Paradigm shifts


I am currently reading Richard Holloway's book Doubts and Loves: What is Left of Christianity. In the following passage from the book, he makes some interesting comments about paradigms, religious and otherwise (alas, he has an unfortunate tendency to avoid inserting paragraph breaks into long passages):

I cannot grudge those who believe in a magical world-view the comfort or excitement in holding that view; but I cannot hold it myself, not because I am a representative faithless skepticism, but because I have inherited a different way of looking at things and it would be dishonest of me to abandon it or exclude religion from its consequential effects. In this area, we have to pick our way through a defile between cultural arrogance and superiority, on the one hand, and honest acceptance of our own cognitive situation, on the other. The miraculous way of looking at things is still held by some people with perfect integrity today, just as it was once possible to hold an honest belief in Ptolemaic astronomy. But once a particular society has shifted to a different scheme of interpretation, a different paradigm of understanding, why is it held to be virtuous or faithful to cleave to remnants of the old world-view in our religious understanding? I can appreciate the argument from preference or cultural weariness here, rather than the claim of faithfulness. Some people just don't like new things: they prefer stage coaches to steam trains, ocean liners to jumbo jets, coal fires to central heating....The stakes shoot up when we enter the religious end of the argument. People might prefer steam trains to diesels for romantic reasons, but it would be wrong of them to claim the virtue of faithfulness for doing so. They are exercising a preference, that's all....

The point is that the scheme of interpretation that presents Jesus as a visitant from a supernatural realm who performed wonders, including raising the dead and walking on the water of the Sea of Galilee, is just that: a scheme of interpretation, a way of responding to events that was congruent with a particular stage of understanding and development. In that world, people regularly witnessed miracles, encountered ghosts, were infested by demons and knew of men who had been turned into wolves during the full moon. That was how people interpreted what was happening around them. (pp. 130-132)
This passage is part of a longer exposition, in which Holloway makes a comparison between the resurrection (as the foundational event in Christianity), and the Big Bang (as the foundational event in the universe). Just as scientists attempt to work their way backwards to try to explain the Big Bang, theologians and biblical scholars can try to work their backwards to the time when the demoralized and scattered disciples of just-executed Jesus transformed their understanding of events to one of optimism and hope. The point that Holloway makes is that, just as the Big Bang was a transformational event that left its aftereffects with us to this day (we are the aftereffects), what really matters from a theological perspective is the transformational power of the resurrection experience (whatever it really happened to be) for those early disciples. I don't believe that Jesus was literally raised from the dead; but the reality is that his disciples, in the experience that they had after Jesus's death, had a transformational experience. And it is the power of a transformational experience that lies, in my view, at the heart of religion--not adherence to the literal truth of an ancient myth.

I would argue that, to the extent that religious dogma clings to the adherence of literal acceptance of ancient myths as the foundation of faith, that can only serve as a barrier to the transformational power of religion for many of us who live in the modern world. When a paradigm serves as a barrier to transformation, then many of us must move beyond those old paradigms and forward to new ones.