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Metaphor, Mystery and Paradox, Part 5

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December 21, 2010 Tags: Science & Worldviews
Metaphor, Mystery and Paradox, Part 5

Today's entry was written by Mark Sprinkle. You can read more about what we believe here.

This is the fifth entry in a series taken from Mark Sprinkle's essay “Metaphor, Mystery, and Paradox at the Confluence of Science and Faith”, which can be found here.

Beautiful Confusion

Last week I discussed the importance but also the dangers of breaking down the constant flow of our experiences in and observations of the world into more manageable and sensible pieces. This week I will reiterate that approaching things on the small-scale or breaking problems down into smaller constituent parts is good, but suggest that we must also regularly lift our eyes from the small scale to remind ourselves that our specific studies (or disciplines of study) will never give the entire picture by themselves. Rather, they risk robbing us of the awe and beautiful confusion that experiencing the whole by way of community should give. Notice how the common pejorative gloss on the word confusion is disorder, or chaos, or mistaken identification of one thing with another, while its root meaning is to “fuse together” two different things, not necessarily in error. Our enlightened desire to keep things discrete and separate makes us reluctant to do what Jesus did with language and the world every time He spoke in parables, which was bring disparate things together to hint at the whole.

Indeed, it is when we begin to look collectively and synthetically at the small elements that we also begin to make out the big picture—less by aggregating all our discrete studies into a larger encyclopedic collection than by seeing within and across them such similarities and patterns that we come to feel that the whole must likely exhibit on a much larger scale the qualities and characteristics of what we see repeated in each or many of the particulars. We have physical paradigms for this kind of relation of part to the whole in the fractal mathematics describing the arrangement of leaves on a stem and chambers of the nautilus, and it is extremely significant that we understand such relationships not just as interesting or quantifiable, but beautiful: our subjective sense helps us to recognize and give proper attention to significant objective relationships. As poet Luci Shaw recognizes, such attention to similarities, likenesses, and concrete metonymy has both enlightening and reconciling roles to play:

One of the symptoms of our age is its tunnel vision, by which we fragment the universe. Because of its extraordinary complexity, we cannot handle more than a few facets of existence at a time. The result is that we each do our own narrow little thing: politicians, farmers, house­wives, musicians, merchants, socialites, mechanics, neurosurgeons. Not even a Buckminster Fuller or an Isaac Asimov or a C. P. Snow can pull it all together. It is my hope that the creative Christian may, by means of his “baptized imagination,” help integrate the universe by widening and sharpening his focus, by “seeing through God's eyes,” by observing man and his environment and saying, “Yes, I see. This is like that, and it is significant.” Here the artist and the analyst, the poet and the pragmatist can collaborate, joining reason with imagination.1

In this passage Shaw also points us in the direction of two other important aspects of the way we understand and relate to the world: first, that our faith in and intimacy with God is a singularly powerful resource for seeing likenesses and connections; and second, that part of that gifted insight is the recognition (or reassertion) that no one image or likeness or story is sufficient to encapsulate the whole, but rather it is often the unresolved tension between images and ideas that most rightly represents what is truly real. I have slipped here into more literary and explicitly artistic language as an entrée into my next point about the way that God has presented Himself and the narrative of his people through Scripture, but seeming contradiction and paradox are not just features of literature or history, to be taken as subtle evidence against the reliability or truthfulness of those testimonies.

On the contrary some of the most interesting and fruitful advances in our understanding of the physical cosmos have come with and even through attention to paradox. In the intertwined disciplines of cosmology, particle physics, and quantum mechanics especially, the last century or more of science has suggested that even the most “objective” and basic features of the universe are stubbornly (or beautifully) subjective: subatomic particles seem to pop in and out of existence or be “entangled” despite distances in time and space, and light shows itself to be either particle or wave, depending on how the observer chooses to look. In short, it seems that while the essence of the universe may be orderly and elegant, it is also mysterious and intractably resistant to being explained away.

And perhaps that last point is the most instructive to those of us who want to be faithful to the fullness of the way God chooses to reveal himself to us—the complicated, similarly-intractable interaction between the natural world, the written Word, and the work of the Spirit in contemporary lives and communities. Each of those sources has a call on our attention and commitment, and each of them involves more than a little mystery: not mystery in the sense of a riddle or temporary uncertainty, but mystery as a paradox—a “both/and” sense of the truth. Hearkening back to the discussion that began these posts, it should give us pause if both committed materialist atheists and committed evangelical Christians use precisely the same unimaginative argumentative techniques and methods to get at the truth (or falsehood, so say the atheists) of our relationship with God, even if they begin from different logical (or religious-legal) presuppositions. Method, attitude, is more telling, sometimes, than is purported message, revealing more about our disposition towards our Creator, His creation, and our fellow creatures than what we say we believe.

As journalist and cultural critic Ken Myers asked while framing an interview with writer Craig Holdrege, “What if we’ve been mistaken about the shape our knowing of the world should take? What if the great Modern error is to perceive of the world principally as a puzzle or a problem solved by essentially mathematical means, rather than a gift and an epiphany, apprehended by loving and reverent engagement?”2 Going further, may it even be that the irresolvable nature of these tensions between different ways of approaching God and His creation is, itself, a gift that draws us ever closer to the Creator while prodding us to be in more loving relationship with those of our fellow creatures who seem so far from Him? To begin with the supposition that there are “answers” in Genesis and elsewhere in the Bible that allow us to codify and quantify away the complexity and mystery and paradox of God’s sovereignty and our freedom, our sin and God’s grace is not wrong, per se, but it does rather miss the intensely relational character of a God so beyond us that we must speak of Him as being Three in One, yet who nevertheless invites us to join Him at the table. In this, the season of epiphanies, may we all do better, and more humbly, in appreciating as gift the mysteries that remain in our knowledge of and relationships with the Creator, with the world—and with each other.


