The Paradox of Humility

See the notes that inspired this sermon below the You Tube video. This is my final sermon at Clackamas Park Friends Church. See previous post for text of resignation.

Today we look at two difficult concepts that are necessary for holding to the Christian faith: humility, which is difficult because we are trained in pride from the cradle, and paradox which is difficult because it is an expression of an unresolvable tension. 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. The 20th century theologian Roger Hazelton defines paradox as “A statement which asserts the truth of two contradictory but necessary propositions having equal rational force.”[i]. Some of the most commonly argued paradoxes in our faith are the divinity and humanity of Jesus, the sovereignty of God and human free-will, and of course the paradox of being saved and yet still a sinner. In order to be faithful, we must allow these paradoxes to stand and live in the tension, knowing that we will not see their resolution this side of heaven. Today’s scripture is filled with paradoxes, and the key ingredient to accepting paradox, humility.

43 After the two days he left for Galilee. 44 (Now Jesus himself had pointed out that a prophet has no honor in his own country.) 45 When he arrived in Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him. They had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, for they also had been there. 46 Once more he visited Cana in Galilee, where he had turned the water into wine. And there was a certain royal official whose son lay sick at Capernaum. 47 When this man heard that Jesus had arrived in Galilee from Judea, he went to him and begged him to come and heal his son, who was close to death. 48 “Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” 49 The royal official said, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 “Go,” Jesus replied, “your son will live.” The man took Jesus at his word and departed. 51 While he was still on the way, his servants met him with the news that his boy was living. 52 When he inquired as to the time when his son got better, they said to him, “Yesterday, at one in the afternoon, the fever left him.” 53 Then the father realized that this was the exact time at which Jesus had said to him, “Your son will live.” So he and his whole household believed. 54 This was the second sign Jesus performed after coming from Judea to Galilee. John 4:43-54

  • Paradox 1 – Prophet has no honor among their own. The Galileans welcomed him.
  • They saw the honor given elsewhere then believed. When we are seen outside the familiar context.
  • Background on Capernaum and the change from subsistence fishing to export overfishing.
  • Paradox 2 – The begging official.
  • Paradox 3 – Justice and mercy
  • The power and necessity of dynamic tensions in faith.
  • Paradoxes can only be held in humility. They are an acknowledgement of our finite nature.

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.”[ii] 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.”[iii] 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 a distrust of 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 and more and more on my relationship with God. Every answer that I found about the things of God 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 the humility to seek out better questions.

As we enter into Open worship let us take this first five minutes to bask in the presence of the God who is beyond us, allow yourself to experience the reverential awe that comes from being in relationship with the infinite God. After 5 minutes someone will stand with the mike and if your communion with God and the rest of us here demands it, rise and speak and the microphone will be brought to you.

 

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

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

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

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