Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: paradigms

Point of View, Paradigms and Prejudice


Years ago I was stopped at a red light on Weber Street in Kitchener, Ontario. I was in the right lane, beside me in the left lane was a police cruiser. There were no other vehicles in sight. Then I glanced in the rear view mirror and saw an old black car coming around the curve and I knew he was coming too fast to stop. I yelled a warning to my wife and daughter just before the crunch. I glanced to my left in time to see the police officer roll his eyes. He turned on his flashing light and got out of his car.

The other driver was charged and decided to plead not guilty. I was called to appear in court as a witness. The driver’s defence? He had been trying so hard to avoid hitting the police car that he didn’t even see my car. The judge found him guilty.

We all make decisions based on what we see, and we are sure that we see things exactly as they really are. Or we catch a glimpse of something out of the corner of our eye and were sure we know what is happening. That is point of view. Sometimes reality intervenes to inform us that we missed seeing something that was there, or saw something that wasn’t there. An old adage says “Don’t believe anything you hear, and only half of what you see.”

The way we understand things that others do is influenced by the experiences of our life. A young lady grew up in a middle eastern culture where it was considered rude to immediately accept if someone offered you a coffee. You said no the first three times and then it was fine to accept the coffee, sit down and  visit. She moved to North America and got an office job. Her co-workers asked her a couple of times if she wanted to come with them for lunch and she said no, to be polite. They accepted the no and quit asking. She thought they didn’t want her company, they thought she didn’t want their company.

We develop mental patterns of what normal behaviour looks like and they help us to instantly understand the meaning of what the people around us are doing and saying. Those patterns can be called paradigms and they help us cope smoothly with social life–as long as we are with people who have the same paradigms, people of our own culture.
When we mix with people of other cultural backgrounds we are apt to feel disoriented, frustrated, or perhaps frightened. If we understand why this is happening, we can begin to learn and adapt and get to know these other people, who really are not a whole lot different from us.

If we are unaware that our misunderstanding is due to a difference in cultural paradigms, we are apt to judge other people as unfriendly, ill-mannered and untrustworthy. Now we have slipped into prejudice. We judge people’s conduct without understanding how they think. We decide that they are ignorant, uncaring, probably dishonest and even immoral.

Some of us do our best to avoid contact with such people and go through life in a protective bubble where we only have to do with people who think just like we do. That confirms and hardens our prejudices. I don’t believe those prejudices can be educated out of us. We might learn to say the right words, but our inner feelings will be the same. The only solution is to step our of the bubble and get to know people who are different from us.

How long was Jesus in the tomb?

Matthew12:40 — For as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.

Those are the words of Jesus, stating clearly that He would be in the tomb for three days and three nights. His crucifixion and burial took place on a Friday, the day before the Sabbath, and He rose early in the morning of Sunday, the first day of the week. How does that add up to three days and three nights?

Many people have wrestled with that question and concluded that the crucifixion and burial actually took place on a Thursday; I have even read some who claim it must have been Wednesday. These folks have done their calculations carefully and appear to have unassailable logic on their side. Obviously, the idea that Jesus died on Friday is just a figment of somebody’s imagination in the far distant past. Except . . .

Not everybody thinks like we do — not even in calculating the passage of time. When I began to learn French, I discovered that if I wanted to meet somebody a week from today I would have to say “in eight days.” If I said “in seven days” he would be there a day before I would. What is going on here? Well, I am writing this on a Wednesday and to the French mind it makes no sense to skip today when counting the days to next Wednesday. Today is not over yet, so I must count today and all the days up to and including next Wednesday. That makes eight days.

In the beginning that was incomprehensible, completely ridiculous, to my mind. Who ever heard of such a thing? Well, guess what? My way of thinking was equally baffling and harebrained to French-speaking people.

And French-speaking people aren’t the only ones who think like that — the writers of our Bible, Jews and Greeks, thought exactly the same way. For people who see things that way, it is perfectly logical that the period from late Friday afternoon to early Sunday morning perfectly fulfills the prophecy of three days and three nights.

Someone might object that there were only two nights, Friday and Saturday. That again depends on how we look at things. We say last night was Tuesday night, but I got to bed just after midnight so all my sleep happened after it became Wednesday. If something newsworthy happened during the night, a French language newspaper, in order to be precise, would describe it as the night of Tuesday to Wednesday.

