There are some days where I realize it takes a lot of faith to be a follower of Jesus Christ. If I were to have attempted to come up with a rational, coherent set of ideas about God, I would not have arrived to the Christian confession. There is much about it that seems unsatisfactory from an epistemological framework that values clarity, consistency, and coherency. These three virtues are incredibly important and powerful virtues for addressing the material world which we directly observe and interact with, so our scientific world gives such virtues a privileged epistemological place for understanding the totality of truth, rather than just understanding the range of readily observable, effable, and measurable experiences that science works with.
What can feel unsatisfactory in a world enculturated by these three powerful virtues, if not even offensive to some, is the number of paradoxes the Christian faith puts forth, although the more skeptical may label these are outright contradictions. God is one and yet three at the same time. God is a good and powerful and yet evil exists in the world. Jesus as Lord of all creation is the one who was crucified as being among the least. Etc. At the heart of orthodox Christian faith is the acknowledgment paradoxes that we can not found a way to unravel that provides clarity, consistency, and coherency.
But beliefs and knowledge containing paradoxes are not inherently wrong or useless. Classical, Newtonian mechanics was incredibly useful, even it if lead to paradoxes such as Gibbs paradox. Few would suggest that classical mechanics were fundamentally erroneous. They were incomplete, as Einstein’s relativity hypothesized and was later verified. However, the paradox could be unraveled and a new way of understanding offered precisely because more information can be gathered via the combination of creative thinking, development of new observational and measuring instruments, and fortuitous circumstances. However, this is precisely what is not readily available from the Biblical perspective; knowledge about God, except for the broadest statements of natural theology, is not available except by God’s free choice to self-disclose himself combined with a transformation of the human heart to accept said revelation. Short of something dramatically new from God that is effably clear, paradoxes will remain.
This isn’t to shun the explanatory virtues of clarity, consistency, and coherency, virtues that are highly valued in analytic philosophy and theology. That there do exists paradoxes within Christian faith is not a statement that Chrisitan faith is entirely and solely a set of paradoxical beliefs. However, it does mean that many, if not all, of the paradoxes will never be resolved in a satisfactory fashion. Sometimes, a resilience in the face of ambiguity is necessary to hold to Christian faith in a faithful way.
Clarity, consistency, and coherency are frequently more instrumental virtues in service to a higher virtue; they are valued because they allow us to reduce ambiguity. This is certainly important if one is trying to develop a master and control of the world; ambiguity is a hindrance to effective, pragmatic action. However, this attempt to reduce ambiguity can itself become a virtue that directs us even when the sources are not there to truly alleviate ambiguity. A mind searching to end ambiguity will become convinced of the rightness of the logic employed because it satisfies the goal of resolving ambiguity; a person wanting absolute clarity, consistency, and coherency will overlook the need for a sufficient amount of data to validate one’s reasoning.
The end result is that in addressing Christian faith and theology, there are three responses to the resolution of ambiguity we are frequently tempted into:
1) Satisfactory resolution of the paradox – If this can be done, this would be great. However, as mentioned above, I would suggest there are few, if any, paradoxes of Christian faith that can be resolved, sans new revelation.
2) Absolute generalization of paradigms – Another way of address ambiguity is to take some schema, some idea one holds to, and treat it as true in all possible instances of application. For instance, in response to the presence of evil in the world, a strong Calvinist may emphasize that God will’s all good and evil in the world; God’s sovereignty gets applied absolutely. Or, those within the theological traditions that emphasize human will and morality may suggest that God never brings bad, tragic events into the world; a definition of moral, human will get projected onto God. Both are trying to resolve paradoxes, but often times in distinct contradictions. To suggest that God wills all good and evil events makes God the author of evil, or leads to a contradiction to avoid such attribution. To suggest that God never will’s bad events is to overlook the entirety of the prophets of the Old Testament, not to mention many other instances scattered through the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament.
3) Deny one side of the paradox – When it comes to the Trinitarian confession, this is a frequent tactic. In the Western world where polytheism is not taken credibly, the threeness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is frequently denied by monotheists (to deny oneness would be to advocate polytheism). Or, when it comes to the problem of evil, skepticism rejects that God exists, or that God is either powerful or good.
The problem is that due to the mystery and holiness of God from the Biblical perspective, #1 is rendered implausible, #2 is arrogant, and #3 is faithless. All attempts to overcome ambiguity by resolving paradoxes about divine nature and will begins to run counter to the Biblical portrayal of faith, where one does not fully see what one trusts. While not entirely shunning the virtues of the modern, scientific world, Biblical faith recognizes the limits of clarity, consistency, and coherency as it applies to the One who is not known in the same way that the visible, material world is known; sometimes paradox is all that there is to have after God’s self-disclosure, and it is for this reason I can accept the validity of paradox, because it would be worse, more vicious paradox to suggest that all that is true can be known with clarity, consistency, and coherence.