The staggering degree to which these terms are conflated, either out of ignorance or a desire to manipulate, is shocking. As I have mentioned many times on this blog, I was a reformed orthodox Christian for about 35 years, including 15 in the “soft” cult of Sovereign Grace Ministires. At SGM, when they weren’t busy covering up first degree felonies, like the sexual abuse of minors, they liked to refer to themselves as “reformed charismatic”. And this I suppose was the first time I became conscious of the great orthodox bugaboo: contradiction as Truth. Some years after, when I began to ardently examine the doctrinal claims of orthodox Christianity through the lens of rational consistency, I started seeing this sophist tactic all over the place. I mean, once you learn to find the contradictions, it becomes harder to discern what ISN’T a contradiction than what is. I mean, name the doctrinal premise—double imputation, penal substitution, Original Sin/Fall of Man, biblical inerrancy and authority, faith alone, pervasive depravity and sin nature, forgiveness, salvific belief, the Holy Spirit and divine enlightenment, Total Depravity; Uncontitional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; Perserverence of the Saints (the five pillars of Calvinism, T.U.L.I.P.), complimentarianism, etcetera, etcetera—and you will find little more than a bubbling witches brew of contradiction and self-defeating arguments. Once you know what to look for, let me tell you, the circus of Christian orthodoxy is quite a show.
And how does the Christain Ecclesiastic Authority, in whatever Catholic or Protestant form it may take, get away with this? How do they convince masses upon masses of ostensibly intelligent and successful lay memebers to part with their hard earned resources and make Orthodox Christianity a billions-of-dollars-a-year-racket? By intellectual make-believe. Take a contradiction, put it into the transcendent context of “divine enlightenment” and, as Philospher John Immel oft says, “Alakazaam…poof!!”, we get God’s Mystery…the Holy Paradox. The Holy Paradox being, incidentally, the fifth member of the Trinity, just after “Bible”.
In this article, I’m going to explain the real difference between these three concepts…contradiction, mystery, and paradox. Understand the distinctions, and I can promise that you will avoid the intellectual, philosophical, and theological miasma that will permanently stunt your spiritual growth. Contradiction-as-truth is the hard drug of Christian theology. Break the habit and you will save your soul.
Just a quick note…I’m not going to quote dictionary definitions. This tired and formulaic approach to academic discourse is, to me, a mark of the untalented and/or uninspired. I will define these concepts in my own terms within the context at hand—specifically, but perhap not exclusively, the church—in the interest of keeping things more punchy and less clinical. It’s more fun this way, trust me.
A contradiction is merely the assertion that two or more mutually exclusive concepts are, in fact, compatible. When we are speaking of ideas, doctrine, theology, philosophy, and so on, you will note a contradiction in some form or fashion this way:
A claim to know that something is true, yet that thing necessarily and/or by definition incorporates two or more mutually exclusive concepts, and predicates its “truth” upon the idea that these incompatible concepts are somehow entirely compatible. It assumes and expects you to also assume that what are overtly and objectively opposite notions are somehow corollary. Up is also down; black is also white; the square is also the circle.
- Total Depravity: Man is responsible for his own practical moral failures and yet is born depraved in his nature. (Incidentally, the oft-responded notion that Total Depravity doesn’t mean that we are as bad as we could be is also a rank contradiction in terms, by definition…”total” does not mean “partly”, but intellectual license is cheap and easy when you can appeal to “divine enlightenment” instead of reason. Any old dope can claim to “know” things if he doesn’t actually have to explain them. Telling people that they will understand once they “believe” (meaning when God reveals it to them by magic) is merely saying that they will understand once they agree. Which is, again, a contradiction in terms. Like I said…it just never ends.) That man is BORN depraved is saying that man, existentially, IS evil, and thus in his natural, absolute Self, cannot do any good thing. This is PRECISELY the argument for why all men need Jesus—-because all men have sinned because why? Because they MUST sin! Because of their nature. Because they are born sinners. All Good is a function of God’s divine power and enlightenment upon man who is existentially unworthy and, of himself, alone, unable to receive it. And yet man is morally responsible for his evil as though he can know the difference between good and evil and can choose the latter over the former. The contraction is this, in a nutshell: Man IS totally evil, and yet man also responsible for his evil as though he had a choice, which is why God judges him.
