DON CUPITT

 

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)


DENNIS NINEHAM

 

... 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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Revelation Revisited
M H Maasdorp

A great divide has opened up between the institutional Church and fringe Christians. The former construes the world as a physical and spiritual duality. The latter adopts a unified scientific paradigm. The dualist paradigm fails: first because it depends on a logical error, and second because it relies on the concept of revelation. Revelation requires that the universe is a system open to the input of new energy. But if this is true, then all modern knowledge turns out to be neither coherent nor consistent. One particular casualty is history, which the Church insists is a discipline essential to our understanding of Jesus.

A Great Divide
In the "West" - a term referring to largely secular societies - the Church has lost and is losing many of its traditional adherents. But those who say that Christianity is dying are clearly mistaken: it is in fact the largest religion on the planet, boasting close on 1.5bn adherents and growing. [1]

Despite the Church's ongoing success worldwide, a great divide in Christianity has appeared in the last two or three centuries (see The Great Divide). It lies not between variants of Christianity in the worldwide Church, nor between Christian communities. Rather, it has opened up between Christians who can be termed traditional or religious adherents, and Christians who are outside or on the fringes of the Church.

The process by which such divides open up has been described by Thomas Kuhn in relation to revolutionary changes in scientific models. [2] He proposed the notion of paradigm shift to explain how perceptual revolutions in such as those precipitated by Galileo, Newton, Einstein and others come about. Scientific verities are, if a proper scepticism is maintained, always open to question and revision. It happens from time to time that anomalies in a standard paradigm build up to a point where, emerging from a crisis, a new assumption or paradigm is formulated and then gradually accepted within the existing discipline.

Kuhn's idea of paradigm shift has since been applied to many other situations and disciplines to describe fundamental switches in the way the world is construed.

A Two-worlds Paradigm
A paradigm which construes the world in two parts - variously termed material/spiritual, temporal/eternal, earthly/heavenly - has ruled since the dawn of history. It is this paradigm which in the 21st century still defines the outlook of the Church and its traditional adherents.

Fringe Christians, however, are happier with a paradigm which views the world with scepticism and seeks to rigorously test its own conclusions and to ask new questions. This paradigm (usually broadly termed "scientific") has given birth in the last two centuries or so to new disciplines - psychology, history, law, archaeology, sociology, geology and many others.

Recent developments in philosophy have laid bare a logical fault in the two-worlds paradigm, one which reinforces the position of fringe Christians

To explain: when you and I address the world, our lives, and what is ultimately meaningful to us, we are bound to use words. A logical category error occurs when things belonging to a particular group or category are presented as if they belong to a different group; or, alternatively, when a property is attached to a thing that could not possibly have that property. 

The language of science, for example, does not produce a catalogue of irrefutable facts; rather, it produces temporary truths and more questions, proceeding "... in fits and starts of ignorance". [3] Scientific language is littered with category errors. For example, a particle physicist might say that "All particles are ultimately made up of strings of energy." Strictly speaking he should say, "All particles comprise patterns of energy which are like strings". This avoids category error by making explicit the "strings" simile. Even then the physicist may not notice that the word "patterns" is also a metaphor. Nor is he or she likely to proclaim the caveat that nobody knows what "energy" is. (That energy is "The ability to do work", for example, merely tells us that energy is an "ability".)

Category errors bear more illustration. You can take a rest, take charge, and take my wallet. All three actions belong to different categories. It is a mistake to think that a rest is something like a wallet, or that taking a wallet is the same as taking charge. Similarly when you say, "I'll keep it in mind" or refer to "mind over matter" you should not therefore conclude that "mind" is an entity as is a body. Again, when you "have" an idea it is a category error to suppose that an entity called an idea is somehow inhabiting your brain.

Gilbert Ryle termed the mind-in-a-brain distinction "the Ghost in the Machine". He wrote that "Existence is always a subject, never an object." [4] Thus the number 10 exists; an army exists; and public opinion exists. But it is a category error to suppose that all three exist in the same way. Similarly, it is a category error to maintain that a person "has" a body or "has" a soul,  just it is a category error to say that each of us "has" a mind. "Body" belongs to a physical category which can theoretically be completely described in scientific terms. "Soul" and "mind" do not exist in the same way - indeed it may be impossible to state how the word "exist" applies to them at all. 

