After the big shift
In this explorative essay I refer to the new paradigm, by which I mean the understandings I am calling Progressive Christianity. I refer also to the old or earlier paragdim, meaning the traditional Christian understandings before the big shift.
Where does the big shift leave us? Three very common propositions which describe the intellectual shift I have needed to make are
Understand that these are not usually ideas that people sit down and work out in a detached intellectual exercise! They are conclusions to which many people are forced as the implications of the big shift sink in. They are not necessarily welcome conclusions, and may cause considerable pain for the person discovering them. A paradigm shift is not a simple weighing up of the evidence. It involves turning a world of understanding upside down.
What I want to do in this essay is to explore some of the emotional shift that happens for a person who identifies as Progressive Christian. I am talking mostly out of my own experience.
For many Christians, any of the three propositions above would be a declaration of the speaker's departure from the Christian faith. A fairly restrained response might ask, from the position of the earlier paradigm, “What kind of God is that? Is that sort of God really a God?” Reasonable questions! I resisted the implications of the big shift because it seemed I could only answer such questions by saying there is no God.
I resisted the notion of “no God” because something in me could not accept that there is nothing beyond protons, neutrons, and electrons mechanical physics. I could see that maybe The Cat Empire were correct. I could accept that maybe that's how reality is. But something in me, apart from the desire that it was not so, felt that this is all too neat and easy. It doesn't really match the evidence.
(Cause we're all just)
Protons, Neutrons, Electrons
That rest on a Sunday
Work on a Monday and someday soon
Well be singing the old tunes
I'll be sitting on the porch with you
Then I'll die and I'll fly off into the blue (The Cate Empire)
What I am trying to say is that reluctance to act upon the insights of the big shift, and adopting some sort of progressive stance, is not a problem of fear of the propositions I listed. It's more about not being able to enunciate a new paradigm in a way that, while letting go of things the big shift shows cannot be real, still takes account of things that do seem valid. There is not a new, ready made religious paradigm waiting. It has to be discovered and thought and felt through.
I began to think about my escape from fundamentalism. The emotional process at that time included a gradual acceptance that just because my experience was inadequately explained by the fundamentalism paradigm, that didn't mean the experience itself was invalid. What was failing and inadequate was my interpretation of the experience. I began to seek other ways to interpret what I was experiencing. I say “acceptance” because it was not just an intellectual understanding, but a kind of emotional detachment from one world view and re-attachment to another.
It might be like Copernicus or Galileo as the Ptolemaic astronomical system began to fall apart for them. The night sky still had stars in it. The moon and the sun rose and set. It still got dark at night. Everything was the same, and yet everything was different. They could give up on the endeavour of astronomy, or they could begin to seek to reinterpret and reunderstand the new world.
Where will we put our faith? Just in the traditions and propositions we have received from other people, or slowly and carefully, in what we see and experience around us; things we see and re-see, and test, and begin to trust. (This elevation of our own experience and the ability to challenge authority is also a characteristic of the big shift.)
My attachment to the new paradigm came especially from ethical implications of the big shift. If God can intervene but does not, then God is a monster to allow the agony that exists on Earth. If God is the traditional omnipotent God, then God must be able to make the world better. Nothing justifies the pain through which many people live. If God cannot intervene then obviously God is not omnipotent, but in some way very limited. I call God “it” because using the personal pronoun suggests personality, and points us back to the interventionist model.
In short found the big shift made the God of the former paradigm ethically repugnant. I could not adhere to the old paradigm and find in it a God worthy of worship, but only one which should ethically be rejected. There were many other issues, but this was the central issue.
Unsure how to talk about what God might be, or if indeed there was God, I went back to the things I found compelling in my life.
What was basic for me? What was my most basic faith? It was not, and had not been for a very long time, that “there is a God.” To make that statement is to use a heavily loaded word. It is to shoulder a metaphor which is so over loaded with baggage it will not communicate what I mean with anyone. I would spend most of my time telling others and myself what “God” did not mean.
I was rethinking this recently while riding a long, gradual downhill slope from Jamestown to Spalding. The wind was behind me; cycling Nirvana! Dark clouds enriched the colour of the sky, and heightened the drama of the bare hills along side. A kangaroo bounded ahead of me along the fence line 30 metres in from the road's edge. At 35kph it took me two or three minutes to finally overtake it! I was on glass smooth bitumen. It was in rough grass, bounding over boulders, crossing small creeks, not flagging. I was part of an elegance and wonder almost beyond words.
