Christus Paradox, I: Beyond Us and Beside Us
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, So that the mountains would quake at your presence— Isaiah 64:1
Sung to the tune PICARDY
(“Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”)
Text written by United Church of Canada
pastor and hymn-writer Sylvia Dunstan,
who says she was inspired
by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard
You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd,
You, Lord, are both prince and slave,
You, peacemaker and sword bringer,
Of the way you took and gave.
You the everlasting instant;
You, whom we both scorn and crave.
Clothed in light upon the mountain,
Stripped of might upon the cross,
Shining in eternal glory,
Beggared by a soldier’s toss,
You, the everlasting instant,
You, who are both gift and cost!
You, who walk each day beside us,
Sit in power at God’s side.
You, who preach a way that’s narrow,
Have a love that reaches wide.
You, the everlasting instant;
You, who are our pilgrim guide.
Worthy is our earthly Jesus!
Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
Worthy your defeat and victory.
Worthy still your peace and strife.
You the everlasting instant
You, who are our death and life. Alleluia!
In 1984, the Canadian hymnwriter Sylvia Dunstan wrote a hymn called Christus Paradox, or Christ the Paradox, in which she describes Jesus with all these battling dualities: Jesus is both Lamb and Shepherd, Prince and Slave, He of the Narrow Way and the Broad Love, The One who walks beside us every day but who also sits in power at God’s right hand. Ms. Dunstan says that this hymn was inspired by the writings of Søren Kierkegaard.
So, what do you know about the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard? He was born on May 5, 1813, or about two months after his parents’ wedding. His father, a wealthy widower with six children already, was 57 years old when his seventh child was born.
To remedy his loneliness, I guess, the elder Kierkegaard had taken up with one of his servant girls shortly after his first wife died, so that Søren’s servant-girl mother was seven months pregnant on her wedding day. I guess Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose were not the first powerful men to have sex with employees who felt trapped into yes.
A whiff of scandal followed the young Kierkegaard around for the rest of his life. Pale, thin, sickly, and perhaps epileptic, little Søren was an unimpressive physical specimen indeed. But he was also rich. His father had left him a small fortune worth almost half a million dollars by today’s standards, so that except for a prodigious output of philosophical writings, Kierkegaard never worked a day in his life.
Unfortunately, he was not very thrifty, and spent down his small fortune way too fast. He withdrew the last dregs of his inheritance two weeks before he died at the age of 42, and some said it was a blessing he died so young, because he never would have been able to make a living at anything else.
He is sometimes called “The Melancholy Dane,” even though Hamlet had grabbed that unflattering appellation years before. I’d never noticed this before, but it’s so obvious when you stop to think about it: the name Kierkegaard is simply Danish for “churchyard,” and do you know what every Danish church has in its yard: graves. Kierkegaard means ‘graveyard. He spent his whole life living up to the name ‘graveyard.’
He never had any children, so far as we know, and he never married, though, when he was 27 he fell in love with a 14-year-old girl; I guess he was Denmark’s Roy Moore. He waited until she turned 18, and then asked her to marry him. Madly in love, she accepted his proposal, but to her bitter sorrow he broke the engagement not long after, because, he said, no woman, least of all an 18-year-old girl, could ever be happy with such a depressing personality. He said, “I was a thousand years older than she.” She married someone else and lived happily ever after; Kierkegaard spent the rest of his life alone, writing the philosophy books that nobody bothered to read till a hundred years after his death.
He tells us about the moment when he decided to become a writer:
I sat and smoked my cigar until I lapsed into thought... ‘You are going to…become an old man without really doing anything worthwhile. Wherever you look you see many benefactors of the age who know how to benefit the human race by making life easier and easier all the time, some by improving the railroads and others by inventing the telegraph and still others by steamships. And what are you doing,’ I said to myself. Suddenly the thought flashed through my mind: ‘You must do something, but inasmuch as with your limited capacities it will be impossible to make anything easier than it already is, you must undertake to make something harder.’ This notion please me immensely. I took it as my task to create difficulties everywhere.
One of the ways he made things harder was by teaching us that Christianity isn’t nearly as easy as it looks. He went to war with the established Church of Denmark because he thought they were way too busy making Christianity easy and palatable for the masses. They’d watered down the faith so that it wouldn’t taste so bad going down. To the contrary, said Kierkegaard, Christianity does taste bad because it doesn’t make any sense. Its claims are absurd, and that makes them difficult, but it doesn’t make them untrue. Christianity is just one hard paradox after another. You get to faith by doubt, you get to health by suffering, you achieve holiness by first recognizing that you are sinful and have no business standing in the presence of God.
Christianity is just one paradox after another. The word ‘paradox,’ of course, comes from a Greek phrase which means “contrary to popular opinion,” or “beyond belief.”
As a cognitive riddle or puzzle, ‘paradox’ is right next door to ‘oxymoron,’ which I have always found to be a fecund, provocative mind game. Oxymoron is a contradiction in terms. The word comes from the Greek for ‘patently foolish,’ or ‘obviously stupid.” Oxy is Greek for ‘clear’, as in ‘oxygen’; and moron is Greek for...well, moron needs no translation.
Here are some of my favorite oxymorons:
Paradoxes and oxymorons are cognitively fecund and provocative. Kierkegaard said that paradox is “the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think.”
