Review: Surprised by Paradox

surprised by paradox

Surprised by ParadoxJen Pollock Michel. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: In a world where things are often defined in either-or terms and a quest for certainty, Michel proposes there are many things, beginning with basic biblical realities that are both-and, inviting our continuing curiosity.

Whether it is schism in the church, political divides, or just a good old marital conflict, the parties often have defined things sharply in either-or terms, one way or another. Jen Pollock Michel explains how she began to look for a third way, and to write this book. A family member had been lying to her, repeatedly. She described her dilemma to her counselor.

“…I needed light for groping my way out of this tunnel with two exits: should I suffer lying or sever the relationship?

‘What if there’s a third way?’ she asked gently. Her language sounded like a struck bell, especially because ‘third way’ language was something my spiritual director often used with me. It was as if here was yet another invitation to find a sure-footed way on some undiscovered path–to find and where I had previously imagined only either and or. Here was an invitation to ‘lean not on my own understanding’ and find wisdom in the way of paradox” (pp. 22-23).

She discovered that paradox ran through the pages of scripture, that Christian orthodoxy is full of and, beginning with the incarnation, this idea that the Son of God came to earth, fully God, and also fully human. If paradox is at the heart of the nature of the Lord we trust and follow, might we look for God in the and, rather than insisting on answers to either-or questions. This paradox also suggests that we find the spiritual in the material, the living God in the stuff of everyday life. It also suggests that to conform to God’s ideal for our lives, is to live fully the “one wild and precious life” that is ours, expressing in our own uniqueness, the image of God in our lives.

She goes on to explore three other paradoxes. There is the paradox of the kingdom, which is already here and not fully come, where the least are the greatest, where we both give lavishly and enjoy lavishly what we are given, and where strength takes the form of vulnerability whose crowning hour is the cross. Grace confronts us with other paradoxes. Treasured, yet not for any personal excellency. Finding favor when the wrath we deserved falls upon his favored Son. Michel writes, “We don’t get grace because we change our lives–but our lives are indelibly changed because we get grace. Finally there is lament, the raw, unvarnished plea to God of people in pain that God has not shielded them from, that is a paradoxical kind of faith. It takes God seriously enough to become angry, to speak with blunt honesty rather than pretty pieties when what has happened in one’s life doesn’t square with our understanding of who God is.

Michel is a compelling author, one who can relate the depths of theology to teaching her daughter to drive, and her need for grace. She weaves scripture, teaching of the theological “greats,” contemporary realities, images, and personal stories into a narrative that sings and helps us examine with fresh eyes what we thought we knew down pat, helping us by asking, “did you notice this and this?”

A friend once observed that when we try to get rid of the tensions in our faith, or our lives by getting rid of one side of the tension to focus on the other, we make life simpler, but also smaller and more confined. Jen Pollock Michel invites us to live with paradoxes, and to celebrate the ands of God. She proposes that this opens us up to mystery, to surprise, and to the depth of the riches of knowing our God and what it means to live in the and of his purposes, to experience how grace transforms our work, and how our laments in all their perplexity may be among the most robust acts of faith. What might this “third way” mean as Christians are present to a world mired in “either-or?”

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

Review: Paradoxology

Paradoxology

ParadoxologyKrish Kandiah. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Argues that the seeming contradictions that leave many questioning the truth of Christianity are actually the points where Christian faith comes alive and addresses the depths and complexities of our lives.

My hunch is that many of us are looking for an “easy” button when it comes to matters of faith. I’ve heard people say, “just give me the simple truth, the simple gospel.” In one sense, they have a point. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) is indeed simple enough that I understood and believed it as a child.

Yet on a closer look, even this familiar verse is not so simple. God has a Son, appearing both one and more than one. Are God and Son equal, and if so what does it mean that one is begotten? God loves the world but doesn’t seem to treat his son very well. God loves the world, and yet the idea is out there that some may perish who don’t believe.

