The Top 10 Paradoxes That Will Rule the Future by Len Sweet

[This article first appeared in January 2008. You can browse the other articles in that issue by clicking here: ] On 28 February 2008, the “secret of life” turns 55. (1) On that day in 1953 Francis Crick walked into the Eagle Pub (Cambridge, UK) and announced to its...

[This article first appeared in January 2008. You can browse the other articles in that issue by clicking here: ]

On 28 February 2008, the “secret of life” turns 55. (1)

On that day in 1953 Francis Crick walked into the Eagle Pub (Cambridge, UK) and announced to its patrons: “We have found the secret of life.”

The “we” referenced Crick’s collaborator and fellow Nobel laureate James D. Watson. “When we saw the answer we had to pinch ourselves,” Watson told the BBC in a 50th anniversary interview. “Could it really be this pretty? When we went to lunch [at the Eagle] we realised it probably was true because it was so pretty.”

So what is the “secret of life” that is so “pretty” it had to be “true”?

The “secret of life” was a shape, a structure, a design. The “secret” was not the discovery of DNA molecules, or the theory of “heredity” (like organisms produce like from generation to generation). The “secret of life” was the discovery that the chemical molecules comprising DNA have a double-helix structure.

The secret of life is “double,” two strands that run in opposite directions creating a reproductive slingshot. And the secret of life brings together another double—the linear (line) and non-linear (curve) which together form a spiral which in anti-parallel fashion winds around a single axis.

In other words, the “secret of life” is a paradox. Or you might even say it is doubly paradoxical: a double double built around a single.

The paradoxical nature of physical reality manifests itself at every dimension of existence, whether microcosm or macrocosm. Take wave-particle duality. Or observe a vacuum at zero degrees Kelvin: the closest we can get to nothingness proves to be a buzzing beehive of subatomic activity. It seems that where nothing happens is precisely where everything is happening.

The Double Helix as the “secret of life” applies as much to our spiritual life as to our physical life. In fact, in book after book I have argued that the essence of orthodoxy is paradoxy, and that every Christian must learn how to put on the spectacles of paradox and become a paradoxalist.

I call discipleship the cruciform life, as the cross is the ultimate symbol of paradoxy (or what Dwight Friesen calls more memorably “orthoparadoxy”). The cross brings into relationship opposites, not so much as a dialectic to be synthesized but more as a non-dualistic double helix to be embraced. In Christ all opposites are not so much reconciled as transcended in the Oneness of Twoness. We are born for ontological tension: in-but-not-of the world.

The first arm of the cross is the vertical, our relationship with God. The second arm of the cross is the horizontal, our relationship with others, ourselves, and creation. If you just pick up one arm of the cross, it becomes a stick most often used to beat other people with. If we are, in William Blake’s lines, “put on earth that we may learn to bear the beams of love,” we must pick up and carry a cross with both arms crossed. Heresy is the cross uncrossed.

I begin with this reminder of the secret of the spiritual life because we are on a crash course with the future, and to live in the 21st century you have to come to terms with paradox, whether you’re a disciple of Jesus or not. Call it the shift from a “Bell Curve” World to a “Well Curve” World as Daniel Pink does. (2) Or call it The Age of Turbulence (2007) as Alan Greenspan has done, where the problems we face are of such a magnitude of complexity that there is no single answer to anything anymore. Or call it deep cultural schizophrenia, where Princess Diana could spend 3000 pounds a week on her grooming so she could go out and hug lepers and caress AIDS victims, or where every cow in the European Union is subsidized to the tune of $2.50 a day while a billion people around the world struggle to live on $1 a day. Whatever you call it, the future turns everything it touches into something else, most often it’s very opposite, the two coexisting as symbiotic not dichotomous realities.

Plato said that philosophy, in his words, “is not so much a matter of acquiring beliefs as of turning the soul away from fantasy and towards reality.” In theory, Christians ought to be most prepared for the paradoxical realities of the future for two reasons. First, the future is our native time zone. Jesus comes to us from beyond and pulls us from the future more than pushes us from the past. The Holy Spirit encourages time travel, most often to the future. Close your eyes and travel in time: where do you go? The default time-zone of the Christian is what is ahead, not what is behind.

The second reason why Christians should be most prepared for a future where opposite things are happening at the same time and aren’t contradictory is because of our faith’s friendliness toward ambiguity, simultaneity, and double exposure.  That’s why Christians have such sharp noses for incongruities and ironies. For us, paradox can be paradise.

Here are the Top 10 Paradoxes that will rule our future. I offer these Top 10 Paradoxes with some caution and caveats.

*The 5 biggest stories of the last fifty years are still playing themselves out: 1) the demise of Marxism-Leninism as a potent ideology outside of China; 2) the rise of the Internet as the primary delivery system for communication and information; 3) the discrediting of Freudianism as a reliable guide to human choices; 4) the slow death of postmodernism; 5) the resurgence of political Islam or what is called Ïslamism. Any one of these can reassert itself at any time.

