Friday, February 13, 2009

The thunder of exploding canons (Mark 2)

Sorry, some great puns[0] lodge in one's memory for decades! Besides, that's a more eye-catching title than "Jesus on paradigm shifts," which is what we'll discuss from today's scripture reading. Let's start with "epicycles."

In Ptolemy's model of the universe, the earth sat rock-solid in the middle, and the heavenly bodies slid by overhead on their well-greased tracks.[1] However, some of the vagabond/hobo stars did not keep pace with the other stars. In fact, they slid backward a day or three per year. OK, mount those on slower or faster tracks than the rest of the stars. Then put them on a cycle (epicycle) that actually twirls around the track it's mounted on, to explain the apparent retrograde motion.

This model of the universe got trickier every time a new heavenly body was discovered, but it rattled and clanked along for quite a while. Then, Copernicus had a brilliant notion: perhaps the sun, not the earth, was the center of the heavenly dance. Change your perspective, and things suddenly look much more logical.[2]

Thomas Kuhn popularized the term "paradigm shift" in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. A model of reality works for a while, with a few exceptions. Patch on a few rules to account for those exceptions, and then a few more pop up. Eventually, your model is so plastered over with exceptions that it's hard to see what it's good for. About that time, a new model pops up that resolves the conundrums.

The old order keeps trying to impose its rickety traditions on the new paradigm, of course. That's what humans do. A locomotive going through a city must be preceeded by a man on horseback waving a warning flag. The motor on a horseless carriage must be in front, because horses go before the cart, of course!

Jesus was asked why he and his disciples did not feel themselves compelled by the tabus and totems of their culture. Why, he even drank wine and feasted with notorious public sinners and quislings! With a typically vivid word picture, Jesus replied:
Mar 2:22 Hiç kimse yeni şarabı eski tulumlara doldurmaz. Yoksa şarap tulumları patlatır, şarap da tulumlar da mahvolur. Yeni şarap yeni tulumlara doldurulur."
And, a few words for today:
  • yeni -- new. The "new troops," the yeni çeri, entered our language in the anglicized word janissary.
  • şarap -- wine
  • tulumlara -- wineskin
  • patlatır -- to explode
  • eski -- old. A Turkish proverb concerning putative political "change" is appropos for our day, when Carter-era handlers come out of the woodwork to manage their new figurehead -- Eski hamam, eski tas. Same old Turkish bath, same old pouring bowl.
Conversion is a profound paradigm shift. You suddenly realize that you are not the center of the universe, but you do have a Creator to answer to. Then, you discover that this Creator loves you, and provides everything you need to pursue an incredible adventure in living. Then, you discover that this Creator and Savior has good things in mind for the world He so loved, and you're invited to pitch in!

Nations and cultures, too, can suffer / enjoy paradigm shifts. Perhaps the most pithy paragraph on that topic was penned by my favorite Marxist Jesuit, the late Ivan Illych:
Some fortuitous coincidence will render publicly obvious the structural contradictions between stated purposes and effective results in our major institutions. People will suddenly find obvious what is now evident to only a few . . . Like other widely shared insights, this one will have the potential of turning public imagination inside out. Large institutions can quite suddenly lose their respectability, their legitimacy, and their reputation for serving the public good. It happened to the Roman Church in the Reformation, to royalty in the Revolution. The unthinkable became obvious overnight: that people could and would behead their rulers. ("Tools for Conviviality", p. 111)
We live in interesting times ...


[0] Thanks and a tip of the hat to Jim Graham, classmate at William Fleming HS.

[1] See the movie The Truman Show, which begins, literally, with a "falling star!"

[2] Kepler's Witch is a powerful biography of the guy who refined Copernicus' chart. Johannes Kepler was a large-hearted but rather frail Protestant who had to hit the road several times when his home town came under the jurisdiction of a Catholic ruler. He thought Christians could find better things to do with their lives than fight one another, and reached out in Christian charity to a conceited Catholic lens grinder and fellow astronomer, Galileo, during that gent's time of trial. Later generations failed to give Kepler the credit due him, in part because of his "day job" -- royal astrologer. His era's equivalent of our economists.

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