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I have written several posts (the setup and the hook, the shutout, and the sting) to address a comment written in why are we not good at the central thing? I know the author of the comment personally, and must say that I do not believe that he is caught up in a dualistic approach to life. Nevertheless, in a show of the subtle, but powerful, influence of the sacred/secular dichotomy, the question arose: How do I follow Christ and yet live responsibly? In the context of the sacred/secular dichotomy, this question is nearly impossible to answer, because the dualistic view pits following Christ against the rest of life. Sadly, the “rest of life” wins out almost by default, leaving Christ holding the bag and us wondering if he has anything meaningful to say to our generation.

Imagine sitting down for a one-on-one with Jesus who tells you, “If you want to come after Me, you must deny yourself, and take up your cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” We may have one of two responses. Søren Kierkegaard would say that the theologians manipulate Christ’s words until we can live with them comfortably.1 But, the honest listener responds, “Well, that’s all fine and well, but I can’t really sell out to the gospel without throwing my whole life away. I really don’t think my wife would stand for that. And, my boss? Well, he’ll tell me to take a hike. Then, what good will I be to anyone? If I lose my life for the sake of the gospel, I have a legitimate concern that I will end up with nothing.” Perhaps you have had such a conversation with yourself, only more articulately.

The problem is insoluble without invoking an entirely different approach to life, also known as a paradigm shift, a completely different way of seeing and living life.

Thomas Kuhn, in the 1960s, wrote a book titled “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” a book about how paradigm shifts in science occur.2 Kuhn was a physicist-turned-science historian, Harvard-trained, and professor at Univ. of California, Berkeley. This book is required reading for many graduates students in the sciences and it is fascinating reading in its own right. Kuhn cites many examples from history to support his hypothesis. One of them is useful for our purposes here.

Newtonian mechanics served the scientific world very well for hundreds of years. But, by the early 1900s, some physicists, Albert Einstein not the least of them, were bothered by the fact that Newton’s view of physics left too many phenomena unexplained and too many questions unanswered (unanswerable!). In his book, Kuhn argues that scientific revolutions, such as the move from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics, do not occur in linear fashion. If this were the case, then all physicists of the early 1900s would have been persuaded by the evidence that Newtonian mechanics was not a viable explanation for observed phenomena in our universe.  Physicists steeped in Newtonian mechanics would have slowly come around to the idea that quantum mechanics is a much better solution to the problem of the fundamental nature of our universe. The shift over time would have been more like evolution than revolution.

But this is not what happens in science, according to Kuhn. He argues that scientific revolutions come about as a result of paradigm shifts, which only reach maturity as the “old guard” literally dies off. What’s interesting is the dynamic that is present during the period when the new paradigm is fighting to replace the old one.

One can imagine going to a conference for physicists in the early 1900s. Scientists representing both paradigms (Newton and Einstein) would be present. Of course, most of the presentations at the conference would relate to quantum mechanics, because that would have been the “cutting edge” at the time. As an (old) devotee of Newtonian mechanics, I would sit in the audience and listen to young Einstein explain his newfangled ideas. Every time Einstein invoked concepts of momentum and acceleration, mass and energy, I would hear and interpret those concepts in light of my paradigm and I would ultimately draw conclusions that would support my view of Newtonian mechanics. I simply could not see that Einstein saw the universe in an entirely different way. In fact, I would conclude that he was simply trying to dress up Newtonian mechanics to make it look new. Because I was unable to see the shift in paradigms, in the end, I would have to conclude, “This is not different from that!” I would go on my way, self-satisfied that Newtonian mechanics was safe and secure. These young guys were just blowing hot air and they would ultimately “get it.”

Replace the two groups representing Newtonian and quantum mechanics with the Pharisees and Jesus. When Jesus told the Pharisees, “You worship God in vain,” it is not surprising that the Pharisees thought that Jesus was blowing hot air, dangerous hot air. Jesus introduced a paradigm shift and the Pharisees, being the “old guard” could not see what he was talking about.3

In this regard, the Pharisees are still with us in the sense that the Pharisees were embedded in a paradigm that militated against their seeing Jesus’ statements as truth. Those of us stuck in the sacred/secular dichotomy are similarly committed to a paradigm that potentially obstructs our understanding of Christ’s vision for humanity.

Jesus said, many times I expect, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Dallas Willard translates this in a very useful way: “Rethink your life in light of the fact that the kingdom of heaven is now open to all.”4 When Jesus commanded his listeners to repent, he was not encouraging them to think about their lives for a few minutes only to move on as if no changes were in order. He did not expect that people would listen to his brilliant speeches and clear life-examples, and then make a few cosmetic changes around the edges. He did not anticipate that people would ponder the possibilities of life lived differently and well, only to conclude that such a life is really meant for someone else or a select few. And, he did not hope that his followers would rethink what they believed about God, but continue to live like everyone else, just as they had been doing for decades. His message was clear: you guys need to completely rethink your lives. You need… a paradigm shift. As Kuhn shows, a paradigm shift does not simply take the old paradigm and paint over it, or give it new words, or reinterpret it so that it seems more useful. A new paradigm completely re-frames, re-describes, and re-envisions the world in a new and entirely different way.

New paradigms are more congruent with the real world. New paradigms allow us to see things that we would never have seen in the old paradigm. New paradigms dispense with previously impossible-to-answer questions because the questions do not apply in the new paradigm. New paradigms are presumably closer to the truth. In Jesus’ case, the paradigm that he represented was the truth.

In the next post, I will explain how I am rethinking my life in terms of Jesus’ new paradigm, the one in which he is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Consistent with one of the most interesting aspects of new paradigms, in which some questions simply vaporize, I will show how the question, “How do I follow Christ and yet live responsibly?” ceases to be a question, at all.

1 “Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.” (Charles E. Moore, editor, Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard. Plough Publishing House, Farmington, PA, 2007.)

2 Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996.

3 In important respects, Jesus did not introduce a paradigm shift. The truth that he told about the world, the paradigm that he described, had been around since God first spoke to Adam in the Garden, indeed, from before the foundations of the world. If there was a new paradigm, it was one that was introduced by the Pharisees! Rather than a true paradigm shift, it is closer to the truth to consider the view of the “two ways,” which I described in the setup and the hook, and which are two paradigms that coexist and vie for our attention. Rather than adopting a new paradigm to replace the old, my choice is really about which “way” I will follow, where one paradigm is not newer than the other, but where both paradigms are as “old as man himself.” Nevertheless, I have found the concept of paradigms, and Kuhn’s insightful observations about them, useful, because it helps me to appreciate that i) as Kuhn observed, change is neither a trivial feat nor automatic, ii) change involves an entirely new way of thinking, not just a few cosmetic adjustments, as Jesus intimated in Matt 4:17, and iii) change carries with it the promise of an entirely new way of seeing my life, one that offers to answer questions that previously had no answers.

4 Matt 4:17, as paraphrased by Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, HarperOne, 1997, p 274.