When I was a child I thought like a child; when I became an adult, I put childish things away…
In third-year chemistry at school we were taught that electrons orbit the nucleus of their atom in concentric ‘shells’ rather like planets round a sun. As I recall, each ‘shell’ had space for an ‘octet’ of 8 electrons, and atoms with less than 8 would look to bond with other atoms to share electrons, completing their octets. Or something like that. It was a nice, easy-to-visualise model that enabled us to make all sorts of useful calculations about chemical reactions.
But then we got to sixth-form chemistry, and we were told that the electron-shell model was essentially untrue – or at best a gross over-simplification of the truth. Rather than occupying discreet positions on a ‘shell’ orbiting the nucleus, electrons had a far more complex and less-definable existence within fuzzy parameters around the nucleus known as ‘orbitals’. (At least that’s my memory – real chemists please correct me!) The old model was still useful for basic chemistry, but it didn’t really reflect reality. The actual nature of electrons was counter-intuitive and confusing, and to be honest I never fully understood it.
Similar revelations occurred in physics. We learned that light isn’t a simple beam of energy but has a far more complex and baffling nature, sometimes wave-like, sometimes particle-like. We learned that energy and matter are not discreet but interchangeable, and that space and time are also counter-intuitively interwoven.
And then of course came Chaos theory, Quantum mechanics, String theory and multiple dimensions; and all notions about the essential underlying orderliness, predictability and sanity of the universe started to crumble.
At every point then, it appeared that the universe and the underlying nature of reality was more complex, stranger and more baffling than I’d originally thought, and originally been taught. Indeed, it was more complex and baffling than I could understand; perhaps than anyone could understand.
The move to complexity and perplexity wasn’t just limited to the sciences. In English, I discovered that the hard-and-fast rules of grammar, spelling and pronunciation I’d religiously imbibed were not in fact set in stone, and most could sometimes be legitimately broken or changed.
More worryingly, the clear moral rules I’d learned as axiomatic truths (never lie, don’t swear, drugs are evil, homosexuality is wrong) began to be challenged by the complexities of real life and real people. It seemed that the rules didn’t always work and might not even always be right. Or at least there were times when a moral rule might have to give way to a greater reality, say of love or compassion or mercy.
Growing up and moving on
I’ve written a lot about ‘moving on’; moving on from either/or, from right answers and so on. On the journey of human development and spiritual growth, we need to go through the earlier stages to get to the later, the simpler to get to the more complex, the immature to get to the mature.
So we start by understanding both the physical and moral or spiritual universe in relatively simple (even simplistic) terms, with unchanging laws and rules that work at all times. Electrons orbit in shells, light is a beam, sentences mustn’t start with ‘but’, lying is wrong, Genesis is literal truth, non-Christians go to hell.
It’s important that we go through these early stages; that we learn the most basic models of physical and spiritual reality. The things we learn at this stage contain much that is good and true – perhaps all that we can take on board at this stage of our development. If well taught, they also form the basis for the next layer of complexity; the rung on which we can stand to reach the next level of truth. The old models of reality and truth are not ‘false’ per se. They’re just incomplete, and ultimately inadequate if we are to move on into fuller understanding and maturity.
The problem comes when we think that the original models we learned are the final, ultimate ones, never to be challenged, questioned, revised or superseded. It’s unwise to cling desperately on to our old ways of thinking, our old understandings of reality.
We never reach the end, not in this life; we can never say that we’ve arrived and now possess the final, true model that will never need revising. At each successive stage of growth and learning, our understanding is still only ever partial. Successive models may move closer to representing reality, but they never quite get there. There will always be another level, another layer of complexity, requiring a new model of reality.
Upgrading our theological models
Like all our other models, our theological ones also need to undergo continual revision. Our ways of understanding God, our systems and methods of interpreting the Bible, our formulations of doctrine and spiritual truth all need to evolve and grow over the course of our lives. We can’t just learn ‘what God says’ or ‘what the Bible means’ once and for all, and then stick with that forever. As we grow and change, so does the Bible – or at least our understanding of it. Even God ‘changes’ – or our way of relating to him does.
