Duc in altum (Luke 5:4)
The Oxford American Dictionary defines paradox as “a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.” Essential to the nature of a paradox is two things that seem to contradict one another but in fact exist in perfect union, harmony, and complementarity. For a paradox to work, there cannot be either one thing or another, nor even two things collapsed into one. Rather, two seemingly opposed things must be held in our minds at one and the same time without being in conflict, without one eliminating the other. A genuine paradox is not “either this or that” but “both this and that.”
Now Catholicism is a faith full of paradoxes. Indeed, it is a faith of paradoxes. At every turn we reconcile seeming opposites and unite what appears to be contradictory. Catholic theology speaks less of “either/or” and more in terms of “both/and” – and precisely when others would seem opposition and conflict. For example, God is both one and three, our Savior is both God and man, Mary is both virgin and mother. In each instance we find a paradox: two seemingly opposed things united harmoniously and therefore beautifully.
This penchant for paradox brings to light the difference between Catholicism and other faiths. Where other religions say “either/or” Catholicism consistently responds “both/and.” Other religions say that God must be either entirely separate from the world (Islam, Deism) or at one with the world (Pantheism, Buddhism, Hinduism); Catholicism holds that God is both distinct from this world and in it. Other religions hold that God is either one (Islam) or many (Pantheism, Hinduism), Catholicism holds that God is both one and three.
The list could go on (and it will in subsequent columns). Point is, we do well to appreciate the beauty and power of such paradoxes. For beauty you must have various things. You cannot have a beautiful painting with just one color or one line, nor a beautiful song with just one note. Beauty requires diversity. At the same time, these diverse things must be in concert with one another. Paintings should not have warring colors and lines, nor should music have competing notes (which explains why so much modern art and music is ugly: it presents conflict, not harmony). Beauty demands different parts brought together harmoniously. So in the Catholic faith we find different truths brought together in that harmonious whole called “the deposit of faith.”
Second, the power of paradoxes. Their seeming absurdity (Both God and man? Both virgin and mother?) ought not discourage or frustrate us. Rather, it should provoke a wonder and interest so that we pursue the truth more, and rejoice more in finding it. Like the parables of our Lord, Catholic paradoxes seem to be in the very nature of faith because they demand a childlike trust in God. They require us to trust that what we see as contradictory and absurd He brings into a wonderful unity and harmony of truth.
Paradox is immediately relevant for this Sunday, for it is the lens through which we understand and appreciate the Feast of Christ the King. Other faiths and/or ideologies say that we must be either powerful or weak. Either we have authority and wield it over others, or we have none and must serve. Indeed, this is the mindset of our culture. But in the person of Christ the King we encounter a beautiful and timely paradox: authority and service are united. In him we learn, as the ancient saying has it, To reign is to serve. It is not that we must either run roughshod over others with power or remain simpering, whimpering slaves. Rather, in Him we find authority and service united. True authority is intended for sacrifice, and in sacrifice is revealed the one who truly reigns. Only in the beauty of this paradox do we find peace.
- Rev. Paul Scalia