Saturday, March 7, 2009

Theological paradigms: Part IV

Kuhn’s analysis of scientific paradigms continues with two more observations important for theology. First, Kuhn contends that scientific paradigms shift only when the weight of quantitative data makes the present paradigm untenable. The inertia inherent in that assessment resonates well with my knowledge of human behavior. People generally prefer the status quo to change and change only when left with little or no option to remain in stasis. This behavioral pattern coheres with human’s physical nature. Brain studies show that humans function in terms of pattern recognition; patterns persist over time and seem to change when existing patterns fail to explain new data in a sufficiently helpful matter.

Unfortunately, theology has no quantitative data. Nobody knows how to measure or test the veracity of most theological claims. The absence of quantitative data suggests that theological paradigms may endure much longer than scientific paradigms (have more inertia) and may therefore require far more dramatic breaks with the past than do scientific paradigms in order for a new paradigm to gain traction. If so, this would at least partially explain the almost three hundred-year period since the emergence of biblical higher criticism during which no new paradigm has gained wide acceptance.

Second, Kuhn noted that many scientists are unaware of previous paradigms, having learned their science from textbooks and teachers steeped in the new paradigm, a pedagogy that emphasizes only elements of previous paradigms that fit into the new paradigm. Similarly, most religious believers are steeped only in their religious tradition; knowledge of alternative or previous paradigms limited to historical studies that generally identify the other paradigms as heresies.

For example, only toward the end of the twentieth century did non-canonical Christian writings from before the fourth century begin to receive any significant amount of attention from Christians and students of religion. Several possible factors explain this: the timing of archaeological discoveries; an increase in the number of religious scholars and an associated proliferation in the subject and volume of their writings; the easy availability of the non-copyrighted non-canonical writings on the Internet. Yet the timing was also correct.

The Christological paradigm of a Jesus who is fully divine and fully human no longer explains the data reasonably well. Textual studies by Bart Ehrman and others demonstrate that scriptural attributions of Jesus’ divinity resulted from theological biases among the scribes copying manuscripts than from what the historical Jesus might have said. Biblical studies by Marcus Borg and others paint a picture of Jesus as a Jewish peasant, mystic, wisdom teacher, healer, and prophet sharply at odds with traditional Christology. Theological studies popularized by Bishop John Spong and others reach similar conclusions based on scientific data and philosophical insights rather than biblical analysis.

Recognizing that the Church existed for centuries before it had articulated an authoritative Christology underscores that no one Christology is inherent in the Christian tradition. Instead, Christology represents the attempt to describe in a formal manner the charisma, the presence of the divine, which people, in his day and since, have experienced in Jesus. From that perspective, early Christians borrowed ideas from Greek and Roman mythology of a God co-habiting with a mortal woman and from the “mystery” religions of vicariously participating in the death and resurrection of a God through drinking the God's blood as paradigms for conceptualizing Jesus’ charisma. The worldview from which those paradigms was derived is now obviously antiquated. Hence, the Church needs new paradigms with which to conceptualize Jesus’ charisma. This represents not a break with the historic Jesus and the Christian tradition but an important updating of that tradition to explain more fully and intelligibly Jesus’ charisma.

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