In this series of posts, I’m thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s model of scientific ‘paradigms’, with its ongoing alternation between reasonably stable ‘normal’ times and times of ‘crisis’, when what has been the ‘normal’ no longer works and ‘revolutionary transformations’ are required. I’m wondering if this could possibly be applied to religion. Over the last several decades, certainly in the UK and much of Western Europe, there has been an increasingly sharp decline in Church membership and attendance. The findings of a recent Pew Research Centre survey are worth reading and pondering, particularly in relation to secularisation, multiculturalism and pluralism, and here is a useful link –
Arguably, this is a period of ‘crisis’, and the time has come for a “revolutionary transformation” of the Church’s message and modus operandi, thus bringing to birth a new ‘paradigm’. Realistically, however, any such possibility seems likely to face very considerable difficulties summed up, perhaps, in a parody of the hymn, “Onward, Christian soldiers” …
Language being what it is, the phrase “the Christian Church” would appear to denote a single entity, a homogeneous monolith but this, of course, is not at all the case, nor ever has been. During its first 350 years, there were many competing Christian groups with some very different ideas – Ebionites, Marcionites, Paulinists, Docetists, Gnostics and Arians to name but a few. Was the judgemental Old Testament God a different one from the loving New Testament God? Was Jesus divine, or human, or some configuration of both? Did he become the son of God at his resurrection, or baptism, or birth? Had be always been divine, in which case, how many Gods are there?
It wasn’t until the end of the 4th century that one of these groups triumphed, and promptly set about suppressing the adherents and leaders, and destroying the buildings and sacred books, of all the others. Nonetheless, there remained a steadily increasing tension between the ‘Catholicism’ of Rome and the ‘Orthodoxy’ of Constantinople, which culminated in the “Great Schism” of 1054. The next ‘crisis’ and schism led to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and the Catholic / Protestant divide.
Similarly in today’s UK, Christianity includes, on the one hand, everything from ‘high church’ traditionalism and strict formalism, to the unpredictable spontaneity of ‘happy clappy’ pentecostalism and, on the other hand, everything from literal, inerrant fundamentalism to progressive, critical liberalism. To talk about “the Church”, therefore, seems to be a bit like aiming at an impossibly broad and diverse target. Any hope of a ‘collective meeting of minds’ and a new ‘paradigm’ would appear to be a lost cause, but that needn’t stop me, in my seventy-sixth year of life, and as a once-upon-a-time preacher of the Word, from taking stock of my own current ‘paradigm’ in relation to Christianity and the Church, and to seeing what that process leads to ..…
Recommended Reading :
“Doubts and Loves : What is Left of Christianity”. Richard Holloway. Canongate Books. 2001.