Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Paradoxes of Christianity

Christian doctrine is a complicated thing. Though the gospel can be easily summarized – “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 – teasing out just what it means for God to send his “one and only son” to save his “children” (!), leads to more paradoxes than your average time travel movie.

For instance, Jesus of Nazareth was (and is) both fully divine and fully human. Not half of one and half the other, but completely divine, eternal, only-begotten of God, etc. and completely human, temporal, begotten of a woman, etc. Yet how can Jesus be both eternal and temporal? How can the creator of everything become a creature? How can this be anything other than blatant contradiction?

Nor do the difficulties end with the nature of Christ. The Bible is also claimed to be fully human and fully divine. Salvation is by humanity’s free choice and God’s predetermined election. God is both the source of all that exists (including evil), and yet innocent of all evil. At every turn, Christian doctrine maintains, even proudly declares, such paradoxes.

What are we to make of all this. As Christians, have we grown so accustomed to these difficulties that we no longer recognize them as such? If the first rule of logic is non-contradiction, is our faith merely a colossal confusion? Perhaps, but there is another explanation. To see this, an analogy will be helpful, for Christian doctrine is not the only area of knowledge that includes such paradoxes.

Consider quantum mechanics: According to this branch of physics, at the microscopic level the universe is an extremely strange and paradoxical place. The fundamental particles of our universe – photons, electrons, quarks, etc. – boast a number of properties that certainly appear to be contradictory. For instance, according to Wave-Particle Duality, these fundamental particles act both as though they have a particular position and trajectory and as though their “probability wave” extends throughout the entire universe. According to Quantum entanglement and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, particles can influence each other instantly over infinite distances, and yet we can never know simultaneously where they are and how fast they are moving.

Of course, just because there are also paradoxes in physics doesn’t automatically excuse Christian doctrine for having its own. What is significant, however, is the remarkably similar form of these paradoxes.

First, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes almost certainly result from our own finite perspectives. As human beings accustomed to dealing with objects measured in inches and feet (or centimeters and meters for my non-American friends), it’s hardly surprising that our language gets stretched to the breaking point when we begin talking about things – like quantum particles and the divine nature – far removed from such everyday experience. Presumably, these paradoxes are capable of resolution; we just don’t (yet?) have access to a broad enough perspective to resolve them. Our usual intuitions – that objects can only be in one place at a time, or that freedom and determinism are opposites – can lead us astray when facing such ultimate questions.

Second, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes are confirmed by constant experience. Though Wave-Particle Duality could be dissolved by rejecting the experimental data that shows light particles acting like waves (e.g. the counter-intuitive Double-Slit Experiment), that wouldn’t solve the problem, it would only ignore it. Likewise, the Freedom-Predestination paradox could be dissolved by rejecting human freedom (as hyper-Calvinists do), but such does not solve the problem, it only ignores it. For just as Wave-Particle Duality is repeatedly confirmed by experiment, the Freedom-Predestination paradox is confirmed by our constant experience of both the reality of freedom and the still small voice of election.

Finally, in both quantum mechanics and Christianity, these paradoxes are central to the system of thought. The paradox of Wave-Particle Duality is not a peripheral detail of quantum mechanics, an exception that can be dismissed as a misunderstanding. It is rather the essential feature of the theory, the central fact by which everything else in quantum mechanics makes sense. In the same way, the dual nature of Christ – both fully God and fully man – is not some peripheral detail; it is the central fact of Christian doctrine. In both cases, the proof of the theory is not that it makes sense, but that it makes sense of everything else.


mattghg said...

A worthy extension to Orthodoxy chapter 7 (my favourite chapter) ;)

Ken Brown said...

Thanks Matt! The first draft of this post actually began with a discussion of Chesterton's chapter on the subject (one of my favorites as well, though I think you meant chapter 6). The post grew too long and I cut that part, but I'm thinking of knocking it into a post of its own.

mattghg said...

Ah, yes, I did mean chapter 6. Darn Roman numerals!
That post idea sounds interesting.