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Beyond Our Ken: Henri de Lubac’s Paradoxes of Faith

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 04, 2015 | In Reviews

From the truest truth to the falsest falsehood, there is often only one step. It has often been noted, quite rightly. But from the noting of that fact to the condemning of certain truths, as being dangerously near falsehood, there is also one step, and that step as well is often taken, this time very wrongly.

The fear of falling a prey to error must never prevent us from getting to the full truth. To overstep the limit, to go beyond, would be to err through excessive daring; but there are also errors of timidity which consist precisely in stopping short, never daring to go any farther than half-truths.

Love of truth never goes without daring. And that is one of the reasons why truth is not loved.

In three brief paragraphs, Henri de Lubac, SJ diagnoses a universal problem of intellectual life, relevant not least to people of faith. De Lubac (1896-1991) had a gift for seeing the fundamental dynamic of such problems and expressing it clearly without getting bogged down in particulars.

The above comes from Paradoxes of Faith, a collection of de Lubac’s aphorisms on spiritual life, apostolate and thought. Published in English translation by Ignatius in 1987, it combines two earlier books by de Lubac, Paradoxes (1945) and Further Paradoxes (1955). (Another volume, More Paradoxes, was published separately after his death.) Paradoxes of Faith is packed with brilliant passages like the one above, which is why I had to read it slowly over several months so as not to wear myself out dancing after each aphorism (a few of which I shared back in December).

In the introduction to the book, de Lubac notes the fragmentary and partial nature of aphorisms, and in the same way, a discussion of a collections of aphorisms must itself be fragmentary and partial. But I will try to give an idea of the spirit of de Lubac’s thought and of some of the central concerns of Paradoxes of Faith, quoting liberally along the way.

What is Paradox?

The book is divided into subheadings such as “Witness,” “Adaptation,” “Spirit,” “Man,” “Suffering,” “Socialization,” and “Interiority.” The first chapter, though, is a meditation on paradox itself:

Paradox is the search or wait for synthesis. It is the provisional expression of a view which remains incomplete, but whose orientation is ever towards fulness…. The universe itself, our universe in growth, is paradoxical. The synthesis of the world has not been made. As each truth becomes better known, it opens up a fresh area for paradox.

While paradoxes involve apparent contradictions, they are not the kind of apparent contradictions which arise from an error in reasoning. In such cases, the “paradox” would disappear when the error was corrected.

Rather, a true paradox is the result of a finite human mind attempting to comprehend the infinite God and the infinite transcendence of reality. We are incapable of encompassing the whole, so that any true propositions we come up with necessarily only deal with aspects of things. (They are, like the aphorism itself, “partial and fragmentary,” which is why de Lubac thought it appropriate to express paradoxes in that form, so as to avoid the pretense to full understanding.)

Because of our incomplete mode of understanding, it is inevitable that propositions will arise which are apparently contradictory, yet which we know to be true. For example, God is both infinitely just and infinitely merciful. Not only that, but Catholics say that God’s justice and mercy are one and the same. So we know that there is no true contradiction between divine justice and divine mercy, and yet because we are incapable of understanding how they are the same, the apparent contradiction is inescapable.

Seeing this apparent contradiction where there is none is not an error; it is simply the only way human beings can see things. We may know the contradiction is only apparent, but because we can never understand the whole, any attempt to resolve the tension will necessarily end by eliminating a truth. Paradox appears when we refuse to sacrifice one truth to another:

[Paradoxes] suppose an antinomy: one truth upsets us, another truth balances it. The second truth does not restrict the first, but only places it in the proper perspective. It will not lead us to say “So it was only that.” For paradoxical truth is not limited to one plane. That is why, most of the time, neither Christ nor Saint Paul explained a paradox. They feared a foolish interpretation less than one which would debase the truth and deprive it of its “heroism”.

Not only are such antinomies irresolvable, but each “opposing” truth strengthens the other by its very opposition:

[Paradoxes] are the for fed by the against, the against going so far as to identify itself with the for; each of them moving into the other, without letting itself be abolished by it and continuing to oppose the other, but so as to give it vigor.

De Lubac uses Purgatory as an example of this dynamic of paradox, in that “Not only is the soul suffering in Purgatory joyful, but its suffering makes its joy.”

Will the Real Prince of Paradox Please Stand Up?