My faith is that this is not all just meaningless protons, neutrons, and electrons. The world we find ourselves in is not a chance event which may just as easily not have happened. Something is pushing, coming into being, seeking complexity, finding a direction, trying to grow. There is clearly a lot of simple chance and probability included in what is happening, but to say it is all just chance, with no meaning or purpose behind it, seems to me also a faith statement-- and perhaps a bigger stretch of the imagination! All that complexity and constant drive to overcome the natural entropy of things is difficult to call “just chance.”
Coming from that basic faith, I do not find the personal (he/she) God of the earlier Christian paradigm so necessary or compelling as I once did. Careful theology has long been aware that anything we say about God is limited and metaphorical. It has cautioned we can only really proceed by saying that which God is not. My feeling for, and love of, and dependence upon, the God I know as a person easily becomes the reifying of a metaphor. I can “talk myself into” making the metaphor real, as if it really existed. God might be like a father or mother in some respects, but God is not father or mother; those terms are metaphoric.
In fact, the theism of Christianity is a metaphor for talking about the Divine. It is a metaphor (in Christian terms) for a personal Abba/Father God, who loves me. But it is only a metaphor- albeit immensely powerful imagery for understanding and imagining the Divine. It is an imagining that tells me the truth that I am at home on this earth, and of value to it. I am not in an alien place. I am not worth less than others who are rich and privileged.
To be a-theist in a formal sense, is to say only that this metaphor does not “work” for me any more. It does not communicate the sort of truths I outlined above. It may even hide them! It does not mean that there is no longer anything Divine, only that the earlier paradigm no longer adequately mediates the Divine to me. Of course, atheist as a popular word means no Divine whatsoever. I am not using it in that sense. (Even the word Divine has problems here; everything is the same yet everything is different! Let us say, at least, that “Divine” means my basic faith is a more reasonable understanding of reality than the alternative.)
The interventionist God is similarly not necessary for my basic faith. It is clear that this idea just does not work. I remember an argument with my mentor Nairn Kerr when I was naively (as a very young man, I emphasise) claiming the power of prayer with the example of Hansi's mum who prayed for her safety during the war. Nairn quietly asked me, “What about all the mothers who prayed, and whose daughters were not kept safe?” Older, and a little wiser, it becomes obvious that God, whatever we mean by that word, does not intervene. I may not like that idea, given the tradition which informed my earliest experiences, but it is inescapable. Having abandoned it, again not easily or happily, I find it is not the loss I expected.
My fears about the non intervening, non personal God were based around two things. One was the sense of aloneness in the universe that this would entail, and the other the wickedness of departing from Christian doctrine. I use the word wickedness deliberately, as that is the sinful overtone attached to such behaviour by parts of the Christian tradition. What I had to recognise was that most of my fears were not really my own, they were fears that were learned (especially) in my fundamentalist days. In such circles sins such as greed, pride and avarice are far more forgiveable than disbelief in the church's doctrinal propositions! The great wrench in moving from the old to the new was in overcoming the long inculcated guilt of betraying the church. False guilt though it may be, getting free of it takes time.
Rather than being crushed by being alone in the universe, I had to re-learn, or re-recognise, my own love of solitude and of the land which dated from my earliest days. I am not alone in the universe when I am riding along with the kangaroo I mentioned above. I am glorying in something that is my place. Even a couple of days later when the weather was bad, and I was exhausted, and struggling, and dangerously cold in the night hills, this was my land, my home, my place. And this Place is not merely one of remote landscapes and beauty, it is full of people who are inspiring and loving. Leaving behind the interventionist God who looks after me lets me live Here and Now, not as some alien. Emotionally, fundamentalism removes real life from Now into the later time of Heaven. This is not so obvious in less extreme versions of the earlier Christian paradigm, but is still often present.
I had an Australian friend who had spent many years living in Fiji before independence. She decided to become a citizen of Fiji when it became an independent nation, saying to me that she was aware of the risks, and what she was leaving behind as a citizen of Australia. “But I have to be real about where I live. I cannot be Fijian unless I am a citizen of Fiji.” This statement, poignant in the light of recent years, is a good analogy of what I am trying to communicate. If there is a God who rescues us, and who is a sort of insurance policy in the world, are we really humans? Are we really committed to Earth, citizens of Earth, or are we trying to insure ourselves, insulate ourselves, and not taking our full god-given responsibility, and joys, as people?
Doctrine has ceased to worry me. Doctrine is merely a codifying of what we believe at the moment. It changes ceaselessly. “Yesterday's heresy is today's orthodoxy,” says the cliché. Read the New Testament carefully after the big shift in biblical studies and we can see that orthodoxy develops and changes. I say in another place
I don’t know if the highways department customised this sign, or whether the “5” has been removed by a local, but it was a wise move. Around the bend is the sharpest ‘devil’s elbow’ I’ve ever seen!
