Paradigms and Categories and Being Able to See

This post is an excerpt from the post Be Careful How you Imagine your world.  The excerpt attempts to describe the effect our worldview has upon what we can see.

The post begins with a reflection upon the text of Acts 9:36-43

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. [The name Tabitha in Aramaic and the name Dorcas in Greek mean a gazelle] She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ (Ταβιθά, ἀνάστηθι.) Then she opened her eyes, (ἡ δὲ ἤνοιξεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτῆς,) and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up (ὐτῇ χεῖρα ἀνέστησεν αὐτήν). Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. 43Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

I began here:

I let this text interview me: "Why are you so sceptical?" it asked. Well, there was an auntie who was always getting cured, but never was. There were always rumours of people raised from the dead on remote Indonesian islands but never of people sitting up after prayer in a funeral home. (It is clear that Tabitha was 'proper dead,' for they had washed her and laid her out.) We know this sort of event doesn't happen in real life. And I know I hear claims of such events in gatherings where people's interpretations of other things are equally... well... hopeful, and... unlikely.

Do we think the church at the time was any less sceptical than we are? In the tribal society where I once lived, a man had died, his clothes were burned, and then he sat up among the mourners and asked for his hat.  The town was alive with jokes about people being raised from the dead, because everyone knew he had not been 'proper dead.' (I shall return to this story.)

What if the stories of Acts have a purpose other than requiring literal belief from us; what if our categories about 'real,' 'fact,' and 'fiction,' simply do not fit the world of the writer?

There is an immediate feeling in much church culture that I am trying to wiggle out of the plain meaning of the text. This is not so. Rather, I think many of us fail to understand, let alone address, just how much our world view constrains what we see, how we interpret things, and even the questions we ask. I had an extended footnote at the end of the post which sought to address this, a little.

I struggle to put into simple words what I am talking about here.  It's a bit like trying to communicate to a  world in which there are only oranges, what it is like to eat an apple.  The orange eating people can only think of the apple in orange terms; everything is seen and can only be seen in terms of eating an orange because apples are simply... unknown. It is almost impossible to think of a world where apples 'rule' and oranges can only be thought of as rather deficient apple!

But when you live in another culture quite different to your own— if you let it speak on its own terms rather than insist of judging it by your own categories, (an aspect of racism, by the way,) then you become aware, or begin to suspect, that there is another reality right alongside; that there really are apples, after all!  This other culture or reality is looking at, and experiencing, the same objects in quite a different manner.

After a some time in such a situation, I began to suspect that some things I could see were invisible to the majority culture of the place— almost unable to be discerned by it, and that some other things which that culture could see were invisible to me!

So I wonder if when I am challenged by my atheist friends, and my atheist self, about the veracity of certain things described in a biblical text, whether I am applying to that text categories in which it was disinterested, and not written to answer.  And if I judge and reject the text on my categories, I suspect this cultural chauvinism means I may not be able to see the hints at the greater reality to which the text is pointing.

We know that we need to think in terms of the culture of the author. We use biblical commentaries to attempt this.  But I note that then... we judge, and often reject the culture. We effectively say it was an inferior way to understand the world, and that we know better! (The difficulty with this, and what gives the lie to this and shows it is a cultural chauvinism,  is that that culture worked very well as a way to survive and flourish, and that we would not survive and flourish in that place, for despite all our vaunted knowledge, we would be the inferior ones. To make this plain, look at the Pitjantjatjara lands: we westerners see desert. We would starve; we do. We die of thirst. The Pitjantjatjara stories of the 'superior' white 'explorers' laugh at their inability to survive without the help of Pitjantjatjara people. As my friend Lucy says of growing up as a little girl, "There was food everywhere. Lots of food."

If, claiming to scientific and objective, we force our categories upon a text, we are being anything but scientific and objective. We are being superstitious and thinking magically so that our worldview can remain unchallenged.

It is almost impossible to describe or give an example of two independent (or even overlapping) paradigms or worldviews because, almost by definition, our worldviews tend to shut us out of other world views. But I have a thought experiment which may help us see how two worldviews come together in the presence of God.

To the east of Pukajta-Ernabella, there is a steep and high ridge. We will climb this ridge, although already, the Pitjantjatjara people with whom I lived would wonder why anyone would do such a thing. Imagine that this ridge is all you know of the world.

I can tell you that this afternoon, on the west side, it is stifling hot. It is dry. There is a town and a creek valley far below; you can see the influence of people. You can see roads. If you pause to rest, you will see ridge upon ridge disappearing into the haze.

But if your existence is on the east side of the ridge, there is endless plain, with the odd low hill. There is no sign of people. Much of your climb is in shade. The wind is endless, and often cold. And constantly, you will see the eagles floating upon the wind and rising on the thermals out over the plains in a constant circle around the great curve of the ridge.

On the west side, the eagles are rarely visible except for an occasional glimpse as you near the top. There is no hint that the ridge runs in a curve!

And at the top I lie on my back among the tussocks; perhaps you, coming up from the east side, lie next to me. When I did this once, a Wedge Tailed Eagle paused above me in its slide on the wind, barely ten feet above me, the air chopping over its wings like a chattering fan. Wingspan of seven feet. And the bright, intelligent eye looked into mine— I knew fear. I was in the presence of an intelligence quite different to my own. I was out-of-place, utterly vulnerable. Here was a reality quite unlike that which I knew, even if it was floating in the same physical world.

This is could a picture of God; people from two cultures, people who know only one side of the hill, hot and still, or cold and windy, meet something which transcends them all. And even at that moment of atavistic fear and revelation, they are not seeing quite the same thing. They cannot. But they can speak of wonder, of transcendence, even— if we move back in the direction of the biblical text— of love and compassion, even though the Jesus they see is, and never can be, quite the same Jesus as the Jesus I see. We can look together at what this experience does to us, how it heals us, how we become more human, how we learn to respect and appreciate and value each other.  There is something here far richer than the categories of western scientism, richer even than the truly scientific mind, which recognises it is not competent to fully understand what has passed over it and rejoices with poetry.

What counts here, if we must make judgements, is how much looking into the eagle's eye has changed us. How much more do we love all people just the same. It is in these actions that we begin to be able to read across the edges of our cultural fences. Or is it in these actions that we begin to be changed beyond our culture and led into Kingdom

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