These and many other questions and seeming contradictions arise as we read the pages of scripture, and I suspect you can easily add to the questions I’ve noted, which are drawn from just one verse. For some, these have been sufficient grounds to dismiss Christianity altogether. Others mouth pat answers they were taught in Sunday school, such as “God works in mysterious ways.” Some of us just try not and think about these things at all.

Krish Kandiah takes a different approach. He honestly admits these apparent contradictions, or paradoxes, and contends that it is in the wrestling with these, that we discover a faith deep and wide and full enough to take in the complexities and contradictions that in fact are the stuff of life. He does so through a survey of thirteen paradoxes that we encounter in the pages of scripture. The chapters are as follows:

    Introduction
1. The Abraham Paradox: The God who needs nothing but asks for everything
2. The Moses Paradox: The God who is far away, so close
3. The Joshua Paradox: The God who is terribly compassionate
4. The Job Paradox: The God who is actively inactive
5. The Hosea Paradox: The God who is faithful to the unfaithful
6. The Habakkuk Paradox: The God who is consistently unpredictable
7. The Jonah Paradox: The God who is indiscriminately selective
8. The Esther Paradox: The God who speaks silently
9. The Jesus Paradox: The God who is divinely human
10. The Judas Paradox: The God who determines our free will
11. The Cross Paradox: The God who wins as he loses
12. The Roman Paradox: The God who is effectively ineffective
13. The Corinthian Paradox: The God who fails to disappoint
Epilogue: Living with Paradox

He begins with one of the narratives I have always wrestled with, the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. He explores this thoughtfully and from many angles, acknowledging the difficulties in this passage, looking at what reasoning faith must look like for Abraham, and the larger purposes of the God who will give his only Son in this same place, in fulfillment of the promises he has made to Abraham. His answers are not easy ones, but plausible, and mirror ones I’ve come to in a life of wrestling with this passage.

I will not attempt to summarize each of the chapters. He deals with Job, and God’s “active inactivity.” He explores the ultimate paradox of God incarnate, how Jesus could be both fully God and human, and the challenging case of Judas, and the paradox of choice and determinism. I found his discussion of Jonah fascinating as he explored the paradox of God as both indiscriminate and selective. He summarizes his discussion of Jonah and God’s care for the Ninevites as follows:

“The Jonah Paradox teaches that God is both highly selective and simultaneously indiscriminate with his love. In his desire that everyone is given opportunity to come to him, to love him and to love his people, God set up a chain reaction — one that falters or stutters at times, but carries on regardless, all down the centuries. Starting with Israel, he sent his people into the world to share in word and deed the good news of his grace and forgiveness, the gift of his Holy Spirit and the challenge of his coming kingdom. Sadly, time and again the chain is broken because of our indifference, hoarding of grace, fear or laziness. When we hold back we betray our God-given identity as ambassadors, prophets, light, salt, stewards, trustees, and co-workers with Christ. But as we have seen from Jonah, God is not held captive by our unwillingness to join in his mission. We are to have confidence in a God who will not be ultimately frustrated from offering his grace to a dying world by the inactivity of us, his church. But we will have lost the opportunity to join God’s family business of bringing reconciliation” (pp. 179-180).

I appreciated his chapters on Romans and Corinthians and the exploration of why both individually and collectively, we fail to live up to the ideals of holiness and love of the gospels. A former pastor, speaking generically, used to like to say, “the best of men are men at best” (a quote variously attributed to General John Lambert, A. W. Pink, and J. C. Ryle, with Lambert’s being the earliest instance). Kandiah makes a similar point that we are still in process between the “already” and the “not yet” of our calling, and are unfinished works.

He concludes with the idea that no book about paradoxes will resolve these paradoxes for us, but only give plausible explanations. These may only be understood as we live into them, which no book can do for us. He reminds us that what all these paradoxes have to do with is a relationship between us and God, and should we wonder that if human relationships are complex, that this one is even more? What Kandiah’s book does is offer hope that the embrace of paradox is a path to be preferred to suppression or suspicion, opening our lives up to a reality that is richer and fuller, rather than narrower and smaller.

