Planck’s thinking was foundational to the physics of our age and bequeathed to us two previously unthinkable ideas. The first is that science continually breaks its own rules: that the behaviour of the universe is, at heart, distinctly odd. The second is that it is possible for two statements that appear to be mutually exclusive to both be true. Physicist Fritjof Capra describes the early years of the quantum age, as researchers worked together to unlock the ‘strange and unexpected reality of the sub-atomic world ’.
‘Every time the physicists asked nature a question in an atomic experiment ’, he writes, ‘nature answered with a paradox, and the more they tried to clarify the situation, the sharper the paradoxes became.’ Particles can be both present and absent, switches can be both on and off. The previous generation’s desire to explain the universe in terms of either / or categories has slowly been unravelled, and scientists are once more dealing in mystery. If there is one idea that sums up the Quantum Age it is that it is the age of paradox.
A paradox is defined as ‘that which is apparently absurd, but is or maybe really true: a self-contradictory statement ’. It was only by embracing paradox that physicists were able to unlock sub-atomic secrets: and as a result take huge steps forward in science and technology. And what is true in creation is also true in culture.
There is strong evidence that the emerging cultures of the 21st Century can only be deeply understood to the extent that we embrace paradox: allowing opposite ideas to sit side by side, without cancelling each other out. In key areas in which we have looked for ‘either /or ’ polarities, we are being challenged to embrace ‘both /and ’ potential.
My hunch is that there are three core areas of church life in which this need to embrace paradox will prove crucial to our place in the emerging culture.
- The need to live faster lives and at the same time live slower lives.
- The need for strong individual leadership at the same time as unprecedented levels of collaboration.
- The need to be more focussed than ever on the future, and more focussed than ever on the past.
In each of these pairs, there is the temptation to lurch towards one extreme or the other or, worse still, to look for balance by opting for a mid-point. The vital balance we need, by contrast, will come by pursuing both extremes at once. The age of paradox is an age in which energy is derived from dynamic tension.
A recent press ad for fidelity.com –an internet-based financial services group - captures the acceleration of contemporary culture. “On-line trading is like the old west ”, the ad runs, “the slow die first.” On every front we are being presented with the need for speed. Cultural change calls for us to learn fast, to think fast, to change fast and to live fast. IBM are investing millions in the development of ‘Blue Gene ’, a computer based on one million processors that will be 500 times faster than today’s fastest super-computer. Similar funds are being poured into speeding up the Internet and to increasing the availability of broadband access. The workplace is increasingly an arena in which speed is everything. Organisations whose decision-making pace was forged in an earlier age are finding themselves left behind.
But at the same time, there has never been such a demand for slower lives. Times of retreat, techniques of meditation and approaches to prayer that focus on stillness and silence have never been more popular. ‘Spiritual Classics’ are enjoying a reprint bonanza,and those offering their services as Spiritual Directors are in widespread demand. Which trend should the church follow? Should we embrace acceleration and become a ‘fast ’organisation, keeping up with the latest developments and speeding-up our learning and decision-making capacities? Or should we identify ourselves as a ‘slow organisation’, and offer the pools of stillness and rest the accelerated so desperately need?
The answer cannot be ‘either/or’. It must be both/and.
‘In the quantum world change is the norm of the universe. No constants exist. A radical unpredictability underlies all experience and a profound irrationality lies at the heart of experience.’ William J. Easum – ‘Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers’
A similar tension exists in the arena of leadership. Management veteran Walter Bennis has observed in ‘Organising Genius’ that the greatest breakthroughs in science, technology,commerce and the arts do not come from great people but from ‘great groups’. ‘None of us is a smart as all of us’, he writes. His voice is one of many calling for collaborative leadership, for leaders who release, equip, empower and serve those they lead. In the Church, there is an overwhelming call for lay mobilisation on a massive scale. And yet there is, at the same time, a call for key leaders. The heroic leader may well be an icon of a dying age: but all great groups, Bennis claims ‘have extraordinary leaders, and, as a corollary,they tend to lose their way when they lose their leadership, just as Disney did after Walt’s death in 1966.’ The future will not be born in us through our ‘continuing obsession with solitary genius’, but neither will it come through the complete subjugation of individual spark. Leadership cannot be understood as either individual or collaborative:it must be developed as both /and.
A third area in which an either/or polarity of the 20th Century is being challenged by the 21st is in our grasp of time. Much of the last century was forged through a dismissal of the past and a focus on the emerging future. ‘Modernisation ’was seen primarily as a rejection of ‘old ’ideas in favour of ‘new thinking’. It seemed that the only way to embrace the future was to face it square on,effectively turning away from the past.
The growth in the UK of the ‘new churches’, born out of the rejection of ‘old ’models of Christianity, carried with it much of this sense of future-focus.
But as the 21st Century has dawned, something strange has happened both in the church and in the wider culture. Those who are at the very forefront of change,who are looking hardest to see ‘new ’models for the ‘emerging future’ are finding themselves looking to the past.The Classical era,the Celtic age, the great periods of the Desert Fathers and of Monastic Christianity, the Pietists and Puritans: all these riches have been plundered in the search for the new. Ironically,it has become clear that to see the future we must examine the past – in the words of author Michael Crichton,that ‘the future is the past’.
Wheaton scholar Robert Webber, in Ancient-Future Faith, explains that “Our calling is not to reinvent the Christian faith but, in keeping with the past, to carry forward what the church has affirmed from its beginning.We change, therefore,as one of my friends says, “not to be different, but to remain the same.”
In each of these three areas we are being challenged to take what was once an ‘either/or’ decision and to replace it with a ‘both/and’ paradox.. A remarkable picture of how such ‘dual living ’might be possible has emerged recently from the ‘great group’ that surrounds the ‘great leader’ James Dyson. Having revolutionised the market for vacuum cleaners Dyson’s team has now shifted their attention to laundry. The resulting washing machines are stylish, efficient and economic, and built on a revolutionary principle. Instead of using one spinning drum, they use two. Mounted one inside the other, the drums rotate in opposite directions at the same time, creating a motion within the water as close as you can get to hand washing. This is a remarkable image of paradox at work. What might it take for the “spin ”of our lives to get faster and get slower at the same time? How can we grow both great leaders and great groups? How might it be possible to look both to the past and to the future? Whatever it takes, this is the kind of paradoxical, revolutionary thinking that we need.