Another form of language is metaphorical. It uses physical objects to convey meaning which cannot be easily conveyed (if at all) by purely descriptive language. For instance, we all experience time passing: and this passing can be expressed by means of a physical clock set at certain arbitrarily selected intervals. It can also be expressed metaphorically as "flowing" like a river. We speak metaphorically when we say "The river of time." If we go on to say that time is literally a river we make a category error. Strictly speaking, it is also a category error to say "The time is 10.40" when we should say "The clock is displaying 10.40".

The cultural expression of metaphor is to be found in myths, those traditional, typically ancient tales which have for generations expressed the world-view of a culture. To maintain that a myth is history, or that myths can be used as evidence of "what really happened", is also to make a category error.

Having briefly outlined the category error, an important caveat remains. Category errors are indeed fatal. But metaphors and myths (extended metaphors) are valid and necessary ways of addressing aspects of the world: provided that they are never reified.

Two examples may illustrate this point:

1.      The Gospel of John includes a monologue by Jesus which uses the metaphors of a shepherd and a gate:

       I am the gate for the sheep ... I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved ... I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. (John 10)

      Few, if any, are likely to make a category error and say that Jesus is literally a gate or a shepherd. However, these metaphors do have an important function: to illustrate and bring to life aspects of Jesus which the author of St John's Gospel found compelling and which for many centuries have continued to convey meaning to millions ... Jesus is like a shepherd, and like a gate. Metaphor is a valid and extremely powerful way of conveying truths about the world - provided that it is confined to representing the symbolic. The moment metaphorical content is reified it fails.

      Metaphor becomes problematic when extended in other ways. For example, many Christians will proclaim that "Jesus is God" or "Jesus is the son of God". In so doing, they are not saying that Jesus is like God; nor that Jesus is like a son. On examination, each of the two former phrases turns out to be shorthand for complex theological assertions about the objective nature of Jesus - and each is therefore a category error. [5] Richard Holloway points out that all theology is like a map - but one which, unlike other maps, has no actual referent (see The Sixth Paradigm). A great deal is spoken and written about God (including God in all the many a guises of Hinduism), for example. But no one can show God, the referent of theology, in the way that a map of London refers to a place which can be visited and seen.

 2.     It is a normal form of language to assert that something "is" beautiful. However, to attach beauty to something physical - a painting, music, a person or a sunset - is to make a category error. You may marvel at the beauty of the Mona Lisa in the Paris Louvre. But when I saw it I found it remarkably dull and uninspiring.

      The saying that "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder" is attributed to Plato but has been reiterated by many since then. It expresses well that beauty is a personal perception and not a quality which can be attached to something material. It is strictly speaking valid to say "John says that the music of Handel is beautiful" but not that "Handel's music is beautiful" (a category error).

     To sum up so far:

     Just as scientific models undergo switches of paradigm under pressure from new information and insights, so also do other disciplines. A series of paradigm shifts has come about in Christianity, shifts which make past paradigms difficult or impossible for some to accept. Many Christians nevertheless continue to find ancient paradigms essential.

           Older paradigms propose that reality consists of two parts or dimensions. The first is purely physical and material and it is to this realm that modern secular models apply. The second is non-physical (spiritual), distinct from, yet interrelated with, the material part. Propositions in this dimension are frequently, if not always, invalidated by category errors.

       Category error does not necessarily apply to the use of metaphor or aesthetic judgement. As long as statements such as "The river of time" or "Susie is beautiful" are not reified they are powerful ways of expressing abstract concepts and personal experience. 