And as with physical reality, we may find that spiritual and theological reality becomes more complex, strange and confusing as we delve deeper into its true nature. We may even find that the more we discover, the less we truly understand it. We may find that there is a fundamental mystery at the heart of the divine reality that we actually cannot understand. But that mystery is itself the source of all other understanding, rather as we cannot see light but rather see all else by it.
Worldviews and paradigm shifts
The need to keep revising and replacing models of understanding throughout our own lives mirrors a broader, longer-term movement in the development of human culture. If we look back through the history of western thought, various phases can be identified each with its own distinct worldview or paradigm into which the various strands of understanding of physical and spiritual reality had to fit.
So there was the ancient paradigm in which all of nature was ‘spiritual’, full of personal gods and spirits which needed to be appeased and sacrificed to in order for rain to fall and crops to grow – a view which probably persisted for millennia.
Then we have the medieval worldview, lasting several hundred years, with its neat cosmology of the seven concentric heavens above and hell below, all perfectly ordered according to the Christian Creator’s divine law. Out of this comes the development of the early scientific paradigm, bringing a revised and more complex view of the cosmos and its laws and elements based on observation and analysis, but still seeing the universe as God’s workmanship, like a perfectly-ordered machine.
Then within a fairly short space we have the Enlightenment, and the development of the modern worldview based entirely on human reason and rejecting all forms of supernatural revelation, exalting scientific theory and observable fact as the only sources of Truth.
And now of course we have the post-modern paradigm, rejecting the certainties and absolutes of modernism. Post-modernism questions the idea of truth as something objectively ‘out there’ that we can fully analyse, understand and control, and which belongs to an over-arching ‘meta-narrative’ or Great Story. Rather the post-modern view emphasises the essential subjectivity of truth, which is always mediated to us through our personal perspectives and paradigms. It also emphasises underlying chaos and inherent unknowability. Post-modernism then is an anti-worldview worldview, an anti-paradigm paradigm.
So at each stage the whole of western culture, thought, science, morality and theology broadly fits into an over-arching model for understanding reality and our place in it. Each model works on its own terms, providing a broad framework for life and society and thought, but each is partial, incomplete, failing to take into account some vital element of reality. Yet each model persists for many decades, sometimes centuries, until the sheer amount of reality that it cannot accommodate precipitates its evolution (or revolution) into another model.
Up to the Enlightenment, the scientific and religious aspects of the paradigms – the ways of understanding physical and spiritual reality – were broadly in sync. With the advent of modernism though, religion found itself on the back foot, cast by the prevailing paradigm as anti-modern unscientific superstition and the enemy of progress.
What I find interesting though is that religion, primarily Christianity, tried to fight back from within the broad parameters of the modern worldview that was challenging its existence. Religion wanted to be accepted on science’s terms as demonstrably, provably, factually true and accurate. Which it isn’t and can’t be.
I would argue that much of what’s wrong with modern evangelicalism stems from this modernist fight-back, the attempt to reclaim its predominant position within the overarching cultural paradigm. And it seems to me that much of evangelical thought still hasn’t caught up with the fact that for much of the world the very grounds of the debate have simply moved on. It’s still fighting the old battles against Darwinism in science and liberalism in religion, still stuck within the old modernist paradigm. But for many that whole paradigm is a dead duck, and the old battles are lost causes to both sides.
I would say that a similar problem plagues evangelical readings of the Bible, which are so often predicated on modernist assumptions. In this model, the Bible is a book of God’s unchanging and unchallengeable Truth. Each passage of Scripture has a correct meaning which needs to be ascertained and then rigorously applied to all circumstances. We derive sound and definite doctrines from the Bible, and failure to accept these signifies apostasy.
As a model, it’s reasonably internally coherent and has some usefulness for a season. But it is only a model, not a full or final representation of reality. And it’s no longer a model that I for one find helpful or spiritually satisfying. For me, it’s time to move on and find a new model that works better – on the understanding that this too will some day need revising or replacing.