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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"Paradox Lost" (Richard P. Hansen)

TITLE: Paradox Lost: Rediscovering the Mystery of God
AUTHOR: Richard P. Hansen
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2016, (224 pages).

What are we to do with mysteries and strange phenemonon of life? How do we live with paradox? What about biblical paradoxes? Is it worth the effort to try to fit everything into one box? In this fascinating book about the perceived contradictions of biblical ideas, we find an honest and bold attempt to accept that we are limited in our understanding of the things of God. The best way forward is not to reject or to blindly accept the paradoxes we encounter, but to embrace the Sovereignty of God. Contradictions such as:

  • Free will of man vs the Holy will of God
  • Humanity vs Divinity
  • Visible things vs Invisible things
  • Exaltation vs Humility
  • Foolishness vs Wisdom
  • Living vs Dying
  • Knowing God vs inability to fully comprehend God
  • ..
Richard Hansen, pastor and former missionary professor at Ethiopian Graduate School of Theology in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia writes this challenging book about how we can deal with the mysteries and the paradoxes of life. He first compares it with the Person of God, reminding us of the paradox of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the salvation, and many aspects of theology. He argues that these "tensions must not be resolved" because of the dangers of falling into various aspects of heresy. History has taught us that. Thus begins a book about the extent in which we can address mysteries and the way we solve problems. The appropriate response to problems is due diligence to do whatever we can to resolve it. The appropriate response to mysteries is awe and wonder. We need both. More importantly, Hansen teaches us that if we want to experience the mystery of God, we must learn to "reclaim and embrace biblical paradoxes." He goes on to explain that in four parts.

Part One spells out some basics terms and ideas. We learn about the differences between mysteries and paradoxes, that if mystery is a goal, then paradox is the way we get to that. The little we know is able to draw us in to hunger for more. The little stars in the sky can cause us to wonder with amazement of "how I wonder what you are." It is also like exploring the forest where the little clues we find can lead us to new discoveries. 

Part Two contrasts the paradox of serious work and play like a tightly wound spring, where tension disappears upon release. It is like a fusion of tragedy and comedy being released in one play. Jesus's teachings are often "playful paradoxes" because it teaches us in a way that forces us to change our perspectives. It demands that we make a conscious choice for better or for worse. The moment we try to concretely solve it, there goes the motivation to change. Using systems theory to explain it, Hansen describes the first-order change as things happening within a system while the second-order happens outside the system with the hope of changing it. One contrast is the topic of greatness in which being a servant (according to Jesus) defies the popular first-century mindset that it is better to have a servant. In the chapter on "Try Harder," our efforts to find solutions can become a self-defeating spiral into despair. The anxiety to succeed, the stubborn refusal to listen, and the unwitting disguise of pride as hard work can lead us spiritually astray. Such people are also the ones who are too serious for any good play. Paradoxes have their benefits too. They can be therapeutic when it pushes us to action. They can check our pride. They can test our faith especially when hard decisions have to be made, like the story Hansen shares about the hijack on Flight 451 which singles out Christians to be killed. If you are a Christian being threatened: Deny Christ and live; or Confess Christ and die; which would you choose? It is pure tension between practicality and practical theology.

Part Three helps us to tune ourselves into the acceptance of both seemingly opposite poles of life. Using the metaphor of a tuning fork, we learn about truth being a true pitch only when opposite poles resonate together. Tension is a better way to understand paradoxes compared with balance, for without the tension in the first place, balance is meaningless. In such a tension, we can contrast awe/terror with fascination/reverence without fear of rejecting any of them. We are also challenged to think about our relationship with God, whether it is primarily based on law and justice; or mercy and love. Without the tensions and the mysteries of life, we lose our capacity to learn and in losing our capacity to learn, we do not encounter truth to the full.There is also a must-read chapter on free will versus election in which Hansen creatively describes the doctrines of predestination using the paradox idea.

Part Four begins with Chesterton's warning about the temptation to draw everything too black and white. Hansen presents a "third order of paradox" in the form of a two-handled cockscrew. The merging of black and white does not necessarily lead to a dirty gray. Instead, it is to be kept in perpetual co-existence so as to bring out and contrast the purity of both. 

So What?

I must say that I am impressed with the way Hansen treats the topic of paradox. He makes it clear with lots of metaphors and illustrations. Yet, the more we understand the individual parts and the need for tensions, we are also awed by the mysteries and the many unexplained paradoxes of life and in particular, theology. Scriptures is an example of such a paradox. For many Christians, the Bible is the defacto revelation of God, that the more we read and know the Word of God, the more we would know God. Yet, how can finite minds comprehend an infinite Being? How can we ever interpret in a way that fully captures what God is trying to say? Perhaps, the use of biblical paradoxes is relevant. The more we read the Word, the more we realize how much we do not know. The more we realize we do not know, the more we want to read the Word. This rhythm moves us forward, backward, and take us to places that we have never gone before. Hansen's book equips us to do just that with the three metaphors. It is perhaps one of the best books for those of us struggling to make sense of the seeming contradictions we encounter in the faith and in the diverse interpretations throughout history.

In a deterministic world, we believe that every effect has a cause; and every problem has a solution. When a purpose driven life is all that matters, anything else would seem out of place, confusing, and intolerable. Things unexplainable and mysterious would be placed in a box with question marks. Maybe the reasons for the perceived contradictions will come later. We live in a world of physical and mental boxes that we try to hem in to control and to explain things. We even attempt at boxing down everything we encounter in life. In our everyday life, when we encounter something we do not understand, the first way is to find teachers or experts to help us find the solution. The second way is to give up and move on to the next box of problems. The third way is to allow both the 'problem' and ourselves to linger on, to ponder, and to reflect. More importantly, it teaches us to wait and recognize that there is only one True Teacher and that is the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, Hansen has highlighted this third way. Great book!

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.


  1. Thank you for reviewing this book. I am happy to see it. By God's grace, I have been riffing on a similar theme for several years at my blog, THEOparadox.

    Another great book in this same vein is "Paradox in Christian Theology" by Dr. James Anderson, published by Wipf and Stock. You may enjoy that book as a very scholarly and philosophically grounded treatment of the same subject.

    Derek Ashton

    1. Hi Derek,
      Thank you for adding to the thread. I'll take a look at Anderson's book when I can.