The term paradox is from the Greek word paradoxon that means contrary to expectations, existing beliefs, or perceived opinion. It is a statement that appears to be self-contradictory or silly, but may include a latent truth. A paradox is often used to help a listener or reader think over an idea in an innovative way. Examples can be found in sayings such as George Bernard Shaw’s “What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young”, Oscar Wilde’s “I can resist anything but temptation”, or in George Orwell’s Animal Farm’s rule, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.”
Theologians have recently become interested in the importance of stories in revealing the Gospel story. Indeed theology has its roots in narrative, in metaphor, and in the story. Stories often contain paradoxes. For a long while I have been absorbed in stories of the Bible and especially Jewish lore. Some of these stories center on paradox – stories that lead the reader to expect one thing and be caught off guard with another. For the next six weeks I will share some paradoxes and illustrate them primarily with stories from Jewish tradition and of course the Greatest Story of all.
The first paradox of story is: Spirituality is rooted in Earthiness.
This is a paradox trip for Christians. Spirituality for us is rooted in platonic other worldliness not earthiness. We Christians have viewed “real” spirituality not as earthy but as “heavenly.” To imagine the spiritual is to have images of saints with rolled-eyes, recluses thin and wan who speak in lovely phrases, and ascetics in whose presence you lower your voice. Far be it from us to consider a 300-pound beer drinking, back-slapping hulk of a man, who sometimes tells off-colored stories as a saint. Like Martin Luther, G.K. Chesterton, or Thomas Aquinas!
But Judaism will have none of this. Rather it is rooted in the sensual, the earthly, the Lord’s creation (Isaiah 25:6-8):
On the mountain, Yahweh Sabboath will prepare for all
peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines,
of food rich and juicy, of fine strained wines. On this
mountain he will remove the mourning veil covering all
people, and the shroud enwrapping all nations and will
destroy Death forever.
And Jeremiah adds his words (31:12-14):
They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion,
they will throng towards the good things of Yahweh:
corn and oil and wine,
sheep and oxen,
their soul will be like a watered garden,
they will sorrow no more.
The virgin will then take pleasure in the dance,
young men and old will be happy;
I will change their mourning into gladness,
Comfort them, give them joy after their troubles.
Truly, as Matthew Fox reminds us, “Jewish thinking which is Biblical thinking and which was also Jesus’ thinking takes it for granted that the sensual is a blessing and that there is no (spiritual) life without it . . . To recover a sensual spirituality is to recover a Biblical one.”
If the Christian says, “The world is not my true home, I am only passing through” (Forgetting sadly, the promise of a renewed earth), the Jew has the saying: “One is as good as the world.” The Jewish tradition is tied into a creation-centered spirituality. So should we be. God created the earth and pronounced it Good!
Once there was a man who had grown weary of life. Tired to death. So one day he decided to leave his own home town, his ancestral village, to search for the perfect Magical City where all would be different, new, full and rewarding. So he left. On his journey he found himself in a forest. So he settled down for the night, took out his sack and had a bite to eat. Before he turned in for sleep he was careful to take off his shoes and point them to the new direction toward which he was going. However, unknown to him, while he slept a jokester came during the night and turned his shoes around. When the man awoke the next morning he carefully stepped into his shoes and continued to the Magical City.
After a few days, he came to the Magical City. Not quite as large as he imagined it, however. In fact, it looked somewhat familiar. He found a familiar street, knocked on a familiar door, met a familiar family he found there and lived happily ever after.
And this is as good a story as any to comment on the Jewish-Christian differences. We’re always looking elsewhere for God, in the Magical City in the sky. The rebellious Jew finds him right where he’s planted in the here and now, in earthiness.
Another story. Not symbolic, just earthy. Mrs. Moskowitz was having her house painted, and between the smell of the paint and the hassle she found life hard. It was the last straw when Mr. Moskowitz forgot himself and leaned against the wall and left a distinct hand mark on the fresh paint. The Mrs. made her feelings clearly known and her husband tried to calm her down. “What’s the fuss?” he said, “The painter’s returning tomorrow so he’ll paint it over.”
Nevertheless, Mrs. Moskowitz found it difficult to sleep all night. The thought of that hand mark bothered her. The next morning then, the painter had barely stepped over the threshold when she was upon him saying, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. All night long I’ve been thinking of you and waiting for you. Come with me. I want to show you where my husband put his hand.”
The painter blanched and stepped back aghast, “Please,” he said, “I’m an old man. A glass of tea, and maybe a cookie, is all I want!”
A good guffaw here is a delight to God. Spirituality is found in earthiness."