Paradox & Tension (Or, How to Become a Beautiful Instrument)

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October 31, 2016 by jmw

I’m probably the only one still ruminating about a conversation that has all but faded out of our minds and news feeds; but, alas, I aim to write one more short piece in response to my friend Nathan’s post. I’ve written two lengthy responses already (one and two), but in this last post I want to offer a simple reminder about something that we can never escape but too often forget.

In a little book about John Wesley, Howard Snyder writes, “People, even the born-again kind, are notoriously weak at holding together paradoxes which belong together – like the Spirit and the Word, the private and the social, or ‘things old and new’ (Mt. 13:52).” Indeed, not only is it difficult to hold together paradoxical ideas, but even the “born-again kind” – the “Evangelicals” – are not immune to this weakness. Perhaps it is especially those who believe themselves to possess the truth who are [ironically] weaker when faced with the challenge of paradox. But this challenge is non-negotiable! Paradox is part of reality. In fact, it is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Consider the following:

Jesus told his disciples that the only way to save their life was to lose it. And that the first shall be last. And that those who lead do so by serving. And that in order to receive we must give. And to be strong by being weak. And to rejoice in suffering. And to love our enemies. And on and on go the paradoxical teachings of Jesus.

Or consider the words of the famed reformer Martin Luther: simul justus et peccator – at the same time righteous and sinner. That we are both sinners and saved is a fundamental Christian idea. Our status as sinner reminds us of the need for repentance. Our status as righteous (forgiven, saved, etc.) reminds us of the response of gratitude and our call to forgive others as we have been forgiven. Our status as both sinner and saved creates the experience of a tension. But what if that tension is exactly what God wants us to experience? What if, instead of being a problem to be resolved, this kind of tension is a good thing?

stringsWhat if this kind of tension was more like the tension that you need in a stringed instrument? Stringed instruments require two opposing forces to create a tension that allows for melodious sounds. Maybe, just maybe, that is what God is trying to do through the theological paradoxes that cause tension. Maybe, just maybe, God simply wants our lives to reverberate through the world like stringed instruments, creating melodies of love and beauty.

And maybe, just maybe, the paradox of Jesus being the “only way” AND there being “more ways” is a paradox that God wants us to experience in order to become both more in love with Jesus and more open to God’s work in the world beyond our tiny, situated perspectives.

It goes without saying that when a string loses it’s tension it becomes useless. And there’s nothing worse than people who think they’re making beautiful music but are actually detuned instruments (cf. 1 Cor. 13).

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I’m currently preparing for a course on the history of Methodism and it seems to be no coincidence that, in addition to Howard Snyder’s words above, I also came across the following:

“Leaders in the Wesleyan spirit seek to hold together and in tension a host of seemingly competing and incompatible commitments. These include personal and social holiness, doctrinal responsibility and doctrinal freedom, law and gospel, worship and service, piety and action. This approach led Wesley to argue different sides of the same issue on different occasions. Such seeming inconsistency created great tension for Wesley. His emphasis depended upon what was missing in the debate at that time. He considered which way he needed to lean in that situation. So when people heard one part of what Wesley said – and did not understand the larger context – often there was misunderstanding. There were so many positions in which he saw truth and value. There were also many things about which he had questions. He was willing to be a leader who lived in the tension.” (Lovett H. Weems, Jr., 82)






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