July 19, 2009
The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
For UCC Congregation
PURSUING THE PARADIGM
We are siblings, you and I, or at least in-laws. We, too, trace our history from the standing order of Massachusetts, the churches formed by the Pilgrims and Puritans. All over Massachusetts today the First Parish Church in almost every town is either a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association or the UCC, and across the square, a church almost equally old is associated with either the United Church of Christ or the UUA. The split began to happen in the late eighteenth century and was completed by 1825. What caused it was the marriage of the most liberal churches of the standing order with the thinking of the enlightenment. It is my conviction that the hope that our faith holds for the future of the world also stems from that marriage. The world right now is a scary place. It is full of conflict and confusion about who we are, what is our purpose and place in the universe, and what our relationships should be with people whose cultures and values are profoundly different from our own. This confusion is driven, I think, by a radical shift in the underlying paradigm of our way of seeing the world. People talk about paradigm shifts all the time — it’s one of the ways we try to sound intelligent — but I think what I am talking about is the real thing.
A paradigm is the model or pattern of the way we perceive reality, and it seems odd that it can change so profoundly as to utterly alter society, when all the time human beings were so certain that it could never change, that the way they looked at existence was the only possible way. They couldn’t even conceive of something different because the truth was so utterly obvious. Then when the paradigm shifts, there is an equivalent amazement that anyone could ever have believed any other way. In spite of the overuse of the word it doesn’t happen often and it takes a long time for a complete shift to occur. In fact there are still people whose life is being organized under the rubric of the paradigm before last, and the new one is neither understood nor accepted, even by those who think they know what it is. There are even those who, thinking they are responding to the new, are preaching a return to the first one of which we have a record. Many, of course, are unaware that we are in the midst of such a shift. We recognize the confusion, the disorder, the fear, but we explain it in the terms that used to fit, terms that we still understand, and look for solutions from the past. If the shift is real, and I believe it is, retreat is impossible. We must go forward, “past the place where the light lifts and farther on than the relinquishment of leaves — farther even than the persistence in the east of the green color.... What is required of us, Companions, is the recognition of the frontiers across this history, and to take heart: to cross over —.” (Archibald MacLeish)
Let me say that I do not see myself as being one who understands and embraces the new paradigm. On the contrary, I dwell in confusion. I long for a time when I knew what was good, what was helpful, what could work to improve our society, our world, our own lives. I see in a glass darkly, and when I think that what I am seeing is glimpses of the new reality, I am afraid. All I can say for myself is that I know it is there, and I know that we must begin to try to live in the newness with wisdom and acceptance, if we are not to be destroyed by the disruptions that even now are taking place in the destruction of the old paradigm.
There are many factors that contribute to the change of paradigms that periodically disrupt human world-views. It is amazing what seemingly small, irrelevant things are the turning point, the beginning of a new model of being. They don’t really happen in a vacuum. They are produced out of generations of thought and research and the sharing of wisdom, and primarily by an advance in some form of human communication, the sharing and storage of data, but one incident, one idea, seems to be the culmination, the codification of new thought, after which everything is different. I don’t know what the identifying change was of the first shift that we know about when writing was invented. Primitive human beings seemed to see their universe as utterly random. This world was all they knew, and there was nothing to ensure that it would continue as they knew it. When things happened, they happened for no particular reason, and there was nothing to be done about them. The religious expression of this is animism — a belief in the willfulness of all things — which easily passes to a paganism in which the spirits of things can be propitiated as gods. These are not gods of unlimited power. They are chancy. They fight among themselves, and the randomness of things can be attributed to their imperfections and disagreements. It was surely the invention of writing that began the shift to the 3-tiered universe in which there was will and purpose concentrated in divine power separate from and above the earth, and if opposed at all, opposed by powers of darkness below. It enabled the beginning of an understanding of the seasonal procession which may have been the turning point of this shift. When people began to live in one place to farm and to record their history, they began to see patterns and rhythms in their lives, within which they could begin to understand and control their environment to some extent. The new universe was a universe of law. The laws might be arbitrary, but they had a reason for their existence, and obedience to them was the obvious answer to questions of purpose and meaning. The universe followed laws, given, it was supposed from their consistency, by a single will. Monotheism was born, and not merely in the west as we imagine. Religious upheavals occurred in the east as well with the Hinduism of Advaita Vedanta and the beginning of Buddhism and Taoism.
Then printing was invented, and in the west, along came Copernicus. He was by no means a product out of nowhere. There were the Greek geometers, the philosophy of Aristotle, the algebraic contributions from Islam, but it was the Copernican revolution. The world was no longer the center of the universe with stars painted on the backdrop of the heavens for our delight. We ourselves were no longer the center. We are close enough to those times to have some concept of the disruptions that so simple a culmination of scientific thought caused. Although the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were between those none of whom were ready for the new paradigm, that was the context within which they were fought to produce the Enlightenment.
