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Is it possible to believe a paradox?

Is it possible to believe a paradox? February 25, 2011

First, let me define “paradox” as not everyone agrees on its meaning.  A paradox is an apparent contradiction.  There are actually not that many blatant contradiction that anyone tries to believe.  Few Christians claim actually to embrace sheer contradiction.  But many Christian writers, including perhaps especially Calvinists, claim to embrace paradoxes.

For example: God designs, foreordains, renders certain and governs every decision and action of creatures (in such a way that they are not able to do otherwise) but they are still fully responsible (in a way God is not) for their decisions and actions.  Many popular Calvinist writers and speakers call this a mystery and a paradox and claim to affirm it.

I have always said that every theology includes some element of mystery.  Mystery is simply that which cannot be fully understood or explained.  It isn’t contradiction.  Contradiction is mystery on steroids!  Paradox is apparent contradiction.

What’s the difference between an apparent contradiction and a sheer, blatant contradiction?  Well, the latter always takes the form of “A is not A” and means A in both cases to refer to the exact same thing.  Few people go that far.  But many (especially Christians, so it seems) claim to affirm less blatant examples.  But I am thinking that even if its less blatant, insofar as it is believed to be a contradiction, it’s impossible to believe.

I don’t think a person can (let alone should) believe two contradictory ideas at the same time.  A person can believe one after the other, but a person can’t believe them simultaneously because they cancel each other out.

My point is that contradiction is always a sign of error–not just because philosophy says so but because it’s impossible to believe a contradiction.  So if a person tells me he believes a contradiction I don’t believe him.

So what about paradox?  I would say it is always a sign of something wrong in thinking.  It’s always a sign of error and we should never be comfortable with it.  It is always a challenge for further thought.

Unfortunately, many theologians (to say nothing of pastors and lay people) revel in paradoxes and seem even proud of theirs as if the more and harsher the paradoxes the more mysterious and therefore glorious God is.  The problem is that this amounts to a kind of anti-intellectual obscurantism insofar as these people do not admit their paradoxes are problems and need to be worked on.

Let me go a little further down this road.  (Or maybe I’m turning onto a different road?)  I find it difficult, if not impossible, to believe something for which there is no analogy in the world.  A proposition that has no analogy in anyone’s experience would seem to be empty–a set of words without a concept.

The only reason we can believe Trinity is because, as Augustine showed, there are created analogies of this transcendent reality.  We can and should say that the transcendent reality is greater and even different than its created analogies.  But if we posit something as true that has no analogies whatsoever we may be positing words without any concept.

One of the reasons I cannot be a Calvinist is because classical, high Calvinism asks me to believe something for which there is no created analogy–that God is unconditionally good AND ALSO foreordains some of his creatures, created in his own image and likeness, to eternal torment in hell when he could save them from that because salvation is always only absolutely unconditional.  (I acknowledge that some Calvinists claim salvation isn’t unconditional but election to salvation is.  I consider that a distinction without a difference.)

I can find no analogy to that in the world.  I’m pointed that out here before.  What I want to invite discussion about is whether it is possible to believe things that 1) seem contradictory, and 2) have no analogies in the world.

"I wouldn’t do it. That should have been obvious from what I wrote."

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