A couple weeks ago in my faith community, I talked about how God is a god of “paradox”: there are so many things about YHWH, as He reveals Himself to Moses, that are apparently self-contradictory.
He is the creative Force behind the universe, and yet is also entirely willing to inhabit a humble piece of shrubbery in the backwoods of a place called Midian, far away from the centers of religious and spiritual power.
He has a specific name (“YHWH”), and yet that very name is a mystery. Indeed, one of the ongoing themes in the pages of the Bible is the tension between what we can know and see about this God, and what remains hidden and mysterious (you can read more about that here)
He is eternal and fierce—as one of my favorite theologians says, he is “ultimately free”— and yet He is intimately concerned about the suffering of humanity, so much so that he feels their suffering (and later, he even declares that he is capable of being hurt when His people abandon him).
I can go on and on, but I think we can see where this is all going: at the very least, God is not easily discerned or “nailed down.”
I would even go so far to say that the more comfortable we are with paradox, the more comfortable we will be in the life of faith.
However, as I was studying and preparing for the sermon, I stumbled across the idea of paradox in some additional ways that provoked my thinking, and I thought I would share a bit in this space.
In a TedTalk, psychologist Barry Schwartz started to examine something called the “paradox of choice.” Starting from the number of deodorant choices in a supermarket, Schwartz began to unpack the paradox of how, while psychology actually shows that choice actually causes us to feel anxious and even depressed, the culture in which many of us live (namely, the West) actually espouses freedom of choice as the highest ideal.
This is an odd thing: on the one hand, Christianity (at least as I see it and read it) is decidedly pro-human freedom and dignity.
On the other hand—leaving dignity aside as a non-negotiable—Biblical freedom does not equal Western, 21st century freedom.
As I like to say it, Christian freedom is “freedom, but with rails”.
As a 21st century, western Christian, I constantly bump against the boundary markers that YHWH (and even Jesus) established, whether I like them or not.
- rails on how to spend my money (radical generosity)
- rails on how to treat “the other” (radical hospitality)
- rails on how to love God (with all my heart, soul, mind and strength)
And on and on and on.
Now, I’m not saying that God is a god of infinite rules. He’s not nit-picky, or waiting around a corner to catch me making a mistake.
That’s not the point…
I guess the potentially mind-blowing point is that God actually knows what’s good for me, not so much specifically, but in a broader sense. Maybe He knows that infinite choice actually produces a melancholy and a sadness in me; that the idea that I can choose everything and anything in my world actually might make me less happy as a human being.
Maybe God knows that human beings don’t do so well with infinite choice.
And yet, we that’s exactly what our world seems to aspire to. It’s also what we sell to the rest of the world.
One of my favorite teachers/writers/spiritual pilgrims is Richard Rohr. On an episode of On Being With Krista Tippit called “Living in Deep Time”, he referenced how the pattern of the universe is one of “order, to disorder, to re-order.”
This resonated deeply with me, and I have seen it play itself out in my own life. Biblically, it is “life, death and resurrection.” Personally, it resembles the person who does all the right things, believes all the “right things”, goes to the right church, only to see it all collapse in the faith of a health crisis, an addiction, or the loss of a job. These are the moments of disorder, where many of our “false idols”—of success, eternal youth, security, etc.—are cast down. If we can stay faithful to the journey through the crisis (disorder), we begin to turn from those idols to the gift of a resurrected Jesus and a resurrected life.
But Rohr then went a step further, and he declared that anyone born after the late 60s (I was born in 1968, right on the demographic borderland) has never known order. Basically, he was saying that by the time “Generation X” was in full swing (not to mention the generations that followed) so many of our social structures had disintegrated and lost their influence that functionally most of us have never known anything like “order.”
We’ve grown up in the middle of disorder, and the thing about the pattern of life is that you cannot really jump into the middle.
The pattern only really “works” (in the sense of producing transformed, enlightened, Christ-like people) when you follow it in sequence. It’s almost scarily simplistic: like learning a craft or an instrument:
Learn the basics, break the rules to chaotic results, then learn to assemble them in a new and masterful way.
So it struck me how much the vision of “disorder” connected with the idea of “infinite choice”.
It’s the supermarket full of a whole row of a selection of toilet paper, and wondering what the basis is for making a choice…
It’s picking up a guitar for the first time and being overwhelmed at how you’re supposed to move two hands simultaneously—and independently—in order to make some kind of noise…
It’s taking your first drive as a student driver on the 5 lanes of the Eisenhower Expressway in Chicago…
It’s not the way we do life; we start off with structure, with rails, with Rohr’s “Order”. But in so many ways, our modern culture throws all of us into the lake of “Disorder”, and then celebrates it as the ideal.
We may know that “Order” is not the destination, but we acknowledge it as a stage to go through, because maybe, just maybe, it’s the way to cultivate an emotionally/psychologically/spiritually healthy life.
(To state it in the negative, to just jump in to “Disorder” and to declare that “infinite choice” is my right and my destiny as a citizen of the west just may be a short cut to anxiety and depression.)
So we acknowledge “Order” for a while. We know that eventually we will be called out beyond it (because our culture surely has enough of people who have never moved beyond the rules-oriented, black and white world of “Order”), but we accept that maybe it’s not an awful thing if we “learn the rules” (Just how DO I pick just one brand of toilet paper?).
Maybe “Freedom” is ultimately about moving holistically and healthily through the stages of life, and then turning around in self-extending, compassionate love to help others do the same thing.