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.

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.

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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