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Balancing the Tension: Christianity, Paradox, and Pascal

From the top of the walls of Troy, Paris raises his bow and shoots an arrow at the distant figure of Achilles. Before the arrow can hit Achilles’s heel, it must fly half of the distance between Paris and Achilles. In order to travel this half distance, the arrow must first fly a quarter of the total distance, and before that, and eighth of the total distance, and so on ad infinitum. Therefore, the Greek philosopher and mathematician Zeno postulated, the arrow never hits Achilles, since it has an infinite amount of half-distances to cover, a task that would take an infinite amount of time.[1] And yet, experience shows that when Paris raises his bow and shoots an arrow, it does travel through the air and hit Achilles in his heel. Two statements, both of which are true at the same time, yet which intrinsically contradict each other. A paradox.

   Paradoxes are not confined solely to the realm of abstract mathematics. They also lie in the heart of Christian doctrine. Consider the mystery of the nature of Trinity, the full divinity and full humanity of Christ, or the theology of the Kingdom of Heaven often summed up in the phrase ‘already but not yet.’ The Christian faith contains a panoply of theological paradoxes concerning the natures of divinity and humankind. In his Pensées, Blaise Pascal explores the tension of such theological paradoxes, and how they affect the balance between reason and faith in an individual and ultimately lead him or her to a better understanding of God. Following Pascal’s thoughts, I want to suggest that modern Christians struggling to reconcile the tension between the historic Genesis creation account and current scientific evidence might begin by approaching Genesis 1-3 as a paradox.

   Reason, Faith, and Theological Paradox

Theological paradox first affects the court of human reason. In no other context are the limits of human minds shown so clearly as when reason encounters a paradox. Faced with a set of contradictory statements that must be true simultaneously, reason finds itself at a loss as to how such a thing can be. It is worth noting that this simultaneous truth is what distinguishes a paradox from a mere contradiction. In a contradiction only one of the contradictory statements is ultimately true, thus disqualifying the veracity of the other. Contradictions in theology are a valid reason for concern, but paradoxes are not. Examine the paradox of the Trinity. The three Persons of the Trinity are truly distinct, and distinct in a special way—they are not three different ways that God acts, or three different aspects of God. At the same time, however, Christianity is explicitly a monotheistic faith. The Trinity is not three separate gods. Jesus himself affirms this by reciting the Shema in Mark 12:29. The Athanasian Creed neatly sums up the doctrine in this way: “we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.”

   As seen in this example, a paradox defies the normal ability of reason. Reason cannot explain how both statements are true at the same time. As Pascal wrote, “who will unravel such a tangle? This is certainly beyond dogmatism and skepticism, beyond all human philosophy.”[2] Human minds are too limited, and the nature of God is too great to be able to understand such a thing in full and resolve the tension. The mystery of paradoxes therefore serve as a means to keep man in a state of continuous humility; they force him to acknowledge that some things are unknowable. This is especially needed in the modern world, where mankind in its pride upholds human reason as boundless, believing that given enough time to think, we can understand anything. In the face of a paradox like the Trinity however, mankind must instead “realize our limitations” and inability to comprehend the mystery of it all, and instead submit to the truth of it.[3]

   Since reason cannot fully engage with theological paradoxes, man must turn instead to faith. Consider another Christian paradox: that of Christ being homoousios with humanity and with God, fully divine and fully human. Reason cannot understand how both are true simultaneously, and yet Christians still affirm this doctrine as true. Believers do so by faith. They do not let the limits of empirical knowledge or reason limit what is true, for reason is not the only way that man understands. Pascal writes several times on this faith, which he calls the understanding of the heart, the “reasons of which reason knows nothing.”[4] The heart has an entirely different sort of knowing than the head. This is a kind of deep knowing concerning the truth of things, distinct from fleeting emotional responses. It cannot be rationalized[5] or proven, and yet the heart is as capable of comprehending the truth as reason is. Therefore, when faced with theological paradoxes that confound “head knowledge” Christians turn to the heart. To trust in the truth of the heart is to believe.  As Pascal says, “that is what faith is; God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”[6] The true contradicting statements in a theological paradox must be accepted as true simultaneously. This can only be done by faith, not by empirical knowledge.

