|The Sixth Paradigm
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
 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