The Path to God is Strewn With Shattered Paradigms
Every single one of us, right at this minute, believes things that are wrong. There is an idea that you cherish, some way of seeing the world that seems so clear to you, but it is wrong, or at best, incomplete.
We all build paradigms in order to function in life and make decisions, it is a necessity. A paradigm is a collection of assumptions and/or ideas that form a model for viewing what you perceive as reality. When someone attacks your paradigm it is as if they are attacking reality itself! Let’s say that in your paradigm there is a God, perhaps because you know there is or perhaps because you really, really believe there is. If someone seeks to remove that cherished piece of your paradigm with a convincing argument, it can cause the whole structure to shake or collapse like a Jenga tower.
Sometimes we give up one flawed perception for another flawed perception, or we can enhance a true perception with one that is more comprehensive. When it comes to knowing God and his mysteries, it helps to understand that you will probably have to give up a lot of false notions and assumptions. We like to think that because we are Latter-day Saints and belong to “the true Church” and have “the restored gospel” that our paradigms are correct, true, complete, and superior.
I’m going to suggest that anyone who thinks that had better watch themselves.
Your paradigm may never be shaken by the world, but it will be shaken by God. A miner finds a vein of gold and cuts away chunks of stone mixed with precious metal. In a red-hot furnace the dross is separated from the gold and cast away. It is an incredibly violent process, and many cannot not endure it.
There are some scriptures that show this process of various people encountering God or his servants and having their preconceived notions shattered.
Shattered Paradigms in Scripture
One of my favorites comes from the book of Moses:
“And it came to pass that it was for the space of many hours before Moses did again receive his natural strength like unto man; and he said unto himself: Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” (Moses 1:10)
Moses has this theophany where he is shown marvelous things and his preconceived notions about mankind are significantly altered. Would Moses have been wise to fight for those notions or accept what is plain before him? How do we discern what is right?
So shall he yet astound many nations,
kings shutting their mouths at him—
what was not told them, they shall see;
what they had not heard, they shall consider. (Isaiah 52:15)
What was unexpected and unseen shall be known and considered, but that doesn’t mean we will have all the answers right away.
“And now, when Mosiah had made an end of reading the records, his people who tarried in the land were struck with wonder and amazement. For they knew not what to think;” (Mosiah 7:8)
When the facts are placed before you, it doesn’t fix all of your problems. You have to devote considerable time to figuring out how this new information fits together with everything else. Is there more that needs to be cast away, or will this new evidence provide confirmation of other things you already have?
The Brother of Jared, who we would assume knew quite a bit about God, falls to the earth when he discovers something about God that was contrary to his prior assumptions.
“And he saith unto the Lord: I saw the finger of the Lord, and I feared lest he should smite me; for I knew not that the Lord had flesh and blood.” (Ether 3:8)
Even Jesus challenged the paradigms of those at the time who expected a Messiah that would come and deliver them from their oppressors, a mighty and strong warrior-king who would fight their battles like in the days of old.
“And they were all amazed, and spake among themselves, saying, What a word is this! for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out.” (Luke 4:36)
“Whence then hath this man all these things? And they were offended in him.” (Matthew 56:57)
“From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.” John (6:66)
Jesus didn’t fit their paradigm, and instead of adjusting their views, they chose to keep their paradigms intact by crucifying the contradiction. To what lengths will we go to preserve our paradigms?
My favorite scripture on this subject has to do with Naaman. A man who has his paradigm shaken tremendously, but then humbles himself and allows for the dross to be cast away.
“And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean. But Naaman was wroth, and went away, and said, Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near, and spake unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” (2 Kings 5:10-13)
Naaman expected Elisha to come out, meet him and do some kind of miracle to make him whole at that moment, he probably dreamed up a lot of different scenarios on his way to Elisha’s home. His imagination conjured up something amazing and impressive, after all, he was going to see a real prophet. Instead, Naaman was greeted by a common messenger who told him to wash in a substandard river. In an instant, all his hopes and dreams were shattered. He came all this way for this? He was “wroth, and went away,” he was in a “rage,” he had believed in something that turned out to be a sham!
