Lovely Paradoxes

Summer holiday was nice and relaxed for me, I’ve done a lot of reading (of course) and in one book[1] I stumbled on the sentence that following Jesus means that we embrace the freedom of our failures and weakness. Apart from all the other wonderful things in this book, especially this sentence readingbookmade me think. How can we be free to fail? I mean, whenever we do that in practice, someone (if not we ourselves) will tell us that that was wrong. But still, it seemed just the kind of freedom that I really need. So then when I was trying to decide what I wanted to write about next, I suddenly thought: what would I write about if consequences really didn’t matter? What subject do I really like, for no apparent reason? And as it happens, that is paradoxes. I am fond of paradoxes. So here you go, a totally useless subject, way too complex, bound to be extremely incomplete, just because I like it.

One paradox that always amuses me enormously, is when you want to tell someone he needs to buy you more flowers spontaneously[2]. This is the type of paradox, where you really want to influence something (an emotion, or state of mind like being spontaneous) but the more you try that the more you’ll just ruin it. It’s the same for our own emotions: we all want to be happy, but the more we focus on feeling happy, or wonder whether we are happy, the unhappier we become. Loving someone is also very paradoxical: when you love someone, you want to be close with him and know him, hold him and share intimacy, but true love can never demand such things, perhaps like a dance, where you hold and let go. Making art is another example of something very paradoxical: you want to create something beautiful, but this only works when you really do not care at all about the final result, but only about giving space to let something true grow. This ‘not caring’ must be true, not a pretense. Logically, this is impossible: how can you take great care that you truly don’t care? Yet I find that somehow life does make this possible, and it amazes me.

In all these cases perhaps the paradoxicality comes because we are confused about what we can control and what we cannot. We want to control the end result (happiness, love, great art), but that is out of our hands. We can, however, control the process. For example in order to be happy, we can try and do more things that make us happy. This needs some attention however, because I think we all have this tendency to do things that really do not make us happy. For example I can tell from experience that spending lots of time on Facebook is not such a thing, but a good example would be to try doing something creative, or go for a walk or dance or play.

When it comes to influencing others (who we cannot control either), what we can do, is be friendly to people, and honest and open, so that we are open to real contact and thus make true friendship possible (as opposed to superficial politeness and conformity, I mean). In the field of creativity we can think of something we truly like, and then try to express this in a way that is pure and expresses best what we like so much, I think this will lead to art, or even if not, we will always learn a lot in the process that is bound to bring fruit somehow. In all these examples we cannot and should not try to force the result, but we can do healthy and sensible things, and be open to expect God’s blessing as a natural result, but never guaranteed as in a contract, and perhaps different from what we expected.

And I see now that another paradox that I wanted to name, begins to fall into place. I mean this one: it is true that God is omnipotent (can do everything), yet it is also true that we have a free will. How can that be? How can we have a free will when God is completely in control? I have been thinking about these often, see for example my two texts ‘Who lives my life?’ and ‘Who’s in control?’ that describe the two sides of this paradox separately. I am beginning to think that here it is also a case of process versus end result. That is, we can decide for ourselves how much space we give to God in order to become our true selves[3]. But what that true self is, is something we do not yet know, but it will come out more and more clearly in the process, and it is safe in God’s hands.[4]

Whenever I try to think about God, I am also amazed at the paradoxical nature of that thinking. For example we can say that he is indescribable. This is a way of describing without really describing. I think you see this also when God says to Moses that his name is ‘I am who I am’ (Ex 3:14). It’s a name, and it’s not. UmbrellaWhenever we think about God we must always realize that our words fall short and our images are limited whereas God is not. All that we say leaves out essential parts, and has flaws in it. This can lead to endless and useless and even painful discussions if we do not watch out. I read that the word ‘heresy’ originally means ‘choice’, because a heresy was always caused by a group of people preferring one truth over the total truth. So for example people would stress the fact that Jesus is fully human, and then forget that he is also God. These types of things are very difficult for us, because it is impossible for us to keep these things both at the same time in our mind. We will be constantly juggling between one or the other if we try. Or we will (unconsciously) conjure up an image of something 50-50 (Jesus as demigod), whereas in reality both truths are true in a way that we simply cannot combine in our minds. We need to follow Einstein’s advice, who said (about the nature of light) “It seems as though we must use sometimes the one theory and sometimes the other, while at times we may use either. We are faced with a new kind of difficulty. We have two contradictory pictures of reality; separately neither of them fully explains the phenomena of light, but together they do”.   The funny thing is, that although we cannot understand light, we can still enjoy the sun!

I found this lovely quote on paradoxes from Kierkegaard when I was preparing this text:

But one must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow. But the ultimate potentiation of every passion is always to will its own downfall, and so it is also the ultimate passion of the understanding to will the collision, although in one way or another the collision must become its downfall. This, then, is the ultimate paradox of thought: to want to discover something that thought itself cannot think.

And this brings me to what I meant with enjoying the sun although we do not understand the nature of light: when we think of God we find that our minds are incapable of holding him, and we step out in love.

– Ruth Alkema

[1] Elements of Faith by Christos Yannaras. I found this a really wonderful book, very nice to read the eastern perspective on basic issues of faith, and also some very interesting insights on western culture. Also I really appreciated his explanation of how our true life is found in our personal relations with God and other people. This stress of our own personality and God being truly a person, and our relationship as the source of our life, was very refreshing. The language of the book is really complicated though, I’d say it is quite hard to read really.
The other book I read was Celebration of discipline by Richard Foster. This is also a very good book, and the funny thing was that especially the combination of these two was so thought provoking. They both describe very valuable insights about how we live with God, but they seem to contradict each other enormously, I kept wondering how they could both be true.
[2] Obviously, this could not possibly be a hint!
[3] And here the disciplines are of such great help as described in the book Celebration of discipline.
[4] I was going to write ‘of course it’s the end result that counts’, but then I stopped, and thought: is it really? Or is this a typical western idea that causes so much stress? We do not value the road, and therefore we are constantly frustrated that we have not yet obtained the goal. How about if we start feeling more responsible for our part, that is the process, and let God deal with his part: the end result? And when we know that the end result is safe, we can also really enjoy the road to it.