Posts Tagged ‘paradox’

This semester I’m doing a course on the Gospel of John. After reading it these are some of what I regard as the “best bits”. I hope it doesn’t say too much about my faith:

10. Wine with Jesus

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he’s hanging out at a wedding in Cana, not too far from his hometown in Nazareth. This is where he performs his first miracle which “revealed his glory” (2:11). John records other miracles like healing an official’s “ill”¹ son (4:46-54), healing a man who had been “ill”² for thirty-eight years (5:1-9), feeding five thousand followers (6:1-14), and healing a man born blind (9:1-7). With this resumé, providing wine at a wedding pales in comparison. Perhaps even more embarrassing for Jesus is that he performs this when the guests have already had their fair share: Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now (2:10).³ But I won’t leave you hanging. Perhaps this passage speaks to its First Century context as Jesus meeting the important needs of hospitality. Maybe what appeals to me is its simple mystery: Why was Jesus’ first miracle providing wine?

Cana I have some?

Cana I have some?

9. 1st Century cannibalism

Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. (6:53-55). This is quite intense and remains for me one of the most puzzling passages in John. The main difficulty I have with it is John’s use of sarx, here translated flesh. Elsewhere in the gospel he uses it in contrast to spirit, or spiritual things (eg. 1:13, 3:6, 8:15), so that flesh designates the human, material aspect. The difficulty is that interpreting sarx in the same sense here means that Jesus is asking his followers to eat his flesh and drink his blood, plain meaning, no interpretation needed. Whatever its meaning, its value (apart from the obvious as a contribution to theology around the Eucharist) is in presenting Jesus as an enigmatic prophet who continued to shock his listeners, including newly acquired followers and those close to him. The result is that most of the crowd desert him and he is left with the twelve (6:66-69).

8. Paradoxical witness to Jesus’ validity

[“]I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf.” Then they said to him, “Where is your father?” Jesus answered, “You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also.” (8:18-19). Compare this with Jesus saying earlier that his testimony needs to be backed up by a secondary source (5:31). Basically, in this passage Jesus appeals to the Father as a witness to his messiahship and then continues by telling his audience they will not know the Father unless they know him! His proof runs on a paradoxical, internal logic. Further reading of the gospel will show that belief in Jesus is not closed. He provides signs (10:38), scripture testifies to him (5:45) and the Father is at work in people’s hearts (6:44). Regardless, the verses on their lonesome demonstrate the depth of Jesus’ words in John and the complex theology they deliver.

7. Listening to your mother

When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” (2:3-5). Returning to the wedding scene at Cana, a further point to be made about Jesus’ first miracle is that he is ostensibly not ready for it. We know that, despite Jesus’ hour having not yet come, he does perform the miracle sooner or later. It would be convenient to be able to say that Jesus performed the miracle an hour later, which is a comical interpretation at best. Could it be that Mary’s ‘prayer’ is answered in line with prophetic tradition?4 Another passage presents a similar quirk where Jesus’ brothers ask him to go to the Festival of Tabernacles and he gives a similar excuse but then later goes to the festival in secret (7:2-10).5 The second passage differs in that it shows Jesus as having a greater, more considered plan in place of one seen through the eyes of the flesh, but the point remains that he appears open to change with the circumstances in which he finds himself.

6. Stepping on necks and suchlike

Now is the judgement of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. (12:30). John makes no small mention of Satan. He actually develops quite substantial demonology (satanology?) on him (8:44). But the most badass thing about John’s mentions of Satan is their connection to Jesus. He always approaches it from an ask-no-questions-your-time-has-come standpoint. So we get that Jesus will drive Satan out (12:30), but also that he has no power of Jesus (14:30), and even that he is already condemned (16:11). Combine this with Jesus’ comments on freedom from slavery to sin (8:34-36) and you’ve got a pretty solid Gospel.



5. Just sayin’

Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. (20:3-4). One of my pastors first pointed this out to me. Why is it necessary to know, in the Good News of the Gospel, that one disciple outran another? To put things in perspective, said disciple is the same one who claims authorship (21:24). It was important to let two thousand years of readers in on the fact that one disciple was not quite as fast as the other. Of course, because the Bible is a ‘serious’ undertaking then we must undertake it seriously. Maybe the writer wanted to build on the theme of this disciple’s love for Jesus and Peter’s shame at having denied him. Maybe he was being careful to convey his account as historically and truthfully as it came to him. Either way, there is humour in the Bible and I think this is a great contribution. It fits into a wider tradition of unneccessary comic detail (eg. Judges 3:21-22). I couldn’t help but laugh either when I read about the number of fish the disciples caught in the miraculous catch, 153 (21:11). Who counts that kind of thing?

