Dancing With Paradox

by James R. Newby *

Whatever else we are about as Christians . . . the quest for spiritual growth is central. By simple definition, spiritual growth is the process by which we seek to know and to be known by the Living God. It is a universal process with unique consequences . . . . It will inevitably move us into the world of paradox. Learning how to dance with paradox in the quest for spiritual intimacy is an important lesson in the process of growth.

A careful reading of Scripture will demonstrate how much of our faith is paradoxical, and how Jesus emerges as the chief proponent of such a paradoxical faith. The Kingdom of God, Jesus tells us, is something great, and yet . . . is compared to a tiny mustard seed. The Kingdom, we are told, is something pure, and yet it is compared to a woman who, in Gospel times, was considered impure. Further, such a Kingdom is a place where the poor are blessed; the first are last; in weakness we're made strong; the humble are exalted, and the proud, humbled. Paradox!

As I have sought to enlighten my own spiritual journey, four major paradoxes have emerged . . . . Each paradox is unique, and has helped me to clarify the complexities of human nature and the world in which we live. Such a list can always be expanded . . . .

First is the paradox of spirutual growth, i.e., the more you grow spiritually, the further from spiritual perfection you realize you are. On this important point of humility, all of the evidence of the ages agrees . . . in countless passages throughout Scripture and the classics of Christian devotion, including these words from William Law: “We may as well think to see without eyes or live without breath, as to live in the spirit of religion without the spirit of humility.” Religious leaders are especially prone to a “spiritual haughtiness,” negating the teaching of this prardox.

A second paradox is closely related to the first, which can be called the prardox of spiritual enlightenment, i.e., the more enlightened you become as an adult, the more childlike will be your wisdom. Jesus said that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom of heaven, and Ben Hoff reminds us “. . . Why do the enlightened seem filled with light and happiness like children? Why do they sometimes look and even talk like children? Because they are . . .”

A third paradox can be called the paradox of knowing and mystery, i.e., If you are to know the Living God, you must be comfortable with mystery. . . . [T]here will always be mystery beyond our knowledge. Learning to be comfortable in the tension between affirming our faith in one breath, and asking questions about our life and faith in the next, is to accept our human frailty and admit with the Apostle Paul that in this life we do, indeed, see through a glass darkly. The more we come to know god, the more we will discover there is to know. Thus, mystery becomes an important aspect of our quest. [ “Blessed be the Lord God . . . who only doeth wondrous things.” (Psalm 72:18).]

A fourth paradox is the paradox of love, i.e., The more love you want to experience, the more love you must give away. We all seek love . . . we all want to be loved. And yet love can only be ours if we give it to others. The more we give, the greater is the return. Trying to control or possess love is like trying to hold onto a sunbeam. It cannot be done.

Giving love away is difficult. Many would rather opt for power and control than to give and receive love. Henri Nouwen has said, “It seems easier to be God than to love God . . . to own life than to love live.” Love is a threat to power and control. As Christians we follow One who gave and received love freely, rejecting the temptation to power. Jesus understood the paradox of love.

Dancing with paradox is a spiritual discipline. It is a difficult discipline to learn . . . . At the core of this understanding is the cross, the greatest of paradoxes. The world rejected our Lord and nailed him to a cross, the most potent symbol of dejection and shame. In the crucifixion, more than in any other event in history, we see the ultimate success of what the world would call failure, and the ultimate failure of what the world would call success. Jesus walked among us as a Servant, turning the values of the world upside down by claiming that he had come to serve, not to be served. He was a master-servant, who knew how to dance with paradox. Are we not called to do likewise?

* Reprinted from Quarterly Yoke Letter, Vol. 39, No. 3, September, 1996. Used and edited with permission, Yokefellows International, 228 College Avenue, Richmond, IN 47374. Their excellent newsletter may be ordered: (317)983-1656.

Home | Return to Newsletter Files