Faith, Reason and Paradox

Fugue in Em (BWV 548) "The Wedge" J.S.Bach (1685-1750)

Chorale Prelude on "O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" W. Zeitler

Gavotte in Gm G.F.Handel (1685-1757)

One of the bullet points of Luther’s theology was that many Important Truths are paradoxical in nature. "Three, yet one", "fully God and fully human", "the last will be first", "lose your life to save it." It’s understandable that Paradox wasn’t really a feature of Calvin’s theology as he was a lawyer by training and temperament, and one of the main tasks of Law is to resolve every question put to it: ‘guilty/not guilty’ or ‘for the plaintiff/defendant’. That’s just what Law has to do.

One of the central tenets of the Enlightenment (which began c.1750) is that all problems can be solved by Reason. This Enlightenment ideal has certainly transformed the world: everything from all but eliminating small pox to putting human beings on the moon to the Internet. At the turn of the 20th century it looked as though Reason might be able to conquer all after all, but as the century unfolded Paradox began to rear its ugly head even in the inner sanctum of Science: Einstein’s Relativity is riddled with paradoxes, and Quantum Mechanics is far worse. Nevertheless there still remains the belief (faith!) in the scientific community that there exists a Grand Unified Theory (that’s what they call it) which will resolve all the paradoxes, and this remains one of the great quests of physics today.

But it turns out that Paradox is to be found in the very foundation of science, namely Mathematics. At the turn of the 20th century the mathematical community appreciated that the enormous edifice of Science completely depended on Mathematics, and there was serious concern that there might be an undiscovered internal inconsistency which could wreak havoc at the very foundation. In 1913 (1927 2nd ed.) the Principia Mathematica seemed to prove that all was well with Mathematics after all, and mathematicians could soundly sleep in their beds. But it was not to be: in 1931 a 25-year-old Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) published a series of papers that proved that any mathematical system that asserts its own consistency is inconsistent, and mathematical systems will always contain statements that can be proven neither true nor false. In other words, there is no escape: even the pristine perfect platonic world of Mathematics is provably paradoxical, and by extension so is Science. (As an aside, when Einstein was propelled into fame and could go anywhere in the world he wanted, he chose the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton because Gödel was there. They became lifelong close friends.)

So Christianity was right all along, and it was Science which has had the blind spot: Paradox is a fundamental and inescapable reality for humanity.

This morning’s Big Bach™ prelude is a rather paradoxical piece: the ‘fugue’ is perhaps the most restrictive form in Western music, and this morning’s begins as a sturdy fugue following all the rules. Then it breaks into wild fantasy – runs up and down the keyboard, it’s all over the place. Back and forth between those two ends of the spectrum.

Ultimately there’s a certain peace in accepting that we will never be able to answer all Questions. (Accepting this is also known as ‘humility’, and ‘faith’.) So we entrust our paradoxes – especially the painful ones – to Someone Greater than we, who walked among us and faced all of our Paradoxes head on, even when they took Him to the Cross.