coverThe following is an excerpt from “An Emerging Dictionary for the Gospel and Culture.” (Wipf & Stock, Resource Publications, 2010)


At the still point of the turning world.
Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards;
at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.

Paradox has become a common word in the missional conversation. In part this is because the death of modernity has meant a recovery of mystery. But in part it is a recognition of complexity, and that change and growth in this suddenly mysterious world involves paradox.

In the West our churches we have sought control, boxing God and setting him at our service, or marketing him as a product for consumption. Pete Rollins responds to this modern idolatry. He proclaims doubt as a virtue, and notes that what we often consider definitions are actually non-definitions. Rollins quotes Anselm: “Therefore, Lord, you are not merely that than which a greater cannot be though, you are something greater than can be thought,” and Saint Leo: “Even if one has progressed far in divine things, one is never nearer the truth than when one understands that those things still remain to be discovered.” Mystical theology is paradoxical.

Paradox is a function of the limits of language and human knowledge. “The desire to get beyond language forces us to stretch language to its very limits…in order to tear through them and glimpse what lies beneath.” The desire to say nothing opens up creative space.

But more: paradox is a requirement for change. Bill Buker quotes Keeney that, “The deepest order of change is epistemological change.” He talks about first order change, which is common sense change. This is the kind of change that happens when your spouse has to cut back at work. It will mean an adjustment in your family. Either you spend less, or someone else works more.

This works fine when there aren’t powerful personal and psychological dynamics involved. However, when someone has become dependent on something and it shapes their very identity, this first order strategy will not succeed.

The second order of change involves becoming open to reevaluating the presuppositions that govern first order strategies. This is usually experienced as a crisis and one’s world-view may be in shambles. Then comes the clincher:

In comparison with the rules and premises that previously governed their system, these new ones often seem paradoxical in nature. Instead of the commonsense idea that out of control drinking should be addressed by choosing in-control behavior, second-order change says that the complementary position of honesty is better. Instead of continuing to engage in the first-order strategy of exerting more willpower in a determined effort to prove their control over alcohol, it becomes important for alcoholics to recognize and admit that they are [powerless.] To genuinely make this admission, a shift in self-perception is required. Rather than exulting in pride, bowing in humility becomes appropriate. Such a change is generally made possible through the gift of hitting bottom.

The essence of epistemological shift involves three critical dimensions:

1. An ability to embrace paradox
2. An inner quality of humility leading to surrender
3. The willingness to grieve the loss of the previous world and previous identity

This is highly relevant stuff, because we are faced in our time with a world that is complex beyond our imaginations. Living in this world requires an ability to embrace ambiguity.

Because we are finite beings, even God’s self-revelation is mysterious. One of the oldest frameworks for thinking about spirituality was first articulated by Gregory of Nyssa. Gregory characterized growth in faith as entry into a moonlit desert night, then movement to a fog covered mountain, and finally into the impenetrable darkness of a thick cloud (Moses on the mountain). The more darkness faith could embrace, he thought, the greater the light it gave. This is classic apophatic expression, the via negativa as compared to via positiva. We need both perspectives if we are to honour the weakness and foolishness of the Cross