The Doctrine of Revelation
The Church acknowledges that we can get limited information about God from the natural world; but God nevertheless remains essentially a complete mystery. We can't talk about God except by using metaphors; and we are unable to make an objective statement about the divine mystery without making a category error. As Alister McGrath puts it:

A central theme of theology down the ages has been that  human attempts to discern fully the nature and purposes of God are ultimately unsuccessful.[6]

However, natural knowledge of God is superseded by revelation. The Church claims that the latter brings us not merely information about God, but life-giving divine self-disclosure which reaches its peak in the person of Jesus the Messiah (Christ).

There are many models (paradigms) of revelation. One well-respected and well-argued standpoint presented by H R Niebuhr suggests that revelation can be understood as an event which so influences the imagination of an entire community that it forever changes the way that community perceives and interprets the world around it. That is, revelation does not change the world; rather, it is our perceptions of the world which are changed.

The Catholic Church's definition presents the source of revelation as unequivocally "other world", as a mysterious input of information into our world. It is 

... the communication of some truth by God to a rational creature through means which are beyond the ordinary course of nature ... are otherwise inaccessible to the human mind ... [and] which even when revealed, the intellect of man is incapable of fully penetrating. (Catholic Encyclopedia) 

This is what some call "propositional revelation". That is, it delivers to us genuinely cognitive information about God on which accumulated Church teaching (the magisterium) can be based.

Revelation is presented by some (Martin Buber and Emil Brunner are instances) as the establishment of a personal relationship with the divine. Others regard revelation as also deriving from inward, subjective personal experience derived from a person's first-hand encounter with life. Yet others propose that revelation comes to us indirectly through acts of God in history.

However, all agree that, one way or another, revelation is communication from God - even if we may not understand quite how it comes about or what are its effects.

Revelation, however interpreted, thus provides a theoretically irrefutable source of truth since the Church teaches that God can't be wrong or mistaken. Revelation is thus so basic a doctrine that anything which threatens it threatens all that is ultimately derived from it - that is, almost every essential Church teaching about God and Jesus. So it is not surprising that when the theory of revelation is strongly held, it entails a refusal to even consider the possibility of change. As Richard Holloway puts it,

It's the most faithful people that find it most difficult to make these changes ... Most people are simply imprisoned in the theory ... a theory of revelation, a theory of permanence ..." [7] 

The same history which reveals instances of unchanging faithfulness also reveals, not permanence, but constant change in the way people understand and express the revealed verities of Christianity. Revealed truths do not, despite the infallible origin claimed for them, remain unchanged. Dennis Nineham in The Use and Abuse of the Bible joins many other scholars who have argued this. Nineham writes: 

... people of different cultures and periods 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. 

It happens that even interpretations of the person of Jesus, surely the foundational individual of every variant of the Christian faith, have constantly changed over the millennia. Jaroslav Pelikan, for example, has identified no fewer than eighteen images or ways of perceiving Jesus since the early days of Christendom. However, some maintain that such changes are not of the revelation itself but derive from our improved understanding. This explanation is less-than-satisfactory. We cannot know if changes to a doctrine are incremental or retrograde interpretations from century to century; nor indeed if we have yet reached a full understanding. To know would be to also know what the full revelation is with which to compare the partial truth. Further. it would be unjust of the Church to insist that anyone be subject to disciplines derived from incomplete revealed doctrines.

A One-world Paradigm
The cultural shift from the ancient material/spiritual to the scientific paradigm has put the Church under great stress. Its reception of the scientific paradigm has been hesitant, often contradictory, and frequently negative. 

If the Church has been snail-like in its acceptance of the science, there is now an even more testing change on its doorstep. The contention here is that humanity is once again at a conceptual turning point. The founding scientific paradigm and all its offshoots - such as history, psychology, archaeology, geology, genetics, evolution, astronomy and many others - are now being superseded (but not necessarily invalidated) by another revolutionary paradigm known as Systems Theory. One popular term for the paradigm is globalisation. In many business corporations it is termed "joined-up thinking".

The systems paradigm appears to be moving more swiftly to change us than any paradigm ever has. It was first explored in its own right in the 1920s and 1930s by Ludwig Bertalanffy, a biologist. Since then it has been adopted and elaborated by many disciplines. [9] From computers to manufacturing, and meteorology to banking, a systems approach is now increasingly the norm.

