One feature of German theologians that attracts me so much is their love for, and indeed in many cases, reliance upon paradox. A paradox is fancy word for a statement that seems self-contradictory.
The first example that comes to my mind is Martin Luther’s statement: a Christian is the perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is the perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject of all, subject to all. Some may accuse Luther of babbling nonsense here (indeed they have accused him of worse), but we can see that these statements are both true and necessary for the life of each and every follower of Jesus.
We can see these paradoxes also in the Scriptures. Have you ever read Proverbs 26 and stopped at verses 4 and 5? Answer not a fool according to his folly…Answer a fool according to his folly. The writer, given words by God himself, is not babbling but stating a paradox. The truth is that sometimes you need to shut up a fool and sometimes you are a fool for doing just that. Paradox.
I think I am in good company, then, when I propose that there is another side to that little discussion on simplicity. Yes, there is a great simplicity to the truth we are given by God. No, we are not dealing with an easy God who allows us to plum his depths. God stoops down to make himself known but he will not be understood in his fullness. Mystery remains- and there is plenty to go around at that. How can God reveal himself and be hidden in mystery at the same time? If you are accusing me of babbling at least I am in good company, but let me explain a bit more.
Recently, I have been following a blog by a guy named Joel Miller (whose blog I would also recommend to you!). In the midst of looking around, I found a post with a similar name to my post on Tuesday. Naturally, I checked it out.
Well, much to my chagrin, Mr. Miller’s point seemed to be directly opposite mine. His opinion is that we look for simplicity in God because we want life to be easy. His point is that we crave “simplicity” because we are allowed to be lazy as soon we convince ourselves that we have mastered this whole “God thing” (ok, that’s my paraphrase, he’s a much better writer than I am!). My initial reaction was to disagree. After all, I had just spent eleven hundred words making the case that simple, humble words are the ones that drive us to the heart of God. How could we both be right?
Then I remembered something Steinbeck’s Rev. Casy said to a man struggling with doubt. In the most colorful of language he said:
Them people that’s sure about ever’thing an’ ain’t got no sin- well, with that kind of son-of-a-bitch, if I was God I’d kick their ass right outa heaven! I couldn’ stand ‘em!
It really is arrogant to think we “get it”, that in simple or complicated language we could ever get down to the bottom of the heart of God. The day we wake up sure about the world, sure of our lives, sure of those around us, sure of the veracity of the bible, sure of our own hearts- that is the day we have freed ourselves from even the rule of God. We have become autonomous, answering only to ourselves. Now that is a frightening and awful place to be, right?
Do you remember the story of the tower of Babel? That was when the leaders of the world got together in a council that would make the United Nations blush with shame and decided they would reach out to God. Now, before you take the position of the biblical scholar, just consider for one minute how noble this task would sound. Can you imagine if the U.S. government got together with Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, China, and Russia (just for old times’ sake) and decided to stop fighting, hold hands and try to make contact with God? Would there not be much rejoicing and singing of John Lennon songs?
The plan of our ancestors was to build a gigantic tower (hence the name of the story) that was big enough to pierce the heavens and ascend to God, whoever he or she was up there. Now, give them a break, this is thousands of years before Sputnik, how could they know about atmospheres or the heat of the sun that would surely incinerate them as they reached the end of physical reality?
Do you remember what happened? God was not pleased. He came down and confused the language. It is not every day that God comes down from heaven and curses men with unattainable rules of grammar, syntax, and German-to-English dictionaries, but that is exactly what he did. And why? What is so wrong with trying to know God? What is wrong with throwing our whole selves into the pursuit of contacting God? That is the type of thing that guarantees a Nobel Peace prize these days.
The issue is simply that God would not be found in relationship from the ground-up. Man does not attain to God through his noble pursuits. Can you see the flat-out arrogance of a culture who would try and reach out to God through its great accomplishments? Can God actually be impressed by the work of man?
The people thought that God could be reached and impressed as easily, as simply as their brothers. What an arrogant thought- that God, who rules and reigns in mystery, could possibly be known on human terms!
But where were we? Oh yes, paradox. There is one more paradox we should mention. Jesus is both fully man and fully God. The unknowable, unattainable, unfathomable God has made himself known. In Christ, we have been given all we need for life and godliness, if Peter was telling us the truth. In Christ, we have been given all the comfort of the God of comfort, if Paul was telling the truth.
It is in this suffering, yet joyful servant that we have come to know the unknowable God. It is with this homeless king that we have been invited to reign forever. It is in this Christ who died that we find life. It is in the God who is not ashamed to be called brother to all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve are made new.
Of this great paradox, Bonhoeffer wrote:
Faith means being held captive by the sight of Jesus Christ, no longer seeing anything but him, being wrested from my imprisonment in my own self, being set free by Jesus Christ.
In simple wonder we fix our eyes again on Jesus Christ, who has come down to convince us that God is for us.