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Standing on New Copernican Shoulders

Newton was a genius, but he didn’t work alone.

Sir Isaac Newton established the final synthesis of the earlier work of Copernicus. His monograph Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, published in 1687, lays the foundations for most of classical mechanics. It is said of this book, “The Principia is generally considered to be one of the most important scientific books ever written, due, independently, to the specific physical laws the work successfully described, and for the style of the work, which assisted in setting standards for scientific publication down to the present time.”

His statue, by the great French sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac, is centrally located in the Ante-Chapel of Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge University. And yet, Newton was relatively modest about his achievements, writing in a letter to Robert Hooke in February 1667, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

I want here to talk about the intellectual sources that have led to the New Copernican thesis. Most of the time on this blog, I don’t fully show my hand. Our goal is to foster a conversation particularly with those who are “spiritually frustrated and homeless.” This is not a blog for churched evangelicals. It’s for disaffected seekers. Most of my readers don’t have an active involvement with or favorable impression of the church.

Nonetheless, a central audience of my forthcoming book, The New Copernicans, is church leaders. Hence an irony touched on earlier: that the survival of the churched is dependent on them listening to the unchurched. So in talking about the sources of the book, we examine those giants who have been influential in my thinking. Excerpts of their work are shown in semi-academic videos. These videos tend to be more academic than my book, which is mostly an unapologetic exercise in synthesis and simplification. But they provide a quick deeper dive—enjoy.

This is also a bit of the back-story to the book. It just happened that the thinking of these scholars was rummaging around in my mind when an acquaintance named Charlie Brown (yes, that's his name) pulled a cognitive trigger causing an “Ah-ha connection.”

I had asked Charlie, as president of the Portland design firm Context Partners, to consider doing a survey of “Religious Nones.” Anyone interested in the American religious landscape and culture is aware of the growth and significance of the religiously unaffiliated, or “nones” as academics tend to called them. They represent about 40% of millennials.

Charlie said that most surveys on millennials were asking all the wrong questions and therefore getting distorted information. They weren’t capturing the paradigm or frame shift that they represented. Assuming the wrong frame, the findings are suspect. Surveys are dependent on the survey instruments asking the salient questions.

And then additionally, interpreters of the survey data need to interpret the data within the same frame of meaning as the survey respondents. In many cases, neither is being done. Charlie was particularly sensitive to this as he lives in Portland, Oregon, the epicenter of what I would later called the “New Copernican ethos” and has a research methodology that emphasizing listening and building community.

Initially, this was shocking to me. But having recently studied the work of Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff, I was aware of the importance of frames. A 3D reality cannot be adequately captured in a 2D frame. Or put another way, a post-Enlightenment perspective will be distorted if it is interpreted through an Enlightenment frame. In many cases, this is exactly what is happening. This is why millennials are among the most studied generational cohort and simultaneously feel the most misunderstood.

The dangers of the Enlightenment view point is a major emphasis of British neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist, whose book The Master and His Emissary was providentially dominating my thinking. McGilchrist argues that the West is distorting reality by seeing it narrowly through a left-brain perspective. Being post-Enlightenment in this sense is not simply a cultural or philosophical choice, but a corrective to healthy brain functioning. It’s about seeing more, more clearly.

Former British missionary Lesslie Newbigin highlighted this same confrontation with the Enlightenment earlier. He called the church to look at contemporary society as new mission field. Having lived for many years in India, he was particularly sensitive to the Enlightenment perspective he encountered upon returning to England. This confrontation has a missional dimension.

With this background in mind, the seminal work of Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, filtered through the lens of Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith came into focus. Evangelical pastor Tim Keller says of Taylor’s book, “Charles Taylor’s crucial book on our secular age is inaccessible for most people, including the church leaders who desperately need to learn from its insights.” Picking up on Charlie Brown and George Lakoff’s insights, I realized that what we were experiencing in millennials is the shift from Taylor’s secularism2 to secularism3. More of this is explained in the book.

In some ways, The New Copernicans, is an ethnographic case study of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. There is little that is original in the book except its synthesis of these great minds.

There is one more person whose influence perhaps made this most possible. That is Sir John Templeton. At the time, I was working as the director of cultural engagement at the John Templeton Foundation. Sir John placed a high value on something he called, “humility in theology.” By this he means that we need to be aware that we know is only a faction of all there is to know about reality, particularly spiritual reality. Thus, we must learn to approach our convictions as well as our new research with a posture of humility. His encouragement gave me the courage to examine my assumptions and explore the new frame carried by New Copernican millennials.

An early short paper on my thinking entitled, “The Rise of the New Copernicans,” captured a lot of unexpected attention. I realized three things immediately: first, I’m on to something, second, this hunch needs more research, and third, I’m not naturally one of them. Since then its been a long journey with a lot of twists and turns. Along the way I came to be fully convinced of my initial hunches. That is not to say that I’ve gotten it totally right, or seen everything clearly, or articulated it as well as it might be by others, particularly millennial explorers.

This book stands on the shoulders of giants: Charlie Brown, George Lakoff, Iain McGilchrist, Charles Taylor, James K.A. Smith, Lesslie Newbigin, and Sir John Templeton. Anyone steeped in these men’s work might very well have come to the same conclusions. If I have seen further, it is only because of the shoulders of giants on which I have stood.

Within a week the book will be released (January 15). Then the public conversation and controversy will begin in earnest. I make some fairly radical claims. Some may see me as going liberal. I’m really not. Personally I’m an old school traditionalist in the spirit of C.S. Lewis and Dallas Willard. There is nothing hip or emergent about me.

Nonetheless, it is my hope that this book will carve out new ground between Tim Keller and Rob Bell. It is my hope that it will empower emerging millennial leaders with a vocabulary by which they can further their influence in the church and culture. It is my hope that Boomer parents will come to appreciate their millennial children more and be better able to assist them on their spiritual journeys. Finally, it is my hope that it will save the church from itself, and provide a place for orthodox conviction for those who have also made peace with the question marks. I’m an optimist. For I genuinely believe that New Copernicans not only think different, but better. That is, they will uniquely help us become more like Jesus.

I'm no genius like Newton, but like him I did not work alone. These are the New Copernican shoulders.

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