 

Review: Strong and Weak

strong and weak

Strong and Weak, Andy Crouch. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Explores two qualities that we often think opposed to one another and argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that human beings flourish to the extent that they can appropriately exercise strength (authority) and weakness (vulnerability) together.

We often tend to think of strength and weakness, authority and vulnerability as mutually exclusive qualities or at opposite ends of a continuum. Yet the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Andy Crouch, building on this idea argues that strength and weakness are paradoxically related and that excellence in leadership and human flourishing occur when both are present in one’s life together. Rather than being at opposite ends of a continuum, he sees them as the x and axes of a 2 by 2 grid:

2 by 2

Excerpted from press kit for this book

Crouch defines authority as “the capacity for meaningful action” and vulnerability as “exposure to meaningful risk.” He would contend that when we oscillate between quadrants II and IV, between strength and weakness, we are making a false choice. True flourishing occurs in quadrant I where we embrace both the capacity for meaningful action and exposure to meaningful risk. This leads to flourishing not only of the individuals who act in this way but of those around, as he describes in the instance of his sister’s daughter Angela, who has lived eleven years so far with Trisomy 13, a genetic disorder where a person has three copies of chromosome 13, which has meant that parents and other caregivers have exercised both capacity for meaningful action and been exposed to meaningful risk for Angela, who cannot care for herself.

In successive chapters, Crouch explores life in each quadrant. Those in the quadrant of suffering have exposure to meaningful risk without the capacity for meaningful action. Illness and poverty are places where this is experienced, yet even here, when the gospel is embraced, hope and dignity is restored and there is a kind of strength in weakness allowing persons to move to quadrant I. Conversely, those in quadrant IV exercise authority without vulnerability, where the protection of oneself and one’s position means the exploiting of others.

Quadrant III is the quadrant of withdrawal. It is the safety of one’s parents’ basement–no meaningful action in a world of video games, and no risk in the provision of food and shelter, sequestered away from the world. Crouch invites those who have withdrawn to take two steps–into the natural world of creation, and into the relational world of doing real things with real people!

Perhaps the most interesting chapter was one where he explored the challenge many leaders face of living with overt authority and hidden vulnerability. There is the President of the United States, who has such significant authority, that he receives a unique briefing of the dangers facing the U.S., a briefing he can discuss with few or any of those he meets in the remainder of the day. Similarly, many business leaders cannot speak of the vulnerabilities of their companies, but must take meaningful action to address them for their communities to flourish.

His concluding chapters talk about choosing of vulnerability, to literally be willing to put one’s life on the line in the pursuit of meaningful action with exposure to meaningful risk. This is transformative leadership, where one both experiences being truly alive, and where others are helped to flourish as they see our strength in weakness.

This is a much shorter work than either Culture Making or Playing God. It builds on the latter, which explores the use of the gift of power redemptively, but the length is appropriate to elaborating this single critical paradox of strength and weakness. One question the book raised for me is what is the hope for those in quadrant IV, the exploiters? Crouch warns of the judgment and the fall of those who choose this path. And perhaps those who are strong without being vulnerable are a version of the rich young man, for whom entry into the kingdom is so hard, yet not impossible (we have the counter-example of Zaccheus).

Since most of us will exercise some form of authority in some dimension of life, as parents, coaches, managers, leaders, committee chairs or in other forms of leadership that draw upon our capacities for meaningful action and expose us to meaningful risks, this is an important book for both our flourishing in such roles but for the flourishing of the broader communities we serve. It may be simpler to embrace one or neither of these two elements of the paradox, but this would be to sacrifice flourishing for a much smaller life for oneself and for those whose lives we touch. Living in the paradox seems more challenging, but somehow much richer. Clearly, Crouch has given us much to chew upon.

Review: True Paradox

True ParadoxSummary: David Skeel argues that far from being a problem for Christians, the complexity of the world is in fact something best explained by the Christian faith. This book is helpful both for the person considering whether it makes sense to become a Christian as well as for Christians looking for ways to articulate how Christian faith makes sense of life’s deepest questions.

