Ideas / Life / Thinking / April 23, 2013

Paradigms, Mantras and Settling for Less

We love to simplify complex ideas, to make big thing small and sum things up as neatly as possible. It is the easiest way to keep thoughts organized and make sense out of the complicated. We try to take entire

ideologies or theologies and sum them up in tight pradigmic phrases. We especially do this with quotes pulled from deep thinkers. Rather than absorb the entirety of their arguments we lift the one or two phrases that seem to sum up the ideas nicely and just run with those.

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Martin Luther King Jr. – “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

C.S. Lewis – All sin stems from Pride.

Mother Teresa – “If you love until it hurts there can be no more hurt, only more love.”

Tim Keller – “All sin is idolatry.”

Gandhi – “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

John Piper – “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

Winston Churchill – “You have enemies? Good; that means you’ve stood up for something in your life.”

William Shakespeare – “Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”

Truth is easily apparent in each of these quotes or ideas. So the problem isn’t finding the wrong paradigms, it is settling for too few and doing so too readily. When we adopt a single paradigm, or maybe two, as our inspiration and guidance they easily become mantras – phrases repeated endlessly with little thought in the hopes it will transform. Mantras are meaningless. Christians can even do this with “life verses.” Jeremiah 29:11 becomes the quick fix for all problems and Romans 8:28 is the comfort for all troubles.

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Three main problems present themselves when we settle for such simplistic, mantra like wisdom. First, is that we are settling for synthesized and compacted thought. The strength of these singular thoughts comes from a massive scaffold of other thoughts on which they are built. If all we take is the single mantra we know little of the true power of the thought. The second problem is more one of human nature: anything repeated often enough, no matter how brilliant, becomes rote and fades into the background. In order for truth to maintain its radiance in our eyes it must remain varied and rotated. Truths repeated endlessly become tired (though not less true). The third problem is also a function of humanity – that of human error. No one mantra sums all of life or truth perfectly. No one piece of wisdom answers all the questions or is clearly applied in every situation. So to claim one or two or three bits of wisdom as  what you “base your life on” is to leave yourself with a largely empty tool box while face the complex project of life.
There is no simple way to find and learn wisdom for life. The function of simplicity is to create easier opportunities to begin discovering, but not to be the end of discovering. Even biblical truths cannot be isolated and claimed apart from the full canon. Our response to brilliant bites of wisdom should not be to treat them like the samples at Costco but rather as an appetizer for the seven course meal. Each bite should titillate the senses and create wonder as to what more there might be. 


Apr 28, 2013

Good thoughts Mr. Barnabas. I’ve developed an interest lately in looking at the context of the ‘Sunday School verses’ many of us learned growing up. Ephesians 2:8-9 is a great example. We love those verses because of the simplicity of them in showing us what salvation is. But :10 is the reason then that we are saved, for good works. I’ve often thought that might be the verse the Holy Spirit wanted us to remember.

Nov 12, 2014

Thanks Barnabas!

Great thoughts on the subject. Your post made me think of past days in the corporate world, being locked in a room with all the other managers, and having to hammer out a mission statement. One phrase rarely captures the entire essence of what a company is doing.

The same holds true in our lives. One life verse, or one main focus for the whole of our life tends to limit what God really has in store for us. When I was younger, I was discipled by a pastor at our church. I remember one day telling him that I wanted to become an expert at eschatology, a subject that fascinated me at the time. He warned me of how this type of thinking was very limiting. Instead, he challenged me to study the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). That was the best advice I ever received, and I’ve tried to heed it ever since.

I’m all for simplifying things down to their main essences. I even do this with biblical themes, but as you pointed out, “Even biblical truths cannot be isolated and claimed apart from the full canon.” So for me, the best way to stop and focus on a “tree” is to first see the “forest” in which it is found.

Anyway, keep up the good work. I’m really enjoying your posts!

Take care and God bless,

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