One definition of a system is: 

... an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organised in a way that achieves something ... a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections, and a function or purpose. [10] 

A simple example is a football team (the system) in which the players, coach, referee, field and ball are all elements. Its purpose or goal is usually to win games - though it might be also to have fun and get some exercise. The elements are connected by the movements of players and ball, and organised by the rules of the game and a referee.

Every system shares at least these characteristics: 

  • It is more than the sum of its parts; it has emergent qualities.
  • It serves a purpose (a reason for existing). It consists of sub-systems arranged in hierarchical order.
  • Its purpose determines how its sub-systems operate.
  • It strives to gain and maintain stability (homeostasis).
  • Its interconnections depend on a seamless, highly complex, flow of  information.
  • A substantially unbalanced system, far from homeostasis, may change radically without warning as the result of  minor change. 

Systems sustain their balance by flows of information termed "feedback loops". There are types of feedback loop, but their basic characteristics are these.

  • Systems are subject to influences - internal, when something changes within; and external, when something impinges from outside.

  • These influences tend to either move a system from or towards its ideal balance point (homeostasis). 

  • The homeostasis of a system is maintained through feedback loops. These loops operate each in its own way to pass on information enabling a system to adjust to change. Feedback loops are simple (in-out; out-in); or complex (stabilising; reinforcing).

  • All systems depend in one way or another on a flow of information for their continued existence. Feedback loops malfunction if information is delayed, biased, polluted, scattered, missing, or misdirected. If loops malfunction so does the system; and if systems malfunction too much they collapse or transmute. 

Strictly speaking, the universe as we know it today does not have a "before" and therefore has no "outside". This is because it was only at the Big Bang that space-time began and therefore time itself. Revelation must nevertheless by definition come from "other-than" the universe. If it does not, then it is actually natural knowledge and cannot bear the weight of authority given to it by the Church. 

An apparently insurmountable problem is that if the universe as a system is open to revelation, human knowledge loses its stability, coherence and consistency and therefore its validity. This is because all communication requires energy. And if information is somehow "inserted" into the universe from some sort of "outside" then the total system is changed in all its parts by the input of new energy. The outcome is that every revelatory input from other-than the universe not only changes the entire system, but in so doing also changes the knowledge sub-systems we we have invented to construe the world around us. In effect,  each of these sub-systems starts anew with each instance of revelation.

An analogy might be to think of the universe as a lake which has remained unchanged for a century. If one day a person passes by and drops a single small drop of water into the lake, there is a real sense in which the entire lake changes. The input of energy by a revelatory communication changes the universe in just that way.

If the universe is being changed by revelation, it follows that the former is essentially deterministic; for we cannot know if some input or other has changed the universe and hence our choices. That is, there is no way of knowing which choices have been freely made, and which have been determined by an instance of revelation. Determinism is fundamentally contrary to the raison d'etre of the Church. For we must choose to sin of our own free will if we are to be held culpable. And if revelation determines our choice in any way, we are not culpable and there is no point in the Church's teaching of salvation through Jesus. 

Systems thinking therefore demands a different take on revelation. Only if the universe is a closed system are we able to investigate it. A closed universe maintains a system-wide integrity or balance in which all its parts and processes are seamlessly interlinked. In this universe it is possible to artificially mark out enduring sub-systems and channels of information. 

Systems, as noted above, are classified by us into hierarchies.  Each of us, for instance, is a system open to its environment. Above us our planet is a system open to the solar system. This is in turn open to our galactic system and so on until the limits of the universe are reached. [11] 

Donella Meadows writes: 

There are no separate systems. The world is a continuum. Where to draw a boundary around a system depends upon the purpose of the discussion and the questions we want to ask. [9] 

As we have noted above, the Church clings tenaciously to traditions of Christianity. However, the systems paradigm may not be an optional extra. This is because climate change is probably humanity's greatest challenge, one which cannot be dealt with except by addressing the entire world-wide system. So severe are the potential negative consequences of climate change that failure to meet it may well spell the eventual end of modern civilisation and perhaps even of humanity itself. [12] 

Love (caritas in Latin; agape in Greek; see 1 Corinthians 13) of neighbour and even of enemy is central to Christianity. In the face of so great a potential catastrophe, and if it wishes to be consistent with this essential aspect of of Jesus, the Church is obliged to embrace systems thinking and through that lens put its shoulder to the climate change wheel. 