The way we see things is so blindingly obvious to us that it never even occurs to us that other people might see things in a completely different way. A generation after the Vietnam war, Robert McNamara came to the stunning conclusion that “those people don’t think like we do.”

George W Bush led the USA into a war in Iraq, thinking that the people over there would be overjoyed that the USA had come to liberate them. France refused to join this adventure, knowing full well that the reaction of the people in Iraq would be much different than Mr. Bush expected. Things might have turned out better if the US had asked the advice of the French instead of vilifying them.

These profound differences in the way people view events around them are something we need to be aware of when we attempt to share the gospel. We have framed the gospel in terms that make sense according to the paradigms of our own culture. We should not be too quick to assume that people of another culture have understood what we told them and rejected it. In all likelihood, their first impression is that we are trying to convert them to our culture. That can serve as a roadblock to further attempts to share the gospel. It would be better to take the time to learn their way of thinking and frame the gospel in terms that fit their understanding.

Broken paradigms

Sixty years ago, when I was twelve years old, I  did not know any child my age who had not had the same father and a mother from the time they were born.  One neighbour boy was being raised by his grandmother; there was a highly publicized fund raisng effort every year for the orphange in Indian Head, Saskatchewan. These and other evidences made me aware that not all children were growing up in a  stable, two parent homesuch a setting, but that was the accepted norm, or paradigm.

Two generations later, I wonder what percentage of twelve year olds would now say that none of their friends and school-mates have lived with the same two parents since their birth? Judging by the weekly birth listings from a newspaper in a mid-sized Saskatchewan city, only 40% of babies are born to parents who share the same surname. Some unmarried parents will later marry, but 40% of all marrieages will end in divorce. This paints a pretty bleak picture — the majority of today’s childrenwill not grow up in a stable two parent home.

What happened? Not all the homes of 60 years ago could be described as happy homes; a few would have been miserably u8nhappy. Because of these few unfortunate situations, our society has taken a sledgehammer to the paradigm of marriage and family. Years ago the intellectual leaders of the sociology and psychology departments of our universities made no secret of their desire to destroy the family, teaching that it was the enemy of human progress toward freedom and self-fullfilment.

The sexual revolution came upon us very suddenly. The pill gave teenagers the feeling that they could experiment freely with sex withoiut consequences. And if there were consequences — well, abortion soon became readily available and socially aceptable. And then the stigma of homosexuality was removed. Within a few years everything that stood in the way of seeking unbridled pleasure in sex was swept away. Of course there have been consequences, but no one wants to admit that the increasing abuse and violence against women and children has anything to do with the sexual revolution.

We survey the wreckage around us and agree something needs to be done to fix it. But we can’t agree on what should be done. The seeds sown many years ago are bearing fruit today in the form of people who see persoanal freedom as the ultimate goal and therefore view marriage as a form of bondage for both men and women.

Sixty years ago, the majority of people still went to church every Sunday. I think we are down to about 10% now. Many of the churches of years ago had bought into the social gospel movement, which was just a camouflaged version of socialism and psychological-sociological thinking. Those same churches endorsed the sexual revolution on the basis that all liberty is good and wholesome. Today they are dying out, since a church that applauds all that is done in secular society makes itself irrelevant.

What may be a greater problem are the self-proclaimed evangelical churches that have no idea how to apply the evangel to the needs of society around them. They are seen to be making inept attempts to appear relevant, without addressing the basic needs of people. All too often, that is because they have bought into a large portion of the values of the secular society.

In a few years time we have gone from being a society largely founded on Christian values to a pagan society that is not much different than the world in which the apostles lived. What is needed today is the same straightforward gospel that they preached. That is, the gospel needs to be presented to the people who are suffereing the most from the malaise of our time as the only true remedy for their distress. That would mean actually taking the Word of God at its word, and not trying to smooth over the parts that challenge the current paradigms of our society. We need to preach repentance as John the Baptist and our Lord preached it. Not in a self-righteous, holier-than-thou attitude, but with compassion for all the victims of the current broken and fatal paradigms.

Paradigms – effective and defective

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

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