Living with Paradox

"A Leaf in the Wind" W. Zeitler
Chorale Prelude on "If Thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee" W. Zeitler
Chaconne D. Buxtehude (1638-1707)

In last week’s Music Box I wrote about Paradox – the idea that many (most?) Important Truths are paradoxical in nature. "The last will be first", "lose your life to save it", "whoever humbles himself will be exalted." And I went on to show that Paradox is not only the province of religion: in 1931 Kurt Gödel (1906-1978) proved that Paradox is woven into the warp and woof of Mathematics itself, and by extension into Science. I have a little more to add.

Alchemy goes back to ancient times, but it experienced a resurgence of interest in the Renaissance (along with interest in everything else). One of the main goals of Alchemy was to transmute lead (base metals) into gold. Carl Jung (1875–1961), the great 20th century psychologist, pioneered the idea that much of the alchemical literature is not about transmuting literal lead into gold, but is a metaphor for the transformation of the human heart from ‘lead’ into ‘gold’ – in other words, the path to ‘theosis’ (becoming more like Christ, "being conformed to His image"). In this view, the literature of ‘inner alchemy’ (as it has come to be called) was a way for folks of that day to talk about the Spiritual Path under the radar of the Inquisition.

A recurring theme in the literature of inner alchemy is the ‘alchemical marriage’. If the ability to not just accept, but to even embrace the apparent opposites of Life is an essential step on the Path, then the ‘alchemical marriage’ is a metaphor of the archetypal opposites of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ living in harmony. A rather fair parable for embracing Paradox, methinks.

With all this in mind, I have always found this verse in Scripture curious: "So God created humanity in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them." (Gen. 1:27). A common Hebrew poetic device is to emphasize something by repeating it — in this case repeating the idea that we are created in His image. I've often wondered if the punch line of this verse is that God's image consists of ‘male & female", or, better, "masculine & feminine". In other words, God Him/Herself is paradoxical — or at least appears so to us mortals. But, then, we already knew that!

By the way, Gödel came to a sad end. Sometimes called one of humanity's greatest logicians ever, on the order of Aristotle, Gödel himself lived on the edge of insanity his entire adult life – and sometimes over the edge. Profoundly reclusive, he could not be persuaded to attend the ceremony in 1974 presenting him with the National Medal of Science. (There is no Nobel Prize in mathematics – this award is a fair equivalent. President Ford would have presented it.) And he was highly paranoid: afraid that someone wanted to poison him, he would only eat food prepared by his wife Adele. By 1978 he was retired from the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, many of his colleagues who knew him well had already died, and when his wife was hospitalized for an extended period, he quietly starved himself to death.