Paradox in the Gospel?
‘Paradox, said a friend, sounds like a tablet you take for a headache’. Another friend said that thinking about paradox was enough to give you a headache!
A simple survey with 50 people, involving lay young people and an Anglican Archbishop, concluded that Christians frequently see paradox in life, and especially theology and the church, but do not find it helpful when engaged in evangelism. Why is this?
Is it a case of Paradox Lost?
The Christian Gospel is full of paradox. The Christian life is full of paradox. Life itself is full of paradox. So why do we shy away from using the word ‘paradox’ in our preaching?
Paradox might sound complicated, but I want to argue that it could be one of those keys we need to find, if we are to help today’s spiritual seekers enter through the front door, and stem the flow of Christians leaving out of the back.
This last point is picked up by Alan Jamieson in his two studies on Church Leavers . People leave the church for all kinds of reasons, and one is that they cannot cope with the difficulties faced in life and theology, especially if they first embraced a simple understanding of the Christian faith. The Gospel is often presented like the children’s chorus (to the theme tune of Match of the Day): ‘If you know Jesus you’ll be happy, as happy as can be’. Though appealing and easy to understand in the first instance, it is a false expectation which is neither biblical nor helpful when trying to face the complexities and experience of the Christian faith in everyday life later on.
A simple definition of paradox is ‘tension between opposites’. This is not only something we experience in everyday life, but, difficult though it is for some Christians to accept, is also intrinsic to the Gospel. Jesus was born of a Virgin Mother, and is both God and Man. He is the Alpha and Omega, the Shepherd and the Lamb, the Victor and the Victim, the Servant King. Rather than being a threat to our faith, ‘paradox’ should be embraced as an exciting theology which not only helps us cope with complexity, but helps us work with the things we cannot understand.
The principle of paradox needs to be embraced in all kinds of ways. Call if ‘contradiction’, ‘creative tension’ or ‘co-existant polarities’ if you wish, but the principle is the same. Opposite truths co-exist at the same time, sometimes they can and should be reconciled in synthesis, but sometimes they exist without need for reconciliation, making a greater truth. It can be understood by all ages, including children who may confidently sing ‘ever old and ever new’ in ‘One More Step’. Paradox is not just for adults.
Creative tension should not be ignored by evangelists, but embraced by them.
Indeed, in the Grove booklet, ‘Paradox in the Gospel?’ I have tried to show that paradox can be a key to unlocking the door of faith in Christ for spiritual seekers today. The complexities of life should not be a challenge to the sharing of the good news of Jesus Christ, but rather an opportunity to engage with it. Using material from Dom Cyprian Smith on the teaching of Meister Eckhart, I try to show that concepts like Divine Knowledge, and the Adventure of Faith, can help seekers explore faith and doubt, success and failure, hope and certainty, in an appealing, relevant and engaging way.
Can all of us engaged in evangelism find a confidence in the Gospel which embraces paradox? In ‘Bucket of Surprises’ we find the following rare example of how paradox can be used to make the Gospel appealing, relevant and engaging:
“A true believer is
Strong enough to be weak
Successful enough to fail
Wise enough to say ‘I don’t know’
Serious enough to laugh
Rich enough to be poor
Right enough to say ‘I am wrong’
Mature enough to be childlike
Planned enough to be spontaneous
Controlled enough to be flexible
Free enough to endure captivity
Knowledgeable enough to ask questions
Loving enough to be angry
Great enough to be anonymous
Responsible enough to play
Assured enough to be rejected
Stable enough to cry
Victorious enough to lose.”
One group of rural Anglican parishes found that their new study groups ‘undoubtedly exceeded our dreams and prayers’ when they took the theme ‘Balancing Life’s contradictions – Living with Paradox’ as the theme for introducing discussion.
Adapting the themes for Bible study from Paradoxes for Living , and anglicising this American book, the people of these churches clearly found that paradox connected with their spiritual journey. ‘To be strong we have to become weak’; ‘to save our lives we have to lose them’; ‘pain is the pathway to joy’, ‘to know God we have to know ourselves’, are all biblical themes all too often ignored by the church.
So, let’s think again. Start where people are, engage with the full Gospel narrative and see Paradox Regained. It may be the key we have been looking for.
Captain Jim Currin, Church Army
Executive Secretary, GfE
A Churchless Faith: Alan Jamieson SPCK 2002 and Church Leavers SPCK 2006
Paradox in the Gospel? Grove Books Ev 74, 2006.
Bucket of Surprises: J John and Mark Stibbe. Monarch 2002 p138
Paradoxes for Living. N Graham Standish: John Knox Press 2000