Many people consider that Christians are “simple minded” and that anything that is complex or poses intellectual challenges is problematic to the Christian believer. David Skeel takes an approach that is different from the very logical appeals of many apologists who appeal to cosmological arguments and arguments from design to demonstrate the case for Christian faith. Skeel argues that Christianity’s explanatory power to deal with the intangibles and paradoxes of the world as we actually experience it is greater than the materialist explanations that are the major alternative on offer

Following his introduction where he lays out this basic premise, he discusses five aspects of life for which this is so:

  1. Ideas and our Idea Making Capacity. Our idea of a cosmos ordered by God is far more than evolutionary survival alone warrants. He observes the interesting phenomenon of the unreasonable usefulness of mathematics, where equations end up mapping the physical world. There is also in this the challenging question for a true religion of articulating ideals of universal applicability and transformative power that transcends the world of particulars and difference. Skeel argues that the testimony of Christians from every culture is powerful argument for its capacity to handle this kind of complexity.
  2. Beauty and the Arts. Skeel contends that the appreciation of beauty and art as an accidental consequence of evolution is profoundly dissatisfying. Beauty points beyond the world, which often also has a certain ugliness, a sense of the world not being as it should. Christianity deals with the complexity of world not as its supposed to be and our longing for and sense of beauty.
  3. Suffering and Sensation. No where do we have a greater sense of a world not as it ought to be than in our experience of pain and suffering. Yet materialist explanations simply say that suffering is. Here, Skeel writes touchingly of his friend Bill Stuntz, with whom he planned to write this book, and Bill’s struggle with terminal colon cancer. He concludes the chapter with Stuntz’s words of God’s longing for the sufferer: “God is the Lover who will not rest until his arms enfold the beloved. . . .So I have found in the midst of pain and heartache and cancer” (p. 107).
  4. The Justice Paradox. David Skeel is a lawyer and here he observes that every society creates a justice system to bring about a more just social order–and all fail in varying degrees. Marxists thought they would eliminate greed when the working class gained control. After Civil Wars, Constitutional Amendments and Civil Rights legislation, racism remains a reality in America. Christian faith understands the limits of law to deal with human imperfection, that law serves best with a “light touch” and that reconciliation in Christ may accomplish what law cannot in the fabric of human relationships.
  5. Life and Afterlife. Here Skeel explores both our longing and disdain for heaven. True Christian hope brings earth and heaven together in a renewed creation where the beauties we have created and the justice we have pursued carry over with us and are perfected with us in this new creation.

He concludes with a word for the person willing to explore Christianity further, commending further reading, participating in Christian community, seeking the counsel of a thoughtful Christian about one’s questions, and finally, reading the Bible itself.

What I most appreciated about this book is Skeel’s approach of lifting the “case for Christianity” out of the realm of philosophical argument and evidence-based discussion. These have their place but what Skeel does is explore the large and complex canvas of life and his contention that Christianity in fact has the greatest capacity to cope with the complexity of that canvas.

An interesting back story to this book is that it was discussed and edited with the help of an atheist post-doctoral student, Patrick Arsenault, who is mentioned in the Acknowledgments. The story of this dialogue was covered in a recent New York Times article. My only critique is the thought that it would have been interesting to see the dialogue between the two more directly reflected in this book, which is only in Skeel’s voice. Otherwise, I found this an account that by turn was thought-provoking, eloquent, and tenderly human in its exploration of life’s big complexities and the life of faith.

The Month in Reviews: March 2015

This month I reviewed a dozen books (no, not a baker’s dozen–just a real dozen). My reviews included a couple books on higher education, both recommending a form of “unbundling”. There was an account of Jeff Bezos and the birth of Amazon, a couple of books exploring the paradoxical character of Christian experience, an unusual crime novel, a history of the clashes between Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall that defined the Supreme Court, a book on neuroscience, and several books exploring theological topics ranging from political witness to suffering to whether we can still believe the Bible.

