While in college I, like many, read with great excitement Thomas S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn gives a compelling account of how science works. He slays the myth that changes in scientific thought are primarily the result of new discoveries. He argues that most scientific work consists of filling in the holes of currently accepted theory. This is the day to day work of science. As that process continues, problems with current theory can emerge. When these problems increase, current theory is stretched. It becomes clumsy and less elegant as it’s adjusted to accommodate dissonance. This opens the door to new theories. Such a new theory is not so much a development of current understandings as it is a break. It’s a paradigm shift. At first the new theory has as many problems, if not more than the old. A battle takes place between scientists committed to the old theory and those committed to the new. Good arguments exist on both sides. Eventually, the explanatory power of the new theory convinces a majority of scientists, and the shift is complete.
After reading this little book it seemed to me that my world had changed. I was not alone. The book created a new discipline and its language began to permeate other academic fields. In particular, it became common to read of paradigm shifts even in Theology and Biblical Studies. Paradigm shifts have become daily occurrences in these fields. I find this trend to be a bit disturbing. Kuhn seems to suggest that paradigm shifts are rare (the Copernican revolution and Einstein’s theory of relativity), and that most scientists are involved not in creating new theories but in confirming the reigning ones. I suspect that work seemed a little too mundane in other disciplines. The desire for the fame and glory of making intellectual history with a paradigm shift proved far greater than the desire to contribute to the working out of current theories. An unfruitful pattern began to multiply. New theories were announced. When criticism followed, the new theories were defended as paradigm shifts. Critics were not only accused of not understanding the new theories but of being incapable of understanding the new theories. The critics, it seems, were mired in the old paradigms and so unable to grasp the new. Sadly, these debates raged even outside of academia. When churches split over the latest paradigm shift, as a pastor I need to call for change. I suggest the following:
First, we need to limit the number of permitted paradigm shifts. Perhaps each academic discipline should be allowed only one paradigm shift every twenty years. That seems more than reasonable given the time between Copernicus and Einstein. Since Theology has had far more than its fair share of late, we should have a moratorium on theological paradigm shifts for the next fifty years.
Next, I suggest we get radical. I don’t mean ‘radical’ in the sense of being way out there, but ‘radical’ in the sense of focusing our criticism at the root. This is the kind of radical criticism that Tillich recommends in his Systematic Theology. I’ll leave it to the reader to judge Tillich’s success. We need to look for the hot points in our various fields, the places where debates don’t seem to make any progress. Rather than joining in these seemingly fruitless debates and using all of our intellectual skills to gain victory for one side or the other, we need to look for the root. What thinking and assumptions do both sides share? Our guess is that at the root there are structures which practically mandate the intellectual parties we see. Focusing on the root has the potential to dissolve the debate.
Finally, we need to reject any paradigm shift proposals that aren’t proceeded by a thorough going radical criticism. Let us be quick to listen and slow to speak.