Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Embodied Paradox

In one of my earliest essays on this blog, I wrote about the error of "mistaking abstractions for reality", of the idolatrous assumption that reality conforms to our own concepts and mental models. It is difficult to break free of such an error - and even more difficult to break free of the general category of error - because within a mind (or worse, community) trapped in its own self-constructed walls, there exists no room to consider the possibility of error. Put more plainly: When I assume my understanding is accurate and complete, then I am likely to reject anything that contradicts it, thus stunting my own growth.

But as far as I can tell, there is a "red pill", allowing one who is willing to leave the tiny sphere of their understanding for the infinite, frightening, untameable reality. This red pill is paradox, and it takes shape in those absurd prophets on the outskirts of credibility - the true followers of Christ, in whom He is collectively embodied.

A true follower of Christ - one who believes in the whole Gospel, and whose belief is not compartmentalized, but flows into and out from all aspects of life - is a constant source of paradox to the world. Most onlookers will take the blue pill, ignoring, ridiculing, or persecuting; but a few will relish the opportunity to leave their illusions behind, swallowing the red pill and experiencing the pain and joy of rebirth.

Examples of Christian Paradox

The world tends to see matters dualistically, and in this especially the Christian becomes a paradox. Following are a number of more specific examples in which the faithful Christian exists entirely outside the world's dualistic spectra.

Obviously these qualities can be manifested (sometimes better and more often) in non-Christians, and I would equally encourage any non-Christian to strive to embody them. I frame them here in a Christian context because my understanding of them flows directly from my Christian faith.

  • Life-Affirming and Willing to Die. Christians should neither cling to this life nor curse it, nor operate merely somewhere in between - they should be both the most life-affirming men and women in the world, and yet the most ready to die. They should cherish creation to the fullest, including the pleasures of food, sex, art, and natural beauty; they should be the most firmly rooted in family, community, and place; they should perform manual labor with gratitude; their marriages should last. But when they suffer and die, whether in old age or at any time prior, they should do so gratefully and without bitterness or reservation. Look to the martyrs for examples of this - they actually rejoice in the opportunity to suffer and die for Christ, and yet by no means can be called suicidal.
  • Open-Minded and Closed-Minded. Christians should be neither exclusively closed-minded nor exclusively open-minded, nor at the halfway point between, but should be at once the most open-minded and closed-minded in the world; totally open to any new idea or frame of thought, and yet simultaneously skeptical and scrutinizing to the maximum degree. Such a virtue not only makes for a healthy Christian, but also a healthy scientist, artist, poet, farmer...
  • Optimistic and Pessimistic. Christians should be neither optimists nor pessimists, nor somewhere in between, but should be at once the most optimistic and the most pessimistic men and women in the world. To their core they should believe in total depravity and total redeemability, and should faithfully carry out that belief in all their actions, always willing to fail and never despairing; never expecting and always hoping.
  • Meek and Bold. Christians should be at once humble and courageous, meek and bold - not somewhere in between, but both simultaneously to the extreme. They should speak and execute their convictions to the fullest extent, and yet always realize - even embrace - the limits of their understanding. This paradoxical quality in particular I have seen in many of my own heroes - such as Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, Wendell Berry, and Mister Rogers. They all exude a serene yet commanding confidence - but at the same time a childlike vulnerability and a self-deprecating sense of humor. What could be more disarming?
  • Tender and Severe. It was the same Jesus who flipped the tables of the money-changers and invited the children to come to him, and this same paradoxical combination we see in all the world's great prophets and peacemakers: an unbridled intensity, and a compassion both comforting and deeply unsettling. It mirrors God who is both loving and wrathful.
  • Convicting and Forgiving. Most people, including professing Christians, tend to choose some position on this "spectrum" - they will let slide any sin up to a certain perceived degree of severity, and beyond that point will offer hardly any room for forgiveness. A faithful Christian knows that even the most minute, mundane sin is detestable, knows as well that even the most repulsive sin is forgivable, and furthermore puts this knowledge into practice. Neither legalistic nor hedonistic, neither moralistic nor amoral, but wholly conscientious and aboundingly grace-filled.
  • Political and Apolitical. Christians should neither wield political power nor shy away from political issues. They should be neither Republicans nor Democrats nor Greens nor Libertarians - and certainly never apathetic. Christians should be fervently anti-sin, and yet never judge, as taught by Jesus ("Judge not, that you not be judged") and exemplified many times, most obviously when he rescued the adulteress from stoning. People seem to accept the idea of hating sin and loving sinners - right up until it begins to be put into practice. It is incomprehensible to the world to believe something is wrong and yet not desire for those who do it to be punished. It is incomprehensible to the world to hate evil and yet not return evil for evil. And it is incomprehensible to the world to seek influence but avoid power. Jesus' life reads as a complete subversion of the classic "return of the king" narrative (that of Aragorn son of Arathorn, Thorin Oakenshield, Simba, Arthur Pendragon) - from his birth in a filthy stable, from his childhood as an apparent bastard from slummy Nazareth, to his claim that "the Kingdom of God is within you", to his "triumphal" entry on the back of a lowly ass, to his coronation with a crown of thorns, to the sign on his cross reading "King of the Jews". Jesus came into a time and place that expected him to banish the Romans and reclaim the sovereignty of Israel. He neither met that expectation nor ignored it, preaching a message and living a life both intensely political and intensely apolitical, crucified as the embodiment of paradox, paving the way for a paradigm shift - a new understanding of the endlessly intertwining politics and religion.
  • Courageous and Nonviolent. The world categorizes people as cowards who flee or heroes who fight, but the faithful Christian neither runs nor fights. She is more courageous than the most courageous soldier, never defending herself but rather standing her ground and turning the other cheek. And often the aggressor, expecting his act to be returned by either cowardice or violence, is caught off-guard, suddenly aware of the absurdity and evil of his actions - or will perhaps later be haunted by the strange reaction that finds no home in his existing mental model.
  • Frugal and Generous. In the world's understanding, "frugal" often equates with "cheap", "tight", etc. - far from generous. But in the Kingdom of God, where others are loved as selves, frugality and generosity come into perfect harmony. True thrift abhors all waste. To hoard is to waste, but giving to those in need and taking only what we need minimizes waste.
  • Individual and Communal. The faithful Christian is not a mindless automaton, mob member, or groupthinker. She thinks for herself and acts on her own convictions, and prays that others do the same. And yet her identity is not found in her individual self - rather, it is in the eternal Body of Christ of which she is but one meaningful member. She is utterly dependent on Christ and the ecclesiastical Body of Christ, yet free to differ greatly from its other members. Healthy Christian community has no fear of contrary or unorthodox ideas, but is grateful for them, understanding that nearly the whole lineage of Judeo-Christian thought and scripture has stemmed from the mouths of the unorthodox and blasphemous. It cherishes diverse people, thoughts, and gifts. It functions, as Paul writes, as a body, with many distinct parts working in harmony toward one purpose and in one spirit.
  • Loving of Enemies and of Friends. In what is perhaps the most apparently absurd paradox, the faithful Christian loves both his own kin and his enemies. He loves his children and their murderer, his wife and her ex-husband, his fellow countrymen and the terrorists who seek to harm them. And he would give his life for any of them.

