Christianity, as we know it today, is largely grounded in the four Gospels that we find in the Bible. Orthodox Christianity has come to believe that the fate of humanity and the eternal makeup of every human being can be found in a book, a compilation of Scriptures that has been passed down through the centuries and through the hands of people who speak certain languages, and not in something more universal, organic, and readily accessible to all of humanity. More perplexing is the idea that every individual’s eternal destiny hinges on the acceptance or rejection of and faith in a historical event, namely the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
There have been many interpretations and discussions and disagreements regarding these narratives and their significance. Some scholars argue that the life of Jesus is nothing more than a symbolic retelling of the story of astrology with the Son of God being the sun with the twelve signs of the zodiac as the disciples. Others say that Jesus is a mythological figure inspired by previous pagan gods who were born of virgins, performed miracles, died for humanity and were resurrected. Certainly, scholars, theologians and academicians find many inconsistencies between the Gospels. And if we read them in purely logical or literal terms, they present some serious problems for Christian theologians; however, a metaphorical perspective paints in my view a more coherent and powerful picture. We have a strong indication in the Bible that the figure of Jesus chose to speak largely through parables and metaphors, while his disciples had a tendency to interpret them literally. In Matthew 16:5 we read: “When the disciples reached the other side, they had forgotten to bring any bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ And they began discussing it among themselves, saying, ‘We brought no bread.’ But Jesus, aware of this, said, ‘O you of little faith, why are you discussing among yourselves the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many baskets you gathered? How is it that you fail to understand that I did not speak about bread? Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.’ Then they understood that he did not tell them to beware of the leaven of bread, but of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Even the author of this passage wanted to be absolutely certain that the reader understood Jesus’ metaphorical statement and gives his own assertion in the last sentence.
Metaphors and poetic language are often woven from paradox. This is the beauty and power behind this language. A paradox can be an enlightening tool. It is an assertion or statement that is essentially self-contradictory on the surface; however, at a deeper level, it has the potential to transcend opposites and communicate an idea or a truth. It does not draw from logic but from intuition. Paradoxes lunge at the jugular vein of our orthodox understanding and pitch us into unknown territory in order to bring about greater understanding. Paradoxes push us out of our intellectual nests and help us to discover wings of understanding that we never knew we had. They are used extensively in Eastern mythology, especially in Zen Buddhism, to break one's conceptual thinking. The important aspect of paradoxes, however, is that, if they must be explained intellectually, their meaning and effect are lost. A paradox is intended to seize the mind in an instant and knock it off of its center; and while it is in a momentary state of disequilibrium, illumination has the chance to take hold. A paradox then lights a flame beneath our feet in hope that we will dance to the timeless rhythm that it seeks to reveal.
Jesus uses paradoxes in his ministry to create a dilemma that is meant to draw the listener inward into contemplation. Sages often use this as a tool. They might ask a question, the intent of which is not to receive an answer, but to awaken the process of contemplation or break down conceptual thinking. In other words, the content in the form of question-answer is irrelevant here. Meditating on dilemma helps to awaken Jesus' message within the individual. A typical example is found in Matthew 10:34: "Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law." What sort of love and forgiveness is this? Then we find the opposite in Matthew 26:52 where one of Jesus' disciples took up a sword against a soldier: "Then said Jesus unto him, 'put up again your sword into its place: for they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'" Jesus speaks of waging war in one breath and then of peace in another. These two passages are contradictory, especially when read in literal terms. However a metaphorical or poetic reading reveals a vibrant, dynamic spirit. Jesus is bringing a revolution of another sort; it is not a revolution that is physically fought with swords. Those who receive his message, those who become drunk with the Father, initiated, will become alienated from and at odds with those who continue with the existing state of affairs, even within families. And the sword, this divide, shall resolve itself in greater understanding for those who internalize Jesus’ message. They shall overcome the sword and the world and shall be born of the Spirit. Again, if one has not had an experience of this paradox, it is futile to try and decipher its meaning in intellectual terms.
Another example is found in Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Then in another passage, in Matthew 16:24, Jesus says: "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." These two statements seem to contradict each other on the surface. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus is offering compassion and acceptance, a place of rest in the spirit, as an alternative to the wheel of fortune in life that is tiresome and constantly turning and churning. Jesus is offering an alternative to finding fulfillment and security in fleeting material goods. Those who live as Jesus will have a burden lifted from their shoulders and will know, along with him, that they have overcome the world; however, in order to become like Jesus, one has to take up his cross and go through a transformational process that lets go of life as a concept. The paradox then can be interpreted first as a call, an awakening to what is possible, or to a realization that there is peace to be found in the midst of the world through letting go.
In all paradoxes, there is a duality that is to be transcended and that cannot be logically explained. In all of the writings of the mystics and the sages, we see for example a duality in their experience of God. All of them speak of God as both emanating and imminent in this world. The idea of emanation says that God is transcendent of this world. He is beyond thoughts, concepts, forms and feelings. That is to say, God illuminates all things, which manifest His attributes, but He is beyond the highest summit of discovery that we can ever achieve. On the other hand, the idea of immanence proclaims that God Himself is in all things and not simply projected through them. All things, all forms radiate the presence of God. He is to be found right here and now, within everything, in every word of this manuscript and even in the light that shines upon this print. This duality, this paradox, this mystery is understood only through perception and, I believe, resonates intensely in all of the teachings of Jesus. This paradox of duality lies at the heart of all things. Even science and physics recognize paradox in the nature of light. Is light a wave or a particle? Interestingly enough, paradoxes always resolve themselves in higher dimensions. We as human beings have yet to read the story of Jesus from higher ground.