Nearsighted

Michael Metzger

Love isn’t blind, but it’s often nearsighted. It’s part of what makes marriages work, as in “I only have eyes for you.” But it can make institutions resist paradigm shifts, for when they only have eyes for what they love, they tend to only be nearsighted. This seems to be the case in three modern institutions: media, business, and the church.

The word “paradigm” is from two Greek words “compare” and “show.” Until the 1960s it was a concept limited to linguistics meaning “pattern.” But Thomas Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” in The Structures of Scientific Revolutions to show how we shift perspectives. Shifts occur when institutions compare their cherished assumptions with what appear to be far off facts. If they only have eyes for what they love, they become nearsighted and resist shifting paradigms. We see this in the institution of marriage. A 50 percent failure rate is too far off for most engaged couples. Planning the wedding is a nearsighted necessity crowding out focusing on the long haul.

Kuhn had his own example of how difficult it is to shift paradigms: the Copernican Revolution. The Dummies version goes like this: Ptolemy said the earth is at the center of the universe. Copernicus was farsighted in suggesting the sun was at the center. There was resistance since many in the scientific and church community loved the Ptolemaic paradigm. Galileo built off the Copernican model with new data concerning motion. There was resistance to Galileo’s model but reality was slowly winning. Kepler abandoned the Ptolemaic paradigm, adding to Galileo’s work. The facts of planetary motion came to be understood within a new frame. After roughly three generations, bingo—a paradigm shift occurred.

We see these dynamics being played out in institutional business. Take the shift to digital intellectual property. The old paradigms are losing their grip as institutional giants are acting too nearsighted. Newspapers have succumbed to the inroads made by digital media and the Internet. In a few short years the paper delivery boy will likely become extinct. Book publishers are being threatened by e-books with the battle between Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad simply a consequence of these changes. The same forces are threatening major movie studios as direct digital distribution becomes the increasing norm. At the Fast Company Innovation Uncensored conference in New York, a CEO was asked how companies can adapt to this shift. Her answer, hire young. In effect, hire those who are not wed to the old paradigm. Invest in those who have their eyes on the emerging digitized world. They are near and farsighted.

Institutional giants in business that are wed to old paradigms are also nearsighted. Only four of the top ten companies in the Fortune 500 list of 1955 reappear in the top 50 companies in 2009. One is GM, a car manufacturer that has been rapidly losing market share and largely dependent on government subsidy. Six of the companies do not even make Fortune’s top 50 by 2009. Today’s juggernaut companies Microsoft (35), Hewlett Packard (9), Berkshire Hathaway (13), United Health (21), Costco (24), and McKesson (15) were either not in existence or in their infancy in 1980. It’s a paradigm shift, evidenced by the fact that Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple were not even in business prior to 1980. These new companies are near and farsighted.

Now consider the institutional church. It is called to love God—farsighted—and love neighbors—nearsighted. Love leads us into action. “My love is my weight: wherever I go my love is what brings me there,” wrote Augustine. Action is how faith institutions go about loving neighbors. For several generations, Christians such as C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, and Lesslie Newbigin, have challenged the modern church’s paradigms as being relatively recent in history—about 200 years old. They see a “two-chapter” theology, Enlightenment anthropology, and an individualistic ecclesiology as nearsighted. Most recently, James Hunter’s To Change the World, James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today continue this challenge. These books raise a question: how long until the church shifts paradigms? In the flat earth era, it took a while.

Until 1420, many godly Christians took it for granted that the world was flat. Yet for many generations, other Christians had said the earth was round. The Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735), Bishop Virgilius of Salzburg (ca. 720-784), Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), and Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1224-1274) said the earth was spherical. Sphere was the title of the most popular medieval textbook on astronomy, written by John of Sacrobosco (ca. 1200-1256). It said all heavenly bodies including Earth are spherical.1 In the end, reality won, paradigms shifted, and flat earth people lost.

Now consider the modern American church. At least three generations have challenged the church’s nearsighted theology, anthropology, and ecclesiology. Yet, is the church ready to make a shift? One observer of the church landscape is doubtful.