The road is like life.
There is a deadly drop if you should come to calamity on this corner.
But there is also a green thicket over the edge of the railing.
I could hear creatures bouncing around as I pedalled slowly up the hill this morning.
Doctrine is like the sign and the safety rail. Go slow! Be careful! New territory- may be dangerous!
We often think of doctrine as an immovable fence, hemming in the church.
On the contrary, it is easy to climb over, if not always wise.
To be fully faithful as a church, there are times when we must investigate the green thicket; that new, fertile growth which is teeming with life.
If the world is changing ceaselessly, and our doctrines and dogma are static, that alone should be reason to at least wonder if we are paying attention to what is happening around us and addressing it. Sometimes our doctrines are pointing us to a truth as the world goes astray. Sometimes the new requires a rethinking about how we talk about the Divine.
The last of the three propositions is that there is probably no personal survival after death. Again, this seems to deny a central tenet of the previous Christian paradigm. It was certainly an aspect of early Christian doctrine and parts of Judaism, although other contemporaries of Jesus were sceptical, especially the Sadducees.
However, the big shift makes it very obvious in areas of biology that there is no mechanism we can see, let alone test and duplicate, which enables our consciousness to survive the death and decay of the brain. Both the profound effects of brain decay before death in diseases such as Alzheimer's, and the terrible effects brain injury can have on personality, make this tragically obvious. I, whatever I am, appear inextricably linked to the chemistry and stuff of my brain. The idea that there is some sentience independent of the matter from which we are constructed, is something we are not able to test in any convincing way. Although there is speculation that something of our sentience may survive the death of the brain, it is, and can only be, speculation. Or as the funeral liturgy says, “a hope.”
My proposition said there is probably no personal survival after death; not that it matters. I added “not that it matters,” because survival after death is not central to following Jesus. What is central to following Jesus is living with compassion for others in the face of Empire, the “powers that be” which reduce and control humanity in every age and system. Death will come to us all, along with anything which may follow. A god who would reject us because we did not subscribe to the particular propositions of one group of Christians at one time, is not worthy of being God, and probably should be resisted as an incarnation of Empire. Believing, in the sense of being a Christian, simply so we won't go to hell, is a poor faith, see here.
The earlier paradigm was a waste of energy. It required ongoing effort to maintain some sort of intellectual integrity. Any world view requires this, if its practitioner is the least bit reflective. A failing world view, one that is losing its potency, requires increasing energy for less return. Its theology tends to defensiveness rather than being regenerative and insightful for living.
And, surprisingly, I find the practice of the faith is in many ways little different than before! Vosper, I think, said somewhere that we should not be focussing on Jesus and God, but on what they pointed to about being fully human. I think the earlier paradigm allows that to happen- with greater effort- if we are committed to discovering what it points to. And if we are not using Christianity for the denial of death, or the maintenance of our privilege. Without the wasted defensive, interpretative energy- what some of us call “translating the words of the liturgy and hymns” for example- the things to which Jesus points seem clearer and more obvious. No less challenging, they are somehow easier. It is as though one is not constantly wading through and around the detritus of previous orthodoxies.
I can describe “not focussing on Jesus and God, but on what they point to” in words I used above: Central to following Jesus is living with compassion for others in the face of Empire, the “powers that be” which reduce and control humanity in every age and system. That is the message to preach. That challenge is not only challenge, it is also liberation from helping people “believe six impossible things before breakfast.” Theology can always be deeply intellectual, and fiendishly detailed for the specialist and academic. But much of my difficulty in teaching and preaching Jesus disappears when I do not commit myself to maintaining an unsustainable paradigm. (Maybe a shorthand way of saying this is “Much of my difficulty in teaching and preaching Jesus disappears when I stop believing for other people.”)
I can also explain focussing on what Jesus and God point to in another way.
Some Christians speak of “thin places.” These are places where the divine and human realities seem more often to “leak” into each other. This image of holy moments has the problem that it implies a kind of geographic dualism. Wise people know it is a metaphor, of course, but is there a better one?
I would speak of times and places; thin places are not restricted to the Ionas of this world. (We can also be at Iona, and feel nothing!) Maybe God and Jesus point us to Whole times and places, those occasions when and where we get a glimpse of the Whole and our place in it. These are moments when the physical world is truly Home and we are not separated. And these are times when loving and being loved remove us from our anxieties, and self consciousness, and discontents.
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