Integrity and Paradox

Any of the above pairs of opposites can exist in the same person in a destructive capacity, if each extreme is compartmentalized from the other. Watch the portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland: Certainly tenderness and severity exist in the same man, each to the extreme, but in a bipolar and disintegral manner. Or, look to many conservative Christians, who claim that this mortal life is fleeting and unimportant, and ultimate paradise awaits just beyond death, but will fight tooth and nail to preserve their lives and material acquisitions. No, the Gospel paradox is only embodied - Christ is only embodied - when these extreme opposites exist not only in the same person, but in the same harmonious virtue. That is what differentiates it from hypocrisy.

Paradox as Evangelism

We Christians often speak of "letting your light shine". We refer to an innate magnetic quality we're supposed to exhibit, enabling us to begin proselytizing before even mentioning the faith. But we seldom know how to actually carry out that belief, how to let our own lights shine. Well, this is how.

Just as a contradiction in mathematics or physics is the doorway to broader discovery, a paradox in conventional wisdom is the doorway to growing in Christ. It fills us with fear and yet tells us to "be not afraid". It quenches our thirst, and yet leaves us thirstier than we have ever been. It is the very precious item we sought, and yet sets us off on a new quest far grander and more dangerous than the first.

In the institutional church we spend countless hours yammering on and on about strategies for evangelism, about pamphlets and plans and systems, when in fact the answer is far simpler and more difficult: Follow Christ. Lean not on your own understanding - an understanding fraught with idolatrous assumptions. Let Christ, the embodiment of paradox, shatter the tiny sphere of your worldview, and follow him faithfully into the rich, dangerous unknown. As you become yourself a part of the ecclesiastical body of Christ, loving enemies, forgiving sins, living fully and dying freely, you will become Christ in the lives of others, shattering their own narrow frameworks and inviting them (even before speaking!) into the land of the free, the Kingdom of God.