What it comes down to is that I find a wide range of things interesting. Even so, I’ve also had the recent experience of refusing several people who wanted me to review their books–either because it was outside my range of expertise, or interest. I guess I still like the idea of defining what I think will be interesting to read and review!  Anyway, here is the month’s tally, along with my best book and best quote of the month:

1. College Unbound by Jeffrey Selingo. The first of two books I read about the challenges confronting higher ed. Of the two, I think this gives the broadest survey of innovative approaches being taken to “unbundle” higher ed.

College UnboundThe Everything StoreChristian Political WitnessFrom London Far2. The Everything Store by Brad Stone. A fascinating chronicle of the rise of Amazon, the relentless passion of Jeff Bezos to serve the customer, and the line between genius and hubris that he walks.

3. Christian Political Witness by George Kalantzis and Gregory W. Lee (eds.). This is a collection of papers from the 2013 Wheaton Theology Conference exploring a variety of perspectives on Christian engagement in the political realm.

4. From London Far by Michael Innes. A rather far-fetched plot of an Oxford don and a fetching woman scholar who fall into and try to subvert a plot to steal antiquities and art from throughout Europe.

5. The Steward Leader by R. Scott Rodin. Rodin develops a model of leadership around the idea of the steward that challenges the transformational, transactional, and servant leader models.

Minds, BrainsCan we still believe the BibleGrand Paradoxsteward leader6. The Grand Paradox by Ken Wytsma. The author explores the mysteries and apparent contradictions that come with the life of faith.

7. Can We Still Believe the Bible by Craig Blomberg. Blomberg takes on the critics and debunkers of the Bible and makes a scholarly case for the Bible’s trustworthiness.

8. Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods by Malcolm Jeeves. A career professor of psychology explores the brave new world of neuroscience and the questions about the nature of being human and belief in God being raised by the contemporary research.

9. What Kind of Nation by James F. Simon. Thomas Jefferson and John Marshall clashed over the developing shape of American Federal government with Marshall playing a crucial role in upholding both a strong Federal government and a strong Supreme Court whose power of judicial review balances the powers of the other branches of government.

What Kind of NationA Glorious DarkCollege DisruptedSuffering10. A Glorious Dark by A. J. Swoboda. Another book exploring the paradox of our glorious hope revealed in the tension between the darkness of Good Friday, the waiting of Saturday, and the wonder of Easter Sunday.

11. College Disrupted by Ryan Craig. Craig describes the “unbundling” of higher education in the face of cost and value pressures, particularly through the use of innovative educational technologies including “competency management platforms.”

12. Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Richard Rice.  The book surveys seven ways Christians have dealt with the problem of suffering, assessing strengths, weaknesses, and how we might draw from all of these in coming up with our own ways of making sense of suffering.

Best of the Month: I would have to choose A Glorious Dark, because of the honesty and depth of the writing that explored the Triduum and the paradox of the glory of our faith revealed through the suffering of the cross.

Best quote of the Month: I liked this quote on the proper tension of engagement in the political process that Christians must seek, by former Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya, David Gitari, cited in Christian Political Witness:

“Our relationship with powers that be should be like our relationship with fire. If you get too close to the fire you get burnt, and if you go too far away you will freeze. Hence stay in a strategic place so that you can be of help. You can support the authority, but when they become corrupt you can criticize fearlessly.”

In the month ahead, I will be reviewing a book on shalom in higher education, another book on paradox and faith, a new book on nonviolence by Ron Sider, some historical fiction of Edith Pargeter, and a recent history of Africa (if I get through it in April) and a collection of essays on Christology by majority world authors. Happy reading!

All “The Month in Reviews” post may be accessed from “The Month in Reviews” category on my home page. And if you don’t want to wait a month to see my reviews, consider following the blog for reviews as well as thoughts on reading, the world of books, and life.

Review: The Grand Paradox

Grand ParadoxSummary: An exploration of the mysteries and apparent contradictions in life that call followers of Christ into the life of faith. A good book for a thoughtful, general audience for whom the “conventional” answers are not working.

