Agnostics, atheists, and adherents of other religions often disparage the “contradictory” doctrines of the Christian faith as reason to reject it. They imply that a true religion or worldview would be free of such complications.
Christians agree that real contradictions imply real falsehood. A proposition cannot be true and not true at the same time. No worldview should be based on irrationalism. But statements that seem contradictory may not really be. Sometimes an apparent contradiction is merely an illusion of language. In other cases, ideas that seem contradictory on the surface assert a truth that we can’t fully understand given the present state of our knowledge. They represent a mystery that, while not irrational, permits analysis only to a certain point. They underscore the limitations—either temporary or permanent—of human thought. The word that is usually used to refer to such seeming contradictions is paradox.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines paradox as “a seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true.” Regardless of one’s worldview, a number of basic paradoxes exist that no one has yet resolved. Let’s take a look at three of them.
Paradox one: freedom and determinism. 1 If we look at human behavior through the empirical eyes of science, it seems to be shaped by genetic and environmental influences. On the other hand, meaningful human experience and relationships depend on our freedom to choose, 2 as does our way of dealing with one another legally and morally in everyday life.
Paradox two: the “ghost in the machine” (dualism). What is the connection between mind and matter? When I consciously decide to take a physical action (stand, lift my arm, move my pen), what is the connection between my thoughts and the physical actions they command? The greatest philosophical and scientific thinkers have struggled with this problem for hundreds of years. So far they have failed to come up with a convincing model that explains how mind influences matter.
Paradox three: the “anthropic universe.” Scientists have observed that the universe is not only fantastically complex, but that it appears to have been designed specifically to permit the development of life and consciousness, even human self-consciousness—thus “anthropic.” The universe clearly seems to be designed by a Creator, yet no Creator imposes Himself upon us or makes His presence obvious. Just as the paradox of dualism acknowledges that my ability to “will” my arm to reach out and grasp the handle of a coffee cup is mystery, the paradox of the anthropic universe acknowledges that although it seems there must be a Creator, His identity and manner of interacting with the universe are unknown.
All of the so-called “contradictions” of Christian theology are reflections of these and other basic paradoxes of reality with which every thinking person must contend. Every worldview has to deal with the underlying paradoxes (or apparent contradictions) of human experience. Some do better than others.
Atheists, for instance, must live as though their lives and relationships are meaningful, while at the same time maintaining that the universe is a gigantic accident with no ultimate purpose.
Pantheists—including Hindus, New Agers, and neo-pagans—have a worldview that denies any ultimate distinction between good and evil. Still, like everyone else, they are faced with real moral decisions.
Honest, perceptive people don’t expect to find a worldview that contains no paradox or apparent contradiction. Instead, they look for a worldview that is most faithful to the laws of logic while maintaining fidelity to the depth, wonder, and mystery of reality.
At least two and a half millennia have passed since the book of Job was written, but its wisdom still rings true today:
The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:1-4).
- Dr. Bill Hodges, a remarkable American medical missionary in Haiti,was also a skilled amateur archeologist and philosopher. He summarized the paradox of determinism and free will this way:
As any college student knows, the argument about freedom and determinism goes back many centuries. The Westerner has been mightily tempted to regard all freedom—as does the pagan—as an illusion. There really isn’t any. Whether the universe may be regarded as the capricious whims of the spirits, or as the meaningless inter-reaction of electrical charges, it would seem that there is only a senseless destiny in which man and his “will” are merely phenomena of the system. Strangely enough, however, all Western culture conceives of human freedom as real, and the social structures presuppose it . . . .
Our institutions assume that the human being has a choice: He can obey the law, or he can commit a crime. Our philosophy, on the other hand, is inclined to the view that the crime itself was mediated by dozens of factors ranging from birth injuries to parental neglect,and that therefore the crime is only an inevitable consequence of those factors over which the criminal has no control. The historian, the anthropologist, or the biologist may trace the various meanderings of human history and believe that all events are mediated by a determinism . . . be it economic, cultural, or revolutionary, . . . but subconsciously they believe that they are describing “truth,” and that in some mysterious way their analysis is not subject to the same rules. Back To Article
- The school of behavioral psychology insists that if we are the product of a purposeless evolutionary process, it’s logical to conclude that what seems to be choice is merely an illusion. For these people, free will doesn’t really exist. They consider it to be an “epiphenomenon of consciousness,” that is, only a superficial sensation of freedom that conceals a deeper determinism, a determinism in which we only appear to choose things that our genes and our environment have already selected for us. It seems that this would be an uncomfortable thought for most people, one that is in direct contradiction to human experience. In fact, wouldn’t it have the potential to drive a sensitive atheist mad? Back To Article