Recently I have seen people referring to the “failure of the Enlightenment,” a reference thrown in off-handedly as if everyone knows that the Enlightenment was an organized effort that had failed, and they are merely repeating common knowledge. That utterly amazes me since the Enlightenment was the height of the new paradigm, and its consequences have been enormous in ideas of freedom, of the scientific method, of cause and effect. It produced the Constitution and Bill of Rights of the United States; it ultimately ended the institution of slavery; it honored reason and the search for truth, and it honored as well the possibility of human creation of a world in which all of us could live abundantly. The paradigm has shifted again, but the power of its vision changed the world as we know it. Its central belief was in cause and effect, and its characteristic religion was that of deism which believed in a creation that ran itself with unbreakable natural laws. Knowledge of those laws, they thought, would give humankind the ability to manipulate them in such a way that we could all attain peace and plenty in a world of justice. Although some of us may have begun to suspect that that is not true, it doesn’t change the achievements — the success — of the Enlightenment.
And without the Enlightenment, without the commitment to a search for truth using scientific and mathematical techniques, there would have been no Heisenberg. There would have been no uncertainty principle to codify the onset of the new paradigm enabled by the electronic revolution — television and computers. Actually when you look at his principle at first, it seems no more revolutionary in scope than any other arcane physical theory. All it says is that, when you are looking at sub-atomic particles, the more you know about their velocity, the less you can know about their position. In addition, Heisenberg found that the act of observing these particles changed their position radically, so that merely by observation of phenomena less rather than more could be known about them. Big deal, right?
Yes, it’s a very big deal. Suddenly the idea of cause and effect is called into question. We must now look at reality in terms of statistics and probability. A single cause can have a range of effects. What is more, it becomes clear that absolute truth is absolutely unattainable. The more you learn, the less you know. We get Einstein and relativity, chaos theory and the greatest modern scientific mind writing mystical panegyrics to the fourth dimension. We also get societal upheavals and disruption and a new round of religious wars. The old paradigm is gone and the new one seems only to lead us deeper and deeper into the mire. We have no truth to which we can cling, no certainty to establish a platform for our seeking feet, no right and wrong, no good and evil, no answers for our questions except that there are no answers. There are only probabilities.
Let me reiterate that the uncertainty principle didn’t cause the paradigm shift any more than Copernican mathematics caused the beginning of modern science. It merely epitomizes it. There are many influences, aided and accelerated by technology to lead us to this new understanding. Greater knowledge of other cultures has taught us that even the moral and ethical standards that we thought were absolute do not universally obtain, nor do the ways of organizing communities. The rules are gone. Even the guidelines are gone. This is scary stuff, because without at least mutually agreed upon rules there can be no cohesion, no community, no concerted effort. The Tower of Babel is back, but now even if we speak the same language we may not be able to find the way to be one communion because the framework within which we can work together is gone.
The natural response to this is retreat. Our very identities are threatened when we must ask ourselves if the verities in which we have always believed are really more true than the equally strongly held verities of very different people. The retreat is into an authoritarian fundamentalism or a rigid tribalism. We see it happening all over the world. As the world becomes more uncertain, people find certainty wherever they can. As it becomes smaller and we cannot avoid the knowledge of what is other we seek stronger and stronger boundaries of identity based on whatever can be descried, be it color, or ethnic origin, or economic class, or tribe, and accepting or rejecting ideas and other people on the basis of that defined relationship. Within the group, you do as the group does, believe as the group does, love and hate as the group does. Outsiders are rejected because their understandings may shake the truth that is accepted within the relationship. In a universe where truth is unavailable, any mutually accepted truth, however false it is, is better than none.
But here is where I believe that the children of the Enlightenment can help. Because we have always believed that revelation is not sealed and sought truth in many different sacred texts as well as in the findings of science and the insights of philosophers and poets, applying critical thinking and even doubt to all of them, we may be in a place that can find some solid ground. That is unless we succumb to the opposite danger of seeing only half of the new reality. We might say that since we cannot discern the truth we must conclude that there is none, and therefore no belief is better or worse than another. We have seen that cultural mores are not universal and may conclude that therefore we can’t say that one way of living is better than another. Fundamentalism, tribalism, a rejection of science on one hand or a descent into chaos on the other. We must find another path that tells us that just because absolute truth is forever unavailable to us does not mean that some ideas and beliefs are not nearer the truth than others. We need to remember that some probabilities are so high as to approach certainty. I would bet any amount that the sun will rise tomorrow. Although it is possible that the molecules in this pulpit could align in such a way that I could fall through it, I would bet any amount that it’s not going to happen. To live in the new paradigm it must not be necessary either to embrace chaos, nor to retreat to secure enclaves, nor to believe and act upon what we know to be untrue. Instead we can embrace probability, and seek to make what is good more probable. Instead of choosing what we decide to call truth based on cultural preferences, we can choose the integrity of the acceptance of ambiguity, while understanding that our answers must still be tentative. That is the frontier that we must cross to live in this tiny new world of ours. It will take courage and love, and above all, humility, a willingness to be shown to be mistaken, to commit to the probabilities which must still be tested against what is unquantifiable: justice and compassion, beauty and wonder, joy and love.