need not run counter to the best of the human intellectual enterprise, which has its own glory and ethic.

The sixth paradigm is in the process of emerging. It hasn't yet fully formed. We are still, as I mentioned before, on the borders of entirely new territory.

Like a child in the womb this paradigm tends at times to take on rather strange and primitive-seeming shapes. Insofar as I'm able to perceive it, there seem to be five aspects of the embryonic sixth paradigm.

  1. First, it is a paradigm about paradigms. Once we have discovered the idea of a paradigm, we cannot help but recognise that no religious expression is ultimate. 

    The religious spirit is as wide and as untidy as humanity itself. Each historic expression has and will have some enduring aspects and qualities. Parts of each will endure beyond the death of the central myth. But every paradigm must by definition be seen as ephemeral in relation to the vast reaches of time through which humankind journeys.

  2. The sixth paradigm is post-modern in the sense that humanity is increasingly, if gradually, becoming uneasy with any words and concepts claiming to be set in concrete. 

    We are no longer comfortable with sweeping, absolute claims to verity. In contrast, religion is perhaps to be held up and talked about with modesty and humility if it is to mean anything much to the vast crowds who swarm outside the paper-thin bastions of Christian tradition. 

    This unassuming stance may be particularly important in the context of ongoing scandals which presently disfigure and discount all the Abrahamic religions.

  3. It is post-hierarchical. The ancient and not-so-ancient pattern of top-down power and authority is less and less workable. 

    An increasingly important parameter of our times is a deep suspicion of power. In reaction to its negative use is a growing need to build in checks and balances wherever power is at issue.

    In contrast, the dominant Christian paradigms still rest on the foundations of previous, profoundly authoritarian cultures. They need to be radically revised.

  4. Religion is recognised as a human construct. Those for whom Christianity is the result of divine intervention in the world order frequently accuse others of throwing out the baby with the bath water. 

    But the sixth paradigm does not necessarily reject the possibility of a transcendent reality when it acknowledges that religion is created by us for ourselves. To admit that no one religion is God-given and that all derive from the fount of human need is not to proclaim the death of God.

    If something no longer works, it's in our human remit to discard it. The capacity to move on from what is failing to what works better is a cardinal virtue upon which our very survival as individuals and as a species depends. Old, worn out paradigms can be discarded just as decrepit human institutions inevitably give way to the new. 

    There is a heavy touch of irony in this aspect of the sixth paradigm. If we ditch claims to the absolute, we cease making absolute claims even for our lack of absolutes. It's absolutely true that all claims to absolute truth are false. 

  5. The primacy of the creation begins to stare Christianity in the face as the sixth paradigm takes hold on our imagination. Perhaps, despite claims to high status in God's dispensation, Christians aren't actually nearly as important as they think they are.

    We begin to see dimly that our religion is little more than an accessory in life. Most people in the Western culture get on quite nicely, thank you very much, without any religion at all. In the process they don't become any more depraved than the average believer. Indeed, they seem to me often to be a good deal kinder and more tolerant than religious people.

It seems we're reaching towards a unitary understanding of the context in which we live, becoming aware of that whole which includes us as a tiny part of it. What a lot of people don't much care to admit is that in this whole we are intrinsically no more important than any other part. 

If every one of us were to disappear today, the world would carry on regardless just as it did when the dinosaurs went over the edge. Yet in our case it would be missing something grand and beautiful. No single word yet suggests itself for this all-embracing sense of context - but I would like the word "poet" to be in there somewhere.

______________________________________________
[1] The Sixth Paradigm was developed from notes taken of a largely
      extempore address given at Cheltenham, UK in May, 2003

Richard Holloway: This article may not be reproduced  in any
     form whatsoever without written permission from the author

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