   There is a balance to be struck, however, between faith and reason when dealing with theological paradoxes. Travel too far in either direction and one finds oneself in the realm of falsehood. As already shown, there is a clear limit to the power of reason, for “if we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.”[7] A Christianity without its supra-reasonable features, like its theological paradoxes, has nothing divine about it, nothing mysterious about it. Such a Christianity is no Christianity at all, and requires no faith. Still, Christians must realize the converse as well. If believers cannot sacrifice the mystery of a paradox for reason, neither can they abandon the reason of the paradox for the sake of faith. In Pascal’s own words, “if we offend the principles of reason our religion will be absurd and ridiculous.”[8] A paradox has two parts—the logical, contradicting statements, and the mystery of the dual truth. To only follow reason is to discards the latter, but to discard the former is to say that faith has no logic behind it, that it has no meaning, and therefore is false.

   Return to the paradox of Christ’s nature. Christ must be fully God to be able to intercede before the Father on behalf of humanity, to be the full righteousness for all mankind. Christ must also be fully man to truly suffer and die, to actually take the sins of all upon himself, to redeem humankind in full. Reason allows us to hold each of these truths individually, and also helps us see that that both must be true at the same time if Christ is to be the way to eternal life. It cannot give the means for how Jesus is fully man and fully God, but reason can supply the purpose for Him being both. The mystery of a paradox does not come from naming a falsehood to be somehow true. It comes from holding two contradictory statements to be true simultaneously. When humans ponder paradoxes, theological or otherwise, they must strike the balance between “two excesses: to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason;” they must dwell in the tension between the two.[9]

   God and Theological Paradox

What, then, is the proper response to a theological paradox? For Pascal, theological paradoxes are supposed to elicit two responses inside of humans. The first, as already discussed, is to humbly recognize the finitude of one’s reasoning. Yet, if this is all that a theological paradox evokes, then it fails to fulfill its purpose. For secondly, a paradox should ultimately draw man from the limits of his mind to the vastness and majesty of God.

   In the Pensées Pascal often writes concerning paradoxes and their relation to the nature of mankind and the duplicities that lie within each person. For example, humans know that they can know, but at the same time, they know they do not know fully.[10] So too, “man knows he is wretched. Thus he is wretched because he is so, but he is truly great because he knows it.”[11] Moreover, he says, humans live in a state of “two equally constant truths. One is that man in the state of his creation, or in the state of grace is exalted above the whole of nature, made like unto God and sharing in his divinity. The other is that in the state of our corruption and sin he has fallen from that first state and has become like the beasts. These two propositions are equally firm and certain.”[12] All of these are true mysteries of humanity that prompt humility in the individual who realizes them.

   Pascal does not leave mankind there, however, in a state of humble confusion over the paradoxes of human nature. He urges us to turn outwards to God, who does understand the character of humankind in full. Pascal lays out these two steps in this way: “know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.”[13] When man fully engages with a theological paradox, he understands his own self and God’s self in a deeper, truer way. Paradox is a way of revelation.  It discloses the grandeur of God and contains great truth that otherwise would be unobtainable. After a proper, twofold response to paradox, an individual will find that “All these contradictions which seemed to take [them] furthest from the knowledge of any religion are what led [them] most directly to the true religion.”[14]

   Genesis Paradox

Most of the theological paradoxes that Pascal wrote upon have been pondered and wondered at since the beginning of Christianity. Recently however, scientific advancements have created a new tension for Christians to encounter. This new paradox concerns the doctrine of creation. While various proposals for the reading of Genesis have existed since Christianity’s nascent years, a literal reading has often been included, and indeed, come to dominate in the nineteenth century.[15] This literal viewpoint holds that: God created the world in six, twenty-four hour days, around four thousand years before the coming of Christ; God physically formed Adam from the dust of the ground and Eve from his rib; the two of them were literally the first humans ever created from whom every other human is descended; they sinned and were bodily thrown from a geographical location, the Garden of Eden.