- God’s Divine Will: All which happens is a product of God’s omnipotence. Yet man’s consciousness is somehow real and relevant, and that man can know something, like God’s saving grace and his own natural sinfulness. This is a contradiction in terms because if God possesses ominipotence then all which occurs in reality is either a function of God’s direct causal power or his “allowing” something to occur, which…means the same thing. Nothing happens that God doesn’t directly control either via “action” or “inaction”. In this context, man cannot develop an independent self-identity. All man does is in reality a function of God’s doing, in which case, there is no point to nor possibility of man actually BEING himself. For “being” is an action, which is not of himself, but of God, because of omnipotence. If man does not possess his own self, then he certainly cannot be self-aware.
A mystery is simply that which is unknown. It is not, as Christian orthodoxy implies or outright asserts, that which is UNKNOWABLE. The idea that God controls all things, yet man is morally responsible for his natural depravity and INEVITABLE evil actions; that God is in control of all things and yet simultaneously abhors the evil actions of men and demands sacrificial recompense…these things are not mysteries! These things are contradictions. Christian orthodoxy labels its contradictions as “mysteries” because appealing to divine mystery is the most convenient way to conflate ideological folderol with God’s infinite wisdom, which, when presented in the context of soaring-if-not-insipid worship music, the histrionics and emotional blackmail of the pulpit, and the navel-gazing desperation of the congregation, can seem quite profound. In reality, however, it is no more than pedestrian intellectual error of the kind found in the most nascent of human minds. That is, in children. It’s pretty sad. And yet there it is, Sunday after Sunday, and making big money and casting a wide net of social and political influence. So…perhaps it’s not so much sad as it is scary.
Example (of Mystery):
- How did the lion escape from the zoo when the cage was closed and locked? (A simple hypothetical mystery.)
- Why does the sun rise and set? (A historical mystery, henceforth solved.)
- How does an experienced hunter, tracker, and survival expert get lost and starve to death in terrain with which he is intimately familiar? (A hypothetical mystery which may never be solved.)
A mystery can be that which we do not yet know, which we did not know but now do, or that which only one man or a few men once knew and have taken the knowledge with them to the grave. None of these things are “unknowable”…that is, the answers to the questions do not exceed the existential and epistemological boundaries of man’s identity. Man’s identiy as “man”, and all that this naturally implies about his consciousness and cognitive capabilities, are the only frame of reference necessary to de-mystify the mystery. The answers to the questions may rationally exist within man’s reality and will be defined according to reason.
This is, I submit, the most misunderstood and misused of the three concepts addressed in this article. “Paradox” is not a synonym for “contradiction”…and yet this mistake has become so common that you find it almost as often as you find someone using the term “literally” to mean “figuratively”. It’s become part of the common vernacular, and we don’t even bat an eye at the massive distortion in meaning it creates. Paradox shares absolutely nothing in common with contradiction with respect to its own particular meaning, though it is true that one can be confused with the other based on incorrect assumptions or a lack of or misunderstanding about some amount of empirical evidence.
A paradox is something which can as of yet only be described by combining two or more mutually exclusive concepts, but which nevertheless MUST be true based on empirical evidence. We might also say that a paradox is observably true, but conceptually false. We cannot describe what we are seeing in terms that do not conflict. Paradox, then, is only temporary…for any observed phenomenon can and must only be described in conceptual terms that are consistent. To leave a paradox to a contradictory definition is, I submit, to divorce man from his own reality. A reality which does not conform to man’s conceptualizing faculties (his reason) inevitably makes man irrelevant to reality. The consequences of this are disastrous. To claim that man can observe something he CANNOT and CAN NEVER describe is to drive a wedge between cognition/conceptualization and perception. Man then, in the metaphysical sense, as a singular Self—the conscious Self, you you might say—becomes divorced from the determinative cause and effect of “objective reality”. Man qua man then becomes an imposter to reality, or at best an illusion…his awareness of Self—that by which he describes and defines “objective reality” becomes, ironically, a paradox of nature—some determined cause of a determined effect prescribed by the blind and unthinking laws of nature. The “I” of man—the individuality of the individual—is reduced to an ultimately irrelevant epiphenomenon of the utterly determined universe. Man becomes a paradox which can have no conceptual solution because he doesn’t really, or at best, relevantly, exist.
And it doesn’t take a clairvoyant to see where this goes.
At any rate, a paradox, in summary, is that which is observed, and thus is real, but as of yet has not been explained in rationally consistent terms.
- The wave/particle duality of light. That light is both a particle and a wave. For light can be observed in both states, and thus is said to BE both, simultaneously. As this is a contradiction in terms, we must assume that how light is observed probably has to do with the location of the observer and not with the idea that light both is and is not a wave and a particle at any given moment.
- That objects exist, an distinctly so, and yet all objects are comprised of a collection of parts, and thus no objects exist, because all objects are comprised of other objects, infinitely so.