There are points in life where the routine fog of “just getting through the day” is suddenly blown off. The vision extends and the sharpness of our surroundings pierces the heart with a longing ache that catches us totally off guard. In this moment we think, “My God. What is this? What have I done? What have I failed to do?”
Here one sees both the unspeakable beauty of life, but also its limits. At once it elicits both illumination and vitality as well as terror and fear. These moments can be shaking and transforming, but they remain moments. They pass, and we usually slide rather quickly back into the fog of the everyday, into politics, religion, and the typical cultural fare.
At the heart of every great adventure, of every great love story ever told, is this mystery that gives substance to all of our most pure desires and to all of our most inspired quests for truth and meaning. And yet, it’s too much for us. Better to live in the hazy world of the “taken for granted” than to risk being exposed in the brilliance of the light. What a strange thing. Is this acceptable to you? It’s not for me. This is the doorway…
So then, paradox. I intend to speak of paradox in a specific way. I am most concerned with its manifestation within the dynamics of the growth and development of the human spirit. Another way of saying it might be “within the dynamics of human self-transcendence.” In this sense, paradox is a moment, a terror, a gift, a practice. It is both a shattering experience, and the possibility of reunion. It is the void, the darkness, and the stranger; while at the same time being a cool north wind, the waterfall’s mist, and your mother’s kiss. Paradox sometimes happens to us without our permission. Other times it requires unspeakable courage to enter and may require our very lives. But it can also be cultivated in daily rhythms with little drama and with no obvious results.
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This is a poetic way of speaking, but there are other ways one might focus on the concept that can be helpful to illuminate what I’m after. For example, in logic a paradox is a set of propositions that combine to produce truth values in surprising ways. Such logical phenomena is useful due to the way that it helps point to limitations in our conceptual grasp, or hidden flaws in our reasoning. This is why they are called a paradoxes. They point to truth that is “contrary to” (para) “opinion” (doxa). A paradox stops us, unsettles us, and draws our attention back to our initial premises with an openness to discover the source of our error.
It may be that an argument that seems obviously false produces a seemingly true result as in Zeno’s paradoxes. Or, on the other hand, it may be that the combination of true premises produces a seemingly false result as in the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. W.V. Quine characterized these types of paradoxes as “falsidical” and “veridical” respectively. In both cases the flaw in reasoning can be proved with enough analysis, even if the surprising feeling of the paradox remains. But there is a third class of paradox that Quine describes that cannot (at least not yet!) be resolved. These he calls “antinomies.” An antinomy, he says, “packs a surprise that can be accommodated by nothing less than a repudiation of part of our conceptual heritage” (1976, 9).
An antinomical paradox can be logical (as was Quine’s concern), or existential (as is mine). Rather than the repudiation of our conceptual heritage, an existential paradox can be accommodated by nothing less than a repudiation of some aspect of our deep cultural, psychological, political, or religious heritage. And it is here, in that last sentence, that we can see that an existential paradox has the potential to be a great deal more risky than a puzzling logical problem.
In most cases we simply ignore the paradoxical. We are creatures of efficiency and expending a great deal of resources on “repudiating our deep culture,” sounds fairly demanding. Best to avoid the thing and keep on with what works. I am certainly no different, but there do come times when the paradoxical is not a rock in our path, but the path itself. It is here that the paradoxical becomes our crucible. You’re a conservative Christian and your beloved son tells you he’s gay. Your theology makes you hunger for truth, but your hunger for truth seems to undermine your theology. You long for the world to know the love of Christ, but your efforts to share this love seem to produce bitterness and hostility rather than communion. You get the idea. When life forces us into such a crucible it can lead to resignation and despair on the one hand, or reactivity and rage on the other.
But there is another option… and it is that other option that this website is ultimately about.
So now we should have the concept of paradox clearly in view. In my introductory paragraphs I have tried to evoke why this understanding ultimately matters, but here I will aim to explain this connection as clearly as I can.
The concept of paradox matters to you and to me for the following reason: Paradox is the doorway to the deepening of truth. Over and over, our lives will present problems that come to us in the form of a paradox. If we don’t realize this we will suffer the consequences of mistaking the nature of our problem. Psychologists call this phenomena the act of “trying to solve adaptive problems with technical solutions.” It doesn’t work. Through these failures, life is telling us something of ultimate importance, if we know how to listen.
There are many ways into this topic, but I have found none who can match the shattering power of the late anthropologist Ernest Becker in helping us to see our situation. Here I will not often be quoting directly from his work, but he stands behind nearly everything I am about to say.
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The many relative paradoxes of human being have their source in a single ultimate paradox. Unlike all other life that we know of, to be human is to be both a creature of the earth and also a self-transcending being. Put another way, we have the capacity to mentally transcend without limit the givenness of our immediate surroundings, while at the same time being a part of our immediate surroundings. This leads to the ultimate paradox of human being: We are able to participate in the infinite, but this very capacity reveals to us that we are finite! By being able to remember the past and imagine the future, we are able to conceptualize our own limit, our own death. I will return to how this becomes a problem below, but first I want to unpack further the shape of the two sides we are dealing with.
In the first place, we are creatures. Much of our life is outside of our control. Consider the ubiquitous and disappointing attempts to lose weight, or, in early childhood, the hard won battle of potty training! Even in success, these animal drives and functions never leave us. In our highly sanitized modern world it is easy to forget just how dependent we are upon such base realities as a stable temperature range, clean air, water and the consumption of other organisms for our very survival. We get sick. Our bodies break, weaken, and fail in a seemingly endless variety of ways (As one nearing 40, I am especially aware of this!). And finally, the ultimate fact of our creaturely lives is that our existence is bound between a birth we did not set in place and a death we cannot prevent. To be human is to be born into a dying life.
