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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Progressive Revelation and Paradigm Shifts

Seismic enough for you?
Whenever I come across an overly technical explanation of some phenomenon in Christendom, I like to try to restate it for myself in plain English before I decide whether it makes any sense.

On that note, if you haven’t heard of them, the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance (OCRT) have set themselves the task of reducing bigotry by exposing religious people to information about other religions.

A worthy undertaking. Perhaps.

The OCRT notes that:
With few exceptions, religious organizations have become less sexist, racist, homophobic and transphobic over time. But some have a long way to go.”
Such a statement provides a window of insight into OCRT thinking. Far from occupying a position of ideological neutrality, they appear to be in favor of “tolerance” over principle every time.

One very effective tool in such a cause is misinformation. It’s easy to mislead people when they have no idea what you’re talking about. You also sound intellectual, which is an added bonus. Where scriptural authority is absent, pseudo-authority will often do just fine.

So when I read headlines like this one:
PROGRESSIVE REVELATION, CAUSING PARADIGM SHIFTS IN BELIEFS
I have to stop and ask myself exactly what they are saying here.

Progressive Revelation

The “progressive revelation” part is something I grasp just fine.

In fact, I happen to believe in progressive revelation myself. By that, I think I mean what most Christians mean when they use the term. We mean that the sections of the Bible that were written later contain a fuller revelation of God compared to the earlier sections.

This is not a groundbreaking concept. It is, in fact, the basis upon which all narrative accounts are read, watched and processed. No decent author or scriptwriter gives you a first scene “info dump”. Rather, he or she will seed information throughout the book, TV show or movie so that the audience’s understanding of what is going on increases as time passes. Finally, the end of the tale (whether factual or fictional) sets in their proper places most or all of the bits of information that have accumulated so that the reader or viewer comes away with a complete story. If the latter chapters or scenes do not do this — even if they succeed in creating appealing characters, establishing a mood, revealing nuggets of truth or painting pretty word pictures — in the end the account fails as a narrative.

Progressive revelation in this sense is not new. Dickens did it. Shakespeare did it. Homer did it.

You have to read to the end to understand the entire story. That’s pretty obvious, no?

So when Christians say we believe in progressive revelation, all we mean is that you have to read everything God wrote to understand the earliest bits.

It is not a complex or esoteric thing. It’s what all humans normally do.

The Paradigm Shift

Now a paradigm shift is something a little different. “Progressive revelation” has to do with the intent of the author. A “paradigm shift”, on the other hand, is very much in the mind of the audience.

A paradigm shift is simply a change in the basic assumptions particular to any field of study. Many people once believed the sun revolved around the earth. We now know it to be the reverse. That fundamental revision of the received understanding of generations was a paradigm shift.

It is an inversion of the conventional wisdom, a seismic event that causes a complete reassessment of something we thought was well understood.

Let me give you a popular example: M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense loses everything if you miss the final revelation that its protagonist is actually a dead man. That is a paradigm shift. That one “reveal” inverts the meaning of all the movie’s scenes and relationships. (Mind you, it was a stunt. Shyamalan has been struggling to match the impact of that plot twist in every movie he has directed since.)

Still, most movies and books do not end with a bit of information that subverts every assumption you had made as you watched or read. In most narratives, you receive an accumulation of data (progressive revelation) until you reach a logical conclusion.

Which reminds us of something: Paradigm shifts are not common events. They do not happen daily.

A paradigm shift is not a good or bad change, it is simply a change. Moving from a set of true assumptions to a set of false ones is also a paradigm shift, but hardly a profitable one.

The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance are in the business of creating paradigm shifts. Specifically, they’d like you and me to shift ours.

The Progressive Reveal vs. the Paradigm Shift

It’s more than a little ironic to see the term “progressive revelation” used by people who don’t actually believe in revelation. When they speak of “revelation”, they are actually using it to mean “consensus understanding”, rather than “communication from God”. They are considering the narrative’s audience but not its Source.

From such an ideological vantage point — one to which the concept of divine inspiration is entirely foreign — it is unsurprising that they speak of things like the “evolution of Satan” and describe how the understanding of Satan “evolves” throughout the Bible. Great pains are taken to lay out the different ways in which Satan is described in various books of scripture by their various human authors, as if each new bit of information reflects some tectonic reinterpretation of his character and purpose, a “paradigm shift” in the believer’s understanding of Satan, if you like.

But this of course is rubbish, as we can see by analyzing any standard novel narrative. In Chapter One of my hypothetical detective story, we are introduced to PI Clint Brock as he roughs up an informant in a back alley. In Chapter Two we see Brock at home with his wife and kids and dog Spike. In Chapter Three we see him interacting with the grumpy solicitor with whom he shares an office and in Chapter Four we catch up with him at a murder scene.

