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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The Myths of Christianity - 1
The Broken Myth
Richard Holloway

One of the most significant and influential books of the Twentieth Century was Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argued against the common view of science as the steady and incremental accumulation of observation, data, discoveries and inventions.

Instead, he argued that the history of science is characterised by periods of peaceful and normal research punctuated by epochs of crisis and transformation. He called these crises 'scientific revolutions'. What Kuhn calls 'normal' science begins when a community of scientists agrees about the nature of the basic entities they are talking about. They operate within a constellation of basic agreements he called a 'paradigm'. A paradigm is a scientific achievement universally accepted within a community of practitioners that, for a time, provides solutions to certain recognised problems.

These paradigms are not permanent and unalterable descriptions of reality. They work as long as they work or until they are challenged by anomalies they cannot explain. It is the persistence of these unexplained anomalies that precipitates a scientific crisis. Sometimes the going paradigm can be made to solve the problem. Sometimes no solution can be found and the problem is put on hold till a solution comes along.

But sometimes a new paradigm emerges that replaces the old one by solving current difficulties - and so the process continues. Speaking in very broad terms, and using astronomy as an example, we can see how the Copernican paradigm succeeded the Ptolemaic, and was itself succeeded by the Newtonian paradigm, by answering new questions and by providing better solutions to new problems. It would not, however, be accurate to say that the Ptolemaic paradigm was false or mistaken. It worked until it ceased to work, as was the case with the Newtonian, mechanistic universe, which was succeeded by the quantum paradigm. As far as I understand these things, the current quantum paradigm no longer supplies satisfactory answers to certain anomalies discovered at the sub-atomic level, and a more complete paradigm will probably emerge. The new paradigm will, in time, be succeeded by another that does the job better.

One of the important things to notice about Kuhn's work is that it can be applied not only to science, but to human knowledge in general. And it makes the notion of �truth� contingent upon who and where and what we are. It does not seem to be the case that there is an absolute objective 'truth' about the universe out there waiting for us to stumble upon, the way we might find a lost treasure in a sunken galleon. What seems to happen is that a point of view works for us, answers our questions, helps us to operate in life, so we hold it until it no longer does the job it was designed for.

In fact, we come to realise, our viewpoints were not pieces of concrete truth that we discovered and logged into our minds; they were practical ways of working, ways of dealing with what lay before us, problem-solving devices. And when better ways of doing things came along we transferred our loyalties to them.

This notion that there is no fixed truth out there is extremely difficult for many people to accept. Their anxiety may have something to do with the normal human resistance to change and the overturning of perceptions we have become comfortable with; but it probably has even more to do with an ancient attitude to reality that has been around at least since Plato.

This is the notion that there is an ideal, perfect, truthful, transcendent reality out there and that we should struggle to get our minds and wills to correspond to it. Kuhn's theory suggests that what we think of as 'true' at any one time is always related to where we are in history, so it is contingent, not fixed or absolute. The Platonic or dualistic view holds that there is a steady state of fixed value and truth somewhere, which in our present situation we only catch glimpses of, but which we must constantly struggle towards.

Associated with the dualistic approach to truth or absolute value there usually goes a system of authority, because a potent way to resolve the dilemmas of actual human experience and the disagreements they generate is to assert that there are agencies who already possess this absolute knowledge and it is our duty to obey them and receive their revealed insights with humility.

The history of philosophy would suggest that you are in either one of these groups or the other. You are either some kind of idealist, who believes that there is an absolute perfection of truth out there to be submitted to; or you are a pragmatist, someone who sees 'truth' as contingent upon where you are in history, as a way of talking about attitudes that work for you or of which you approve.

As a matter of fact, most people seem to operate in the pragmatic way, though they may claim to believe in an overarching theory of absolute truth. Let me suggest an example of this anomaly from the history of moral attitudes.

If we think about the status of women, for instance, we can see the matter from several different angles. If you are a dualist, who believes that there is absolute truth or value somewhere, you will probably believe in the existence of what you call 'objective standards', independent moral realities that stand somewhere on their own, irrespective of where we happen to be, and it is our duty to correspond to them, obey them.

But then anomalous things begin to happen. The objective standards may indeed still stand where they did, but we keep moving. The authoritative systems that mediate these objective standards have conveniently, if fatefully, provided documentary evidence to support their claims upon us. In the case of the status of women, for instance, these authorities will probably have defined them in very precise and specific ways, usually as helpmeets to men, with carefully circumscribed roles.

This is the certainly the case with the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. For instance, in Genesis 3.16 God says to Woman, after she has caused the Fall of Adam: 'I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you'. Paul's version of this is found in I Corinthians 11.3ff: 'I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a woman is her husband...for man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man'.

You don't have to be Einstein to see how these prescriptions for women clearly had their origin in a specific historical context. At a certain stage of historical development, biology will dictate an absolute destiny for most women, so that the exigencies of developed theories or explanatory myths to account for this fact. The narrative in the Book of Genesis about the disobedience of Eve and her seduction of Adam to the same sin is the classic explanatory myth within the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It offers an explanation for the laborious lives of women in primitive societies, as well as the pains of childbirth. The Fall narrative is what Kuhn would call a paradigm or a set of basic agreements that explain the way things are.

However, history is not static and one of the things it has clearly done in our culture is to deliver us from absolute biological necessity, so that we today define ourselves less by the pure processes of nature and more by the dynamics of human culture. As far as women are concerned, this means that they are increasingly liberated from biology to become agents of their own destiny, within the usual limits that define us all.

In Kuhn's language, what we then begin to experience is a bad fit between the old paradigm and the new reality. The paradigm of biological necessity, or of objective gender standards, no longer answers the questions women are asking or solves the problems created by the new claims they are making. Since the old paradigm cannot resolve these anomalies, a revolution in our attitudes takes place and a new paradigm emerges. In the case of women today, there is a generally accepted agreement that they should no longer be totally bound by reproductive necessity and the gender roles that developed from it, and should be seen to be, at least in theory, the equal of men.

It is obvious that this kind of paradigm shift in gender roles creates difficulties for groups who do not understand or refuse to accept the historically contingent nature of truth claims or of so-called objective moral standards, as they have related to men and women. 

The chances are that if you adhere to one of these systems you will be experiencing considerable unease today because, while you have probably accepted many aspects of the new paradigm, your belief system or underlying theory of life is probably diametrically opposed to the new reality.

One way of dealing with this discomfort is to retreat within a moral community that is firmly rooted in the old paradigm or state of development. This is best done by the process of cultural separation that you get in certain ethnic groups, such as the Amish in Pennsylvania (USA) or the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn (New York) and Jerusalem.

It is less easy to do that when you are actually living fully within a society that has accepted the new paradigm and organises itself accordingly. Here, there is bound to be considerable inner tension, as is the case, for instance, within the Roman Catholic Church, the majority of whose members in this country are clearly influenced by the new gender paradigm in most aspects of their lives, except in the religious sphere.

Metaphysical dualists tend to belong to communities that follow, at least in theory, some version of objective or enduring standards, so they are prey to the particular discontents I have described above. What is more frustrating, however, is not their personal discomfort, but the fact that they will probably be operating fairly competently within the new paradigm, which is based on an action or practice approach to truth, while continuing to adhere to a theoretical metaphysic that contradicts it in theory. This is an example of what Paul Tillich called the dishonesty of 'the unbroken myth'. Tillich's analysis of the role of myth in religion bears close parallels to Kuhn's paradigm theory, and it is to Tillich that I now turn.   

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