A Prism Of Divided Light

Yesterday at services, the speaker gave an intriguing if somewhat brief discussion on the subject of worldview and perspective, only the speaker used the metaphor of a prism.  Parts of the message were comical, like his expectations on when he should be able to eat dinner in France, or what kind of cheese he should be able to order, and what size the sinks should be in a flat.  To be sure, there is a sort of comic expectation when someone who is clearly an American goes to a foreign country and finds that other people do not act as he is used to doing back home, and that part was done in a suitably understated fashion.  It was intriguing to see the aspect of worldview or filters or perspectives seen at as a type of prism, since there are slight differences between various metaphors that can be used for the same concept, and it is worth exploring the differences between them.

Our understanding of the term paradigm is largely due to the writings of one historian and philosopher of science named Thomas Kuhn.  This historian and philosopher of science became famous for his writings on the nature of scientific revolutions, and in particular his idea of a paradigm shift, by which one’s view of the world and of the universe as a whole changed from one conception to another which would be a more accurate understanding of the universe.  Many famous examples of this phenomenon exist, and not all paradigm shifts are for the better, although they are generally perceived that way.  A paradigm or a worldview describes the foundational assumptions and rules that govern the way we see the world around us.  They determine what patterns in the world are seen, and what is viewed as fact and what is viewed as noise.  They are generally not matters that govern short-term and evanescent fashions, but are more stable underpinnings of how we see our world and our place in the world.  Because of their foundational nature, moreover, people are very unlikely to accept change in such areas [1].

So far, so good.  There is a subtle distinction, though, that we must make between the idea of seeing paradigms and worldviews as filters and as prisms.  A filter blocks out certain frequencies or distorts them so that we see the world in a particular color.  For example, in the film Traffic, which I viewed as part of a college course on film and social issues, the various scenes of the film are seen through different filters that makes the world appear much different in certain places than it is.  The picture of the president of the United States dealing with the drug addiction of his teenager is viewed through a blue filter that looks warm and cozy, a place that feels at home.  On the other hand, the picture of the grimy Mexican wilderness where drugs are being trafficked into the United States is seen with a yellow filter that makes it look even more grungy and dusty than it really is, making it a more alien and unfriendly and hostile world.  The filters that we see the world with are pretty notable and can have serious effects on our behavior because they color the way we see the world either in unrealistically positive or negative ways.  A prism is somewhat different because it splits light into different frequencies but does not filter out any of them.  If one sees through a filter, one loses sight of some frequencies, but if one looks at light through a prism, the pieces of light that are divided can be merged back into one again with no loss.

What would make a prism useful?  Well, the speaker yesterday spent a great deal of time looking at Matthew 5 and the ethical demands of Jesus Christ at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  This passage is one of the more familiar ones of scripture [2].  In Matthew 5, Jesus looks at the application of God’s laws in a more complete way that fulfills the spirit of the law in various matters of practical conduct.  There is the issue of anger as committing murder in one’s heart, lust as committing adultery in one’s heart, marriage as being binding, truth telling requiring the avoidance of oaths, exploitative demands as being something that we should not resist, and the need to love our enemies, all of which cut strongly against the warp and woof of our corrupt human nature.  This is an example of a prism, in which the light of Gospel truth is split into different applications that nevertheless are part of the same picture.  We cannot say, for example, that we are following God’s truth simply because we have a hold on our anger if we struggle with lust and fail to love our enemies or push back against unreasonable and exploitative demands placed on us by corrupt authorities (like the government or our boss at work).  None of the different shades within a prism contradict any of the other ones; each of them is a part of a larger whole.

And it is this that allows a prism to be useful, in that it allows us to see aspects of something that may not be entirely coherent when we look at everything together.  While a filter blocks out certain frequencies of light, a prism allows us to see different frequencies in isolation.  A speaker or writer, for example, divides a message into different parts, looking first at one element, and then in another, and so on, until their whole message can be understood.  To attempt to say everything at once would be a mess, impossible to understand, and so point builds upon point, line upon line, here a little, there a little, and eventually the whole picture can be painted from different colored pigments.  It may be necessary to look at the world through a prism, so that we can divide a complicated whole into more easily comprehensible parts, before putting those parts back together after having studied and mastered them in isolation.  We learn volleyball, for example, by mastering serves, bumps, sets, and spikes, and then practicing all of the elements with teammates to turn those skills into a cohesive and well-functioning whole.  If we see our world through filters, though, some aspects of our existence and our world simply are not going to get through, and that is a much more dangerous place to be.  Whether we are looking through filters or through prisms, then, is not merely a semantic difference, but one with considerable importance to the way we see the world and the way we will respond to it.

[1] See, for example:








[2] See, for example:




About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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