Luckily for Naaman, he had a wise servant who made a good point. If Naaman had been given an extremely difficult task, or one that fit his paradigm, he would have done it, but where’s the harm in trying the simple thing, or making a small adjustment to your paradigm?
Naaman followed Elisha’s instructions and was made whole. It took faith and a willingness to make oneself vulnerable that allowed Naaman to let go of a flawed paradigm and take on another that was more complete and would sustain him in the future.
Remember the hermit crabs
I used to have hermit crabs as a kid. These interesting creatures don’t grow their own shells, they scavenge around for anything that might make a suitable home and move right in.
I learned that as they grew, it became necessary to shed their current shell and obtain a larger shell that would be sufficient to enable their survival. A hermit crab cannot transition from their current shell to a new shell without emerging entirely and making itself completely vulnerable. The vulnerability of abandoning old paradigms can feel risky, uncomfortable, and dangerous, but it is necessary for our growth.
Nephi taught something that complements these ideas:
“O that cunning plan of the evil one! O the vainness, and the frailties, and the foolishness of men! When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God, for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore, their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish.” (2 Nephi 9:28)
He continues by illustrating how important it is to give up those things that can hold us back:
“And whoso knocketh, to him will he open; and the wise, and the learned, and they that are rich, who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom, and their riches–yea, they are they whom he despiseth; and save they shall cast these things away, and consider themselves fools before God, and come down in the depths of humility, he will not open unto them.” (2 Nephi 9:42)
The more we learn, grow, and gain experience, the less we want to let go of anything we’ve acquired along the way. The fact of the matter is that we must at all times, like the hermit crab, be willing to shed it all in order to progress.
Remember the rich young man who conversed with Jesus? He had kept all of the commandments, he was a faithful in all things, and when he asked “…What do I still lack?” Jesus replied, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The record then states that when this young man heard these words, “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Matt. 19:20-22 NASB)
I don’t think this story is just about riches. The young man had acquired many things and Jesus was asking him to make himself vulnerable. He kept all the commandments, God had blessed him, and now he had to give it all up? Why? God was telling a hermit crab that he had outgrown it’s shell and it was time to shed it and move forward.
As the man walk away, Jesus pointed out, “it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 19:23 NASB) I wonder if our own learning and assumptions are applicable to this as well. We certainly pay a lot of money and go into deep debt to acquire learning in this world. How willing are we to set some of it aside? We spend a lot of time in the scriptures, reading various books, conversing in online forums, and in making our own clever observations.
How willing are we to step down from our high places and bathe in small, muddy rivers? We suppose that we know for ourselves (2 Nephi 9:28) and feel confident setting aside the counsel of God. We so confidently fling about Occam’s razor that we suffer death by a thousand cuts.
This is a constant challenge to me, personally. I devote a lot of time to studying, meditating, pondering, and paradigm construction. I have had my paradigms shattered time and time again and it’s not my favorite thing in the world. Like the hermit crab, I come across the perfect shell and feel protected, preserved, and able to move forward with confidence. Then one day I have to shed that beautiful shell for one covered with holes, cracks, and barnacles. I’ve come to a place where I’m trying to focus less on the appearance of the shell itself, and more on the fact that I’m blessed enough to have one at all.
Shells, like paradigms, are of all kinds and varieties. They suit us for the times we live and must be altered or shed entirely in order for us to grow. If we wish to grow closer to God and delve into his mysteries, we will leave behind a trail of shattered paradigms. Nature, scripture, and personal experience testify to these things.
In closing, I’ll leave you with two quotes to ponder, the first is from Joseph Smith:
“I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force —all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there. Thus I will become a smooth and polished shaft in the quiver of the Almighty.” (History of the Church, 5:401.)
The second is from Lecture 6 verse 7:
“Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things, never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things: it was through this sacrifice, and this only, that God has ordained that men should enjoy eternal life; and it is through the medium of the sacrifice of all earthly things, that men do actually know that they are doing the things that are well pleasing in the sight of God. When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has, for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice, because he seeks to do his will, he does know most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life.”