It turns out, then, that on one hand that we can - and probably must - learn to construe the world (universe) by a systems paradigm. But if we construe the world as an open system, then revelation as information from other-than the universe becomes difficult to maintain - if only because in such a world the continuum of human knowledge is fractured by insertion of new energy in the form of information. This universe is deterministic. 

On the other hand, we can preserve the unity and continuity of the universe by construing it as a closed system. This choice welds the universe, including all human knowledge, into a single system. All human knowledge and meaning appears, in this universe, to be a matter of discovery. Knowledge is not imposed upon us by a revelatory agency acting from other-than the universe. 

There is one possible remedy to the universe as a closed system pre-imprinted, as it were, with all the insights about God humanity might ever need. And that is the possibility that God as the ultimate "other-than" is present to us in a way which will always be beyond anything we can comprehend (see On Our Own But Not Alone). If we treat the universe as a closed system, the divine may nevertheless be with us rather as gravity structures and permeates the entire creation. 

History
As argued above, if the universe is an open system it follows that science and its related disciplines lose their consistency and coherence. They are no longer unified but fragmented. 

Our systems of knowledge are based broadly on the scientific method, which itself derives from what may be termed a "will-to-truth". Van Austin Harvey writes, for example, that the historian Ernst Troeltsch's lifelong focus was on the significance of the historical-critical method for traditional Christian belief and theology. Troeltsch, writes Harvey, discerned that the method 

... constituted one of the great advances in human thought; indeed, that it presupposed a revolution in the consciousness of Western man ... a change in thought so profound that our period deserves to be put alongside those of previous cultural epochs as a unique type. [13]

However, the historical method is, according to many historians, basically incompatible with traditional Christianity. The Bible is not supernaturally inspired but is intelligible only in terms of its context and by the same rules applied to any other ancient literature. In other words, the Bible taken as God's revelation cannot also be an historical account of "what really happened". It can only be taken as history when it is subject to all the techniques of historical investigation used on other documents, and as long as scepticism sharpens the historian's gaze. History based on received authority ceases to be true history and becomes an ideology. 

History is a basic, not an optional, aspect of Church orthodoxy (see A Jesus of History). The Church in all its forms insists that its doctrines are about a real person, who actually said and did certain things. Jesus was not quasi-human, a combination of human and some sort of spiritual or God-like being. He was fully human in every sense of that word. Nor was Jesus an apparition of some sort, who appeared in magical circumstances and disappeared into a cloud. He could experience everything any human being could experience. And he died just as we all die. 

Historians themselves have recently increasingly begun to construe history as a system of knowledge allied to other systems of knowledge. Harvey terms it a "field-encompassing field" of knowledge, one which potentially incorporates data from every aspect of the universe. Troeltsch prefigured systems theory when he  proposed the now widely accepted Principle of Correlation as essential to the formulation of good history. [14] According to this principle, no change can take place within the continuum of history without changing all that surrounds it, so related and interdependent are the phenomena of  life. In essence Troeltsch is describing a system - a chain of "events" which allows no break; a unity in the sense that it is a closed continuum. 

Similarly, his Principle of Analogy [15] is accepted by most historians. It states that whatever human beings can't do now could not have been done in the past . The physical continuity of the universal system is, in other words, essential to history as we know it. It extends through time as well as space. If this is not true, then it should be possible, for example, for a bacterial disease like leprosy to be instantly cured by the laying on of hands now as it apparently was in the time of Jesus. Conversely, if that can't be done now (though some claim it can) then it could not have been done in the past.

Another principle of good history accepted by most historians is that extraordinary events require extraordinarily strong evidence to be regarded as "what really happened". The claim that a person died and then came to life again is nothing less than astounding. The evidence in the New Testament for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is nowhere near strong enough to satisfy this principle (see Resurrection).