1. Luci Shaw, “Imagination—that other avenue to truth.” Christianity Today. January 2, 1981. Perhaps the blind men in the story, had they taken this strategy to heart, might have at least noticed the commonality of their experiences and been moved to contemplate the beauty and importance of wrinkles.

2. Ken Myers, “Craig Holdrege on science and detached knowledge.” Mars Hill Audio Journal, Vol. 92:7: 3:30-3:51.

Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.

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merv - #44579

December 21st 2010

Beautiful, Dr. Sprinkle.  You bring out more of the many rich roles of paradox and remind us how spiritually, and intellectually impoverished we are when we can only recognize them as one dimensional contradictions. 


Steve Ruble - #44714

December 22nd 2010

Perhaps BioLogos could continue exploring this line of thought by inviting Deepak Chopra to pen a few columns.

I can understand the superficial appeal of constructing an interpretive framework in which it is impossible for your claims to be refuted, but please, consider the risks of embracing such a model: you also lose the ability to tell whether you’re deceiving yourself.  Paranoiacs and conspiracy theorists also believe unreservedly in the reality of the patterns they see in the world - is that really the way you want to approach life?

merv - #44805

December 23rd 2010

It isn’t like any of us (or you) have a choice about this, Steve.  If life consisted only of questions from within the domain of science, then its tools would indeed comprehensively help us answer everything we need to know.  But for issues facing us that are not addressed and not addressable by science, we   all, atheist and theist alike, face the greater dangers of self-deception.  And the most deceived ones may be those who imagine they have escaped this danger in all questions of meaning and life just because we have somewhat escaped subjectivity within the smaller realm of the scientific.


Steve Ruble - #44809

December 23rd 2010

I agree, Merv - we can’t eliminate the risks of self deception.  But the post above argues that we should discard most of the tools which we might use to detect self-deception and error.  When you abandon important constraints on reasoning - such as the law of non-contradiction, or the idea that claims ought to be supported with evidence - you can cut yourself loose from reality without even noticing it.

For example:

...seeming contradiction and paradox are not just features of literature or history, to be taken as subtle evidence against the reliability or truthfulness of those testimonies.

If you accept that claim, you can no longer claim that any account is invalidated or weakened by internal inconsistencies - at least, not if you want to be consistent in your reasoning.  But I guess that if you’ve accepted that consistency is unimportant, you wouldn’t need to hold yourself to such an onerous standard.

Merv - #44851

December 24th 2010

It depends on context.  A witness giving testimony in court regarding a defendant’s alibi had better have a consistent report because in this case everything hangs on the literal truth alone.

If a poet is describing a rose as beautiful whereas another says it is thorny, then it becomes silly to insist that consistency is everything.


Steve Ruble - #44852

December 24th 2010

Merv, there’s a bit of slippage between your two examples.  In the first, one person is claiming to describe something which is actually the case.  In the second, two people are describing different aspects of a thing.  The first poet might think the more important thing is that the rose is beautiful, but that doesn’t contradict the fact that it has thorns.  The second is observing the thorns, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility that it’s beautiful.  In fact, a poet could say that the rose is beautiful in spite of (or even because of) its thorns.  (That’s the kind of thing poets say all the time.)  If you had a poet saying something like, “The rose is beautiful, and it has thorns, and things with thorns are not beautiful,” then you would have a contradiction embedded in the narration.

This sort of inconsistency is common in theology and scriptures, and this post is trying to make such inconsistency acceptable.  That’s what I’m rejecting here.

Merv - #44922

December 25th 2010

Good morning, Steve—and Merry Christmas!

You are exactly right that poets thrive on these paradoxes all the time (as Scriptures do too).  I could have had the same poet saying both things in my example, and as you point out it would be merely different aspects of the same thing and not really a contradiction.  In the same way we can ask is God just and unyielding?  Or is He loving and merciful?  To try to make one answer completely exclude the other alternative is to miss important aspects.  You are right that Scriptures are full of such tensions.  Whether you are right to reject them as such—that is the million dollar question.  But science can’t really help you address the question just as it can’t weigh in on how we as poets ought to think of roses other than to supply us with mechanical observations such as their color or whether or not they have thorns.

Is your dad a loving person?  Or is/was he at times harsh or punitive?  Even human beings will defy one-dimensional characterization—let alone trying to describe an immortal creator.  Given the season here, we celebrate the greatest contradiction of all:  Is God an omnipotent creator or has he ever been a limited human being?  Both/and!

Mark Sprinkle - #45825

January 4th 2011

Hi, Steve & Merv. Thanks for your discussion, and my apologies for being out of the loop and on the road while you were having it.  Perhaps this is too little too late, but thought I’d weigh in just a bit anyway.

Steve, I think you have to really stretch to get your interpretation from my post. The phrase you quoted in 44809 was saying that paradox and seeming contradiction are part of science, as much as of history, what keeps science going—not an appeal to poetry as a higher standard.  Art and science share approaches, sometimes.  Plus, the point was for more rigid interpreters of Scripture, ironically—they tend to NOT see the beauty in not-knowing things, where most of the scientists I know recognize that many mysteries are not “contradictions” but things which require a broader, more creative interpretive framework, and input from others even in other disciplines.  The key is the idea of “seeming” contradiction.  I mentioned light, of course, but what of Global Warming and a really white Christmas even in the South? Paradox, contradiction mystery? No, a matter of scales, both of time and of geography.  Other things of more human nature take more work to tease out though, and that’s what I’m encouraging.

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