Near Molong, NSW 2011

Beginning the Big Shift

At the conference someone (Fred Plumer?) said we cannot continue to fiddle round the edges of Christianity. What is needed is a paradigm shift. We need a major shift of consciousness. Why this statement?

Christians have always struggled with issues about the reality of God and how we relate to God.  The struggle can be seen in scripture itself.  The Book of Job is an immense struggle over why bad things happen to good people. It is clear from Paul that some Christians questioned the notion of resurrection (see 1 Cor. 15:12). The motif of Thomas’ doubt at the end of John’s Gospel, and the entry of “Doubting Thomas” into our language is a clear indicator of people’s struggles.

Theology has always evolved in response to these struggles.  Theo-logy means God-talk, and we talk about our struggles. Why is it that some Christians are now calling for a different order of change?

What follows is my own take on western history as it relates to Christian theology. I do not pretend to provide a thorough exploration.  Apart from the fact that many books could be written on any one of the points below, there are far more erudite commentators than I who are easily accessible. But this is my understanding of the changes leading up to our own time.

  • The Printing Press. Knowledge has become a possession of the people. Scholars are no longer the elite.  People in Shakespeare’s time were offended that a country boy could have such skills and insights, according to an article in last weekend’s Australian review.  By contrast to that attitude and time, literacy rates are high.  Printing is cheap, and enables mass production and dissemination of ideas.  We are no longer insulated from new ideas.

  • The Shrinking of Distance.  In Australia, the traditional time for church was 11.00am, to allow time for the farmers to ride in to worship after milking the cows.  My grandfather would rise at 4.00am to start the milking process; he remembered the first aeroplanes. Today there are a million people in the air at any one time.

    With this shrinking of distance the effects of the printing press have become personal.  In my childhood I read about Muslims through the filters of the imperial English upper class. Today I have Muslim friends.  Their spirituality has inspired me.

    The shrinking of distance and the printing press both expose us to comparative religion in another way. We find all sorts of echoes of our stories in other religions. Anyone who cares to look will find that Christianity is not unique, and will face all sorts of questions about the origins of faith, and the source of stories we once thought were “ours.”

    The shrinking of distance also means that the Pompeiis of the ancient world are no longer localized.  The Lisbon Earthquake, even centuries ago, raised theological questions across Europe. Auschwitz and Hiroshima propelled those questions worldwide in our time. The printing presses’ globalisation of these tragedies was further empowered by photography, and then by its development into film and radio.

  • The Remapping of the Whole World. Starting with Astronomy, moving through Physics, confirmed in Geology, and revolutionized in Biology, the bible’s understanding of the physical world, and that of the church, has been challenged at every level.  The earth is not at the centre of the universe. The universe is not three tiered. Much of what happens is not controlled by the hand of God, but by regular, immutable Newtonian laws. God may have put it all in motion, but seems to be rather disinterested in the day to day running of the shop.

    I’m not sure what the earlier astronomers and physicists thought about the age of things, but in the nineteenth century the geologists began to glimpse a vastly older earth than that imagined by Bishop Ussher. Now, instead of his 6000 year old universe, we think in terms of billions of years.

    Then came Darwin. The biological sciences range far more widely than the mechanism of evolution, but Darwin was the Newton of the discipline. His work provided a mechanism, which for many people, removed God from the process.

    It was possible not only to imagine an a-theistic universe, but also to point to mechanisms which showed this imagination was not idle thinking, but could be factual.

  • The Power and Respectability of Alternate Philosophies.  It is not possible to prove that God exists. This was already well known before Darwin. But now, after Darwin, a common rejoinder to the skeptics claim had lost its power.  When one said to the skeptic, “If there is no God, then how is there anything?” (or something similar) the skeptic could now point to Darwin and Newton.

    Proofs of God were not only flawed, they ceased working on a psychological level.  The problems and intricacies of the nature of existence, and why there is something rather than nothing… all of those unanswerable questions did not change.  What changed was the availability and credibility of an alternative to God.

    Even in my life time this change has been apparent. As a teenager, the question “If there is no God, then how is there anything?” was a real question for many of my peers and I. For my son at age 12, such a question was ridiculous. It was obvious there were other alternatives, naïve though some of his assumptions may have been.

    In the touchy feely introduction to “Religious and Values Education” on the first day of secondary school, each boy was asked to name, and say something about himself.  In one church school a double ministers’ kid, introduced himself to the class as an atheist. With the old fashioned brutality of lazy and frightened teachers, the religion teacher said this was just a phase and he would soon get over it.

    Where the students of an earlier generation may have been crushed by this, or sat in simmering resentment until the end of school days, this boy embarked on a long guerilla campaign to undermine the teacher. Well before the end of school days, a compromise had been reached with the school hierarchy. If he would more or less behave in class, no written work would be required. In the eyes of the boy’s peers, the teacher lost his credibility.

    The democratization of knowledge and the presence of alternative mechanisms filter down even to school children.

  • The Terrors of Psychology. Psychological insights into religious faith have been less than comforting for many people. Widely published and popular print authors like Bishop Spong (Eternal Life: A New Vision) and web authors like Richard Beck show the mixed motives that drive our religious impulses. I quote a previous article on this website:

Beck asks us to take Freud seriously.

"Religion [is] the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity."

“The effect of religious consolations may be likened to that of a narcotic.”

Religion is a narcotic. That's basically Freud's view. And the word narcotic is well-choosen. For narcotics do two things. First, they dull the pain. Second, they give us pleasure. And Freud suggests that religion does this: It dulls the pain and makes us happy.

So, when I ask you to take Freud seriously I'm asking you to do this: Accept the fact that religion functions as a narcotic.