Most of us don’t like things that seem contrary to each other. We often try to resolve the messiness of either-or binaries by choosing one and dismissing the other–until that stops working. Ken Wytsma argues that paradox is at the heart of the life of faith in Christ, and is the only way to live with the messiness of life and the mysteries that lurk behind statements like having to lose one’s life to find them, that it is more blessed to give than receive, and that givers prosper while misers perish.

After introducing this idea he begins with our idea of faith and drawing on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling uses the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac to talk about faith as implicit trust and obedience that walks into the unknown. This means walking into the life of unceasing prayer that learns to listen for the voice of God. This in turn leads to the startling paradox that loving God calls us into living justice in the world. Living joyfully is found not in having but “on our heart’s wanting the right things” (p. 62). The remedy for doubt is not answers. He argues that when we doubt and struggle, the answer is both honesty about our doubts and pain, and paradoxically a faith in the goodness of God we cannot see.

We find our way in life not by discovering God’s plan but by pursuing God and pressing into the life of love which is always God’s intention for us. Living well is not a consequence of more information, more experiences and more technology but growing in the Christ-shaped life. As flawed as the church is, it’s messiness is what we need to sort out our lives.

The last chapters focus on our destiny, the eternity that begins now, living with hope in the darkest hours, and the patience that waits for the blessing of God on God’s terms. It is living in the tension of being between the gardens of Eden and the New Jerusalem, which is often a Gethsemane experience.

As you can tell from this summary of the book’s contents, Wytsma gives us less a linear argument for paradox than a series of reflections on the paradoxes that run through the life of a Christ-follower. He draws on philosophers like Pascal and Kiekegaard and theologians like Niebuhr and stories out of his own life and community to provide to explore different facets of this paradoxical life of faith. It’s one of those books to be mused on a chapter at a time rather than read straight through.

This is a readable book with short chapters but not simple answers. He describes a Christian life with lots of loose ends and mess, with doubt and pain and darkness. Yet he also gives an account of the life of faith that has a ring of truth–one that helps the person in the midst of the mess to go on pursuing God. Such writing is all too rare as are such voices in the pulpit. May Wytsma’s tribe increase.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

 

The Reader’s Paradox

The world beyond my books (c)2015, Robert C Trube

The world beyond my books (c)2015, Robert C Trube

I’ve been thinking this morning about the reader’s paradox.

If you are a bibliophile, you know what I’m talking about. You might even know what I’m talking about if you are a friend of a bibliophile.

Paradoxes. These are things that seem in conflict and yet both are true. I am convinced there are a number of these in life. Is light a wave or a particle? Are we one or many? I’m also convinced that many of us don’t like to live in the tension of paradoxes. We prefer to resolve them by focusing on one of the two elements in the paradox and exclude the other. This makes life simpler. But smaller.

So what is the reader’s paradox? It is that books often are windows onto the world that give us delight and insight and sometimes diversion. And yet life and the world are far more than the books we read and there are realities beyond the page (or tablet) to which books only point but are no substitute for our experience of the real thing. Like the love of God or neighbor. The pursuit of a just and peaceful world. The making or enjoying of actual music or art. The growing of a fruitful and beautiful garden.

The danger comes when we cease to live in the tension of this paradox, which is a tension I face. I love books and reading and encouraging others to connect with the best of what is thought and written. So I read, and write about reading and books, and interact with others interested in writing and books. There is a sense in which I feel I am employing a gift, however humble in doing this.

What I realize is that I also live in need of the gifts of the world beyond my bibliophile world. I think we actually need each other’s gifts. Reading and reflecting on what I read sometimes leads to insights into problems and challenges those in my world are face. But only as I am in loving relationship can any of this be life-giving. And love takes a goodly amount of time with one’s nose out of a book!

Equally, books can sometimes distort my view of the world and those real-life encounters where my book-inspired ideas come up short serve as a good reality check. That, too, is a life-giving gift!

