Monday, June 15, 2009

Paradox of Living

How do we live in a world of contradictions? Do we fight it until one side wins, or do we avoid it? Do we only choose what is private and ignore the public concerns? Is paradox a curse of the Fall, or is it simply another way truth can be communicated? In this short article, I will argue for the latter, that paradoxes are not meant for us to eliminate one side so that the other can triumph. Rather, paradoxes are ways in which we can be taught to appreciate the diversity of life God has intended us to learn.

Our life on earth can be easily described as a paradox incarnated in daily living. If an alien out of this world were to observe us humans from the outside, it would have been amazed at how frequent people say one thing but act out another. Between the two extremes of blatant hypocrisy and nonchalant procrastination lies the swinging pendulum of paradox. It is quite easy to see the popular paradoxes in life. I remember getting an email about the paradox of money.
$ - Money can buy a house, but not a home.
$ - Money can buy a bed, but not sleep.
$ - Money can buy a clock, but not time.
$ - Money can buy a book, but not knowledge.
$ - Money can buy food, but not an appetite.
$ - Money can buy position, but not respect.
$ - Money can buy blood, but not life.
$ - Money can buy insurance, but not safety.
$ - You see, money is not everything!
(Credit: Anonymous sources)
The Christian faith has its fair share of paradoxes:
  • Jesus died that we may live;
  • "He is no fool to give what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose." (Jim Elliot, martyr in Ecuador)
  • "All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is never full." (Eccl 1:7a)
  • "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." (Matt 10:39)
  • "What good is it for a man to gain the whole world and yet lose or forfeit his very self? " (Luke 9:25)
  • Jesus tells us to be like little children (Lk 18:16-17), yet Peter exhorts us to seek solid food like adults! (1 Peter 2)
  • The ten commandments tell us that we must honor our parents, yet Jesus warns us that whoever does not 'hate his own father and mother' (Lk 14:26) is not worthy of becoming a disciple of Christ.

Yes I know some of the Scripture verses have to be read in their own contexts. What I am pointing out is the way paradoxes are used to communicate an important truth. Paradoxes sharpen the mind to notice things beyond the obvious. It illuminates things which one can see from another angle. It points out that one's viewpoint alone is not enough, but must be nourished afresh by another viewpoint. Like the gospels. Four gospels present four different portraits of Jesus, so that readers and disciples will get a bigger and clearer picture of Jesus. Paradoxes confound the mind and to the foolish unbeliever, they can confuse or cause them to stumble. For the humble and willing person, paradoxes are tremendous opportunities to glimpse the divine and marvel at the beauty of mystery.

Three Responses to the Contradictions/Paradoxes of Life
In "A Belly of a Paradox," Parker Palmer writes about 3 ways we can respond to the contradictions of life.
  1. AVOIDANCE: First, one can respond the to contradictions by simply running away from it all. Without wanting to get entangled by the various arguments, one behaves like an ostrich choosing to bury its head into the soil, thinking that all dangers and threats will simply go away.
  2. PRIVATE RELIGION: The second way to respond will be to take only whatever that is appropriate for our own private enjoyment. By removing oneself from the great drama of the world's battle-stage, we ignore some and choose to accept only those that is suitable for private consumption. We ignore public concerns while choosing to accept only the bare necessary. For example, one can simply forget about theological arguments and simply choose to build one's Christian life on a basic: "I believe in Jesus. That is all I need." So everywhere such a person goes, he/she avoids every form of Christian knowledge forum saying that all he/she needs is to believe in Jesus and will have none of any arguments or perspectives. Such an attitude is like saying that there is only one type of coffee in the world for him, ignoring the world of lattes, cappucinos, mochas and the huge selection of gourmet coffee that makes coffee such a delightful beverage that have helped shaped thousands of communities round the world. Such an attitude of ONE-KIND-ONLY perspective is pathetic.
  3. LIVING CONTRADICTIONS: Palmer goes on to suggest a third way of handling contradictions. This is called 'living contradictions' in which:
    Here we refuse to flee from tension but allow that tension to occupy the center of our lives. And why would anyone walk this difficult path? Because by doing so we may receive one of the great gifts of the spiritual life — the transformation of contradiction into paradox. The poles of either/or, the choices we thought we had to make, may become signs of a larger truth than we had even dreamed. And in that truth, our lives may become larger than we had ever imagined possible!(Parker Palmer, In the Belly of a Paradox, Pendle Hill Pamphlet, 2005, p9)
    You'd probably have guessed it. I am an advocate of this third view that Palmer proposes. I believe that life in many ways is a paradox. Such contradictions are not for us to fight it out, like popping numerous anti-biotics into our bodies that while trying to rid the bad bacteria, we kill good ones as well. Instead, the parable to note will be the parable of the weeds. Remember Jesus teaching us to let both the weeds and the wheat grow together? We should not attempt to let our enthusiasm to get rid of the weeds turn into an exercise of extermination of both bad weeds and good wheats. The logic is simple. We are all in sin. Since we are in sin, what makes us think that our actions are not tainted in our effort to fight for truth and do the right thing?
Don't get me wrong. I am all for standing up for truth. What I am saying is that we need to put humility and openness to learn first before any dogmatic declaration of war. We need to recognize that we wear the armor of God for battle on one hand, yet we need to wear an apron of servanthood at the same time. We are warriors for Christ, and also lovers of humanity. Both have to be held together. Our theological muscles must be strong enough to hold BOTH together. That is how we must approach the paradoxes of life. A healthy life is not one that is proud of living a life of certainty. Rather, a fruitful like is one that is grounded in the certainty of God's promises, and lived thankfully within the uncertainty of final answers.


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