Paradoxology: Finale

Paradoxology Part 4: The Consequences of Rejecting Reason

Click here for the Introduction
Click here for Part 1
Click here for Part 2
Click here for Part 3
Click here for Part 4

We spent a great deal of time on examining how paradox is mishandled—how pride in an ability to embrace paradox can itself damage the paradox that is to be embraced. But how can we resist such a temptation—particularly when so few Christians in America are willing to embrace paradox at all? How can we make a good confession without relying on a rejection of reason?

1) Be careful of your attitude when defending paradox

Let us draw an analogy to fasting. Just as our reason both wants and needs to understand because understanding is what our reason is for, our stomach both wants and needs to be fed because nutrition is what our stomach is for. What do we do with our stomach when we fast? We deny it what it wants, certainly, but do we call it a liar and insist that it has no need to be fed? Do we proclaim that we must set aside our human stomachs? Certainly not. We rather say that “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Cor 6:13). When we fast, we suffer our stomach’s demands and remember that our stomach does not stand alone as an end unto itself. As Jesus put it during his own fast, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). If we gain from fasting, it is not because we revel in appetite’s denial, but because the resultant suffering itself produces fruit.

When God presents us with a paradox, He presents our reason with a similar situation. It wants to be satisfied, but our faith reminds us that our minds do not live on reason alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. And then we embrace paradox and suffer deprivation… or at least we should. Too many who have become prideful at their acceptance of paradox often seem to revel in reason’s dissatisfaction. They smugly end conversations and arguments by denouncing their interlocutors for being reasonable. They cluck their tongues at the poor fools who don’t realize that, as Luther said, reason is the devil’s whore. But bread too was the devil’s whore when he tempted Christ, and we do not treat bread the way these Lutherans treat reason—as a meddlesome troublemaker to be avoided. These teachers have missed the fact that reason’s dissatisfaction when we encounter paradox is something to be suffered. When we instruct others to embrace paradox, we are likewise instructing them to suffer. We must not condemn or seem to condemn their desire to understand. Reason is not an enemy any more than our stomach is. Nevertheless, it is a friend that needs to be kept in its proper place in submission to the word of God.

2) Do not try to compensate for all of American evangelicalism

This pastoral error is usually born in overreaction to non-Lutheran mishandling of paradox. When the evangelical community at large tends to deny a particular point of a paradox, many Lutherans pastors try to compensate by radically emphasizing that same point. They feel that that is the one in danger and therefore the one to be stressed. This is all well and good when your audience is the typical American evangelical; this is disastrous when you are serving lifelong Lutherans. Focusing on one point of the paradox is precisely what unbalanced the broader community in the first place. Doing the same thing to your own congregation will have precisely the same effect in the opposite direction. Even worse, when they begin to fall into error, you will never see it happening because you were so focused elsewhere. The excesses of your own audience will simply look like opposition to more common errors and their own errors will grow unchallenged. Far better to fulfill your responsibility to teach the whole counsel of God—all sides of the paradox—as you were called.

3) Do not condemn theological creativity as such

This one is difficult because Lutheranism was born out of a reaction to the dire consequences of creativity and speculation in theology. In one sense, creativity in theology is necessarily bad because Christians have been given a body of doctrine to treasure, not a canvas on which to paint. Any genuinely new doctrine is one which was not given to us by Christ through His apostles and is therefore not part of the faith. At the same time, however, the task of understanding and explaining those doctrines in continually new contexts demands creative minds. We may take our formulations of Trinitarian doctrine for granted because of the boon history has granted us, but there is no denying that Athenasius and the Cappadocian fathers were astoundingly creative when they began systematically formulating the doctrine of the Trinity. They had to go so far as develop a set on non-Biblical terms with which to explain Biblical teachings. In contrast, I’ve known many Lutherans who were horrified if one uses terms that weren’t used in the 16th century.

There is no doubt that creativity is dangerous, but most good things are. Our defense is not in a zero-tolerance policy, but in exercising sound judgment over the creative. Error must be identified and refuted in all times and places, even if it means disheartening budding theologians. Nevertheless, our theologians must be allowed to bud. New things must be met with a critical mind, but not a closed mind. Humans are made to be curious and reflective creatures. This is something to be cultivated, even if cultivation involves some healthy pruning from time to time. We may find that other paradoxes can also be well explained by today’s creative minds.

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