My faith seems to embrace some of the biggest paradoxes of all. I believe in a God who is One and Three. I confess as Lord one who is fully God and fully human. This makes me wonder if in fact the other paradoxes I see in my world and my own life stem from this. It is clear that my faith would be simpler, but smaller without these paradoxes, just as would my life. And it makes me wonder if living in wonder, faith and obedience with these great paradoxes somehow is connected to living in the tension of the lesser ones, like the reader’s paradox.

What do you think? Have you experienced the reader’s paradox? Do you think there is a paradoxical aspect to life and how do you account for this?

Review: Works of Love

Works of Love
Works of Love by Søren Kierkegaard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Works of Love is a searching exploration of the distinctive and demanding character of Christian love. It is not a “feel good” book but one that might leave you wondering whether you really have loved at all, or loved well.

Kierkegaard begins with the paradox of love’s character as both hidden and yet bearing fruit in works of love. He then explores the great command to love neighbor as oneself. He plumbs the challenges of loving a neighbor in all the ways we love ourselves, and the fact that it is the neighbor we are to love, literally anyone, and not just the friend or the lover.

He then considers how love is the fulfillment of the law, seen most fully in how Christ fulfilled the law. The law is always indeterminate–we can never know if we’ve met all its demands, but if we love as Christ, we can be sure of this. He also introduces here an idea also found in Bonhoeffer that God is the middle term between us and the person we love. We love others in God and to God. And so also, this is how we love with a clear conscience. We first are transparent with God, and so then with the neighbor we love.

Perhaps even more challenging is to love those we see. We are not to look for those who are lovable but to love those in our sight apart from anything “deserving in them”. But it doesn’t stop there. Kierkegaard’s chapter on the debt of love argues that this is a debt that is never discharged toward another person as long as we live. We can never say we have loved “enough”.

He turns to 1 Corinthians 13 and takes this phrase by phrase. He talks about love building up and, in this, love presupposes the love of the other, that is we upbuild others by presupposing the best in them. Love believes all things, that is it believes, and persists in believing the best of others. It isn’t self protective and thus never truly deceived. Similarly, love hopes all things, is always hopeful of the good in another. Love never seeks its own because there is no “mine” in love. Love hides a multiplicity of sins because this is not what it is looking for, and even when this is unavoidable responds in forgiveness. Love abides and never knows the breaking of a relationship because love keeps loving.

His concluding chapters explore the character of mercy, the nature of reconciliation, and something I’ve never seen before, an exploration of love in the remembering of the dead, a love that cannot be reciprocated and is therefore the freest love. His concluding chapter truly sums everything up in the idea of “like unto like”. We love and we believe we are loved, we forgive (or not) as we believe we are forgiven. We either live in a world of judgment where we judge others and live under the fearsome judgment of God, or we believe the God of love and forgiveness in Christ and live in that love and forgiveness toward others. Hence, the works of love really are an expression of faith.

If this summary of the book seems a bit ‘dense’ or even perplexing, this probably reflects the book’s character. Kierkegard leaves no stone unturned in his exploration of love. This is a book to be read slowly and perhaps repeatedly and only if one is willing to wrestle with the uncomfortable challenge of what it truly means to practice Christian love. Perhaps this is implicit in Kierkegaard but all this is fact an impossibility apart from Christ’s indwelling fullness. This isn’t simply a more demanding ethic, but one that leads us first to repentance of how poorly we have loved and casts us back onto the empowering presence of God’s Spirit. In every sense then, this is a hard book, but because of that, all the more worthwhile.

