Embracing the paradoxes

Apr 05, 2010

I was brought up in a hell-fire and damnation church in Kentucky with the preacher yelling and screaming about how sinful we were and how consigned to hell we were, pounding his fist on the pulpit for emphasis every Sunday. This was a powerful and toxic drama that had these effects on me: 1)a tendency to think the worst of myself, 2)a sense that God sat on my shoulder judging everything single thing I did and 3)a disinclination to have anything to do with Christianity. Later in my life I realized that the minister lied to us every Sunday; he lied by taking one part of the teachings—God’s judgment– and exaggerating it while excluding any talk of God’s love for us.

We moved up north when I was 13, but the damage was already done.  I was terrified of God, very much down on myself and sin-oriented. The northern version of God was a little more balanced and cerebral—there was no pounding on the pulpit or screaming. As a young adult I joined a church but later drifted away from it. It became very hard for me to even listen to Christian language without bringing back that vengeful God. So I avoided Christianity more and more.

By the time I was in my forties my husband and I had been in a cult for eight years that emphasized Jesus as the model human being, not the Son of God. This was very appealing to me, because I still was really tied to God, but unable to resolve a lot of the questions I had. I had tried to patch God’s love onto the old judging God, but it was only a patch. The cult, for all its limitations, set me firmly on a spiritual journey that led eventually back to the church and to loving God. But then there were all the questions I had to deal with—was God loving or vengeful? Was Jesus the Son of God or a man? Did the resurrection happen? Was it really a virgin birth?

The question my mind loved most was the Jesus one. I went back and forth for quite a few years on whether Jesus was the son of God or just the very best model for mankind.  I wore myself out thinking about this and finally settled it this way: I asked myself if I would act any differently if either one were true and not the other? My answer was no.  The question was finally settled for me in the way all paradoxes can be held: by embracing both. The science/religion and the loving God/judging God questions can be settled in the same way: while science does not support the literalist version of the Bible, we also don’t understand what a “day” was in God’s time. We can’t understand the mystery of creation, and scientists have limited understanding of the universe so we can say that both are right. Today cosmologists state that they understand only 4% of the universe, all the rest is “dark matter” which they know exists, but have no idea what it is. Again a paradox.

Often we do get caught up in the intellect’s love of an argument, going back and forth like I did for so many years on the nature of Jesus, but in the end it is just an intellectual exercise that won’t change anything and that doesn’t matter to any part of us except the mind. We can stay on this intellectual plane for years and never embrace the life that Jesus models for us.  I think of Jesus as bringing together the heart and the mind to understand both the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and of engaging in a very personal relationship with the Father. If we’re so concerned with the questions about who he is, we can miss out on the intimate relationship that he wants to have with us, just like the one he has with the Father. If we’re holding back mentally until the argument is won, we must be also holding back our hearts until this is resolved.  The mind has such power only if we allow the fight to continue.

Embracing the paradoxes of Christianity frees us to enter into a close relationship with the Lord. And isn’t that the point anyway? Mental gymnastics just keep us in the gym. Jesus invites us out of our narrow mental confines into a close relationship with him: to engage with people, to model a code of conduct with love and to serve others in his name. That’s a lot more engaging than any mental battle.

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