You’ve probably heard the phrase, “paradigm shift.” But do you know where it comes from? Coined by author Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, the American physicist and philosopher noted that “paradigm shifts arise when the dominant paradigm under which normal science operates is rendered incompatible with new phenomena, facilitating the adoption of a new theory or paradigm.” In plain English, Kuhn was talking about how the established order of “what we’re used to” gets upset when something new comes along to replace the old order.
A good example of this would be the internet. In just over 30 years, the worldwide web has penetrated and assimilated our lives in such a way that we can’t live without it. Even this blog post exists only within it. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are all “teenagers” of the internet, between 14-16 years old. What was life before them? Many of our children, even our millennials, do not know life before cyberspace. That is “paradigm shift.” But there’s more!
A key aspect of Kuhn’s thought was that not only did the new come to replace the old but that they could both exist at the same time and for a long time concurrently, before the old finally passed away or was surpassed by the new. Think flat earth versus earth as a sphere. Think Newton’s apple versus Einstein’s relativity. Think gunpowder versus splitting the atom. Paradigm shift means that “multiple realities” are existing in the same space at the same time. The chart below illustrates how this works in real life. Think generations. Some of us may be fortunate enough to have great- or great-great- kin or relatives. Most of us have known several generations, grandparents, parents, us, our children and maybe their children.
If you look at the chart, you can see that the values and aspirations and visions of each generation are quite different from one another – yet, many are still living and overlapping with each other! In the same way, just as all these people from different “eras” can exist together at the same time, so the idea of paradigm shift allows different eras to co-exist together at the same time. What is your era?
Chart source: Tim Elmore, “Marching Off the Map” (2017)
Why am I talking about this? Well, it’s because of our world, the way it is today. If you didn’t know it, let me just say that there is massive paradigm shift going on, of “biblical” and epic proportions right now. A killer virus that literally shut down the whole world. Racial unrest and protests that spread like wildfire around the globe. Massive economic upheaval affecting millions, even billions of people. The wearing of face masks and school reopenings becoming political issues. Kanye West running for president of the United States. Locust swarms in Africa, killer wasps in the Pacific Northwest. The list goes on.
Many have wondered, have even predicted the end of the world. I don’t think so. I tend to look at what’s happening as the beginning of a possibly great new era for us humans. This is because, even as negative media coverage mushrooms on what churches and “Christianity” are doing wrong during the pandemic (and some of it is valid!), current secular and religious studies alike are showing burgeoning interest in faith with many people turning to God VIA THE INTERNET. Racial tensions have exploded in some sectors and there has definitely been violence and looting, yet many churches — including my own — are seeking ways to reconcile, restore and reach out to their communities in even stronger and more positive ways.
Researchers are racing together in coordination and collaboration to find a vaccine for the coronavirus as soon as possible. And despite all the negativity, there are many, many reports of human kindness and compassion and love being exercised in the midst of all the chaos and paradigm shifting that we are experiencing. There is still much to hope in.The problem with paradigm shifts is that they make us uncomfortable. The new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17) but the old remains. And just like when someone gets saved, we are often drawn back to the old, the familiar, the comfortable, even the sinful.
This is our human nature. Because of this, and because of social media, we have seen the pervasive rise of what psychologists call, “confirmation bias,” in society. This is when people tend to only go with information that confirms and affirms what they already know. And that is what they post. Even if data or research is empirical and neutral, a person will “cherry pick” just that which matches what they already believe. In fact, if there is strong information to the contrary, which disagrees with or disproves their beliefs, they will cling to the original belief even more strongly rather than accept the new data. This is how paradigm shift works in action. Relevant to COVID-19, a little known historical fact is that hand washing used to be avoided by medical doctors because of the fear that washing your hands was thought to INCREASE the risk of infection and death for patients.
Starting in the 1840’s and after literally decades of debate and rejection of the idea, hand washing was finally accepted as a practice to DECREASE the risk of infection or death. From the late 1890s, when hand washing began to be widely practiced in hospitals, the death rate in surgical operating rooms of the day dropped exponentially. The confirmation bias of the day had been that hand washing was ineffective and that the cause of death came from something else. From where we sit today, this story sounds ridiculous but, truth is stranger than fiction, and we should remember that this paradigm shift literally took decades to change people’s minds, even to change the minds of highly trained and knowledgeable physicians!Where does my mind need to change? What am I clinging to from my past that I need to surrender to the Lord? What current biases do I have that I refuse to let go of, even when what is new and coming at me with convincing force is undeniable — yet, I just won’t acknowledge it? This can be answered by just one word. Unity.
Even when there are strong, almost unchangeable contradictions within us and around us, we can still move forward if we stay unified. With Independence Day just behind us, a pertinent model for this comes from how our country was formed. Before the American Revolution, each of the thirteen colonies acted largely independent of each other. That is, they each wanted their own trade and economic relationship with Great Britain, often to the exclusion of the other colonies. There was intense competition. Each wanted to be their own “state” to England. Not a state like we think of today but “state” as in the “Secretary of State,” who represents the whole nation. In other words, each colony wanted to be its own country!
So, the miracle of the revolution and of the new nation that resulted was that all of these “states” were eventually able to put aside their own individual interests so that they could unite to become one large “state.” Instead of the country of North Carolina or the country of Massachusetts, all thirteen colonies UNITED as ONE state to become the nation now known as “The United States of America.”
If you read American history you will see that, from its inception, this country has had many divisions, many fights, many disagreements, yes, right from the beginning. Indeed, several of the original 13 colonies were founded because some of the colonists simply couldn’t get along with others in the colonies that already existed! But what makes the US unique is that — despite all those sometime violent disagreements and differences — they stayed together.Is this not illustrative of the Body of Christ as well? To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither rich nor poor, black or white, male or female, Democrat or Republican, boomer or millennial, you are all one in Christ.”
Yesterday, our Crossroads campus pastor, Aaron Cramer, gave a message during outdoor worship that included these words: “though we might have differences in the most divisive issues of our day, we can still have unity as brothers and sisters in Christ.” Amen? The bottom line for the Christ follower is not our political affectations or even our personal rights. It is serving Christ through serving others and putting aside our own confirmation biases, rights and interests (Philippians 2:2-6) for the sake of HIS kingdom.
The world famous psychologist Karl Menninger was once asked how he would counsel a severely depressed person on the verge of suicide. His simple reply was profound: “I would tell that person to get up from their chair, go out of their house, and cross the street to help someone in need.” In the same way, Jesus exemplified what we are to do in saying that even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45).
The answer for the chaos, the paradigm shifts, the discomfort we are feeling is not to dig in our heels and stick to what we know, especially if it is not to the gospel itself! The Christian response must be obedience and outreach, and following how the Holy Spirit leads us to what the Lord wants us to do, even if it is unknown or untested. Our mandate as Christians is to step out into a “brave new world” that may not be friendly to us but which remains desperately in need of the gospel of hope and life found ONLY in Christ Jesus (John 15:13-20).
Our Lord was not and never will be a political savior. He came to save us from ourselves and to bring His kingdom here on earth. That is something worth changing for, being changed by Him. Pray the Lord of the harvest that we might let go of the old and move out into His fields. They remain white for harvest (John 4:35). Because even in the midst of massive paradigm shifts, Jesus Christ and His gospel remain the same. Never changing.
Coda: This new contemporary Christian song was released at the exact same time I was thinking about this column. It helped me as I was writing the above.