Paradox and Mystery

One of the great disservices modernity has inflicted on our faith is the pressure to resolve all mysteries or dynamic tensions within our understandings of God. This attempt to define God has led to conflicts and controversies over ultimately non-provable speculations that can lead to false senses of certainty about faith. While we must be leery of the “pat” answers that seek to do away with questioning we must also be equally wary of the fatalism that comes from saying that there are no answers. Anthony Padovano speaks of the Western concerns with mystery as: “This approach makes no sense in a scientific age. An acceptance of mystery is so ambiguous and perilous that it opens the way to confusion and manipulation.”[1] Throughout my reflection I hope to convey a sense of the need for paradox and mystery as they relate to faith and a conviction of the need for humility in the study, contemplation and expression of our finite understandings of the infinite God.

Paradox is an attempt to verbally express the mysteries that exist in God. Roger Hazelton clarifies this point by giving the definition: “A paradox is a statement which asserts the truth of two contradictory but necessary propositions having equal rational force. Paradox means self-contradiction; it recognizes at the level of speech the necessity, as Kierkegaard put it, of thinking something that thought cannot think.”[2] It is important for us to recognize that by using paradox we are making an implicit admission of our inability to fully grasp what we are attempting to express. It is then crucial to employ humility as the key virtue in discussing anything that is seen through the dark glass of human intellect, especially as our thoughts turn to God.

Let us now turn to mystery. The simple definition of mystery is that which is unknown. In Christian circles, especially as it refers to God, the word “mystery” implies a bit more than that. Padovano makes the point that “we live our lives combining infinite longings with finite capabilities. We reach out to the infinite but without ever catching up with it. The actual range of human knowledge never exhausts the full spectrum of our possibilities.”[3]

Mystery as it relates to the things of God in the Christian realms is our contemplation of the infinite using our finite minds and languages. Mystery can only be expressed in ambiguous terms because of our lack of knowledge about the extent of our lack of knowledge. In an attempt to express these mysteries we turn to the devices of metaphor and paradox so that we can communicate with each other about the God we love.

Paradox then becomes the tool we use to express the mysteries of God as we experience their presence in our lives. As a tool it is important for us not only to see paradox’s usefulness, but also its limitations. Hazelton cautions us that “A paradox is a statement, not a situation. Situations may indeed be paradoxical, but we can know this only when some attempt at considered statement has been made.”[4] We must be careful then to not confuse our statements about apparent paradoxes in our perception and understanding of God with the reality of God. The gap between the limits of our perception and expression and the reality of God then leads us to attempt to resolve the paradox instead of fully exploring all aspects of the paradox. With humility we must instead admit to the need and place for faith. At some level we have to trust the God we serve or else give up on the religious journey entirely.

Divine mystery is then a tool that God uses to exercise our faith. In Hebrews faith is defined as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1b NRSV) The exercise of this faith then consists of being certain of our uncertainty. I am not saying that “everything is up for grabs” just that we must be very cautious in our theological expressions to start from a place of understanding our limitations. In Romans, Paul also reminds us of the uncertain character of hope and the need for faith “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:24-25 NRSV) It is along this unseen path then that an orthodox faith lies. Kenneth Arnold explains that “a primary characteristic of orthodoxy is a capacity for paradox. Heresies tend to round off the edges and eliminate what does not fit. Faith that demands certainty is probably no longer faith but some form of science.”[5] This statement brings us to the core of our discomfort with paradox: we as a race don’t like the loss of control implied by a lack of knowledge.

One of the ways God is growing me is in my ability to accept that I do not have the capacity for full knowledge. When I was younger, I thought I knew a lot more than I did. As I gained experience in the real world I made the common mistakes that lead us to a greater understanding of our limitations. If I am to be honest in my self-examination, my discomfort with paradox stemmed from my fear of not controlling my life. That fear led to distrust paradoxical statements because they highlighted how outside of my control God is. My reflections on paradox and the mysteries of God over the years has humbled me and led me to a place in which my faith relies less and less on my understanding of God. Every answer that I found only served to raise more questions. I have finally come to the place at which I realize that the easy answers that I am looking for don’t exist, and that for me to grow in my faith I don’t need better answers, I need better questions.


[1] Anthony T. Padovano, “God and the Experience of Mystery,” Dialogue & Alliance 6, no. 1 (March 1992): 24.

[2] Roger Hazelton, “The Nature of Christian Paradox,” Theology Today 6, no. 3 (October 1949): 325.

[3] Anthony T. Padovano, “God and the Experience of Mystery,” Dialogue & Alliance 6, no. 1 (March 1992): 24.

[4] Roger Hazelton, “The Nature of Christian Paradox,” Theology Today 6, no. 3 (October 1949): 325.

[5] Kenneth Arnold, “Living With Paradox,” Cross Currents 50, no. 1-2 (March 2000): 3.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Arnold, Kenneth. “Living With Paradox.” Cross Currents 50, no. 1-2 (March 2000): 3-6.

Padovano, Anthony T. “God and the Experience of Mystery.” Dialogue & Alliance 6, no. 1 (March 1992): 19-29.

Hazelton, Roger. “The Nature of Christian Paradox.” Theology Today 6, no. 3 (October 1949): 324-335.

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3 responses to “Paradox and Mystery

  1. This reads very scholarly, but your meaning comes through.
    Orthodox Christianity and the authentic Quaker spirit are indeed very close.

    Peter the Great, when staying in England to learn the trades so he could take them home and teach others in Russia, worshipped not with his royal patrons in the Anglican chapel, but with the Quakers.
    Why? Because he said that the silence of the Friends was more akin to his Orthodox faith than the services of the Church of England.
    Having experienced both, I would agree.

    http://cost-of-discipleship.blogspot.com/2008/11/paradoxy.html

    • Well I just wrote it for a seminary class, so it had to be scholarly. I try to balance scholarly talk talk with plain speech with varying degrees of success. I find that apart from ritual/structural differences Quaker theology is very similar to Orthodox theology. Especially when it comes to community life reflecting the life of the community of the Trinity and in affirming Irenaeus’ doctrine of recapitulation.

  2. Ameyn! Yes, the life of the Holy Triad, that is what the Koinonia is, God’s presence on earth. I know this stuff not so much from reading theology, but from trying to live it. Thanks for responding to my comment.

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