9/18/2014 9:00:00 AM WORD OF FAITH Encountering contradictions
BY REV. ROGER KARBAN
FROM A READING FOR SEPT. 21, 25TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR 'For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.' - Isaiah 55:9
I was always taught that if you can't define something, you don't know it. Often, my grade and high school teachers would benignly smile at those students who claimed, "I know it, but I can't put it into words," then immediately declare their response, "Wrong!"
Much later, I learned that if the "something" we were discussing revolved around experiences of God working in our lives, the teacher would have been forced to declare, "Correct!" How does someone put such experiences into words?
Years ago, Rev. David Tracy, now professor emeritus of theology at the University of Chicago, once blew my mind with a lecture titled, "The Limits of Theological Language." The well-known theologian demonstrated how nearly impossible it is to put our relationship with God into words that other people can understand. In such situations, we're dealing with something very personal and very unique.
That's why our sacred authors frequently had to resort to contradictions to get their points across. Tracy's prime example was Jesus' insistence in Mark 8 that those who work on saving their lives will lose them; only those who lose their lives with save them.
A classic contradiction is also Deutero-Isaiah's concern in Sunday's first reading (Is 55:6-9). He begins the passage with the consoling words, "Seek Yahweh while He may be found; call Him while he is near." But then he quickly quotes Yahweh's warning, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts."
Theologians frequently refer to this as someone simultaneously having an experience of God's immanence and God's transcendence. Is the God we encounter close to us or far away? The prophet answers, "Yes!" Not even an inspired author can find a way to express those moments in a simple declarative sentence that doesn't contain contradictions.
Paul follows suit in our Philippians (1:20c-24, 27a) passage. Should he be praying for a long life or an immediate death? On one hand, "If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me." But on the other hand, "I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better for me."
The Apostle's ministry is filled with such contradictions - contradictions which only arise because of his relationship with the risen Jesus, present in those around Him and also a force beyond those around Him.
Matthew's Jesus (Mt 20:1-15a) brings up a personal contradiction for the community who originally heard this Gospel: Jewish/Christians, descendants of Yahweh's faithful followers, people who for more than 1,200 years had followed all the 613 rules and regulations of the Sinai covenant, the logical recipients of the reform which the historical Jesus preached.
Now, in the late 70s, they're forced to deal with a disturbing phenomenon: non-Jews being accepted into the Christian community without any obligation to keep those laws. Their males aren't even expected to be circumcised!
With no logical answer for this unforeseen development, the evangelist can only fall back on God's generosity. Just as a vineyard owner could pay his workers whatever he wished, so God grants these late-arriving Gentiles the same benefits given to the Jews who "bore the day's burden and the heat." It's only consoling to hear that "the last will be first and the first will be last" when we're in the last-to-first category.
A theological "mystery" isn't just a concept that we can't understand; it's a tension in which we find ourselves because we actually attempt to relate to God in our lives. If we don't encounter at least a half-dozen of those unexplainable contradictions every day, we might not have a biblical faith.