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Paradox and Paradoxical Tension

Definition and Meanings

Home for the seeking spirit define Paradox and Paradoxical Tension

Click here for a look at the meaning behind theophanies, the question of why there is evil, and some words about trauma.

What Is A Paradox?


One of the hardest parts for religious folks is to understand that God is both a mystery and a paradox. Trinitarian Christians embrace this truth. God is One but three persons in a mysterious inner relationship. Christ is God, but fully human. And because the Son is human, and sent His Spirit into those who follow Him, there is something new of His holy nature brewing in each Christian. To babble for long about such things inevitably leads even the wisest of us to say something seriously wrong. So I'll stop there and move on. Others will try to speak the unspeakable, and fail, but there is still gain in their speaking.

There are paradoxes that are more speakable than that. For instance, Christians are to be holy (separate or distinct), yet be involved in the lives of others in order to love all from in the midst of all. Yet we are called to be up close in the lives of others to love them and be 'in the world' around us, open to them as people. God is powerful beyond anything we can grasp with our minds. Yet this powerful One shows up alongside the poor, the humble, the suffering. This God chooses to give mercy and forgiveness not by command but by being there, giving comfort, and leading us forward. Also, God is a constant presence in our lives. Yet, except for very rare moments, God is entirely out of sight, almost fully hidden behind nature and faces and events. Another example: there are methods to prayer, yet prayer is not at all about methods. Spirituality deeply engages the mind, with sound logic and pursuit of knowledge. Yet all of us root our spirituality in subjectives, passions, unprovables, mysteries - with paradoxes at both ends.

Paradoxical Tension

A 'paradoxical tension' is when the two contradictory truths hold each other accountable; each keeps the other true. For instance, one truth is that we are called on to excel, to do the best we can, to stretch our abilities for the good of ourselves and everyone else. If we don't, it renders us unable to be much help for anyone, no matter what is going on inside us. Yet it's also true that we are not to measure our worth or our relationship with God by what we do or how well we do it. If we value ourselves on how well we do things, we'd have reason to be ashamed or self-righteously proud. If we evaluate others that way, we pass judgement or idolize. The two paradoxes (about excellence and true worth) hold each other in balance, for an attitude that is balanced and real.

"A real Christian is an odd number. He feels supreme love for One whom he has never seen; talks familiarly every day to Someone he cannot see; expects to go to heaven on the virtue of Another; empties himself in order to be filled; admits he is wrong so he cannot be declared right; goes down in order to get up; is strongest when he is weakest, richest when he is poorest and happiest when he feels the worst. He dies so he can live; forsakes in order to have; gives away so he can keep; sees the invisible; hears the inaudible; and knows that which passes knowledge."
A. W. Tozer

"If the world is sane, then Jesus is mad as a hatter and the Last Supper is the Mad Tea Party. The world says, Mind your own business, and Jesus says, There is no such thing as your own business. The world says, Follow the wisest course and be a success, and Jesus says, Follow me and be crucified. The world says, Drive carefully - the life you save may be your own - and Jesus says, Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. The world says, Law and order, and Jesus says, Love. The world says, 'Get' and Jesus says, 'Give'. In terms of the world's sanity, Jesus is crazy as a coot, and anybody who thinks he can follow him without being a little crazy too is laboring less under a cross than under a delusion."
Frederick Buechner

"Nature trembled and said with astonishment:
What new mystery is this?
The Judge is judged and remains silent;
the Invisible One is seen and does not hide himself;
the Incomprehensible One is comprehended and does not resist;
the Unmeasured One is measured and does not struggle;
the One beyond suffering suffers and does not avenge himself;
the Immortal One dies and does not refuse death.
What new mystery is this?"
Melito of Sardis

"But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think."
Søren Kierkegaard

What Is A Tautology?

Tautological and circular thinking [ < Greek tautologos (redundant, repeated without need, done or said again and again continuously, recurring over and over) < to- + auto- + logos ('the same word').]

When philosophers and theologians get to do enough thinking or talking, they eventually run themselves in a circle. This doesn't usually mean that's the way it really is, it just means that either (a) they've tripped over a paradox; or (b) words and thoughts have just simply run their course on the matter. They've bumped their brains on the ceiling of a mystery, but don't want to admit it, so they keep talking. In those situations, it's like an animal chasing its own tail. It's an old-fashioned record getting stuck in a groove. When two different things are described as being the same, or when reason runs itself into a circle, they repeatedly fall into tautologies. Either they've 'proven' the equality of unequal things, or they're doing the philosophical equivalent of dividing by zero. One can only climb out of this rut by getting practical - when thoughts are stuck, do. (Again, this bears repeating: if your thinking is stuck, do; if your doing gets stuck, think.)

For instance, some liturgical specialists have talked so thickly about how the Spirit makes us do what we do in worship that they forget there's actual people in worship. They are a very, very small step from the circular idea of Christ the puppeteer making worshippers tell Him how great He is: God praising Godself. Or, take Meister Eckhart, the spiritual philosopher, who stated that God is enjoying the Godself in all things. A god like that is a vain, self-obsessed character, who probably thinks this song is about him. The Bible bears witness to a very different God: a suffering servant, a bestower of blessings, the Other-For-Others who sent the stern 'tough love' words of the Prophets, a God who in all things is enjoying those who are other. God does not love just whatever of God is in you. God loves whatever of you that's in you, the stuff that makes you you and not God or anyone else. You are the one who worships, you are the doer. God is loving, and often but not always 'enjoying', all things and all creatures both for what they are and for what they can become. God makes every moment, every person, but not necessarily every idea, different. Our redundant tautologies have room in real life because God left room for it.

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