4. All too human

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ (11:32-36). Along with the aforementioned text of Jesus listening to his mother, this passage also shows how Jesus reacted to the circumstances around him. At the risk of sounding a little polemical, to say that God foreordained Jesus to weep, or especially that Jesus knew he would weep is to miss one of the main points this passage conveys: Jesus’ humanity. On hearing the news about Lazarus’s sickness, Jesus appears cool, calm, and collected (11:6), even demonstrating his divine knowledge that Lazarus has died in this period of waiting (11:11). Despite this, along with the fact that he is going to raise Lazarus for the sake of his disciples’ belief (11:14-15), he is still overcome by his emotions when on site with the grieving family.

3. Membership benefits

Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples […] If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing what Abraham did, but now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God.[“] (8:31, 39-40). If Jesus was trying to gain followers then he was certainly doing a terrible job at that. After a decent conversation with some Pharisees, many of the people listening end up believing in him (8:30). But here’s the problem. He then turns to them and starts talking about the nature of discipleship, calling them slaves to sin (8:34), accusing them of planning to kill him (8:37) and going as far as labelling them children of the devil (8:44).6 Now how’s that for an induction process?

2. A blind man’s irony

They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ (9:26-27). As with the text on Peter being beaten to the tomb, this can be read as a nice bit of humour added into John. Jesus has just healed the blind man and the Pharisees are questioning him to find out who healed him, as he has been healed on a sabbath. After the second question he asks them if they would like to become one of Jesus’ disciples. I see two interpretative possibilities here. The blind man may not have been fully onto it with social cues and so genuinely put the offer out to the Pharisees, in light of his life-changing experience (imagine having sight for the first time). But what if he too was poking fun at the religious elite? He knew how they would react and so wanted to ruffle their feathers a little. This makes sense in light of the continuing dialogue: The Pharisees do not want to accept the work that Jesus is doing among them, despite the obvious change Jesus has had in this blind man’s life and his connection with it (9:28-34).

1. He is

Then the Jews said to him, ‘You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?’ Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple. (8:57-59). This is the thrilling conclusion to Jesus’ confrontation with his new believers (8:31ff). He has up until now been reasonably evasive of questions regarding his identity. Now, in the Temple at Jerusalem, Jesus tactlessly claims to be God,7 probably the highest form of blasphemy. What makes this all so dangerously exciting is it’s well-executed build-up from an earlier, more peaceable dialogue. It makes me smile and think he just said that!

* * *

¹Not ill in the sense that he’s got a cold, but something worrying in days before modern medicine. All scripture quotations taken from NRSV.

²Bruner’s commentary notes this is probably a paraplegic, made worse by his inability to look after himself and therefore lack of personal hygiene.

³Of course, the text doesn’t explicitly state the guests were drunk; it is only implied. I could also say that the law does not explicitly prohibit drinking; it is only implied (Deut 21:20). Take me up on this too because it would be good to argue out. The verses in Proverbs don’t count either. They instruct wisdom, not covenant responsibility.

4Interestingly, the name Mary is never used in John in reference to Jesus’ mother.

5Note that this passage uses time/kairos instead of hour/hōra. I’m not boss enough to say how significant this is.

6The most apparent meaning is that this discourse is engaged between Jesus and the new believers (8:30-31), although the text presents problems in that his accusations of them don’t line up with the idea of a believer. He is either challenging his believers to authentic deeper belief (the way I have read the passage here) or the discourse has been accidentally mixed in with something aimed at “the Jews” who yet don’t believe in Jesus.

7Cf. Ex 3:14, Ps 90:2. There is also a clear claim here to Jesus’ pre-existence.

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A friend once relayed to me, “What happens if Pinnochio says that his nose is about to grow?”

Of course, Pinnochio’s nose only grows when he is lying. But if his nose does grow then he would be found to have been telling the truth, so his nose shouldn’t therefore grow. But if his nose does not grow, then he would be lying, and the natural consequence of Pinnochio’s lying is therefore avoided by his cunning linguistic manipulation.

So… what actually happens? I would say that his nose grows. Pinnochio’s default state can probably be said to be one of truthfulness rather than deceit. I say this because his nose is more often not growing than growing. This means that at any given moment in time, we can say that his nose in the next moment is going to be the same, contingent on his current state of truthfulness. Yet Pinnochio at this time breaks the non-consequential nose. His statement makes an assumption about the future, contrary to what his current state of truthfulness necessitates the future to be: without nose growth. If so, he makes an incorrect statement about the immediate future, therefore breaking the state of truthfulness and entering into a state of lying. His nose will grow because at the very moment he said “My nose is about to grow” he was lying; his nose in the state of truthfulness was never “about to grow” and he is only found to have been speaking the truth in retrospect of the consequences of his words¹. The paradox can therefore only be understood when placed in time.

