How Did I Miss That?
Part 24: Truth is Paradoxical
Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. John 11:25c-26a
A paradox is something that seems contradictory to popular opinion or common sense. The good news is that paradoxical reasoning does not trouble most of us too often. The bad news is that it should. The Bible is full of paradoxical bits of wisdom – nonsensical statements that seemingly contradict themselves. Jesus was a king of paradox. Here is a sampling:
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31)
“Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10:39
“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33
Jesus taught with stories, or parables, few of which gave clear answers and many defied common sense. What Jesus understood about truth is that it is inherently paradoxical, and that is a constant obstacle for many of us. Much of what we hold to be true is actually only partially true, or at least not entirely true. We separate light and dark for our own understanding when they are actually manifestations of the same reality. We cannot know darkness without first knowing light, and darkness is simply the absence of light. Other examples of single realities include bliss and sorrow, life and death, right and wrong, good and evil, happy and sad. Each is defined by the other, and neither can be known except in relation to the other. They are two ends of a single continuum, but we treat them as distinct realities. We try our best to be good and are disappointed when we act in not-so-good ways. What we thought to be right turns out to be wrong in another circumstance. What we assumed to be virtuous turns out to be evil from another vantage point. When our sports team wins a game we are excited; but our thrill comes at the expense of fans of the other team who may be devastated. The game is a single reality experienced from two different points of view – one positive and one negative. In his book, Yes, And,…, Fr. Richard Rohr writes, “You and I are living paradoxes, which everybody can see except us.” (p. 391)
Our entire existence is held together by a tension of opposites that characterizes every aspect of our lives. It is nearly impossible for us to reconcile these opposites in a meaningful, understandable way. And therein lies the key to dealing with mysterious realities – we cannot reconcile the paradox. Our challenge is not to solve the mystery but to transcend the seeming enigma and transform our experience and understanding of it.
Chief among the paradoxes we must transcend is our understanding of life and death. Death is an inextricable part of life. Death does not mean the end of life but a new beginning. In his cryptic way, when Jesus tells us we must die in order to live, he is not referring to our physical death. Jesus is speaking of a transformation of our life into one consistent with his. We are not asked to give up our life, physically, but to enter into a new version of that life which transforms our former priorities to new ones. We cannot understand Jesus’ teachings about new life with our traditional understanding of life and death. It is a paradox – an irreconcilable enigma – when seen through our old eyes. Life is more than we can see, hear, feel, and touch with our earthly senses. As we learn to engage our spiritual senses, the formerly paradoxical becomes perfectly understandable.
Truth is paradoxical. How did I miss that?