He concludes that Freud is not necessarily correct in this claim, but that for many people, he is exactly correct…..

This awareness [of our fear of death] drives the need to construct "paths of 'meaning' and 'significance'" to relieve the terror of living.  Religion can too easily be such a path.

People who have read Spong’s latest book, Eternal Life: A New Vision, will find much that resonates with Beck's starting point, although Spong is dealing with another question. The two books read well together; each shining a light on the other.

The awareness of our own mortality is so terrible, in the real sense of the world, that it takes a real effort to become conscious of it. Such fear can be almost comical; I remember a workmate lumbered with preparing a body for a bush funeral.  He was in such a hurry to nail down the lid of the chipboard coffin one frosty morning, he nailed the corner of his coat under the lid. His companion said that rather than prise up the lid, he cut the corner off the coat. At the same time, this is inexpressibly sad.

At the time I laughed... and crowed a little.  I know now I was deep in my own denial, all the while sort of aware of it, but not caring to look to closely.  Beck, very gently, asks us to take a look.

I am deliberate in my choice of authors here. Spong, although very conservative in some respects, is easily labeled as "progressive." He heartily endorses Gretta Vosper. I am not at all sure Beck would appreciate this label.

None of the points I am raising in this essay necessitate the label “progressive.” Their very power lies in the fact that they are, apart from within hard-line conservative religious groups, commonly accepted in religious circles. They are not only accepted, they are used as epistemological foundations, and theological tools in religious conversations about the Divine.

  • The Last Frontier of Biblical Studies.  For many Christians, especially students beginning study for ordination, biblical studies and the theological colleges provide a profound shock.  I suspect many religionists cope with the modern world via a sense that the religious academy, and the clergy, are somehow insulated from all the insights I have been listing.  Knowledge about God is of a different order untouched by the claims of secular disciplines. 

    Alternatively, colleges and seminaries are often easily, and ignorantly, dismissed by lay people and prospective students. When students arrive, the quality and volume of all that ‘foolish and shallow liberal theology,’ can provide a severe and life shaking shock. Parishioners discover their ministers hold views about scripture, doctrine, ethics and God, which seem to have no relationship to the received traditions. If they survive that first shock, and look again, they find these views are common place, and sometimes centuries old.

    These folk suddenly find the whole theological edifice, which has perhaps been their main-stay in life, is disbelieved by the very ones who they feel should minister it to them. The pity is that the gap from college to church has been spanned so rarely.  And many clergy write the necessary essays and do the time to get ordained, arrive in the parish, and ‘go native.’ Their parishioners are saved any agony, because here is a courageous,  educated minister, telling them that moderns stuff is all wrong, and that God is the same as he always has been. This has worked for at least a hundred years, but is beginning to fail.

    The ubiquitous printing press and its offspring, radio, TV and internet, are powerfully used by conservative religion to shore up the faithful.  But that same ubiquity means the conservative must work ever harder to blot out the new insights of theology. The devout and pious young person who taps out a message of defiance, or abuse, on an apostate web site is always at risk of reading and being converted.

What the devout and pious idealists from fundamentalist backgrounds may find, is that none of the insights I have mentioned bother the mainline church.  For decades, and even centuries now, faithful Christians have altered their understanding of God to fit the insights and necessities of a new world. It has not only been a process of adaptation; often the new insights have become powerful tools for understanding our relationship with the Divine.

The progression of thinking has not all been in one direction, either.  At first sight, religion’s insights and relevance may seem to have been pruned and squeezed into an ever shrinking, and increasingly irrelevant, area of human endeavour. This has not been the case.

There has been a loss of faith in the mechanisms of Newtonian physics.  Quantum physics show us a far more complicated and rather more ambiguous world than we had begun to imagine. The insights and methods that function so well in a measurable, definable, and manageable material world are also under question in the world of human behavior and perceptions. We realise there never is a disinterested observer. We influence the meaning of what we observe. We too often see what we want to see.

This is not merely a temporary gaining of breathing space for religion. It is accompanied by a profound disenchantment with the brave new secular world of the West. Great numbers of people are deeply disenchanted with what it offers, just like the hero of the novel; many of them equally tragically. I do not consider religion is dying. It may even be coming into its own!

However, there has clearly been the loss of a metaphor. Christian belief is no longer compelling for most people.  In its traditional form it does not provide helpful answers to the work of living. It does not work.

For Christians there are three responses to this loss. One is to put up the shutters and refuse the loss.  Life is somehow compartmentalised so that an agricultural scientist does his research whilst rejecting the Theory of Evolution which largely underpins the discipline. I found the psychic energy required to do this destructive.

The next response is to decide that religion is an unnecessary complication.  It can be dispensed by courtesy of Ockham ’s razor.  It may be that religion is regretfully relinquished as a way of living, or happily abandoned. Whatever the reasoning and emotions involved, the person leaves Christianity and identifies themselves differently.

But some, profoundly ill at ease, take a different route. They feel the failure of the Christian metaphor which they have received and perhaps lived under for decades. They are not doubters; they are clear the model of God which they have received, and with which they have struggled and lived, is simply not true. It does not work anymore. It creates problems for life, rather than supporting life. It divides rather than integrating.

Yet the idea of God and the wisdom of the faith in which they have lived are not dispensable.  It is not simply a matter of growing up and living in a soulless world.  There is a sense of reality that goes beyond what other ways of seeing the world can offer. These people dare to believe they have grown up, and that their growing up means the soulless un-godded world is the less mature understanding. So they wonder if they can thoroughly rebuild their reality. Is there a new way to understand the world, a new paradigm, which can be discovered?

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