And so a sermon series called Christus Paradox, or Christ the Paradox might be promising, because is there anything more paradoxical than the Eternal God who comes crawling into time on the hands and knees of a tiny infant with nothing to his name but the rags on his body and the milk in his mother’s breast? For instance, Christ is the one who is both Beyond Us and Beside Us.
One of the lessons the Church has assigned to the Advent season this year is that beautiful prayer from the prophet Isaiah I read a few moments ago. “Oh, that you would tear a hole in the heavens and come down,” prayed Isaiah, about 500 years before Christ was born. It was a desperate prayer for desperate times.
Seventy or eighty years before Isaiah wrote this prayer the nation of Israel had for all practical purposes ceased to exist. Some of the people had been carted off to become field hands and housekeepers and slaves for the aristocracy of Babylon; the holy Temple was gone, destroyed along with the entire city of Jerusalem; and now their 70 years of captivity are over and the Jews are being allowed to return from captivity to the land of their birth, but what was there for them to come back to? Almost nothing at all. Ruins and wreckage and smoldering ashes. Not one stone left atop another, weeds where once there were crops. “Your holy city has become a wilderness,” the prophet prays, “Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. After all this, will you restrain yourself, O Lord? Will you still keep silent?”
Things are so bad it seems almost as if God is gone. It is as if God is dead, or at least silent, or uncaring, but certainly not near. And in desperation, Isaiah prays, “Oh, that you would tear a hole in the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence, as when the fire kindles brushwood and sets the water to a boil.” Isaiah reminds God that there was a time when God did tear a hole in the heavens and come down. “When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, O Lord, and the mountains did quake at your presence.”
You see what Isaiah is praying for? On behalf of the desolate homeless Hebrews he is asking God for another theophany, another earthly appearance of The Almighty like that at Mount Sinai when Moses came down the mountain with the stone tablets of the Law accompanied by the terrifying presence of Almighty God: crashing thunder, blinding lightning, and billowing smoke.
And the reason the Christian Church reads this lesson during the season of Advent is to support its outlandish claim that in Jesus Christ, God answered Isaiah’s prayer. It took 500 years, but God answered Isaiah’s prayer. God tore a hole in the heavens and came down, came down to Bethlehem.
His Majesty Abdullah II has been King of Jordan since 1999. Jordan is tiny and poor and has one of the lower per capita GDP’s in the Middle East; it has no water, no oil, and no other natural resources, but King Abdullah II is one of America’s closest friends in the Middle East. He is a moderate Muslim and negotiated the turbulent days of the Arab Spring with some aplomb. Some think tanks call King Abdullah II of Jordan the most influential Muslim in the world. He is, they say, a forty-first-generation direct descendant of the prophet Mohamed.
He was young when he inherited the throne from his father, 40 years old, and at the beginning of his reign, King Abdullah II made it a habit to stroll around his nation in civilian clothes. He likes to take his bureaucrats by surprise. He’ll walk into, say, the Department of Motor Vehicles disguised as a fat, old, one-eyed gimp in beat-up sneakers and a red-checkered headdress. He pulls a pillow out of a gym bag and wraps his abdomen with a spare tire of fake fat. And then with other frustrated taxpayers he waits in endless lines for clerks who are not there or who haven’t the slightest interest in serving their fellow Jordanians.
He spends five minutes banging on the closed door of the land-assessment office. At one point he stands directly under his official portrait hanging on the wall, and no one recognizes him. When a reporter asks the king whether the bureaucrats at the Town Hall are aware by now of their royal visitor, he says, “Yes, I think they’ve gotten word.” What should they be feeling? “Panic,” he says. Reports will be made. People will be blamed. Heads will roll.
King Abdullah says that he has become a bit like Elvis. People see him where he isn’t, and miss him where he is. The Incognito King. “Would that you would tear a hole in the heavens and come down,” prayed the prophet Isaiah. But what if God did? What if God did come down, and we missed it. What should we be feeling? Panic?
The story about King Abdullah reminded me of a little parable Kierkegaard himself once told to get the Gospel point across. He imagines a mighty king who falls in love with a simple servant girl from a small village on the outskirts of the empire. How would the king make his love known to this simple girl? Should he show up at her humble cottage garbed in all his royal splendor with a full retinue of retainers? It’s likely that the king would frighten the poor girl half to death. She would think he was playing a bad joke on her. How could he get her to fall in love with him?
I suppose he could order her to love him, and throw her in prison if she does not. Even if she says she loves him, he could never be sure that it was true. Perhaps she would love him because she feared him. Perhaps she would love him because she had no other choice.
You know what the king should do? He should set aside his riches and his power and court her in disguise. He could disguise himself as a beggar, and then if she fell in love with him, he would know that she was in love with him, not with his glory and power. And if the king is truly royal and truly loving, he will be ready even to remain a beggar and never claim again the privileges of his throne.
Something like that is what the New Testament claims happened at Bethlehem 2,000 years ago. It is an outlandish hypothesis. It is a paradox. It is something that thought cannot even think. But this Advent, would you think about it nonetheless?
Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, quotedaz by Roger Kimball, “What Did Kierkegaard Want?” New Criterion, September, 2001, vol. 20, #1, pp. 19ff.
Adapted from Jeffrey Goldberg, “Learning To Be King,” The New York Times Magazine, 2-6-00.
A parable of Søren Kierkegaard, in Philosophical Fragments, as told by C. Stephan Evans in Why Believe? (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), pp. 64-65.