But that is not the only thing to be said. On the other hand, human life is different from all other creaturely life that we know of. We are not merely worms, or hairless apes. The greatness of human life is the ability to transcend our immediate environment in both thought and action. All other animals are guided predominantly by instinct. The possible range of their behavior is therefore relatively automatic and comparably small. You might see a goose happily playing in a springtime pond, but you will not see a goose happily playing in your sandbox.
We all know what it is like to be in a state of mind that is more or less bound to our immediate environment. As I write this it is springtime here in Minnesota, so I think, for example, of the common hobby of morel mushroom foraging. When one goes into the forest and begins their search, it is easy to enter an altered state of mind. Gone are the usual worries, anxieties, fears, and half-finished plans that so often clog our minds. The attention is focused on a single goal. Especially when there has been some measure of success in the hunt, the awareness of time itself seems to slip away. This is not a creative activity. The self-transcendence dial is turned way down. One is simply “in it.”
But eventually the hunt ends and one returns home. On the way it is easy to go over the events of the day. One might evaluate this foraging ground against others, or consider the results of this year’s hunt with the last. Perhaps one has noticed a pattern in which the morels seem to appear that warrants the creation of a new terminology. Or maybe an irksome variety of brush snags the clothes and requires the invention of a new tool or article of clothing. If one is especially contemplative, one might even consider the role that morel foraging is currently playing in one’s life. Is this a healthy excuse to reconnect with the natural world, or might it serve as a means to avoid the difficulties of one’s family life? Taken to its extreme, a human can ask of the meaning of this afternoon from the standpoint of one who knows that one’s very existence is limited.
Most of us, I suppose, don’t take it this far. Most of us, most of the time, don’t take such acts of transcendence even to level of critical self-analysis. But all humans regularly engage in the prior types of essentially human acts of transcendence. To build a tool is to conceive of a use for an object beyond its given role within the immediate environment. A rock is not simply an neutral object that is “simply there.” It is a potential friend in any situation (not just THIS situation) where something needs to be smashed, cut, or pierced. Language functions in a similar way. Combinations of sounds represent reoccurring slices of life. For example, your name represents the reoccurring slice of life that is you. Philosophically speaking, these sets of reoccurring slices of life are called “universals.” In general, animal awareness does not operate in the realm of universals. Human awareness does.
This capacity for transcendence has a few important qualities that can be easily seen by way of contrast with animal awareness. Rather than being determined, it is free. Rather than necessity, possibility. Rather than physical, it is at least psychological and potentially spiritual. Rather than being bound to a physical, dying, defaecating body, it is unlimited, transcendent, in touch with the eternal. Rather than being simply “in” a world, there is the sense of “having” a world. Or, as Becker so colorfully put it: We are gods who shit!
This is where the pain begins. You take your daughter’s hand in your own. You look at her. No. You show up. You remember the rain on the day she was born, her first cry into the world. You see in her smile the wrinkles that have only grown in character as she’s matured. Her eyes carry in them your entire history together. You can’t go back. It’s too late. You will never again see her sooth herself by gently stroking her face with her blanket or feel the quiver of her small body as she contentedly sighs before sleep. She squeezes your hand three times. “I love you.” It’s gone. Worse yet, even this moment and all future moments you will ever have are racing towards oblivion…
Humanity stands alone on the earth as the sole creature with the capacity to touch the eternal and in so doing receive the knowledge that it will die. This is the deepest paradox of human life. Once its nature is seen we are still left with how we respond to it. From a lifetime of studying the shapes of human culture, Becker’s core observation is as follows…
We cannot bear it.
Culture, psychology, and religion can, from this perspective, be viewed as an astonishing collection of strategies that humanity has arrived at to deny the fact that we die. This act of denying one side of the paradox in order to privilege the other is called a rationalization. A healthy response to paradox allows for the disruption of the categories we are relying upon and a return to the beginning with a renewed openness. A rationalization either avoids the paradox, or denies that it is real. Becker calls the actualization of existential rationalizations “heroics.” It’s an apt term given the mythological role of the hero as one able to go through death and yet live.
Heroics can be explicit, as in religious doctrines pertaining to the afterlife, but more often than not they are hidden behind layers of social games. After all, if it is a game everyone is playing, nobody has to admit the thing is a game! In his own words,
This is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses…it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head an shoulders (1997, 6).
Such a strategy is psychologically and socially convenient, but it comes at a cost. All heroics have a limited logic. They work, but only to an extent, and only under the right conditions. At the edges of these heroic strategies the paradox of life once again emerges. For example, free market capitalism works brilliantly, raising the standard of living for many, but, untethered, it also ruthlessly exploits the resources of the planet and grinds entire cultures into materials for its means of production. We will never again know a world untouched by the effects of global capitalism, and we may yet live to see the day the it destroys us all. Best not dwell on it… Black Friday is just around the corner.
The refusal to face the true nature of our predicament amounts to a willful denial of reality, both about the world and about ourselves. At the very least, this strategy amounts to a fearfully enclosed superficial life. At its worst, the refusal to confront our ultimate fear leads to illusory quests for power, security, and esteem capable of overt conflict and ultimate destruction of life on our planet. We have seen such darkness before. These dynamics emerge across the whole range of human activities. In the next section I will address their manifestation within the realm of religion and spirituality.
Case Study: Jesus The Paradox
What happens when the paradoxical is missed in Christianity? Find out with: 7 reasons faith in Jesus is misplaced, and 1 critical reason it’s not...
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