From Darkness into Paradox

“Faith expressed by many … is often dull, oppressive and insipid.” With this quote from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, David Brooks’ January 27 NYTimes op-ed really grabbed my attention. I reluctantly agree with Brooks’ further supposition: “There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.”

Yet, with tenacious optimism reminiscent of Gerard Manly Hopkins’ poem God’s Grandeur, Brooks celebrates “a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.” Others have similarly identified the essential God-given capacity of humans to live within paradox. Parker Palmer’s incisive consideration, The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life was first issued in 1980 with an Introduction by Henri Nouwen. Attesting to the prominence and persistence of his topic, Palmer’s book was reissued in 2008.

Brooks makes a singular contribution by introducing us to Audrey Assad, “a Catholic songwriter with a crystalline voice and a sober intensity to her stage presence.” Assad enjoyed “an idyllic childhood” in which developmentally appropriate black-or-white dichotomies provided the necessary foundation for her identity. Then, true to life, inevitable tragedies and complexities began to mount. True to form, Assad experienced the familiar erosion of certainty.  And, isn’t that as it should be? Isn’t our worst response in moments of challenge and uncertainty to batten down old belief structures and frantically defend frayed formulations? Those who work 12 Step programs know very well that “control” or “white-knuckling it” sets up the very conditions in which self-defeating, addictive behaviors are likely to explode.

Assad describes her evolution into a person of mature Christian faith as making her way “from darkness into paradox.” Her story makes me grieve any who refuse to grow up — any who “turn away” from the invitation to an unknown future as did the Rich Young Man in the Gospel. Worse, yet, are “parental” leaders of faith communities who place all sorts of obstacles in the way of people growing up, burdens Jesus suggests they themselves are often unwilling or unable to bear. If there is any certainty, I believe it is from such as these that God comes to save us! 

This makes me recall a favorite comment by Flannery O’Connor in a letter to a dear friend: “Many of us come to the church by means the church would not allow.” AMEN to that!

Brooks’ column may be found at:

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