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)



... 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
Richard Holloway [1]

I want to take a glance at the whole of Christian history because one of the things I'd like to get at is this widespread notion that Christianity is or ever has been a single thing.

To do this I'll use a large text, but I want to lead into it by addressing first a very slim text.

One of the most important and influential philosophical texts of the twentieth century was a short book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions written by an historian of science called Thomas Kuhn. Now Kuhn was a student at Harvard in the 1960s. He was a young physicist and was invited by the President of Harvard to teach a course on the history of science to humanities students who knew nothing about science. He said to himself, "You don't refuse the President of Harvard!"

In his researches and preparing the course he surprised himself. He came across something that he had not hitherto realised was the case. He had a notion of science as a kind of linear activity - a bit like those machines in a coal mine which eat into the coal face - which bites its way through the facts of the universe. He thought of science as a cumulative process in which these facts were gradually laid out.

He discovered that it was in fact a more violent, interruptive activity. Hence the title of his essay. He discovered that science operates by what he called "paradigm revolutions" or "paradigm shifts". He didn't actually coin the word "paradigm" but he did give it a new kind of meaning. He said that the scientific community worked within what it called a paradigm, a constellation of views based on experiment, a world view or set of assumptions that it operated within. This was the going, working science of the time.

The paradigm was operated until it stopped working - that is, until new questions or new discoveries began to collide with the given view. Let me give you a fairly obvious example.

Aristotelian astronomy, upon which the worldview of the entire Bible is based, proposed a three-decker universe with the earth at the centre and all the spheres going round it. The whole idea was that the earth is the centre of the system both physically as well as theologically.

That was the going paradigm. And it still works. The Ptolemaic version of Aristotelian astronomy can still operate for a yachtsperson. You can cross the Atlantic using Ptolemaic astronomy, guiding your boat by the stars. So to that extent it can still be a working paradigm.

But it was overtaken by the great Copernican discovery which was revolutionary because it said, "Ah! The earth is not the thing which everything else goes round. In fact, we go round the sun."

You'll recall the great struggle which then took place. This was because the new paradigm appeared to contradict both the biblical account as well as the going scientific paradigm. Interestingly, it was only fairly recently that the Pope gave the sun permission to be the centre of the solar system.

What happens then is that you get a working set of systems which operates quite satisfactorily until along comes new knowledge, usually discovered by creatures of genius. They begin to ask questions about the old paradigm. Those who use the old paradigm resist the new - and it is entirely right that they should do so. One doesn't want to keep changing a world view which works. It's a confounded nuisance if you're switching paradigms every few years. You need to get traction, a bit of tradition and leverage on the thing.

So you make it work as long as you possibly can. You use it to try to answer the new information which is coming in. There's also in some people a natural kind of conservatism which doesn't like any kind of change. They prefer the going paradigm to anything which is coming down the road. They do so for purely temperamental reasons - but it's also true that the scientific method itself inherently tests new data until it overturns the old. And then you get a paradigm revolution and you move on.

Kuhn's little book has influenced philosophers, culture critics and theologians since the early 1960s. I want to look now at a great text which has applied Kuhn's conclusions about paradigms to Christianity.

The greatest living theologian is Hans Kung, a Roman Catholic. His is the "large text" to which I referred earlier. He doesn't have the Pope's driving licence because he wrote a book in the seventies attacking the doctrine of infallibility and he had his licence to teach withdrawn.

He still teaches theology at T�bingen University but he teaches it in a secular setting. Quite movingly, he's an old man now and he would like to get his licence back. He'd like to die, as it were, it peace with the Roman Church. But he has been told that he will only get the licence back if he commits to the doctrine of infallibility.

So he will have to sacrifice his conscience to get back inside the Church (which shows you how corrupt churches are). I doubt if he will do that because his whole being has been one of challenge. He's been a sort of Protestant theologian in the midst of Catholicism.

Kung set himself a few years ago an enormous task. He wanted to describe the religious situation of our day. He conceived three volumes - one on Christianity, one on Judaism and one on Islam.

He applies paradigm theory to religion. He says that contrary to what we all think, religion has been a story of shifting paradigms - an essentially dynamic, changing enterprise.

I want to race through his application of paradigm theory to Christianity. He says there have been five Christian paradigms. As we'll see, these paradigms are all still in operation. In science, new paradigms succeed, complete and often oust those that came before. In Christianity, religious paradigms never seem to get discarded or superannuated. They simply get stacked up like trays in the trolleys of self-service restaurants.

I'm focusing on this aspect of the Church because I think we're on the cusp of a big paradigm shift. We're living in revolutionary times. All the signs are there. You've got people who resist change; you've got people who see what the future is and want to pull things towards it; and you've got a lot of people who are just very muddled and confused. I want to try to trace continuities of particular paradigms of the past with those of today and to note any enduring value the former may have.

The first paradigm which Kung develops is what he calls first-century early Christian apocalyptic. That's a mouthful, but it's actually quite easy to understand.

