In The Pirates of Penzance, Frederick is the victim of “a most ingenious paradox”. Apprenticed to the pirate band until his 21st birthday, he repudiates them at 21 but is told he was born on February 29 in a leap year and thus, by birthdays, is only five and a little bit over.
It’s clever, but not a genuine paradox, which has been defined as “a statement that, despite apparently sound reasoning from true premises, leads to a self-contradictory or a logically unacceptable conclusion”.
A famous mind-bending example is the liar’s paradox, most simply expressed as “a liar says ‘this statement is false’.” If “this statement is false” is true, then the statement is false, but if the statement is false, then it is true.
Paradox is sometimes unpalatable to the logical mind, but life is not entirely logical. Perhaps one needs a certain sort of mind to appreciate paradox, and that should certainly include the Christian mind – the entire faith resides within a collection of paradoxes in which apparently contradictory truths are held in tension.
Jesus loved to reveal truth by paradox.
First and foremost is the logical contradiction between justice and mercy – if God is just, how can he pass over sin? – which he resolves by his self-sacrifice in Jesus.
There are paradoxes in the heart of divine ontology, that God is fully three and fully one, that Christ is fully human and fully divine. Another deep paradox lies in the twin truths of God’s sovereignty and human free will: both are true. This tension is equally found in secular philosophy between determinism and free will, and it is not a simple question.
Jesus loved to reveal truth by paradox. For example, we save our lives by dying to self; the last will be first and the first last; those who rule are to be servants of all; the path to exaltation is humility; and our weakness is the source of our strength.
English Catholic thinker G.K. Chesterton, was first drawn to Christianity because its critics went to paradoxically opposite extremes: its view of reality was too bleak or too hopeful, it was too timid or too violent, it was too austere or too filled with pomp and panoply.
He believed that the paradoxes at the heart of Christianity allowed it to offer answers to deep moral and philosophical problems.
Christian paradox is beautifully and simply portrayed in George Matheson’s “Make Me a Captive, Lord”, which begins: “Make me a captive, Lord, and then I shall be free. Force me to render up my sword, and I shall conqueror be. I sink in life’s alarms when by myself I stand; imprison me within thine arms, and strong shall be my hand.”
Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared at The Age.