harles Dickens opened his novel of the French Revolution with the now famous words: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us.”
A classic magazine cartoon depicts an editor insisting: “I wish you would make up your mind, Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both.”1
That editor represents a completely rationalistic worldview. To the modernist mind paradox has been little more than a literary device, the kind of turn of phrase that gets attention and sounds profound: “Wow, that’s deep! But let’s get back to the facts.”
Times have changed. In popular culture all around us paradox is almost a rule of thumb. Titles of books, magazine articles, music, and motion pictures use it often to express the confounding ambivalences that we face: Back to the Future, True Lies, Eyes Wide Shut, and so on.
Clay Crosse’s lyrics in a contemporary Christian song address Jesus’ disciples: “The twelve of you walked on the earth together / the Father was a Brother to you all.” In R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion,” what lead vocalist Michael Stipe called a “freak hit,” he sings, “Oh, no I’ve said too much / I haven’t said enough.”
And it isn’t only the artists who are expressing themselves through paradox. In a letter to the editors of Time magazine regarding jitters over fallen stock prices in the year 2001, one writer grumbled, “The good news is that a stock’s price can’t fall below zero. So, fortunately, the most you can lose is everything.”2
The use of paradox is not something new to human expression. Jesus used it repeatedly and effectively to jar the thinking of His hearers, to confuse the grim literalists among them, and to express the inexpressible mystery of the spiritual life.
“ ‘Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted’ ” (Luke 18:14, NKJV).
“ ‘If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last’ ” (Mark 9:35, NIV).
“ ‘He who loses his life for My sake will find it’ ” (Matt. 10:39, NKJV).
“ ‘Whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant’ ” (Matt. 20:26, NKJV).
“ ‘My yoke is easy and My burden is light’ ” (Matt. 11:30, NKJV).
“ ‘My strength is made perfect in weakness’ ” (2 Cor. 12:9, NKJV).
At least part of the frustration that the rational mind has with spiritual things is that—to state it bluntly—they just don’t make sense. Spiritual things can’t be proven rationally. Certainly we’re expected to utilize our reason as far as it can take us, but ultimately spiritual things can be only experienced. This is what the apostle Paul was talking about when he asserted that “the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14, NKJV).
From a human standpoint, the greatest truths of all make no sense whatever: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV). To accomplish this Jesus must be both human and divine.
“Human reason would say that Jesus Christ must be either God or a man. Christian revelation says that He is both God and man. Human beings are both images of God and miserable sinners. The same paradoxes are evident when we talk about the Trinity, Law and gospel, grace and freedom, and the nature of the sacraments. The great doctrines of Christianity constitute a framework for knowledge that allows us to take the best of human insights, while balancing them with a larger vision.”3
To insist that God must somehow prove Himself to humanity’s reasoning is the ultimate idolatry. It places humankind in judgment of God’s revelation.
In being open to the paradox and mystery of life, those who flock to the motion picture theaters and rock concerts, who tune in by the millions to the most popular television shows, are in some respects closer to the kingdom than they who stubbornly maintain that human existence is meaningless unless it all makes sense.
1 The New Yorker March 9, 1987.
2 April 16, 2001
3 Gene Edward Veith, Jr., "Reading and Writing Worldviews," in Leland Ryken. ed., The Christian Imagination (Colorado Springs: Shaw Books, 2002), p. 132.
Gary Swanson is the associate director of the General Conference Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department.