Paradox and the Hope of Progress

by Elizabeth

The paths of subatomic particles in a bubble chamber.

The paths of subatomic particles in a bubble chamber. Photo source: CERN

A few months ago I came across the phrase “No paradox, no progress” in a science magazine. The quote was attributed to quantum physicist Niels Bohr and immediately grabbed my attention. (Bohr made breakthroughs in understanding the structure of atoms, among other things.) No paradox, no progress?? This statement is as true of quantum mechanics as it is of life.

The phrase really stuck with me and came to mind as I was writing my last installment in the Parsonage Heresies series at A Life Overseas. I didn’t have space in the article to contemplate this beautiful quote the way I wanted to. And at any rate, I couldn’t remember in which article I had found the words “no paradox, no progress,” so I let the idea go. Until now.

When I went searching for the quote in the Place Where All Lost Quotes Reside (also known as The Internet), I discovered that Bohr’s actual words were more akin to “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” I love the sentiment from this scientist: we need to give ourselves permission to embrace paradox.

Paradox, that discomfiting feeling we experience when opposites happen at once. Paradox is living in a place where it smells so bad and smells so good all at the same time. Paradox is feeling hope and despair in the same moment. Sometimes we struggle when we cannot reconcile our contradictory facts and feelings, or, in the arena of theology, reconcile seemingly contradictory Biblical passages.

We Western Christians are not very good at making peace with Paradox, are we? Yet without Paradox, our faith gets stuck. Without Paradox, we cling so tightly to our confusion and our contradictions that we can’t move forward in life.

I’ve found that it’s easier in the end — though definitely not in the beginning — to simply accept the paradox of two seemingly opposing truths than to attempt to force them into one truth and lose my faith. It’s better to accept both the good and bad in life and within myself rather than rationalizing any of it away.  After all, Niels Bohr is also quoted as having said “The opposite of a profound truth is another profound truth.”

Bohr’s kind of thinking has strengthened my love for God (He’s so much bigger than I could imagine!) and enriched my study of the Bible (I don’t have to understand it all!). It’s illuminated my past and enabled me to offer grace more fully to other people. I think the more liturgical among us call Bohr’s motto “Mystery.”

Mystery is holding two truths together lightly in our imperfect, human hands, and releasing the need to have one Perfect Answer. Mystery is the reason I’m troubled by extremist theology. Why is it so hard for us, in a trusting embrace of the Father, to hold two truths at the same time? Why can we not hold both that God is mercy, and that He is justice? Why can we not hold both that God is sovereign, and that we have free will (because He gave it to us)?

This Mystery I speak of, it consoles me.  I don’t have to have all the answers. I don’t have to get it all right. I can still believe. Mystery: it’s such a comfort. And in the words of Laura Hackett Park below, what Mystery can give back to us is a Life Abundant.


Now love’s a choice I know it’s true

He never forced my heart to move

But therein lies the mystery

That He reached first in choosing me

He spoke my name the sweetest sound

And to this day I still resound

Now death has lost its hold on me

Now life springs up abundantly

6 thoughts on “Paradox and the Hope of Progress

  1. Well said. After experiencing the contrast of the hopelessness of man and the overwhelming chaos of life in Huanuco, central Peru while on a short term mission trip, I have struggled to reconcile Jesus’ command to go and share the gospel and make disciples of men with the reality of accomplishing anything significant. This is God’s plan but it sure looks ineffective. The pace of mankind’s rejection of Jesus seems to outpace the church’s efforts. Challenging on a personal level but discouraging on the corporate one.
    I’m OK with that and know God is in control.
    I really enjoy your honesty and candid bluntness…’s real and refreshing

  2. This really touched my heart. Very well written and very thought provoking. A prayer went up for you and yours~

  3. I love this post so much. I feel like the hardest thing about the way life changed when moving here was learning to accept paradox and incongruence. Now that I accept it, the hardest thing is watching people try to make everything fit into a nice tidy little box. Thanks for sharing that amazing quote.

    • You’re welcome, thanks for loving it. 🙂 And the paradox, oh my, yes, so difficult. We received training on paradox in the form of “yays” and “yucks,” but training merely gives you a vocabulary for it. Nothing really prepares you for its onslaught. . .

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