PUZZLES AND PARADOXES
The Bible is punctuated by puzzling questions and paradoxes. We should rejoice that it is. The reason for this is simple. The Bible is a manual of life. Life, like human nature, is full of puzzles and paradoxes. With the same heart we love and hate. What is more, we love and hate the same person sometimes simultaneously! With our tongues we bless and curse. Darkness and light comprise a day. Relationships enlarge and limit our freedom at once. We have only what we give away. It is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Life and death are but two sides of the same coin. While detractors see biblical puzzles and paradoxes as incriminating evidence against the authenticity of the Bible, in our experience they enrich its power and profundity. The Bible is richer for these puzzles and paradoxes.
But this will not be all that evident from a casual or superficial acquaintance with the Bible. That is because the internal coherence and deeper inter-linking of the parts in the Word will not be visible to such an approach. The Bible is an unveiling of the deeper and enduring truths of life. That is why, in the first place, paradoxes inhere in it. To relate positively and profitably to the Word, hence, it is imperative that we relate to the Bible in the depth.
The second note of caution is this: much depends on the purpose with which we turn to the Bible. Most people approach the Bible in a consumerist fashion. They hurriedly fish for texts that suit their convenience or support their stance. This is a misuse of the Word. The purpose of the Word is to help us grow and deepen our personality. It is to equip and enable us not so much to be successful as to be fruitful (2 Tim.3:16-17). Growth presupposes struggle, which cracks the shell of superficiality. The puzzling questions and paradoxes in the Word belong to this order of experience: the existential and philosophical struggle that cracks the shell and activates the hidden potential for life, even fullness of life.
Puzzling questions and paradoxes do not comprise two watertight compartments. But, in the interest of clarity, we shall examine these two overlapping categories separately with the help of a few biblical examples. Let us consider puzzling questions first.
The earliest example of a puzzling question found in the Bible is in Genesis 3: 9. The context is that of the Fall of Adam and Eve. After disobeying God, Adam and Eve are overwhelmed by fear at the sound of God walking the Garden of Eden. They hide themselves in the bush, occasioning the question from God, "Where are you?" The question puzzles us, if only from a superficial view. It is only because God knows that Adam and Eve are hiding that He asks them this question. God, being God, would have known where Adam was hiding if He knew Adam was hiding at all. Otherwise, the question could not have been raised at all. Knowing where they are, and standing near them, why indeed does God ask them where they are?
The puzzle here is only an apparent one, as indeed most puzzles are. It puzzles us because we assume that the point of reference in the question is the physical location of Adam. In asking, "where are you?" God is seeking to know the location where Adam is hiding. But that is hardly the point of reference in this question. The reference is, instead, to the spiritual state of Adam. He was not meant to hide from the presence of God, but to be in communion with Him. The need to hide oneself in this way points to a serious aberration that has overtaken Adam, which he is unable to understand. Through this question God is not forcing Adam to answer, but to urging him to reckon his predicament: to see what he has done to himself. In that sense, this is one of the most fundamental questions ever raised in human history.
The second question we wish to address is from the Gospel of John. The setting is the pool of Bethesda. From among a large number of sick people who waited near the pool for their turn to be healed, Jesus recognizes one who has been waiting for 38 long years and asks a question that cannot fail to puzzle anyone, "Do you want to be healed?" (5:5). Though a puzzling question, it is easily the most relevant question to be asked in that context. That is because the fact that someone is waiting to be healed does not by itself prove that he is willing to be healed. If he were indeed willing to be healed, he would not have lain there for such a long time. What complicates this situation even further is the fact that the man is unaware of his negativity, which excludes him from the prospect of healing and empowerment. Such a person has to be set free from within, which is the purpose of the puzzling question that Jesus poses in this instance. The purpose of this question is to liberate and to heal, which is the effect, at any rate, it has on the man concerned. If the question is examined outside of this context, it can only seem an insensitive and sarcastic barb, which it is not.
These two instances, and many else besides, help establish an important point in respect of responding to the Word of God. When we feel puzzled by any part of the Word, the right thing to do is not to beat a hasty retreat, but to delve deeper into the context prayerfully so that the purpose behind the puzzle becomes intelligible. That would enhance the delight and profit in reading the Bible. Bible reading can become, in this way, a catalyst for personal growth.
The second reason for the necessity for paradoxes derives from the logic of dynamism. The intellectual tools we have developed are quite adequate for mastering knowledge of a static kind. We can, for example, fix a frog on the table, cut it open and know what a frog in that state is like. But such knowing is quite different from knowing a leaping frog, a frog in motion. Spirituality, like life itself, is a dynamic domain. How are we to know love or compassion in a laboratory? They can be known only as lived realities. In a laboratory, love and compassion will be either abstractions or paradoxes. It is necessary that we develop the discipline and ability to relate positively to paradoxes; for the spirit of our age is uncomfortable with them.
