Not long ago I almost forgot how to read fiction. Somewhere in my younger years, I picked up the idea that the goal of my faith was to defend God against attack. I sought out opportunities to question Darwinism and make the pro-life argument during debates.
Reading entered my life as a source of pleasure, but gradually became a means to gain answers. The vast sea of information overwhelmed me with a longing for certainty that sent me hurtling toward the shore. It was the discipline of paradox that provided me with a raft I could steer into deeper waters.
Only in hindsight can I credit paradox with saving my intellectual curiosity. One paradox that kept me afloat was a passing word of advice from a family friend. After trying to explain his answers to some of my questions about the faith, he offered this encouragement: “You can tell a lot more about a person’s intelligence by the questions they ask than by the answers they know.” I would not have called his words a paradox at the time, but they troubled my assumptions about what it meant to be a person of intelligence.
Afterwards, when I felt overwhelmed by the limits of my comprehension, I’d remind myself “Asking tough questions is a sign of intelligence too!” For a girl who longed so badly to “always be prepared to give an answer,” this paradox gave me permission to not know what I couldn’t know. Simply asking the questions meant I was doing something right.
The Foundational Paradox of Our Faith
For the believer, paradox is more than a turn of phrase. It is the heart of our faith. No modern writer understood this better than Madeleine L’Engle. As Sarah Arthur explores in her new book, A Light So Lovely, L’Engle saw the essential fact of our faith—that Jesus was both fully man and fully God—as the “technical impossibility” that was the paradox upon which our entire faith was built.
A paradox is a statement comprising two ideas that appear to be in conflict but when taken together offer a more complete picture of the truth. “A well-executed paradox stirs the soul and mixes language and philosophy in a way that no other figure does,” according to Mark Forsyth’s clever book The Elements of Eloquence. Of course, paradox can be used simply to amuse, and statements that some would call paradox turn out to be mere tricks of the language, revealing nothing more than the cunning of their author.
But many paradoxical statements are more than mere rhetoric. They arrive as bits of self-contained wisdom and like a seed in fertile soil they sprout in the soul of a truth-seeker and begin to grow, branching off in unexpected directions.
G. K. Chesterton describes two kinds of paradox: one is fruitful, producing life, and the other is barren. Fruitful paradoxes are those which offer an avenue of thought that leads to a better understanding of what is true. Barren paradoxes may be clever, but they are dead ends.
L’Engle saw possibility instead of conflict.
Looking back, it is laughable to think that I would ever be tempted by certainty as a girl who spent the amount of time I did in the company of L’Engle’s imagination. Reading A Light So Lovely kindled my appreciation for L’Engle’s subtle influence on me as a young girl who attempted to read everything she ever wrote. L’Engle’s books never shied away from the mysterious places of supposed conflict, where forces of biology and physics intersected with those of faith and love.
The first time I read A Wind in the Door, I had not yet learned about mitochondria in biology class. These small organisms live inside every cell in our body, but they have their own DNA distinct from ours. So L’Engle imbued them with free will and sent my favorite protagonist, Meg Murry, on a quest to convince these microorganisms to fulfill their role in the small universe of cells contained in her own brother’s body. L’Engle’s characters considered spiritual and physical forces as equally powerful in shaping their lives and their futures. Where others might have seen conflict, L’Engle saw possibility.
Her gift to me was a curiosity that could withstand the initial shock of conflict. Were mitochondria the mindlessly obedient servants of our cells or could they, too, choose to rebel against their roles? As Jeffrey Overstreet puts it, in A Wind in the Door L’Engle “illustrates . . . what happens when love breaks down at the cellular level.” Neither my Sunday school classes nor my science classes dared to imagine love and cellular biology intertwined. Only L’Engle’s feverish mind gifted me that experience.
The Spirtual Discipline of Paradox
My pursuit of certainty left me clinging to legalism. Embracing paradox drew me back into waters out of my depth, but left me free to wonder. I spent years trying to decide whether to believe in free will or the sovereignty of God, only to realize that they must work together, paradoxically, in some way that I cannot comprehend. The place where they intersect glows with some “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16). “The secret things belong to the Lord” Moses tells God’s people, “but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deuteronomy 29:29). What has been revealed is ours to know, but there are yet further mysteries “too lofty for me” (Psalm 139:6). The puzzle of paradox reminds us to trust that our ability to understand does not limit what is possible.
We need both imagination and reason to read the Bible well. Practicing paradox is a spiritual discipline that allows us to study scripture with both a desire for certainty and a willingness to embrace mystery. So when Jesus says, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last” (Matthew 20:16) or “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6), we can press into the complexity, waiting for each paradox to branch out and bear fruit. Paradox permits us to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas and invites us to worship the one who gets glory by concealing a matter (Proverbs 25:2)—the same one who will one day reveal to us what has been hidden from our understanding here on earth (Luke 8:17).
Paradox is a spiritual discipline because it helps us resist the temptation of seeking quick certainty in complexity. Rather than trying to resolve or ignore what appears nonsensical, paradox gives us courage to exercise the faith and imagination to see (or at least trust) that such things work together.
A Light So Lovely celebrates the legacy of an author who blurred the lines between the physical and the spiritual world, between sacred and secular, between fact and fiction. “Somehow, a woman who had no formal training in either science or theology manages to bring the two into fruitful conversation. Rather than withdraw from either, out of uncertainty or fear, she pulled up more chairs at the table. And by doing so, she expanded our imagination of what God can do.”
Fiction feels truer the more I read it, and non-fiction seems more like confident guessing. And I read them both with equal pleasure, inhabiting paradox and imitating Madeleine L’Engle’s “joyful uncertainty” as I stake my life on a book that is both story and truth. Make of that what you will.
Cover image by Juliana Malta.