Ah, paradigms. Can’t live within ’em. Can’t live without ’em.
Or, more exactly, we can and must live within them. We couldn’t begin to think about scientific or other questions without the framework of our intellectual paradigms to sustain us; it’d be like trying to get our footing in quicksand. But they do tend to restrict our vision.
I blogged about this several weeks ago, in connection with why most scientists are not disposed to regard quantum physics as proving the truth of reincarnation. Now’s the time to tell my favorite paradigm story: how I found myself looking from the inside and the outside at almost the same time. And learned what happens when the eyes glaze over.
It was the summer of 1989. My wife and I were in Jerusalem. She was taking a course on the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum. I was beginning my research on a 17th-century messianic movement that had always fascinated me because of its sheer mind-expanding weirdness. (It still does; I expect to blog about it in the future. In the meantime, Google sabbatai zevi for details.)
One evening she brought me along to a social gathering for her class. It was in the apartment of one of the instructors; the idea was to give people a chance to get to know each other outside the classroom setting. But of course the talk, over coffee and cookies, turned to the Holocaust. How could it not? Once you enter the gravitational field of that monstrous dark hole in the human experience, it sucks you in.
The question was raised, for the thousandth or ten thousandth or millionth time: how could it have happened?
A Scottish nurse who was part of the class, her background and faith evangelical, spoke up. For her, the Holocaust was no mystery at all. The Jews are God’s ancient covenant people; therefore Satan hates them with implacable hatred. The horrors of Auschwitz and Treblinka and Maidanek, documented in photo and testimony, are the (super)natural, literally demonic consequence. She expounded this point with some fervor.
Eyes glazed over.
Everyone was polite. The woman’s warm heart and passionate good will were evident to all; it was impossible not to like her. But for a group largely Jewish, overwhelmingly secularist, there was just no way to respond. What was self-evident to the Scottish nurse, was completely off everyone else’s radar screens.
By “secularist,” I don’t necessarily mean atheist. Many in the group surely believed in God. But, like all secular Westerners, we took for granted that historical phenomena, however monstrous, are to be explained by human factors. Direct supernatural interventions, of God or the Devil, are not part of the equation.
I suppose we could have thrashed the issue out with her. But that would have taken up the entire evening. And besides—what if she put up a really strong argument? Was our refusal to reckon with the supernatural as solidly grounded as we all assumed? Maybe, truth be told, we were a little bit scared to take a peek outside the paradigm.
Polite smiles, changing the subject, were the safer way to go.
It was a few days after this (or maybe before) when I got a chance to look at the glazed-over eyes from the opposite perspective.
I was having lunch in the Hebrew University cafeteria with an old acquaintance, a distinguished Israeli Biblical scholar, now deceased. We asked each other the usual academicians’ questions. What are you working on? And what are you working on?
I told him. The messianic movement, of course. But also a monograph in progress, which came out four years later under the title Seeking Ezekiel: Text and Psychology (Penn State Press, 1993). In which I took up the case of the strangest, most baffling of the Biblical prophets, and used the tools of (mostly Freudian) psychology to unlock the secrets of Ezekiel’s heart.
The man’s eyes glazed over.
Because what I was doing was very much outside the box for a Bible scholar. First, because Ezekiel wasn’t a modern man, much less one of the troubled Viennese bourgeoisie who gave young Dr. Freud his start in the world. Second, because we know Ezekiel only from one 48-chapter-long book in the Bible, which underwent heaven knows what changes between Ezekiel’s pen (or mouth) and our hands. Third, because a heart that’s stopped beating more than 2500 years ago is too remote for examination, farther from us and our tools than the most distant galaxy.
And fourth, because somebody already tried to do something akin to what I was doing—one Edwin C. Broome, who in 1946 published a Freud-oriented article entitled “Ezekiel’s Abnormal Personality” in the Journal of Biblical Literature. He was thoroughly hooted down for it.
It was just my bad luck that I’d read Broome’s article, expecting to join the smug laughter, and came away feeling: the guy is right! And that there was evidence to build a better case for Broome’s insights than he himself had. And that justice to a much-mocked scholar, not to mention historical truth about an important and influential ancient thinker, demanded that I go ahead and do it.
But in Bible studies, we just don’t do that kind of thing. It’s not in our picture. Not in our paradigm.
So my friend’s eyes glazed over. We’d known and respected each other for fifteen years, so he didn’t dismiss me as a crackpot—any more than the Yad Vashem class dismissed our warm-hearted, deeply sincere Scottish friend. But he didn’t ask me what my arguments were, or exactly what it was I was arguing for. Very quickly we found other subjects to talk about. Where we had the comfort of a shared paradigm to walk within.
It didn’t feel good. I don’t imagine it felt good for that nurse, coming home from the gathering. “Why can’t they see?” I imagine her telling her husband, or her closest friend. “It’s all so very plain! Why can’t those intelligent people see it?”
But when has it ever been as easy to see the beam in our own eyes, as the speck in somebody else’s?