Questions from Readers: Faith and Paradox
In a previous post, I spoke about linking theology to awkwardness, saying that “theology can make the world interesting by first making it awkward, breaking through the thin veneer or simplicity and inviting the reader to wade through the complexity”.
The Christian faith, defined as the entry into and journeying with the Body of Christ, does not mean having a toolbox of answers to simplify reality. Rather, it provides us with the vocabulary with which we can face up to the tensions and complexities that make up reality.
Of the three introductory posts to this blog (you can read the first two here and then here), this one seemed to generate the greatest response. Part of that response came in the form of a question left on the blog’s facebook page. The most prescient segment of the question read
I wonder if simplicity and complexity may not be a paradoxical truth, such paradoxes seeming to be characteristic of the Reality and realities explored by theology.
I want to thank the reader for this question, for he highlights paradox as not only an important element in thoelogy, (in contrast to a tendency within theology to render the complexity of the world into manageable problems). Paradox has also been part of the ancient Church’s intellectual heritage.
I highlighted this a couple of years ago in an article in The Catholic Weekly , in which I said that the focus of the ancient Church Fathers was not simplification. For the Fathers, the criterion of Christian engagement with the world was the relating of everything back to the Triune God, that is, the Godhead consisting of the Father, Son and Spirit in an ongoing relation of self-giving, and in that self-giving, generating life for the world.
It is precisely this Trinitarian anchor that allowed the Fathers to highlight many paradoxes and tensions that are also foundational truths about the God Christians worship: God is three yet one, God transcends creation and yet is in creation. Jesus, the Word of God, is the Lamb who is the “Lion of Judah” (Rev 5:5), who becomes a king who ascends his throne by becoming an executed criminal on a cross and who, in the words of a Paschal Troparion in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, “descended into the Tombs and from death gave us life”. Paradox is not antithetical to theology or the Church, but is one indispensible element. This is why then, in his crucial work on the Church entitled “The Church: from Paradox to Mystery”, the French Jesuit Henri de Lubac spoke of the Church with these words:
What a paradox indeed this Church of ours presents. How real a paradox. What a wealth of contrasting aspects her history offers, each refusing to be neatly catalogued.
The what hold this paradox together, the beating heart of this paradox, is the beating heart of Jesus Christ. I do not mean this sentimentally, but as a theological truth affirmed by the medieval Doctors of the Church like Bonaventure. For the Fathers, Christ holds the paradoxes of the world together because he is what is known as "the coincidence of opposites”.
It is getting late in the day, and a beef and black bean stir fry calls (surprise! I’m actually Asian!). For now, however, I hope I have adequately responded to the reader’s question. Do let me know if you wish me to elaborate on the coincidence of opposites in another post.