Tag: Thomas Kuhn

Challenging Evangelical Paradigms

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks in Evangelical World. We lost Rachel Held Evans, Pence gave commencement addresses at Liberty and Taylor about coming evangelical persecution, Beth Moore took on Complementarianism, restrictive state abortion laws were met with some evangelical critique, and, to top it off, James MacDonald was accused of trying to arrange a murder to be carried out on a motorcycle trip to the Creation Museum.

Somehow, all of this disruption got me thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In 1962, Kuhn analyzed how science is transformed over time. For example, he explored how a Ptolemaic view of cosmology gave way to the Copernican view (which was then disrupted by Einstein and then by quantum physics). One of my sociological theory texts from grad school contained this helpful graphic explaining Kuhn’s theory.

Key to understanding Kuhn is the notion of Normal Science. This is what is accepted among scientists as the way a topic is understood. It is characterized by broad consensus and the establishment of institutional power centers (educational institutions, journals) that teach and research around the key questions and dominant understandings. Empirical evidence that doesn’t fit the dominant view (Anomalies) are ignored or explained away. Over time, however, the magnitude of the anomalies reaches a point where they can no longer be fit into the previous paradigm. New attempts to conceptualize the problem develop which better align with the existing empirical evidence. As those prove more effective explanations, the New Paradigm begins to take shape. Eventually, it becomes the dominant understanding of the younger generation and is institutionalized. In relatively short order, it is established as the new Normal Science in which research and teaching are centered.

Here’s how that relates to shifts in evangelicalism in the US. While we aren’t relying on empirical data in the same way as the natural sciences, there is a way in which establishment forms became dominant and were institutionally reinforced. The raw material from which the paradigm is built is through homogeneity of information. This happens through seminaries, denominational bodies, para-church networks, and dominant periodicals. The voices of Normal Evangelicalism don’t explore the questions that are disparate from the “Orthodox” view.

This presumed homogeneity of Normal Evangelicalism has been challenged with the availability of the Internet. Suddenly other voices were focused on those questions and perspectives that the dominant paradigm thinks shouldn’t be raised. These new voices, disproportionally women’s voices, didn’t arise from the establishment — as Tish Warren observed in 2017:

This social media revolution has had a unique and immense impact on women, in particular. Women’s voices—which historically have been marginalized in the church—are suddenly amplified in this new medium.

In light of Kuhn’s model, it is instructive that Warren refers to these changes as “a crisis”. She’s correct, especially from the perspective of Normal Evangelicalism.

Rachel Held Evans, Jen Hatmaker, and numerous others occupied the space that Warren was describing. They benefitted from the dramatic way in which social media democratizes and deinstitutionalizes communication. They were able to build significant followings precisely because they were willing to wrestle with the anomalies in Normal Evangelicalism.

With Rachel Held Evan’s death two weeks ago, a natural question arises: who will take her place? The Religion News Service’s Emily Miller reflected on this yesterday in a piece titled “Who will be our next Rachel?” It’s an important question, but if I’m right about the democratization of social media, there are a host of people ready to step into that gap. Abby Norman, a recent M.Div. graduate of Candler Theological, wrote as much last week.

The Crisis phase, however, isn’t yet formed into a new Normal. This means that conflict is the story of the day. The Mother’s Day weekend interchange between Beth Moore and Owen Strachen was a perfect illustration. Beth Allison Barr captured well the importance of that exchange:

I think Beth Moore has decided not to be left out of the “divine loop” that means everything for evangelical women. This is our “critical moment.” And Beth Moore has stepped out in front holding her giant-size weight.

What was particularly telling that weekend was the groundswell of voices within evangelical circles who shared and celebrated Beth’s twitter thread. People were eager to weigh in on the need to provide a serious response to the implicit assumptions of too much of complementarian argument.

Voices challenging the Establishment paradigm can be seen in a host of other places as well: the #ChurchToo response to abuse in places like Willow Creek and some SBC congregations, the alignment of evangelicalism with pro-Trump triumphalism, critiques of the purity culture movement, and the recent actions of the United Methodist Church on LGBT issues.

It remains to be seen what is on the other side of the Crisis period.. My best guess, following Kuhn, is that new voices which are addressing tough questions and realistically struggling with them through the lens of vital Christian faith will prevail. David Kinnaman’s You Lost Me suggests that the younger generation is eager to engage that struggle.

Building a New Paradigm is hard. The lack of power centers relative to Establishment Evangelicalism makes that more difficult. Yet seeing that develop is the most likely outcome over the long run. I can’t conclude this piece better than Kristin DuMez concluded hers from this morning, so I’ll simply quote her.

