The Revd Brutus Green
‘I’m walking away from the troubles in my life, I’m walking away to find a better day’. Without doubt, smooth-talking-90s-RnB singer Craig David’s sermon debut, but it’s August bank holiday weekend, everyone else’s on holiday, two of our choir are leaving, and it seems appropriate for a Gospel in which many disciples walk away from Jesus who has pushed them one step too far. Still for a singer who shot to fame for meeting a girl on a Monday, taking her for a drink on Tuesday and spending the rest of the week making love to her, before chillin’ on Sunday, we should perhaps not be surprised with his ease of transition; after all he barely scrapes through the third-date rule and does not appear to go to church. But what is it that would make us walk away? When is enough enough?
In the 60s a philosopher of science called Thomas Kuhn invented a phrase which has since caught on across the board: “paradigm shift”. He used it to describe moments in science when the world is suddenly understood in a different way. So when the Copernican revolution happened, a major shift occurred in how the universe was perceived, where the sun no longer rotated around the earth, and the earth was no longer the centre of everything. Or when Darwin released The Origin of Species, it was not long before the majority changed how they saw what it meant to be a human. According to Kuhn the process of paradigm shift happens when an increasing number of anomalies casts doubt on a way of thinking, and a new paradigm emerges with greater potential to deal with these troubling anomalies. In the case of Copernicus he certainly didn’t solve the problem of how to predict the movement of the stars, but his new paradigm, built on by Kepler, Galilei, Bruno and finally Isaac Newton, proved to be a neater solution to the problem.
The “Paradigm shift” has proved a helpful metaphor and wormed its way into every discipline and sphere of life. Jesus’ New Covenant that causes such disturbance in today’s Gospel is certainly a paradigm shift; religious conversion is a paradigm shift; a mid-life crisis, having a child, 9/11, the financial crisis, discovering your husband in bed with another man, Cocomaya’s raspberry brioche, all could be described as paradigm shifts in inflicting a permanent change upon the way we see the world. The most disturbing thing about such shifts is not our reorientation to how we see the future, our sense of what we want to do next, but how they subtly change the past. And sometimes not even subtly. At 19 I was in a disastrous relationship with a girl who continually blew hot and cold, with the usual teenage multiple break-ups and reconciliations. After finally getting back with this girl who I had written bad poetry to, imagined marrying, pined after, loved so much it hurt, something finally snapped. The romance of a passion, ecstasy and gloom, was broken like a spell and I just didn’t care any more. How I saw the future obviously changed - she wasn’t in it; but the paradigm shift made me look at the past and see it just as manipulation, madness and unkindness. My previous perspective of romantic melodrama seemed inconceivable. I later found that she had always thought we would end up together and was utterly devastated when I left. Sometimes paradigm shifts are forced upon us. Happily she got married this summer. But again exes getting married, having children, it is a strange mental shift to get used to.
I have a similar issue with Summer and Winter. When it’s hot I simply cannot imagine it ever being cold, and when it’s Winter I can’t imagine why anyone would ever wear shorts. It makes it difficult to pack sometimes. I think it also explains the severity of my occasional man-flu. I just can’t imagine ever feeling well again.
The point is that these kinds of shift can rewrite our past, sometimes in rather untruthful ways. In the last week I’ve watched Casablanca a few times. It’s a strange film, a mixture of ruthless pragmatism and sentimentality - the two heroes are a self-absorbed philandering drunkard: ‘when it comes to women, a true democrat’, and a fickle adulteress; with the humour coming from a camp, exploitative sex pest: ‘just like any man, only more so’. The good looking, concentration camp survivor and war hero somehow never really makes an impact. Through most of the movie Bogart is terribly bitter - unsurprisingly since Ingrid Bergman has left him a year before in Paris. When she is leaving him again at the end though he is finally able to say: ‘We'll always have Paris. We didn't have, we, we lost it until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night.’ The sort of paradigm shifts we experience in life often take forgiveness in order to be able to see truly again. Being able to look back and say “we’ll always have Paris” means accepting an earlier paradigm for what it was, and holding on to what was good in the past, even though our present life may have moved on.
Sometimes our faith requires a paradigm shift. We might realise we don’t like the person we have become. We realise we don’t like or don’t believe in the God we were brought up with. We might suddenly see something true, something moving, in what we experience at church. At university the Christian Union girls had a ‘flirt to convert’ policy, and many boys were converted because they suddenly saw something in religion. A crisis in the middle of life can return us to such a place of adolescent openness. Such shifts can translate into significant amounts of energy and passion; conviction gives life shape and meaning. Enthusiasms can also become passing trends, though, phases, and sometimes old paradigms reassert themselves. Equally, sometimes our long-held faith gets chipped away at. Then we begin to experience dissonance. The familiar prayers can stop meaning anything; we can lose our emotional connection with the words we are saying. The music becomes over-familiar. Can you even remember the title of the first hymn we sang - let along what it was about? The people we know from church seem odd and desperately uncool. Prayer feels like a waste of time. The coffee tastes cheap and you wonder whether the guys serving it are cutting costs by not using a full bag. The wine isn’t fizzy. The sermon seems to be more about popular culture and politics than faith. You haven’t seen the vicar in weeks and wonder why the curate just moved into the vicarage with an extremely large overnight bag.
Shifting paradigms here, converting to Islam, atheism, HTB or veganism, is one way of responding. But flitting between paradigms, blowing like a reed in the wind, will keep you always at the shallow end of life. St Paul’s words here articulate what is needed to build a robust faith that is able to withstand life’s anomalies and hold fast to the true paradigm of faith: we are told to put on the ‘whole armour of God’. By coincidence, my brother recently bought a tailor-made bespoke suit of armour. Validating Darwin’s theory of natural selection, he has also taken up jousting. He tells me that it takes quite a while to put it all on and requires help, and we get this impression when listening to St Paul’s list: fastening the belt of truth, putting on the breast plate of righteousness, the boots of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. His description is intended to convey something of the discipline of the Christian life, that it is not simply something that can be whimsically adopted, but a practice that takes time, care and support, achieved little by little, by building up the defense of your faith over a lifetime. With time and experience comes depth of mind and spirit, a depth which has the strength to repel the slings and arrows of the devil’s attacks. Difficult anomalies arise, of course; but this is how our faith grows; often our faith is deepened not so much by what we learn about God, but what we learn about what God, and life, is not. Challenges that arise can make us shut down, can make us want to walk away and chill on Sundays instead, but equally they can open us to empathy with others, they can make us think with more clarity and realise that somewhere between our infirmity of mind, body and paradigms - and the immeasurable love and mystery of God - there is an adventure that is to be embraced.
So, secure in our two-thousand year old paradigm, that has raised thousands of these vaulted roofs across Europe and the world, produced the greatest art, music and literature humanity has known, as well passionate lives of faithful service and sacrifice, like St Paul an ambassador in chains; let us continue putting on this whole armour of God, piece by piece: take some time to pray, think about the words of the next hymn, love your neighbours, join the serving rota or St John’s book club; find something that will move your faith on. Because if you go through life as a cynic, if you’re always walking away, ‘you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.’ Amen.