In a lecture recently, I made the point that Jesus shocked people equally in both his capacity to thoroughly enjoy his life and in his capacity to renounce it and give it up. It was one and the same Jesus who, at a lavish supper with a woman at his feet bathing him in perfume and affection, could tell his uncomfortable hosts that he was thoroughly enjoying the moment without a trace of guilt and who could tell the same people that the deepest secret of life is to give it all up in self-sacrifice without a trace of thought for yourself.
After the lecture, a young man came up to me and questioned me about the first prong: How could Jesus give himself over to that kind of enjoyment and pleasure? My answer: Precisely because of the other part, his capacity to renounce. One relies on the other, like the two wings on an airplane. Jesus had a shocking capacity to enjoy life because he had an equally shocking capacity to give it up. That is also true of many other aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry: He could condemn sin, but love the sinner; be fiercely loyal to his own, even as he shocked them in his love of those outside their circle; and he could walk in the greatest freedom anyone has ever known, even as he acknowledged that he did nothing on his own.
And that kind of complexity, that kind of capacity to hold near opposites together in a healthy tension, is one of the marks of greatness. Great people do exactly that. Let me offer some examples:
Dorothy Day, soon to be canonized a saint, stood out for exactly that reason: she carried both the non-negotiable Gospel-demand for social justice as well as the non-negotiable Gospel-demand for proper morals and proper religious practice. She was radical and pious. Usually we do not see the same person leading both the peace march and the rosary. Dorothy did both. Most of us can’t. We can do one or the other.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s writings continue to inspire people across every type of divide for the same reason. He had the capacity to hold together, at one and the same time, two seemingly competing loves. He was born, he says, with two incurable loves and sensitivities: a love of God and a sense of the other world that he could never betray and an equal love for this physical world and its facticity and beauty. Both were undeniably real to him, both took his breath away, and he tried to live in a way so as to not betray either of them, despite the tension this created in his life. It gave his writings a rare depth. Most other writing, secular or religious, honors only one of those poles to the denigration of the other.
We see the same kind of complexity in the writings of Therese of Lisieux. On the one hand, her focus is radically otherworldly, the vision of someone who sees this world as ephemeral, flimsy, and of little value. Yet, at the same time, she shows herself as almost unhealthily attached to the good things of this world, the love of family, of nature, of beauty. Therese could write eloquently about wanting to die and leave behind this shadowy film we call life and at the same time feel resentful if she wasn’t receiving daily affirmations of love from her family. And she saw no contradiction here because there isn’t any. Both are healthy, when they are held together.
St. Augustine offers another example. He wrote more than six thousand pages and, within those pages, he said things that have helped trigger anything from negative feelings about sex to forced religious conversions; but he also said things that laid the roots of most orthodox Western theology for the past seventeen hundred years. He was able to hold a lot of things in tension. Sadly, we are not his equal and instead pick and choose pieces of his thought to the detriment of his overall vision.
Carlo Carretto, the Italian spiritual writer who died recently, also stood out for his capacity to hold seemingly contrasting truths in tension. It is rare to see in the same person his particular combination of piety and iconoclasm, his fierce loyalty to the church and his strong criticism of it. For him, the two depended upon each other. One is healthy only because the other is also there.
Great minds and great persons properly honor complexity. Nowhere is this clearer than in Jesus. He carried all truth, in all its complexity. Unfortunately, we, his followers, are not up to the master. That’s why there hundreds of different Christian denominations today. That’s also why there are liberals and conservatives both in our churches and our society. We find it easier to carry smaller pieces of the truth than to carry the tension of being loyal to its bigger picture.
But simplicity and clarity aren’t always our friends.