The point he's making - and if you read Paul with only one eye open you can't fail to get it - is that the early Christians were waiting for the end of the world and the return of Jesus. They didn't expect to be around for very long - which is why one gets such unsatisfactory answers in the New Testament to 20th century questions one puts to it.

You don't get a developed ethic. You get what C H Dodd called an "interim ethic". You don't need a developed ethic because you're only going to be around for two or three months. So what's the point of getting rid of slavery, for example, if the great return of Jesus will take care of it. There's not much point in any kind of social theology because this world is on its way out.

What Christians should do in this in-between state is simply be prepared for the return of Jesus, be expectant, and make as many converts as possible so as to be on the right side of the Rapture when it comes.

The whole point to all this is that there's no point. It's very difficult to get into the consciousness of apocalyptic Christianity. The way I imagine the apocalyptic mindset is to imagine myself waiting for a taxi. I've got a plane to catch at the airport and my taxi's late. I'm standing at the window and I can't settle down to anything. I can't drink coffee or read the newspaper. I'm like a cat on a hot tin roof. I'm waiting for the great eschatological taxi to arrive. I'm in a state of indecision because I need to get out of where I am.

That is the apocalyptic scene. Certain sects set out even now to live permanently in this state. Two thousand years is a long time to wait for a taxi. Yet some claim to have got the timing right this time. While travelling by air in the United States I have seen people reading a magazine called Prophecy Today which claims to have finally cracked something called the "Bible code". They think of the entire Bible as a deliberately designed code delineating the right date of the Rapture. Pat Robertson, the great capitalist fundamentalist, has set the date for 2007.

There are many Christians who like this kind of thing, who go in for this notion of a Rapture. It's highly developed in the United States as a strange sort of religious psychology. I think George Bush believes in this. Certainly Ronald Reagan did. Perhaps the Iraqi war was an attempt to bring in the last things.

More amusingly, I read somewhere that it's going to be tough on the people who are not the elect because if you're in a jet 'plane and the pilot is one of the elect, at the Rapture he's going to be caught up, and all the poor passengers are going to crash. And if you're in the dentist's chair getting root canal work, and the dentist is called, then you're going to be stuck with the needles in your jaw. Great stuff!

Was Jesus a genuine apocalypticist? Albert Schweitzer, the great Alsatian theologian, wrote a marvellous book called The Quest of the Historical Jesus in which he concluded that Jesus died as a despairing apocalypticist. Jesus felt he was called by God to bring in the eschaton (Greek for the end of the world), to precipitate conditions that would cause the irruption of the other into the now.

Almost the last words in Schweitzer's book assert that Jesus "... lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself upon it. Then it does turn; and crushes him. Instead of bringing in the eschatological conditions, he has destroyed them".

Schweitzer believed that Jesus is hanging upon the wheel still, which is why, having finished that book, he said that the thing was to stop talking about Jesus and start living like Jesus.

So he went off into the jungle and became a doctor. He thought that there is nothing more to be said. Jesus failed - except as the greatest man who ever lived and who left us this absolutely fundamental ethical challenge. His was an eloquent book and an eloquent life.

Jesus scholars today reckon that Jesus went through an apocalyptic phase as a disciple of John the Baptist. They think that he then gave it up and went into what is technically called "realised eschatology". Jesus taught, they say, that now is the day of judgement and that God is constantly coming to us every day rather than at some future date at the end of the world. After Jesus died, those disciples who came with him from the Baptist movement reverted to an apocalyptic theology which then quite quickly crept back into Christianity.

You can't prove or disprove any of this stuff. Similarly, there are people who believe that Jesus ran a completely inclusive ministry in which there was no distinction between men and women. The gender prejudices were, they think, brought back later. You can take your pick on that. I don't think there's any way of resolving it.

The enduring value in apocalyptic Christianity is that provided you demythologise it and unshackle it from this notion that there is going to be an irruption from the supernatural into the natural, it's still the most powerful part of theology because it calls us to change the world. The new or apocalyptic world of Jesus is a world we are constantly struggling to bring to pass. A new community is not one that is going to irrupt and land on earth straight from heaven. It's something you have to work for.

Death is our own personal eschatology - "Look thy last on all things lovely every day." You can use apocalyptic theology I think in many ways far more exciting than anything that's left in traditional Christian theology.

That's the first paradigm. It lasted roughly up to the end of the first century of the Christian era. After that it became increasingly difficult to sustain because Jesus obviously had not come again. Nevertheless, Christians kept the theology and the language around. Hence we sing all those Advent hymns. We talk about "Come again to judge the living and the dead" and all that. We don't believe it except in some other kind of way.

Let me illustrate from the world of science. If you're being trained as a scientist today you don't start learning about Ptolemaic astronomy and then move on to Copernican astronomy. You start with the current paradigm. If you want to know the history of science and the paradigms of the past then you read a book about the history of science.

But, as you know, Christianity never abandons anything, so we still teach the apocalyptic first paradigm as essential to good doctrine - though we do try to demythologise it. Apocalyptic theology may have the deepest existential possibilities for us in terms of the nature of change.
[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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