Paradigm shifts – life transformations

Paradigm shift

(I’d hoped to write this earlier in the week, but didn’t get a chance until this afternoon. John)

In the course of the Bible passage we looked at during last Sunday’s service, St Peter was given a revolutionary new insight – the message of Jesus was good news not just for the Jewish nation, but for all people. So radical was this insight that Duncan described it as a ‘conversion.’ Another word I find helpful in describing fundamental changes like this is a ‘paradigm shift.’

A paradigm describes the principles we use in understanding our world; a paradigm is like a window through which we view and explain aspects of reality.  In the Middle Ages, for instance, the paradigm for understanding what happens in the sky – stars, moon, planets, sun – was that the sun circled the earth daily. Wasn’t that self-evident? Everyone could see that it was true.

Except that of course, it wasn’t true. And observers of the heavens  who thought for themselves – such as the astronomer Galileo – began to see things in the heavens using new, more powerful telescopes which led them to question the received wisdom that the earth was at the centre of creation.  So Galileo embraced and alternative theory – that the sun was at the centre of all things. In time, of course, that paradigm too was in time shown to be defective.

But paradigms are important not just in science. Every set of beliefs, every way of looking at the word is a paradigm. Scientific paradigms change through history as more is discovered, and the old ways of looking at things are seen to be defective.

And we change the paradigms we use as we go through life to match our growth and maturity. And often, the move to a new paradigm is a transformational, life changing moment.

We change our paradigm when, like Galileo looking skywards we see more and more stuff which doesn’t fit in to the paradigm we’re using. We puzzle away, we think maybe the paradigm could do with a little tweaking, and so we tinker with it, but still all the evidence doesn’t fit. And then, through a process of realisation or in a eureka moment of insight we realise that the paradigm is wrong, fundamentally flawed, fit only to be discarded, and we see clearly what we feel we should have realised long ago that a new paradigm beckons, and so we are freed.

You can call it ‘thinking out of the box’, or ‘conversion’ or ‘paradigm shift’ – the words describe the same reality. St Peter’s paradigm shift took place suddenly – but don’t forget the disregarded evidence of those verses in the Jewish Bible about God’s people being a light to the whole human race, and Jesus’ remarks which hinted that he had a global mission. This evidence didn’t fit in with St Peter’s old Jewish paradigm and so he underplayed them, or put them on one side. But the evidence of what happened at Cornelius’s house was incontrovertible – and so the old paradigm dissolved.

We may find this thinking helpful in many aspects of life, but it’s particularly helpful in understanding spiritual growth. Someone, perhaps, operates with a paradigm that there is no God, that the universe is the glorious fruit of cosmic chance, and our existence as thinking beings an amazing accident. But then that paradigm is challenged – by the quiet faith of a friend, by circumstances which seem inexplicable natural, by a book read or a song heard apparently by chance, by a growing sense that it is logically preposterous to assume that chance is the only driver in the universe. A good atheist resists these challenges as fanciful. But she can’t get them out of her mind, and she reaches a point when she is amazed to find herself asking ‘Could it be true?’ And then, some event, some moment of clarity, and the paradigm changes, and she finds herself liberated into a whole new world. Paradigm shifts bring a honeymoon period of joy and freedom.

But on our journey as Christians we are no strangers to paradigm shifts. Our early paradigms may be defective and damaging, such as the paradigm which sees then self as a failure, too insignificant to be noticed by an impossibly distant God.

Later, we have our own way of looking at the world from a Christian perspective, our own theology – whether we’d describe it as broadly evangelical, or liberal, or charismatic or reformed. But we may find this challenged by our experiences of life, by the people we meet, by things we read and think about. And we may feel guilt about having the paradigm threatened, and try desperately to cling to the paradigm which has worked for us in the past, and seems still to work for the people we’re closest to, and we fear that by abandoning our current paradigm we’ll be abandoning God. But then something happens – perhaps dramatic, perhaps simply a response to God’s gentle voice – and the paradigm changes, and again we enter into experience and joy and discover that we see God more clearly in the new paradigm, and yet with more of a sense of mystery.

If we are open and reflective people, we will never be done testing the paradigms, and at times moving beyond them into something new. Every stage of life has its own paradigms. We will never be finished growing and paradigm shifting.

A word of warning – paradigm shifting can lead people into faith; paradigm shifting can also lead in the opposite direction. A believer, filled with doubts and beset by traumatic life events can begin to question the God-centred paradigm and embrace one from which God is absent, and feel exactly the same joy and clarity which his sister may feel moving in the opposite direction.

The key element in all our thinking and growing as human beings and as Christian believers is not to be afraid to ask questions, to be open, to be aware of the biasses which may be affecting our thinking. And always, to see the truth and be ready to embrace it – even if it turns our lives upside down – and to believe that God is Lord of the paradigms, that only God sees things as they truly are, and that God is the paradigm through which we are drawn as close to an understanding of the truth as any human being is able.



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