Paradigm (pronounced pair-a-dime) means model, pattern, example. The word was first popluarized by Thomas S Kuhn to describe a framework for scientific research. He wrote: “Men whose research is based on shared paradigms are committed to the same rules and standards for scientific practice.” ¹
Paradigm then escaped from this narrowly scientific application to become a term used to describe the framework of thought which governs the actions of people with a common worldview, a common ethnic or social background, or a common professional training. Willis Harmon defined a paradigm as “the basic way of perceiving, thinking, valuing, and doing associated with a particular view of reality. A dominant paradigm is seldom if ever stated explicitly; it exists as an unquestioned, tacit understanding that is transmitted through culture and to succeeding generations through direct experience rather than being taught.”²
We could argue about the validity of terms like worldview or paradigm, but they seem like useful concepts for explaining what makes us approach the circumstances of life in the way we do; and why there can be such a lack of comprehension between one group and another. This lack of comprehension is not always worthy of being labelled prejudice, it’s usually just a matter of my paradigm tells me that the way you’re doing something is all wrong and can never work. On the other hand, your paradigm tells you that this is the way things have always been done and my harebrained idea cannot possibly work.
A paradigm is generally a useful thing. The boundaries and guidelines that are inherent in a paradigm mean that we do not have to stop and figure out what to do next when faced with many of the familiar situations that occur in life. The pattern has been set and we follow it without realizing that there is a pattern
To look at a different angle of what consitutes a paradigm, I’ll use my father as an example. Sometime around 95 years ago, he went to Knoxville, Tennessee to study automobile mechanics. One Sunday afternnon he took a drive to explore the city. He suddenly realized he had entered the black part of Knoxville and broke out in a cold sweat. I can almost see him, hands clenched to the steering wheel, his jaw clenched and his eyes fixed straight ahead, he drove on until he was out of that part of town and could breathe easier again. Why such a panic? I doubt that he could have explained it, but the paradigm of that day told him it was just a place where he did not want to be.
I’m not sure of the exact year that he was in Knoxville, whether it was before or after the time when white people rioted and rampaged through the black section of Knoxville, smashing store windows and looting. But that little bit of history tells me that the paradigm of the white people of Knoxville included strong feelings toward black people that my father would would have easily picked up. (To be fair to my father, his best friend at the technical school was a young man from Korea.)
A firmly entrenched paradigm caused the death of several nuclear engineers after the explosion of the nuclear reactors at Chernobyl. They knew the design of the reactors and they knew it was impossible for them to explode and expose radioctive material. Immediately after the accident they looked in the turbine room and walked around outside the reactor. They were pieces of glowing black material everywhere and they could not figure out what it might be. It was radioactive graphite from the reactor core, but because of their paradoigm that such a thing could not happen, these highly trained engineers looked right at the evidence that the reactor had exploded, and did not know what they were seeing. They died due to massive radiation exposure.³
Times and circumstances change and it may take some time for our paradigms to adapt to the new reality. It took light falling from heaven to convince Saul that he was labouring under the influence of a false paradigm. The majority of the Pharisees never could bring themselves to abandon their old paradigm
I’m not sure that there is such a thing as a genuinely Christian paradigm, but many of us live as though there were. We tend to get frozen into a pattern of understanding how we ought to live that does not equip us to face new and unexpected temptations and often leaves us unprepared when unexpected opportunities for sharing the gospel by word or deed present themselves. Only if we are living in daily communion and obedience with the Holy Spirit will we know what to do or say in those situations.
1 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S Kuhn, Univesity of Chicago Press, © 1970
2 An Incomplete Guide to the Future, Willis Harmon, W W Norton, New York, © 1970
3 As reported in Future Edge, Joel Arthur Barker, William Morrow and Co, New York, © 1992