* * *

¹If the paradox has a solvable consequence, beyond time and space imploding at the whim of Pinnochio’s thoughtless words, then it therefore creates the new paradox: Pinnochio is simultaneously lying and speaking the truth. Why does he only receive the consequences of a lying Pinnochio then? Why does his nose not meet him half way and grow sideways or at half the speed or into his face instead of out, in some way acknowledging that he is at the same time truthful? This is because at the moment that he lied his nose had not yet grown. In retrospect he was truthful and his nose had not yet grown. In the present he lied, as his nose also grew in the present.

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“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement.  But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” — Niels Bohr

* * *

Been thinking a little about how people respond to truth lately. Not that I know what truth is, but what follows is three ways an individual can respond to something that another holds true.

Assimilation or accommodation: We used these terms at uni to describe two opposite processes people go through when responding to cultures different from their own. Interestingly enough, the power relationship you have in relating to something that is at odds with you in some way will often have an effect on your response to it. The example used in my course was the culture shock experienced when you move into a country that differs from yours in many ways. If an individual is embarrassed by the customs and way of life they have come from and therefore feels the need to rid themselves of these, then it is called assimilation when they allow themselves to be swallowed up by the new dominant culture and take it on as their own. Alternatively, an individual may retain a lot of what they grew up and also take on board what they feel they need to from their new context to operate in that. This, then, is accommodation because they accommodate new values, practices, etc into their existing ones rather than vice versa.

Bored yet? This dynamic can be seen in churches also, when Christians are either shaped by or shape the world around them. We’re warned against the former, and, ironically, the measures we often take to avoid it also may prevent us fulfilling the latter.

Tension and balance: A beautiful way to make peace when discussing theological differences is to proffer the possibility of a ‘tension’. It’s bound to make an appearance in any conversation that (a) different Christians will have differing opinions of and (b) has practical implications. Look at the assimilation/accommodation example I just used: One concerned friend notes how, in an attempt to reach a certain people group, someone in their community is starting to backslide because they’ve been spending too much time among those of the world. Another contradicts the concern by noting that those of the world would never be reached without interaction. I’m oversimplifying here because I don’t want to write for ages. Finally, the peacemaker speaks. Their first move is to identify it: “Oh, it’s a tension.” There are audible ahhs of understanding, and the peacemaker expands, “It’s really important to balance the two. Find a mid-point.” Likewise, you can see this is in more abstract matters like inspiration of scripture (human vs divine input), morality (grace vs grace abuse), and God’s sovereignty (omnipotence vs the unfulfilled kingdom).

Paradox: At the risk of regressing in my own understanding of this and simultaneously confusing you, let’s give paradox a go. Really, I dislike it when people look at a word’s etymology to make an appeal to the real meaning of the word. Unless you’re doing Koine Greek or something to help readers understand the original context, why tell your acrobats that circus comes from the same root as circle so that you can maintain a circular performance area? No, language changes over time. However, I think the etymology or paradox is important. In the Greek, para- means beyond and dox, belief: Beyond belief. Ambrose Bierce’s ironic and delightfully cynical, The Devil’s Dictionary, provides a good example of paradox under the definition of Trinity:

In the multiplex theism of certain Christian churches, three entirely distinct deities consistent with only one. Subordinate deities of the polytheistic faith, such as devils and angels, are not dowered with the power of combination, and must urge individually their claims to adoration and propitiation. The Trinity is one of the most sublime mysteries of our holy religion. In rejecting it because it is incomprehensible, Unitarians betray their inadequate sense of theological fundamentals. In religion we believe only what we do not understand, except in the instance of an intelligible doctrine that contradicts an incomprehensible one. In that case we believe the former as a part of the latter.

Paradox transcends language because it is logically impossible. Instead of watering down two truths to find a mid-point, or saying that one end of the spectrum is true in some cases and the other in other cases, paradox defiantly holds both at the same time. Paradox pulls a moonie at truth. Paradox is the parody of truth. In some ways it can be seen as the option for those who are too intellectually weak to decide if one statement is more logical, empirically testable, or true than another statement, which Bierce takes a jab at in the above definition. And this is probably the greatest temptation, but au contraire, paradox shows not only the limits of truth as expressed in language, not only our own understanding, but our humanity.

It’s all in God’s hands, but we need to proclaim the Good News. You need to love others, but you also need to speak out against their injustices. Grace is completely free, but it will cost you everything. Accept this intellectually, at a glance. Look at that. Yes. Done already. But now try to live this. There is no mid-point. You cannot say that it’s a little bit of you and a little bit of the Holy Spirit. You cannot say that God does all the work, and you definitely cannot say you do all of it. Your only option is to continue the hard task of living it, to the limits of your humanity.

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