A theology full of paradox

May 9, 2012 | Young Voices
Caleb Gingrich | Special to Young Voices

Is light a particle or a wave? Yes. It is not until we accept this apparent contradiction—the wave-particle duality—that we can understand fully the behaviour of light.

In the same way, the story of my undergraduate career cannot be fully understood until the contradictions of a faith-based life at Conrad Grebel University College and the rational, empirical world-view of systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo are embraced.

At its core, faith requires accepting the unknown, the unknowable, and trusting in the unseen, the unobserved. Engineering depends on the scientific method: a process requiring controlled, repeatable experiments with measurable, quantifiable, falsifiable outcomes observed objectively. How can one person value both kinds of knowledge and trust them equally?

Embracing contradictions is not about double-think. It is not simply believing two mutually exclusive ideas are true simultaneously. Embracing contradictions is about understanding how the two parts fit together, how they complement, enhance and strengthen each other.

Realizing that faith and science answer fundamentally different questions was an important first step for me. Science asks, “How does the world work?” It is predictive and descriptive. Faith asks, “How are we, as human beings, called to live in the world?” It is about our relationships with each other, creation and God. Certainly these questions interact and overlap, but the answers complement, rather than challenge, each other.

Thus, as core features of the human character, faith and science inform one another. Faith, and its call to right relationships, can inform the practice of science. Concurrently, as Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church in the Middle East, has said, “The more we know, the deeper the mystery.” Science, and the knowledge it provides, can inform our understanding of God.

Consider with me the process of evolution. Individuals with traits that allow them to survive and reproduce more successfully will pass these “superior” traits on to their children, and these traits will slowly become dominant. These traits are coded in the DNA that is passed from parents to children. Successful reproduction requires that the parents’ DNA is copied extremely accurately.

However, positive change will not occur unless different individuals have slightly different traits, and thus different DNA. These differences are often caused by mutations—essentially random copying errors—in the DNA. So evolution requires a balance between randomness and precision: Too much change and life cannot reproduce; too little and life cannot evolve with its surroundings. Could God be this randomness?

Consider mixing cream into your
morning coffee. You can mix them together, but it is extremely difficult to separate them. This is because mixing creates entropy, a measure of chaos or lack of order. Separating the cream from the coffee would require decreasing entropy, but the second law of thermodynamics states that entropy cannot be destroyed, only created. This means that everything is always moving towards a state of maximum chaos. There is no force that opposes this trend. Could God be the force that creates order?

But wait! Now we have a God that is both randomness and order. Can God be both? These conceptions of God also push us beyond our usual anthropomorphic images of God. Can God be both familiar—human-like—and unimaginably foreign? I believe so.

Indeed, Christian theology is full of paradox. Consider the Trinity: a monotheistic religion understanding God as three distinct parts forming a complete whole. Surely a Three-in-One God manifested in a man both fully human and fully divine must be understood as a complete whole made of many contradictions.

Just as my existence in a contradictory world reveals to me a fuller understanding of God, it also reveals a fuller understanding of myself. Coming to understand myself as both a rational engineer and an emotional being was not easy, but it allows me to experience life as a whole human, comprised of contradiction.

So I challenge us all to embrace the contradiction and pursue it. Continue the unending journey of seeking the big picture—the complete truth—that contradiction reveals. For it is in embracing the contradiction that we learn to understand the whole.

Caleb Gingrich is a recent graduate of systems design engineering at the University of Waterloo, Ont. He lived at Conrad Grebel University College while earning his degree, and attends Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church, Kitchener.

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