View all my reviews

Paradoxes: Choices and Simplicity

Efficiency and simplicity are often at odds. So are choices and simplicity. One the one hand, the incredible cornucopia we encounter at any supermarket in the US likely staggers the imagination of people from many parts of the world. On the other, it can make for a fatiguing series of choices to make between brands, flavors, and varieties. We don’t just have apples–we have 25 varieties, some good for eating, some for pies, some for applesauce and more. Even more bewildering is the array of beers, wines and other beverages. And on it goes…

At one time, it seemed everyone knew the trusted brands, and when you had to replace a vacuum cleaner, or an appliance, or a car, you tended to go back to your old standby. Now it seems, you have to engage in a research process before you buy your toothpaste! Picking up Consumer Reports reviews, researching products online, and more seem to be the pre-requisite, unless you want to appear “uninformed”–a cardinal sin these days.  Yet I wonder. The most all this can do is tell me what the new buyer experience is–not irrelevant necessarily. But what I really want to know is, will it last and what will it cost to repair. Not so easy to find out until it actually breaks on you. Then you know!

Paradoxically, I think most of us simplify life by reducing the choices we make. Most of the time we buy the same items every time we need that item in the grocery, despite the attempts of coupon dispensers to get us to switch. Whenever I need a new pair of jeans, I just order the same ones I always do from LL Bean. I wonder if there are some further steps we can take toward simplicity that may mean less choices but greater freedom. A few I can think of:

1. One is simply deciding that some of our wants really aren’t our needs. That alone cuts down on the choices we need to make.

2. Work with retailers and other vendors who get to know us and actually care about customer service.

3. Similarly, when I find someone who provides good quality, I stick with them unless quality slips, even if it costs more.

4. Find another form of recreation than “recreational shopping.” I realize that sometimes it is fun to find a bargain and some really enjoy this and are shrewd in shopping at the best times to get a good price on things they need. That’s not me, though, and shopping does not re-create me!

5. Most of us don’t mind choices when it comes to the hobbies we love. Then we love learning about the varieties of equipment, or vintages, or whatever. Perhaps the most important choice here is simply knowing and staying within your budget.

What have you found helpful in navigating the array of choices we face? How have you negotiated the paradox that the freedom of choice does not always translate into the freedom of simplicity?

 

 

 

Paradoxes: Efficiency and Simplicity

I grew up hearing about all the labor-saving devices that were going to make my life so much more leisurely. The forty hour work week would become a twenty hour week because technology would make our work so much more efficient. Funny thing though–while technology has indeed increased our efficiency, it has not led to a more leisurely or unhurried life.

I’m struck with this every time I fly (something I’ve done a bit of, lately!). Flying itself is interesting, because I can be in meetings in Columbus in the morning, and be leading a retreat in another state that evening. But it is not only that. I am amused with how as soon as we are “wheels down” everyone is on their smartphone (except for me who still has a “dumb” phone), to retrieve messages, emails, texts and Facebook updates queued up for them during the hour they had to turn their device to airplane mode (even then they are often composing emails).  Gone seem to be the days of the leisurely nap or conversations with a seatmate. I was struck recently with what quiet places planes have become–except when there are babies and children on board. Everyone is working. Airlines of course are capitalizing on this by offering wi-fi so you can be even more connected.

The paradox is that efficiency doesn’t make life simpler. The faster we can do things, the more things we do which may have been needless. And sometimes, technology actually complicates things. Remember when you could pick up the phone and actually get a person on the line and schedule a time to meet, whether for business or fun–and you might get a few minutes of catching up with the person in as well? Now it is often a matter of a series of emails or texts back and forthing about a time, then a place–if you get responses. What once could be done in five minutes now may take a series of interchanges over a half day or more–and far less personal.

Meyer Friedman, MD

Meyer Friedman, MD

What it seems all this has done is created a society that is far more complicated, and in a hurry. Recently, I came across the term “hurry sickness.”  The term was coined by Meyer Friedman, MD, whose research was on type A personalities and the increased incidence of heart attack and other circulatory diseases caused by stress.

Perhaps it is time for a return to the old wisdom, which never would have talked about “working harder, faster, and smarter” but rather recognized that rest, play, reflection, and deliberate thought actually were far more fruitful adjuncts to a creative and fruitful life than relying on technology to “save labor.”

How have you stepped off the treadmill of “efficiency” to embrace a life of unhurried simplicity?