All cellular action in a human body must have ceased before someone is said to be truly dead. True death is in turn a requirement for true resurrection. We know as a matter of observation, repeatedly confirmed, that when a cell (itself a mini-system) dies it cannot resume its previous function. But if it does, it can only be termed a miracle - that is, the reversal of all that we know about physical reality, and therefore a definitive change in the fabric of the universe. (A rare or unexpected natural event is sometimes termed a "miracle": but that is not what the word usually refers to.) Not only don't we have good enough evidence for the extraordinary event we call resurrection, but the possibility of such an event would destroy the entire body of scientific knowledge,

The only other option in this case, as with all other Christian doctrines, seems to be to disregard the entire body of science and all its offshoot disciplines such as history - and live in an open universe which is constantly being changed not only by revelation but also by its sibling the miracle. An open universe in which revelation and other miracles are possible can only be "harmonised" with science - which requires a closed universe - by construing a dualist reality. Thus there are those who split their awareness to address a spiritual reality from one compartment, and a physical, scientific reality from another.

To sum up:

  • The Church worldwide is declining because it has been largely unable or unwilling to modify its core doctrines in the light of new scientific paradigms.
  • The Church construes the world as a dual reality - one physical and transient, the other spiritual and eternal. This dualism fails through category error, which comes about by the reification of abstractions. Most Christians nevertheless still construe their world through a dualist lens.
  • This is not to say that Christian metaphors are invalid. As long as they are not reified, they remain a powerful way of reflecting about the world - as are myths, which are actually extended metaphors.
  • Just as the scientific paradigm and its offshoots have changed the way many construe the world, so today is the new systems paradigm radically changing our perceptions.
  • The systems paradigm renders the idea of revelation - upon which all the Church's doctrines rest - difficult or impossible to maintain.
  • History is one of many modern disciplines arising from the scientific paradigm. A basic assumption of all Christian doctrines is that Jesus was a man who actually lived as we all do. History as a system of knowledge is therefore essential to the Church's role in the world. But the history paradigm, which is part of our knowledge system, is destroyed by construing the universe as an open system, as required by the foundational doctrine of revelation.

_________________________________________________________ [1] www.adherents.com
[2] The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962
[3] Ignorance, S Firestein, 2012
[4] The Concept of Mind, 1949
[5] The word "God" is, at best, a dubious referent for a metaphor. Those who claim that we can all, if we wish, speak to and hear God, have apparently insurmountable difficulties in saying how this happens and why it does not happen to everyone. In addition, the earliest and strongest position taken by some famous and erudite Christian thinkers from the earliest times is that God can't be known by human beings in the same way we know each other. God is "the absolute" and therefore incomprehensible to the finite (see The Chimp Effect in On Our Own But Not Alone)
[6] Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1995
[7] "Being Honest About God" in Being Honest To God, St Mark's CRC Press, 2014
[8] Jesus Through the Centuries, Yale University Press, 1999
[9] General System Theory, Braziller, 1968; and cf The Turning Point, Fritjof Capra, 1982
[10] D Meadows, Thinking in Systems, 2008   Note: Systems theory is far more complex than the simple presentation here. But even so, I think the basic argument holds water.
[11] I recognise that this final step is disputed. For example, our universe may not be "All that is." Rather, it may be one of many universes (in a so-called multiverse) if certain mathematicians are correct. However, extending the limits of "all that is" only takes the question a step further; it does not settle it. Moreover, as Robert Sheldrake points out in The Science Delusion, the discovery of dark matter and dark energy recently has put in question even the ultimate "laws" of physics such the First and Second laws of Thermodynamics. It appears that our science encompasses only a small part of the physical universe. If correct, these findings put most conclusions about the universe in question. But is the argument presented here also negated? Let the reader decide.
[12] The IPCC Report on Climate Change, 2014
[13] The Historian and the Believer, 1967
[14] Ernst Troeltsch, Historical and Dogmatic Theory in History, 1898
[15] The Absoluteness of Christianity, 1901

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