It remains to be seen what sort of power Beth Moore and the network of evangelical women she has forged will exert in the face of conservative evangelical networks. It also remains to be seen what will be come of the coalition of progressive Christian women Rachel Held Evans helped forge without Evans herself at its hub. In many ways, however, the future of American evangelicalism will unfold in terms of the relative power struggles within and among such networks and coalitions.

Wake Me When the Revolution is Over

[My October contribution to the Respectful Conversation project on science and religion]

When I think about issues of science and religion, which frames this month’s respectful conversation, my thoughts go in two directions. One direction goes to dinner with Francis Collins. The other direction invoves Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

One of the highpoints in my career came in the Spring of 2008 when Francis Collins came to the school where I was. He gave a public talk on Friday night, spent all day Saturday in an undergraduate biology seminar, and then joined a small group of us for dinner conversation that night. I’d  had the joy of sitting across from him at dinner both nights. It wasn’t a long conversation but it was enough to gather a sense of how a man of faith wrestled with his scientific expertise without crisis. He was done with his stint as director of the Human Genome Process and it was before President Obama named him director of the NIH.

Dr. Collins was warm, engaging, sincere, intelligent, funny, and musical (look up the YouTube videos). He was launching BioLogos at the time to explore fruitful conversations between science and religion (he had to give up leadership with the NIH gig came along). I was actually looking forward to another dinner after church on Sunday (he came to our church) but that didn’t happen. He may not remember me, but I think of him as a friend who taught me much about science and about religion.

I never met Thomas Kuhn, but his analysis has been a part of my thinking since graduate school (sociologists like paradigms). A philosopher of science, he outlined the ways in which scientific developments occur. My grad school theory text summarizes his argument in this figure:

The key focus of the process is from “Normal Science” to “Revolution”. Once an establishment understanding has developed, certain patterns are discovered that don’t fit the established theoretical framework. These anomalies are the source of puzzlement and are often thought to be a matter of methodological or theoretical challenge. But soon, there are too many anomalies to explain away. Faith in the prior paradigm begins to weaken and alternative theories better suited to include the so-called anomalies are developed. As the new paradigm begins to be institutionalized, younger generations and selected pioneers begin to articulate the comparative advance the new paradigm brings. Over time, it actually becomes the new Establishment Paradigm which wrestles with anomalies, new models, and so forth.

So when I read the great posts this month by Amos Yong, Kyle Roberts, and Peter Enns, I see them with eyes of Collins and Kuhn.

Peter observes that there are natural conflicts between evolution and evangelicalism. He says there is a high price of “not doing the hard and necessary synthetic work” of reconciling faith and science in adequate ways. That’s what has motivated Peter in his own work as a biblical scholar, even when (maybe especially when) that work means unpacking the anomalies that don’t fit the establishment paradigm. He ends his piece with a call for trust in God in the midst of uncertainty.

Kyle’s piece on seminary education picks up similar themes. He rightly suggests that one of the drivers of the whole “millennials are leaving the church” phenomenon is partially related to an inability to resolve the faith and science issue. His call for an intenal apologetic can be thougth of as the latter part of Kuhn’s crisis stage as a new paradigm begins to emerge.

As I think about this, I recognize that it might have been good to have brought up Kuhn’s Scientific Revolutions in the July conversation about Scripture. Because there is not only a revoluton that happens in science but one in religion as well. As we approach and/or embrace postmodernity, we find ourselves having to engage new questions in new ways. The anomalies are many. But many folks still want to hold tightly to the Establishment phase and denounce the anomalies as errors instead of opportunity for new Paradigms. It is a remarkable fact that segments of the evangelical church are using essentially modernist argument to support scriptural postions at exactly the time when many in science (if you ignore the neo-athiests) are asking serious questions about the assumptions of scientism.

Which is the point I think Amos is trying to make. Both the rigid modernist biblical hermeneutic and the supposedly pristine scientific strategy are incomplete. There is a need to find space of supernaturalism within the context of inquiry. It’s an unfinished process and involves seeing through a glass darkly. But as Amos suggests, “those who are led by the Spirit can therefore pursue the life of the mind, even the scientific vocation, and in thei way also bring their own questions, perspectives, and curiosities to their scientific endeavors.”

Which brings me back to dinner with Francis Collins. What we need in the midst of these paradigmatic shifts are people of faithful character who neither duck the hard questions, settling for pat answers, nor abandon their faith because the answer is uncertain. Rather, they press on toward the mark in pursuit of the new Paradigm that brings some measure of reconciliation, at least until the next anomalies come along.