My protagonist’s character and story are being “progressively revealed”, as with every character in every narrative in human history, but there is nary a paradigm shift to be found. To find that a private detective is also a family man is no big deal. To find him investigating murder is entirely consistent with what we already know about him, and to find him interacting with lawyers is quite logical.

Each new piece of information has supplemented our understanding of Mr. Brock and made him more fully rounded, but there has been no inversion, no shocking twist, no undermining of all that has come before. We are simply encountering the perfectly ordinary progressive reveal.

Now if Brock is revealed to be a little blue girl from Mars, THAT’S a paradigm shift. Dumb plotting, maybe. Implausible and bizarre, definitely. But a seismic inversion? That we would not contest.

Give Me Reasons

So why, oh why, do the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance keep banging on about these “paradigm shifts” in the Bible?

I can guess, but first let me say something: I don’t think there’s a single one to be found. M. Night Shyamalan wrote none of the Bible’s 66 books. There are no twists, and no wacky, last-minute reveals from out of nowhere to be found in scripture. In fact, every single instance of a paradigm shift the OCRT finds in scripture turns out to be either a red herring like the “evolution” of Satan, the citation of a verse the organization completely misunderstands, or simply a predictable and well-heralded change in the methodology of God with respect to mankind. For the godly, attentive student of scripture, there are no big surprises in the sense the OCRT means. Everything “new” is remarkably consistent with the already-revealed character of God.

The Lord Jesus and Shifting Paradigms

If there were a paradigm shift in all of the word of God, it would surely have occurred at the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, when God himself was made flesh and dwelt among us. You know, the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” who stands in such alleged contrast to the thundering deity of the Old Testament. If there is a single colossal inversion of all that might be expected from God, surely the Lord Jesus is it.

And yet the entire gospel of Matthew stands as an antidote to any such fallacy. If you take issue with my use of the words “banging on” to describe authorial repetition, try Matthew’s trademark formulation, which is “that it might be fulfilled”. At least sixteen times he points out how the Lord Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about Messiah. That, my friends, is “banging on”. Nothing the Lord Jesus did was unanticipated by scripture. Did his teaching and his behaviour catch the Jews of his day by surprise? Absolutely. Was his revelation of his Father any kind of legitimate paradigm shift? Not at all. The godly in Israel saw it coming a mile away.

Law and Grace

If the revelation of God made flesh does not constitute a legitimate paradigm shift, then perhaps the difference between law and grace may? On the face of it, that certainly seems a radical amendment to God’s program for mankind, a huge change in the way man is to approach him.

But again, not really. The corrective to that notion is Hebrews 11, in which we discover that even under law, it was always faith that God was really after. Without faith it is impossible to please God, even if your name was Abel or Enoch.

In fact, we might suggest that, at least with respect to the Bible, people experience paradigm shifts when they have been badly taught, have imbibed false assumptions or simply do not bother to read the scriptures carefully. God has neither changed his nature, nor has he ever failed to communicate clearly such that he needs to revise his technique to find more appropriate words or illustrations. The fault is with the people.

That was certainly the case with the Jews in the time of Christ. The data was all there. They just didn’t bother to think about it. Have you not read?” asked the Lord Jesus of the Pharisees.

Apparently they hadn’t.

So What’s the Point?

Indeed. What is?

The OCRT are big on paradigm shifts. It is the drum they keep on beating. But what they describe in their posts on paradigm shifts (and I’ll let you be the judge) are nothing more than bits of perfectly ordinary supplementary information such as might be found in my long-awaited work of detective fiction. Their earthshaking events are nothing more than additional facts that round out the character and work of someone we already know.

So why make such a big deal?

Because they’re looking to achieve some things that are more significant to them. One goal is gender equality, which they set out here. And of course “gender equality”, in their view, can only be realized when women occupy the same roles as men in home and church. If they can establish the legitimacy of the concept of paradigm shifts in scripture, it is a piece of cake to point out that a woman pastor is just one more in a long series of similar reinterpretations.

But more importantly, if it can be established that God set out his revelation progressively, and that in earlier times people were not fully cognizant of all God’s will for mankind, is it not possible that he continues to reveal his will progressively today? If so, why not homosexual equality in the church? Why not an end to “transphobia”? This is where our unbiased, unbigoted, calling-it-straight-down-the-middle OTRC friends are headed.

For these types of goals, mere progressive revelation is unsatisfactory; they require a complete inversion of what has gone before. A paradigm shift is what the OTRC needs in order to get any traction explaining how black has become white and good has become bad. They need a screeching 180 degree turn on what the Bible teaches about the role of women and about the sinfulness of certain kinds of sexual relationships.

Such a pattern of reversal in scripture is not to be found.

All to say, when you find an inordinately complicated explanation for some feature of Christendom, a question or two may be worthwhile.

The plain English version will do me just fine, thank you.

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