Paul and the Physics Professors

Friday, May 9, 2014 – 3 Easter, Year Two

[Go to Mission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office:

Psalms 105:1-22 (morning) // 105:23-45 (evening)

Exodus 24:1-18

Colossians 2:8-23

Matthew 4:12-17

When I was in graduate school, I took a course in teaching methods that started off with a rather disturbing chapter. Our reading assignment came from a book called “What the Best College Teachers Do,” by Ken Bain. The book described an experiment by two physicists who wanted to test whether their physics course had any impact on the way that students thought about the laws of motion.

At this point, the details of the experiment go right over my head, but here’s the important point: Apparently, there’s a big difference between the ways that Aristotle, Sir Isaac Newton, and Richard Feynman understood the laws of motion. Most of us non-physicists walk around with an intuitive mental framework that resembles Aristotelian thinking. And, as a matter of fact, even many well-trained physics students still see the world in the same way that untrained folks do. Even students who get A’s in the class don’t ultimately change their understanding of the basic way that the world around them works.

As the book says, the A students “had memorized formulae and learned to plug the right numbers into them, but they did not change their basic conceptions. Instead, they had interpreted everything they heard about motion in terms of the intuitive framework they had brought with them to the course.”

What troubling news for teachers everywhere! It is very, very hard to shift paradigms, to undo conceptual frameworks, to change the fundamentals of how we see the universe. We can learn how to follow new rules and formulae, but we don’t necessarily change our hearts or minds.

From today’s second reading, I imagine that Paul shared the profound frustration of the physics professors. The entrance of Christ into this world, his death on a cross, and his transformed presence with us should have entirely upended and revolutionized the ways that people pursued holiness and communion with God. And yet, many faithful people continued to conform their lives to the old patterns of legalistic obedience and maintaining strict boundaries.

Paul tries to reason with them: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations . . . are simply human commands and teachings.” He goes on to point out that regulations may be effective at making someone appear pious, humble, and disciplined, but they do nothing to truly transform our lives or to help us transcend our self-oriented ways.

It is extremely difficult for us to change our intuitive framework of what religiosity and morality consist of. Our first reading contains a few elements of the intuitive framework that many of us may hold: God as the lawgiver who demands obedience, and people who can only “worship at a distance” because of their unworthiness. Perhaps we can hear the last words of our gospel reading today as a call to change whatever paradigm we’re operating with: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Changing the way that we see the universe and the God who transcends its limitations is very challenging work for the soul. It requires the grace that can change us from within, and the wisdom of a range of teachers. According to Paul, the death and resurrection of Christ “eras[ed] the record that stood against us with its legal demands,” and “disarmed the rulers and authorities.” The whole order of the universe has changed. It may take a while for our paradigm to shift accordingly, but perhaps we can begin today.

Lora Walsh blogs about taking risks and seeking grace at A Daily Scandal. She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

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