   In the past century and a half, however, the scientific community has overwhelmingly shown this literal, factual reading of Genesis to be false. The earth is not a young planet, but is billions of years old. All the animals in the world were not formed from the dust of the ground in a single twenty-four hour period, but evolved through genetic mutation over millions of years from a single cell to the rich diversity of life known today. The human species as we know it could never have evolved from two single Homo Sapiens, but rather from a group of several thousand.[16] There is currently even debate as to whether the Fall was a historic event or an evolutionary one. Scientific evidence “argues strongly against a literalist interpretation of the Genesis creation account of humans,” and against a literalist interpretation of Genesis 1-3.[17]

   In the face of these discoveries, some Christians have responded by denying the scientific evidence. The basis of many of these disagreements is that the creation account must be factual, i.e., historical, if believers are to consider it true. If scientific discoveries deny the historical creation story, these Christians will deny said discoveries. Although refusing to see the evidence is foolish, literal creationist Christians do have a point—the truth of Genesis 1-3 is vitally important. If the first few chapters of the Bible are false, then the Bible would not be the authoritative and divinely inspired Word of God. If Adam and Eve did not sin, then our own sinful natures and the evil in the world are unexplained. More importantly, without a true fall from a state of grace there would be no need for Christ’s redemption action, and therefore the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection would be unnecessary. If Genesis 1-3 is not true—if it does not contain truth about the nature of humanity and the creation of all that has ever existed by God—then Christianity has no grounds and is a false religion. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why literal creationists might balk at evolutionary theory and geological data.

   However, denying scientific evidence is not a necessary response if Christians can approach Genesis 1-3 as a paradox. Consider the two equally constant truths. One—the creation account in Genesis 1-3 is false: it writes contra-factually concerning historical events and gives false explanations of what happened. Two—the creation account in Genesis 1-3 is inherently true: it accurately explains aspects of God, creation, and the nature of mankind, and does tell us the truth of what happened. Consider the tension between them: the apparent contradiction. Neither statement should yield to the other, but both must be thought of as balanced together. Christians seeking to be loyal to science and faith must be able to live in the tension between these two truths. Indeed, many believers who believe in theistic evolution read Genesis 1-3 not as a factual account, but as myth, poetry, or fable, as an everyman story, or the story of Israel.[18] It still is true, but it is not a factual account. If Christians are comfortable with the nature of theological paradox and can approach the tension in Genesis as such, the recent troubles in reconciling the Biblical creation account and science diminish. Instead, believers are humbled at the mystery and truth of creation, and in awe of God.

   Conclusion

Paradoxes are a balance of reason and faith. They are illogically logical—too reasonable to be grasped by reason. Theological paradoxes contain the heart of Christianity, prompting believers to humble themselves and submit their reason to the mystery of true contradicting statements. They define the faith, for “submission and use of reason; that is what makes true Christianity.”[19] In the tension of a theological paradox, like the Biblical Creation account, Christians should not let contradictions drive them to deny truth or pick one statement to be truer than the other. Rather, they should dwell in the midst of it, balanced between both statements, between faith and reason. After all, to let Pascal have the final world,  “contradiction is no more an indication of falsehood than lack of it is an indication of truth.”[20]

 


[1] Nick Huggett,”Zeno’s Paradoxes,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta, accessed on January 15th, 2016, http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/paradox-zeno/.  Some may contend that this is not actually a paradox and can be resolved; even in the ancient world Zeno’s proposition was hotly debated by thinkers like Aristotle and Diogenese the Cynic. The purpose of its inclusion in this article is to give a striking example of a historical paradox, not to argue mathematics.
[2] Blaise Pascal, Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer, (London: Penguin Group, 1995) 34.
[3] Ibid., 62.
[4] Ibid., 127.
[5] As, perhaps, the vagueness of the prior sentence indicates.
[6] Pascal, Pensées, 127.
[7] Ibid., 54.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 55.
[10] Ibid., 34.
[11] Ibid., 31.
[12] Ibid., 36.
[13] Ibid., 35.
[14] Ibid., 119.
[15] Dr. Donna Seibert, “Origins,” Lecture given at Gordo College, October 8th, 2015. See Augustine (354-430), or Erasmus (1466-1536) for non-literal readings. On a similar note, the Medieval method of reading of texts, including Scripture, that Dante and the Scholastics upheld always approached a text in four distinct ways: literal, typological, topological, and anagogical.
[16] Karl Giberson and Francis S. Collins, The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011), 210.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid., 201-11.
[19] Pascal, Pensées, 53.
[20] Ibid., 54.

 

References:
Giberson, Karl, and Francis S. Collins. The Language of Science and Faith: Straight Answers to Genuine Questions. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011.
Huggett, Nick. “Zeno’s Paradoxes.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition). Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Accessed on January 15th, 2016. http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/paradox-zeno/.
Pascal, Blaise. Pensées. Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer. London: Penguin Group, 1995.
Seibert, Donna “Origins.” Lecture given at Gordon College. October 8th, 2015.