Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Paradox and the Orthodox

Ross Arnold gave a very solid presentation on "The Paradoxes of Christianity", filled with quotes from Chesterton many of which were projected onto the screen.

One of the best quotes was not by Chesterton. Arnold quoted William F. Buckley on reading Chesterton: "You frequently must simply close the book lest you be overwhelmed."

Arnold defined paradox quite aptly. Contrasting paradox with Hegel's notion of thesis, antithesis, synthesis, a process by which a kind of compromise comes about between two positions that transends the two positions, thereby replacing them, Arnold said that paradox is when two seemingly contradictory truths are held at the same time, revealing a deeper truth that ties the two together. And Chesterton's paradoxes are not mere literary devices, but descriptions of reality. "Chesterton did not create paradox. He observed paradox." Arnold told me later that he got much of his handle on this subject from the book "Paradox in Chesterton" by Hugh Kenner.

In one of his most effective moments, Arnold, contrasting paradox with compromise - "Paradox is maintaining two truths, red and white, not pink; hot and cold, not lukewarm," - flashed a quote on the screen from the Book of Revelations, where God says to the church in Laodecia, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." To which Arnold added, "God does not like pink." And a smattering of applause spontaneously broke out.

And while Arnold deftly showed how this is part of Chesterton's finding Christianity to be the key that fit the lock of the riddle of paradox, he stumbled just a bit at the finish line. After his talk, he got a handful of great questions from the audience, one of which was, "Why are you not Catholic?"

Arnold, a Presbyterian, answered that question in his answer to the following question, which was about free will vs. predestination. That question was, "What is the greater truth that the paradox of free will and predestination leads us to?"

Arnold pleaded a certain ignorance, as any sane man would, in the face of such an awesome paradox. "If God has predestined things, why does he want us to pray?" Arnold asked rhetorically, and then, slapping his forehead said, "We just don't know! But if I had to choose between the two sides of the free will / predestination paradox, I would tend to choose the divine providence and omniscient will of God."

Now I hope I can point out the fallacy of this answer with Chestertonian charity, for GKC always honored his intellectual opponents, and I must begin by saying that Ross Arnold's intelligence and faith are both inspiring; his love for Christ and his joy over Chesterton were both evident in the care and polish he gave his speech. And yet his answer above is so Protestant that it begs a correction.

The correct answer to "What is the greater truth that the paradox of free will and predestination leads us to?" is not, "I don't know, but it's in God's hands."

The correct answer is, "Sacramentalism."

We work out our salvation in fear and trembling. God's destiny is not separate from who we are and what we want and the world He has made - and that's what the incarnation was all about. We pray because the Body of Christ exists in this world and we are His members, and our destinies play out not ineffably beyond us but through us and through our dialogue with God in prayer and works.

And when dear Mr. Arnold sees this more clearly, he will no longer be answering the question, "Why are you not a Catholic?"

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