The leaders have tolerated new ideas, but the problems of control, power, and particular management of financial resources have caused them to domesticate the renewal movements, a skill at which they are competent. What renewal might have taken place is largely cosmetic. After all, these institutions have mega staffs to support with their mega church congregations. Even the fast growing independent churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback are finding their ability to change direction to be very limited. When an influential church such as Willow Creek begins to question the efficacy of their last two decades of ministry, they find themselves culturally unable to respond with any decisiveness because of the very real issues of sustainability. Instead, these churches have become experts in force-fitting the next fad, the next hot button into their existing programs.

Paradigm shifts require institutions comparing nearsighted assumptions with farsighted reality. These hard comparisons call for contrarians, what the Bible calls prophets. But because the modern American church is a “non-prophet” institution, most faith institutions are too nearsighted. The observer quoted above fears James Hunter’s “faithful presence within” paradigm won’t initiate a real shift but a piecemeal compromise, “a cloudy, unappetizing, lukewarm porridge composed of a number of non-related initiatives that in reality, oppose one another.”

The good news is that reality always wins. Can you imagine the difficulty of putting a man on the moon within a Ptolemaic understanding of reality? Can you imagine how many books had to be rewritten after the Copernican shift was complete? Now imagine the difficulty of changing the world within a “two-chapter,” Enlightenment, individualistic understanding of reality. And imagine how many books will have to be rewritten after this shift is complete. It might take a few more generations, but least we have a growing collection of books, corrective lenses, for nearsighted faith communities.

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1 Rodney Stark, For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 122.

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6 thoughts on “Nearsighted”

  1. Steve Henderson

    Can you cite even one “godly Christian” who actually believed in a flat earth?? I’ve not been able to find one. I don’t think repeating the canard is helpful, but if you’ve some evidence at hand, please share it! Thanks for your good work.

  2. Mike Metzger

    Steve:

    Godly doesn’t infer being right on every point. Earnest, sincere believers can be sincerely misguided – as I have often been!

    St. Athanasius (c.293–373) expressed a view that the Earth was flat. Severian, Bishop of Gabala (d. 408), wrote that the Earth is flat, as did the Egyptian monk Cosmos Indicopleustes (547). In his Topographia Christiana, he argued that the Earth was a flat parallelogram enclosed by four oceans. St. John Chrysostom (344–408) explicitly espoused the idea that the Earth floated on the waters gathered below the firmament in his Homilies Concerning the Statutes.

  3. Leonard Stephens

    Someone once said “When you don’t know where you are going any path will take you there.” Most of our world of media, business, politics, academia and religion are on that path right now. It occurs to me that farsightedness and nearsightedness as you use them in relation to the church are in reality commandments one and two.
    1) Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul
    2) Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself
    We appear to have abandoned the first commandment in pursuit of the second. How we love our neighbors has wrongly become the way we distinguish ourselves as Christians. Differences in doctrine and dogma have led us to both Pharisaical self-righteousness and the gradual secularization of the church. Bombarded by secular world view we have lost our farsighted focus and consequently have no relational understanding of our immediate surroundings. This “shift” has crept in gradually over time. Like the proverbial frog in a pot of water that gently changes from cool to boiling we slowly but surely are cooked to death oblivious to the change going on around us and within us. As I understand Hunter enacting the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed us requires that we keep our focus firmly on God at all times. Faithful presence is “within”. The church does not make a shift unless the individuals within it do so first. It is not a collective change but a number of individual ones that ultimately become collective. In order to see the “paradigm shift” without it becoming a “piecemeal compromise” we must adhere to the first two commandments in order of appearance.

  4. There is no dualism. Love of God demands love of neighbor. Equally, individual Christians must learn to rely on the resources of heaven so as to be agents of love in and through their lives and callings. Here too there is no dualism. Hunter’s point is simply individual change will not automatically lead to cultural change and that the burden of shalom is first to our neighbor. Put simply, no life, no love; no love, no life. We must avoid all efforts to put one above the other or to pit one against the other.

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