Thursday, February 16, 2006

Paradox and Reason

One of the glorious aspects of Lutheranism is its enchantment with the paradox: law and gospel, simul iustus et peccator, two kingdoms, finitum capax infiniti, and so on. Indeed, it seems that Luther viewed Christianity as an all-encompassing paradox. This is most clearly reflected in his "theology of the cross", which employs an inverse dialectic to demonstrate how the positive always appears in and through the negative: forgiveness through confession of sin, faith through doubt, joy through suffering, and life through death.

While this paradoxical approach is obviously profound and true, it raises the question of the theological relationship between paradox and reason - a question that is more urgent to me given my recent thinking about natural theology. Is Christian truth always incompatible with reason? Kierkegaard appears to say as much. According to him, faith is intimately connected with the absurd; indeed, we believe "by virtue of the absurd." The offence of Christianity guards against dangerous speculation and guarantees that revelation will always be discontinuous with human knowledge. But does Kierkegaard overstate his case, turning faith into an irrational "leap" into the abyss?

Tillich offers a useful explanation of paradox in his Systematic Theology that struck me as correct. Here it is:

"Paradox points to the fact that in God's acting finite reason is superseded but not annihilated; it expresses this fact in terms which are not logically contradictory but which are supposed to point beyond the realm in which finite reason is applicable. This is indicated by the ecstatic state in which all theological paradoxa appear. The confusion begins when these paradoxa are brought down to the level of genuine logical contradictions and people are asked to sacrifice reason in order to accept senseless combinations of words as divine wisdom. But Christianity does not demand such intellectual 'good works' from anyone, just as it does not ask artificial 'works' of practical asceticism. There is, in the last analysis, only one genuine paradox in the Christian message - the appearance of that which conquers existence under the conditions of existence [i.e., the New Being of Jesus the Christ]. Incarnation, redemption, justification, etc., are implied in this paradoxical event. It is not a logical contradiction which makes it a paradox but the fact that it transcends all human expectations and possibilities. It breaks into the context of experience or reality, but cannot be derived from it. The acceptance of this paradox is not the acceptance of the absurd but it is the state of being grasped by the power of that which breaks into our experience from above it."

3 comments:

eddie said...

Could you provide the page number for that quote?

Thomas Adams said...

Sure thing, eddie. It's found on page 57 of Tillich's Systematic Theology, Vol. I (the 1963 edition). It's in the section entitled "The Rational Character of Systematic Theology."

Jan McKenzie said...

What is it exactly that you find useful in Tillich's comment?