*The most predictable thing about the future is that it never conforms to our expectations. But saying this is about as adequate as saying that Hannibal Lecter has an eating disorder. The future will toss up surprises that will take our breath away. Gambling may be an abuse of prophesy, but you can safely gambol into the future with the gamble of volatility.

The stakes have never been higher in our living out “the secret of life.” In the next twenty-five years, we must attempt what has never been done before: the dramatic redesign of how we live together on this planet from the bottom up that will take Mother Earth off life-support while offering an “abundant life” for everyone.

The mastery of these Top 10 Paradoxes is a call for heroism, not to reach the moon (as in the days of JFK) but to save planet Earth.

Here are the Top 10 paradoxes that will rule our future:

1) Do little large.

2) To move up, move down.

3) Learn to fail so you can succeed.

4) Your only control is in being out of control.

5) It’s more important to know what you don’t know than what you know.

6) The more you think out-of-the-box, the more you need well-built boxes to think.

7) A graying globe requires greening.

8) Only locavores can globalize.

9) When fast replaces vast, go slowly with the holy.

10) Moore’s Law makes Murphy’s Law all the more relevant.

I will be writing about each one of these in more detail in the weeks and months to come. My challenge will be to convey the importance of each paradox in ways that will help us move forward from a Gutenberg to a Google world. I think of Gene Roddenberry, who was trying to get NBC to pick up “Star Trek” and realized that NBC executives just weren’t getting it. So in desperation Roddenberry said, call it “Wagon Train to the Stars.”

If we don’t hitch our wagon to the stars pretty quick, the skies will fall faster than you can say “Chicken Little.”


1) *In 2008 for the first time we will know whether Rosalind Franklin, the molecular biologist whose photographs of DNA are what triggered Crick and Watson’s “discovery,” was ever a nominee for the Nobel Prize during her lifetime (she died in 1958). Crick and Watson appropriated Franklin’s work in the discovery of the double helix and took her glory for themselves.

2)  For more on “The Well Curve” see Daniel H. Pink, “The Shape of Things to Come,” Wired, May 2003, 027, 030.

Currently the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew Theological School (Madison, NJ), and Visiting Distinguished Professor at George Fox  University (Portland, OR), Leonard Sweet is the author of more than one hundred articles, 600 published sermons and thirty books, most recently The Gospel According to Starbucks (2007).

Sweet’s web-based preaching resource is the first open-source preaching resource on the web. Founder and President of SpiritVenture Ministries, Sweet is a frequent speaker and conversation partner at conferences both in the US and around the globe. In both 2006 and 2007 he was voted “One of the 50 Most Influential Christians in America” ( His current projects include a preaching text entitled Giving Blood, The Leadership Myth (with Joe Myers), Pay Attention: Every Bush is Burning, and later in 2007, Outstorming The Perfect Storm. His weekly free podcast is called “Napkin Scribbles,” and a longer subscription-based weekly podcast is available from

Please, no reprints without permission of the author.

good stuff! can’t wait for more on the 10 paradoxes. what a tease …
Posted by tammy | Posted at 01/11/2008 3:49 AM

i love len
Posted by erickeck | Posted at 01/19/2008 1:19 PM

WOW! My brain hurts, but I know Len is onto something. I think some of these ten paradoxes are really needed for us to face the future with understanding. I will start with understanding that I don’t understand. Love the one that says “when vast becomes fast, go slowly with the holy.”
Posted by Jim Lee | Posted at 01/24/2008 7:26 AM

Vintage Sweet as usual. Creative brilliance that always gives a fresh perspective. I likewise look forward to hearing more on this.
Posted by Brian | Posted at 01/28/2008 10:03 AM

+ Great insight Len! I hope and pray that as christians we can get to’the real’ and I often wonder if this isn’t a gift given to some but not others? I think so. Few have the desire to ‘get to the crux of that which is genuine’ Most just try to escape pain. Anyway.I just read an interesting piece:”The Crisis Of The Real” article written by Kevin Depew on the site He cites and author Jean Baudrillard who wrote “Simulacrum and Simulation” (1981) This is an important topic. I’m an artist, not a teacher or writer, but I can tell you it’s a kind of central issue that not often discussed. Bravo!

Posted by Laszlo aka “Just A Tourist” | Posted at 01/31/2008 9:07 AM

I’m enjoying your book “Aqua Church 2.0″ While reading you paradoxes I got most of them had to look up moorse law, I don’t understand the fast vast one, when are commenting on it. Looking for it on google brought me here.
Posted by Jon | Posted at 03/27/2009 10:23 AM

Post to Twitter