Jesus had a genius for simplicity. He pegged his communication at the level of babes and sucklings. Yet he did not fight shy of paradoxes. A celebrated example is that of the paradox of life that he articulated in words that cannot be bettered. He who wins his life shall lose it, but he who loses his life for Christ's sake shall find it (Jn. 12: 25). This paradox is meant to challenge the stereotypes of profit and loss. From a limited and shallow perspective, it seems to many that living a risk-free life is the best option. If this outlook governs us, we shall be under the tyranny of the instinct of self-preservation, which is what shapes the response-strategies of animals. In a society where everyone is obsessed with saving one's own life, there would be none to help anyone else. Such a society will fall short of greatness. The logic of life is that greatness presupposes risk-taking. Risk is minimized in routine activities, but it continues to increase in proportion to the greatness of the mission undertaken. It is safer, for instance, to walk on the plains than to climb the Everest. The authentic purpose of human life is not self-perpetuation, but to enter into partnership with God in the pursuit of godly goals that in this God- alienated world will necessarily involve suffering, risk and loss (Mtt. 10: 16). It is in the process of risking oneself for the sake of Christ that we attain a state of oneness with God, which is the secret of fullness of life. This enables us, besides, to experience the unfailing faithfulness of God.
Allied to the paradox of finding one's life by losing it for Christ's sake, is the paradox of suffering. Jesus says that it should be a matter of happiness to be able to suffer for Christ (Mtt. 5: 11- 12), whereas the world's picture of happiness has no place for suffering. Experience proves that the worldly idea of happiness is shallow as compared to the biblical understanding of it. The higher or deeper we go into true happiness, the more we bridge the distance between fulfillment and suffering. The excruciating pain that a woman in labour experiences is already illumined by the impending joy of the gift of a new life. The agony of a Marathon runner in the last punishing lap is sweetened by the ecstasy of expected victory. There is a positive correlation between the fulfillment we experience in attaining a goal and the suffering we have to endure in the pursuit of it. Great goals involve great suffering. They generate immense joy and fulfillment.
And then there is the paradox of the need to judge and the duty to avoid judgmentalism. Chapter 7 of the Gospel According to St. Matthew begins with the emphatic exhortation against judging others. Yet a few verses later in the same chapter we are warned against casting pearls before swine. This involves judgment. From a superficial approach these two verses may seem to contradict each other, but in reality they only complement each other. What Jesus emphasizes in the first 5 verses of this chapter is our duty to see the truth as clearly as possible in order to judge justly. We must remove the beam from our eyes so that we 'may see clearly'. What Jesus disapproves of is not judging as such, but judging blindly, or judging without seeing the truth of the given situation clearly, which is Judgmentalism. The same, namely the duty to see clearly, is then re-emphasized in the admonition against casting pearls before swine (verse 6). In order to recognize swine from the rest, it is necessary that the beam be removed from our eyes.
Consider, further, this paradox spread over the 5th and 6th chapters of Matthew's Gospel. In 5: 16 we are urged to let our lights so shine before others that they may see our good works and give glory to God. But in the first verse of the 6th chapter, we are given a seemingly contrary instruction: "Do not do your good deeds before others"! Yet there is perfect internal harmony between these two statements. We are to refrain from advertising our own goodness through the good works that we do. But we are not to turn this false humility into an excuse for abdicating our duty to respond to the needs of our fellow human beings. We must practice charity only to express the compassion of God, and not to advertise our goodness. We need to be totally selfless, lest our egoism poisons our charity and hurts its recipients. What is crucial in the practice of charity is not how much we give, but for what purpose and in what spirit we give.
Yet another paradox that befuddles many is Jesus' statement on peace. "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Mtt. 10: 34). In St. John 14: 27, however, Jesus says, "My peace I give unto you, not as the world gives..". How are we to unpack this Christological paradox of peace? "Sword" in the teachings of Jesus has a symbolic meaning quite different from what it has in the secular context. It is a symbol of self-purification. The sword that Jesus brought to the world is the sword of self-denial and self-purification. This sword is to be used against oneself and one's own religious community and not against enemies, whom we are to love unconditionally. Wars in the world are contrived on the myth that others are the enemies of peace. It is this myth that makes us wage wars to establish peace on earth. But peace can rest on secure foundations only if the tyranny of sin over human nature is broken and societies and nations are transformed. In a worldly sense, it is up to others to maintain peace. Spiritually, though, it is our duty to make peace. Blessed are the peacemakers. But peacemakers have a basic eligibility requirement. They must deny themselves (Mtt. 16: 24).
These are but a few, obvious examples of the paradoxes that we encounter in the Bible. Sure enough, they do not yield their meaning at first touch. Instead, they demand a dedicated and focused relationship with the Word of God, which is the basic spiritual discipline that we are to maintain. In the words of the Anglican Prayer Book, we are to read, chew and inwardly digest the Word of God. When that happens we begin to access the depth of the scripture and enjoy the profound existential dynamism of its wisdom. As Jesus clarified through the parable of the sower, the seed (the Word of God) is not meant for hard or shallow soils (Mtt. 13: 1-23).
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