Niels Bohr, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, once suggested that wisdom and science operate by different rules: “The opposite of a true statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth can be another profound truth. “
An important insight! Too often the problem we have within our theologies, spiritualities, ecclesiologies, and indeed with wisdom in general, is that we let profound truths cancel each other out, as if they were mathematical statements, rather than holding them together in paradox and in all the tension that this brings. Wisdom is not mathematics and, within wisdom, great “opposites” do not contradict each other but join each other, in ways that we cannot exactly fathom, so as to, together, help clarify a still larger picture. To let go of either pole of a paradox, to reduce the tension, is to fall from wisdom. Hence, as we struggle theologically and spiritually with certain key questions, we must be careful to always hold two, seemingly contradictory, truths together. The larger picture, the full answer, demands both. Thus, for example:
1) Is our wor1d good or bad? What is God’s attitude towards our world? In trying to answer that, two immediate, opposing, truths leap to mind: On the one hand, it must be affirmed that in the world, even within its purely secular mode, there are many good things, much good energy, and a fierce moral fibre that manifests itself for good in countless places. As well, since God is the author of all good things, these things are clearly from God. Thus, God continues to work in, love, and bless this world, even in its secularity. On the other hand, it is equally as clear that the cross of Christ, the rejection and crucifixion of the weak by the wor1d, which was manifest at the time of Jesus and is still clear today, shows that this world is rejecting God, light, and goodness. Darkness is still not open to light and accordingly God’s revelation is negatively judging the world. Thus God is blessing the world, smiling on it, affirming its goodness and energy, and laughing at the humour of its sitcoms, even as the central part of God’s revelation, the cross of Christ, stands in judgment of that world and that energy. Both realities are true.
2) What is more important, private virtue or social justice? Again, two great truths oppose each other: Nothing in this world is more important than private integrity, private morality, private prayer, and private charity. Nothing is ever sufficient cause to bracket these. However, revelation is equally clear that nothing is more important than the practice of social justice, including private virtue. Both affirmations are true.
3) What makes for a healthy person and a healthy self-image, radical self-renunciation or proper self-care? We have come to understand today, through a rich variety of sources, that we cannot be healthy, happy, and serving others in gratitude (rather than in bitterness) if we do not take proper care of ourselves. We cannot love if we do not let ourselves be loved, we cannot give if we are not ourselves receiving, and we cannot sustain ourselves in love and gratitude for the long haul if we do not place proper boundaries around ourselves and property protects ourselves. However, it is just a true to say, as did St. Francis and most every Saint ever, and as did Jesus, that unless we give ourselves away in total self-renunciation we will find no health, happiness, or peace. All active pursuit of happiness is doomed to produce its opposite, just as the giving away of our own happiness brings happiness.
4) What is more important within church life, fostering growth or protecting boundaries? Jesus makes it very clear that he came into this world, not to protect boundaries, but to “be flesh for the life of the world”. It is no accident that he was born in a trough, where animals come to eat, and that at the end of his life he gave himself away at a table, as food. Fostering life is more important than protecting proper doctrine and rule. However it is also true that boundaries are essential for the survival of any group – family, marriage, or church – and anyone who thinks otherwise is dangerously naive. Good laws, sustained commitments, and respected boundaries make community possible.
Real wisdom then, it would seem, is not for the faint-hearted, nor for those who want their truth clear-cut. Jesus sweated blood in a garden and, I suspect, the tensions he was carrying there contained enough paradoxes to inform most of the wisdom of the world. There are no simple answers. Great truth is found in paradox and those who try to find it will also find themselves having to sweat blood in the garden, not knowing on any given day which pole to honour, but knowing always that fidelity lies in respecting both sides in the paradox.