Man Is a Paradox — a Perfectly Unresolvable Paradox

If we are, as the Scriptures remind us, “most fearfully, wonderfully made” can there be any height of grandeur we’ve no business stretching ourselves to reach?

Mystery (photo: Felix Merler / Pixabay/CC0)

How are we to imagine our place in the world? Do we see ourselves perfectly at home here, entirely at ease amid the fleshpots of a world arranged for our own pleasure? Or do we feel ourselves somehow estranged from the things that surround us, not wholly resigned to the way things are? Are we here to establish permanent residence, or have we been set down only for a short time, our true and lasting home awaiting us in some other world?

If you ask the ancients, who knew a thing or two, the answer is that we actually live in two very different worlds: our bodies live upon the earth, while our souls long for a life larger and richer than anything earth can provide. We are thus divided beings, strangely situated along a line of horizon both time-bound and eternal. The middle term, as it were, between nothing and everything. Or, as the Jewish philosopher Abraham Heschel once put it, “man is the knot in which both heaven and earth are tied…” 

Is that why God looks upon us with such tender regard? And why we must try and see ourselves in the same way? We are, after all, “the very amazement of God,” to quote St. Irenaeus. Or the Hebrew Psalmist, who, in looking upon the heavens and seeing “the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established,” is moved to ask —

What is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

If we are, as the Scriptures remind us, “most fearfully, wonderfully made” — fashioned but a “little less than God” himself — can there be any blessedness to which we are not entitled to aspire? Any height of grandeur we’ve no business stretching ourselves to reach? Clearly God, in his majesty and love for man, has bestowed no end of goodness upon us, having raised us above every other creature upon the earth. Yes, we find ourselves mired in the material world, a mere accident that happened to happen (think of Shakespeare’s “quintessence of dust”), and thus forced to bend the planet to do our bidding. But for all that, the shape of the human soul is such that it remains free to cry out to God for all the things that materialism cannot offer. That with arms outstretched we may, like the proverbial beggar, freely ask the Father: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Not material bread, but the bread of meaning.

The point is, and maybe it’s time I made it, man is a paradox — a perfectly unresolvable paradox. On any earthly showing, that is. Man’s prospects remain as dreary and bleak as every other finite thing found beneath a cold and indifferent sky. Indeed, a monstrosity, for which nothing in nature can account. “Judge of all things,” says Pascal, “feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sink of doubt and error, glory and refuse of the universe.”

How does one unravel that puzzle? Is there anyone around equal to untying such a knot? Not certainly from below, planet earth having nothing upon which to draw. Chesterton, in his usual witty way, has got the sense of it. “Either an angel fell from the heavens with a thunderous crash, or one of the animals went completely off its head.” There can be no third way. Only man goes about in sackcloth and ash, beating his breast, lamenting his sins. How completely the whole evolutionary hypothesis collapses the moment you frame the human equation in that way, when you open the door to something more, to the distinct possibility of a divine and eternal design. “It is exactly where biology leaves off,” says Chesterton, “that all religion begins.”

So, we are neither angel nor animal, but rather this most amazing admixture of the two; so paradoxically joined that the result catapults us mysteriously beyond both. One foot anchored to the materiality of this world, while the other hangs suspended amid realms of purest spirit. A sort of amphibious being, actually, who is neither fish nor fowl, but the oddest composite of both. Who can only be, only subsist, along the thinnest possible edge of time and eternity, nature and grace, the grit of the earth and the glory of God.

We are never, therefore, the mere sum of our parts, never simply the product of nature. Which is why the things I want are so often beyond what I have. And what I have, alas, cannot of itself produce what I want. Is that not a striking paradox? That the very things I most pine for are precisely the things I find the least possible to possess. Like an indestructible love. Who will untie that knot? Who can free me from such coils — coils in whose clutches I find myself continually caught?

Only God is able to reach right down into the very marrow of our misery and thus pry us loose. Which is done in that most daring descent of all, namely, the Incarnation of the Son of God, which thus enables each of us, in the words of the poet John Donne, “to find both Adams met in me; / As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face, / May the second Adam’s blood my soul embrace.” Let Christ then be that sublime point of an otherwise impossible resolution, which he perfectly accomplished amid the frightful events of his own passion and death. “In Christ,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar, “we can now contemplate the interpretation both of God and of man: the heart of God interpreted in the heart of Christ, the heart of man in its fall into inauthenticity and lostness caught up and restored … in this same heart on the cross.”

What is man, then, but a being wholly and wonderfully out of joint — wounded by the devil with the lesion of concupiscence and sin, and by God’s free wound of an omnipotent love? Thus, within the space of that humanity he assumed, he may raise us from the ground to which we have all fallen, and by giving us room within himself, may assume even our death into himself.