The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life

The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life

Parker J. Palmer
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008. xxxvii + 145 pages, hardcover, $18.95.

Parker Palmer, the well-known Quaker author and educator, maintains that most of us are not well equipped to understand our lives through the lens of paradox. We tend to see life in terms of dualities: the spiritual and the secular, success and failure, freedom versus order, the self versus the group. This either/or approach often leads to a feeling of being torn between irreconcilable pairs of opposites. To be human is to experience contradictions. “Our highest insights and aspirations fail because we are encumbered by flesh that is too week—or too strong,” Palmer writes in a revised edition of his book The Promise of Paradox. “When we rise to soar on wings of spirit, we discover weights of need and greed tied to our feet.” What Theosophist has not experienced this feeling at one time or another?

For some seekers the contradictions are so great that they abandon their efforts to live a spiritual life. Others react to this tension by turning a blind eye to the inherent contradictions in human nature and pray not for a resolution but for an “extreme makeover.” The author suggests a third way, which is to “live the contradictions, fully and painfully aware of the poles between which our lives are stretched” (emphasis Palmer’s). By doing this, we may begin to experience the contradictions as a paradox “at whose heart we will find transcendence and new life.”

A paradox is a statement that seems to be self-contradictory but which actually contains a truth. The author quotes Nobel Prize winner Neils Bohr, who defined paradox this way: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may be another profound truth.” As a caveat to Bohr’s statement, Palmer correctly notes that not all contradictions house a paradox. Sometimes a contradiction is just what it appears to be—a contradiction. This means discernment is required. Understanding paradox is not just a parlor game involving mental acuity; it requires the ability to stand calmly amidst the pairs of opposites with a profound sense of humility.

The author looks at a number of paradoxical statements found in the Christian Bible, one of which is usually glossed over by contemporary Christians: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe” (Isaiah 45:7). He also notes that the injunction of Jesus that one must lose one’s life before he finds it is an insight found in the wisdom traditions of the world. Palmer explores the cross as symbolizing the oppositions of life. He sees the crossbar as representing the horizontal pull of life’s conflicting demands and obligations, while the vertical member suggests the way we are pulled between heaven and earth.

One recurrent theme in this book is the contrast between individualism and the need for community. Palmer relates his experience of living in Pendle Hill, a Quaker community near Philadelphia, some thirty years ago. “We came to community with certain expectations, seeking certain qualities of life. . . . It sometimes seems that for each thing we sought, we have found not only that thing but also its opposite!” As interesting as that may be, it seems to this reviewer that this speaks not so much of paradox but of irony.

Less effective is the essay devoted to scarcity and abundance in the spiritual quest. Palmer tries to draw an analogy between scarcity and abundance as found in the world and in the spiritual life. In his view, the world consists of the “haves” and the “have-nots.” He makes some good points about exploitation of the weak by the strong but falls into the trap of seeing the world economy as a zero-sum game, in which the gain of one nation is accomplished at the expense of another. This is a simplistic and unrealistic view that ignores a host of other factors that contribute to a nation’s standard of material living. Take Russia, for example, which has a plethora of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, minerals, and timber, but whose people chronically endure a low standard of living. Contrast Russia with much smaller nations with limited natural resources such as South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan, whose people enjoy considerably higher levels of prosperity. Palmer fails to take into account the significant effects that rule of law, property rights, a transparent banking system, government policy, and other crucial factors have in creating a flourishing environment for economic growth.

The Promise of Paradox was first published in 1980. Having compared both editions, I can say without reservation that the new version is the better of the two. The main ideas within the book have not changed, but the author has edited the language for style to give it a nice contemporary feel. For example, the substitution of the words “spiritual” for “religious,” “life” for “God,” and “renew” for “convert” allows the author to reach out to a wider audience. The 2008 edition also has an extended introduction by the author that adds considerably to its value. Promise is a book well worth reading, both by Christians and open-minded seekers of other faiths.

David P. Bruce

The reviewer is a long-time member of the Theosophical Society, for which he currently serves full-time as director of education.