Developing an “Opposable” Theology: Part 3 of 5 “The Power of Paradox”

A paradox is a “logically self-contradictory statement or a statement that runs contrary to one’s expectation.” And, yet, the seemingly illogical contradiction is somehow true, pointing to a deeper, richer, more complex truth. Paradox is one example of the kind of “opposable” theology I’m proposing in this series of posts: holding two or more opposing ideas in dynamic tension until a deeper, more complex, integrative theology emerges.

The Bible is FULL of paradox…

Creation is “good” – declaring the handiwork of the Lord – AND creation is fallen, corrupt, groaning for redemption.

God abhors violence AND the Old Testament is full of God-ordained violence.

We are called to be IN the world, but not OF the world.

We are made in the image and likeness of God AND fallen, rebellious sinners in need of salvation.

We are made in the image and likeness of God AND made from dirt.

We are saved by grace through faith, not works, AND faith without works is dead.

God is angry and wrathful AND slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Jesus is a lion AND a lamb.

Salvation is a free gift AND we “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling.

God is seated above the heavens, high and lofty AND lives believer’s hearts.

We are saints AND sinners.

God moves slowly through history AND “This is the day of salvation.”

We await the future resurrection of the body AND we are currently seated with Christ in the heavens.

God demands obedience AND offers freedom.

Jesus taught in parables so his listeners would hear and not comprehend.

God is omnipotent, omniscience and omnipresent, but allows for human free will and the consequences of our actions or inactions.

God is omnipotent, omniscience and omnipresent, wrapped in infant flesh.

God is transcendent AND immanent.

God chose Israel AND loves the whole world.

God hates sin AND loves sinners.

God is just AND forgives notorious sinners.

The Kingdom of God is a present AND future reality.

Eternal life is a present AND future reality.

When I am weak, I am strong.”

Uncompromising moral standards AND stories of fallible followers.

We await a future resurrection AND Jesus told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

Jesus is the “Son of Man” AND the “Son of God.”

Law AND grace.

I could go on and on and on. As you read my list, I suspect you thought of more.

At first glance, biblical paradoxes may appear to be contradictions. How can contradictory statements coexist? Either one is true and the other false, or both are false, right? Yet, paradox, like opposable theology, honors seemingly-contradictory concepts by considering the potential truth of both, and the greater truth of holding both in dynamic tension.

In The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, Parker Palmer writes, “God’s truth is too large for the simplicity of either-or.  It can be apprehended only be the complexity of both-and.” And, “God is the great iconoclast, constantly smashing the idols on which we depend.”

I particularly like the second quote. An iconoclast is a destroyer of cherished things – particularly cherished religious things. Palmer uses the word “idol.” An idol, of course, is a false-god. And, ironically, an idol is often something we’ve made with our own hands (figuratively speaking). When we settle for simplistic, one-sided views of God, we’ve stripped God down to a manageable, controllable, predictable size.

“God is the great iconoclast.” God smashes the idols of theology.

The God of Scripture is not manageable, controllable or predictable. Understanding biblical paradox requires holy imagination, comfort with mystery, and a willingness to accept the infinitude of God. God refuses to fit into our boxes. God can’t be quantified or categorized. God is too big for that. God is too good for that. And, btw, so are we! We’re capable of knowing the unknowable God. We are spiritually capable of thinking more deeply, and engaging more broadly. In other words, God is a mystery we’ll never fully grasp, yet never tire of seeking, and a mystery worthy of life-long pursuit and discovery.

And, what if the point of paradox is the discovery that one side of a paradox only makes sense in light of its opposite?

What if the grace I’ve received only makes sense in light of my sin and depravity?

What if God’s power only makes sense in light of the cross?

What if true freedom is only possible in obedience to God?

What if we can only know the power of God at work within us, when we’re weak enough to admit we need God?

What if we need the God living in our hearts to also be bigger than the universe, so as not to turn God into a domestic house pet.

What if we need the “not yet” of God, so as not to become complacent, passive?

What if true humility is the worth of knowing we’re made in the image of God AND lovingly crafted from dirt – like a jar of clay, containing a precious treasure.

Etc., etc.

The point: God is too big, too good, too complex, too powerful for narrow, simplistic, one-sided thinking. God blows the lid off our tiny boxes. God colors WAY outside of the lines.

Is your God big enough for paradox?

This is part 3 of a 5-part series called “Developing an ‘Opposable’ Theology.” If you haven’t already, you might find parts 1 & 2 meaningful. In part 4, I will explore what Christian mystics can teach us about knowing God “opposably.” If these posts are interesting to you, consider signing up below for email notifications.

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