Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) popularized the concept of “a paradigm shift” in the realm of scientific thought. While many of us may not be familiar with Kuhn or his book, we have likely experienced the duck/rabbit optical illusion used by Kuhn to demonstrate the way in which a paradigm shift could cause one to see the same information in an entirely different way. Kuhn described a paradigm shift as that which opens up new approaches to understanding that would never have been considered valid before.
The word “epiphany” offers another way to speak about paradigm shifts. To have an epiphany is to have the proverbial light bulb go off in one’s head, as a new idea changes the way in which one sees or understands information. The lights are “switched on” when understanding comes. The English word epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning “manifestation or appearance.” An epiphany is that “a-ha” moment that comes as a result of new vision—of blindness being turned to sight. It is, to borrow from Kuhn’s description, an experience of a paradigmatic shift in view. An epiphany thus reorients, reorders, or transforms our view from one way of looking at the world to another.
In the Christian tradition, the season of Epiphany is a season for new sight, new vision, and paradigm shifts. The season commemorates the arrival of the foreign magi at the birthplace of Jesus. Magi (not three kings of the orient as sung in the famous hymn) were a caste of wise men specializing in astrology, medicine, and natural science.(1) As the gospel of Matthew records it, these wise men “saw his star in the east” and recognized that this young child was worthy of worship as King (Matthew 2:2).
During Epiphany, Christians are asked to pay special attention to the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus for the ways in which he is revealed to be the Messiah. All who seek the truth are asked to re-consider Jesus during this season, to have eyes opened and paradigms shifted. The author of the letter to the Hebrews invites all who would look at Jesus to see in him the very epiphany of God. “[I]n these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds” (Hebrews 1:1-3). Everyone who looks at his life has the opportunity to experience epiphany, and to have vision altered as time is spent looking at his life and listening to Jesus through his teachings.
But paradigm shifts are never easy. The biblical image invoked again and again for this process is that of moving from blindness to sight. One very ironic example is recorded for in the Gospel of John. It is the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. Using the ordinary elements of clay and his own saliva, Jesus applies the necessary ingredients to literal eyes in order to create the opportunity for spiritual sight. After the man washes the healing balm off of his eyes in the pool of Siloam, his healer is nowhere to be found. The religious leaders are incensed that healing has occurred in such an ordinary way by an ordinary man.
“How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?”
The once blind man answered, “Whether or not he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.”
Thinking they see the situation quite clearly, the religious leaders put the formerly blind man out of the temple, cutting him off from their community, and taking away the opportunity to make sacrifice to God. Hearing this, Jesus comes to confront these leaders who claim superior knowledge and insight. “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind… If you were blind, you would have no sin; but since you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”(2)
John’s Gospel and the Season of Epiphany present a challenging opportunity for a paradigm shift. The Christian story proposes that it is in the humble acknowledgement of blindness that we come to see anything with clarity or insight. Ironically epiphany does not come in assuming that we know all the answers or in clever arguments or assumptions. Jesus turns all of these paradigms upside down in this story. Today, might the realization of our blindness be the paradigm shift that opens our eyes.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Reference note from the New American Standard Bible.
(2) cf. John 9:39-41.