Perhaps it is worth comparing de Lubac’s approach to paradox with that of the “prince of paradox,” G.K. Chesterton. Chesterton’s paradoxes, at their best, are of the kind described above—he points out truths seemingly in opposition. Yet he also uses paradox as a rhetorical device, stating something in the form of a paradox in order to challenge an assumption and get us to see things in a new way. Often it functions at both levels so that the rhetorical paradox is used to point out the deeper kind. Sometimes, though, Chesterton’s paradoxes are merely rhetorical.

For de Lubac, however, “the word specifies, above all…things themselves, not the way of saying them.” A merely rhetorical paradox can be used to subvert or bypass logic, and so runs the risk of being a mere trick which crumbles into incoherence when examined closely. But in de Lubac we have not so much a “paradoxical” mode of thought or expression as a sober meditation on paradoxes which are, if not “real” (since a paradox is by definition only an apparent contradiction), are at least more real than mere verbal paradoxes in the sense that the human intellect cannot fully resolve them. “Paradox, in the best sense, is objectivity.”

Respect the Mystery!

If paradox can be seen as a kind of objectivity, for de Lubac, “Mystical life is its triumph.” To respect paradox is to respect mystery, and if there is a central concern in these aphorisms on a wide range of subjects, it seems to be the defense of mystery.

De Lubac warns against all forms of reductionism where faith is concerned, against intellectualism (“Professors of religion are always liable to transform Christianity into a religion of professors”) on one hand and, on the other, popularization, propaganda and premature adaptation (“They are wondering how to be adapted. They should first know how to be”; “The first question is not ‘how to present’ but ‘how to see’ and ‘how to think’”).

He puts us on guard against the reductions of psychology, sociology, physiology, as well as that of superficial historical criticism:

Christianity, it is said, owes this, that and the other to Judaism. It has borrowed this, that and the other from Hellenism. Or from Essenism. Everything in it is mortgaged from birth…

Are people naive enough to believe, before making a detailed study, that the supernatural excludes the possession of any earthly roots and any human origin? So they open their eyes and thereby shut them to what is essential, or, to put it better, to everything: whence has Christianity borrowed Jesus Christ? Now, in Jesus Christ, “all things are made new”.

Still more subtle and dangerous is the reduction of dogma to theology:

Dogma is a vast domain which theology will never wholly exploit. There is always infinitely more in Dogma, considered in its concrete totality, that is to say, in the very Object of divine revelation, than in this “human science of revelation”, in this product of analysis and rational elaboration which theology always is. The latter, in its very truth, will always—and all the more in that it will always be rationally formulated—be inadequate for Dogma; for it is indeed the explanation of it, but not the fulness. This weakness is congenital. True theology knows that. It does not confuse the orders.

We are challenged to accept nothing less than the faith in all its transcendence.

De Lubac often illuminates matters of the spirit negatively, by contrast with a shallow, worldly approach, as in the following:

Taking sides is one thing, committing ourselves is another. The first may involve violence, and remain superficial. The second, on the contrary, is a decision made in the depths of our being, and the positive is so dominant an element, that often we are not even involved in any opposition.

(Needless to say, de Lubac’s thought is antipathetic to the contemporary reduction of faith to politics.)

Lest I give the impression that de Lubac is primarily concerned with putting out fires, I should say that Paradoxes of Faith is chock-full of positive wisdom about human nature and the life of the spirit. I will close by quoting a few of my favorites:

  • “Respect for man is composed mostly of respect for his suffering.”
  • “The conformist looks at things—even things of the spirit—from the outside. The obedient soul sees things—even things of the letter—from the inside.”
  • “Even if man’s happiness can be looked for in the future, his dignity can be respected only in the present. In conflicting circumstances one must choose dignity before happiness, both for oneself and for others. Only in this way can both be safeguarded at once.”

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: David K - Mar. 24, 2016 9:10 PM ET USA

    The point could be made that the OR could go beyond discreet silence in these cases, and write about the many other events and persons in this world who do bring Christ into this world. There are many real heroes in Cuba. Events and persons who are forgotten in the unseemly rush to ingratiate itself the powers that be.

  • Posted by: k_cusick1963 - Mar. 23, 2016 8:40 AM ET USA

    I couldn't agree more. The Church should not "weigh in" on politics, period. The governmental systems of this world are not those of the Kingdom of God. While we have a responsibility to influence society towards goodness and justice, Jesus lived in a time and place of gross injustice, but He did not seek to overthrow the Roman occupiers or teach His followers to do so. Rather He taught the principles of the Heavenly Kingdom(clearly not the world's) and lived them with love and mercy.

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Mar. 23, 2016 7:10 AM ET USA

    This is why I support Catholic Culture.