An unapologetically orthodox wardrobe: ““Michael was giving an address to the C.S. Lewis Foundation Summer Institute attendees in 2011.” Image © Lancia E. Smith

It may be tempting to forget, especially when duly honoring and appraising the impact Planet Narnia has had in its first decade, that its author is more than arguably the world’s leading C.S. Lewis scholar. Dr. Michael Ward is an intriguing theological thinker in his own right. Though the Narnian shadow of Lewis is a blessed one to be under, Ward’s work has emerged from its penumbra and is already casting its own theological influence. This influence is none other than the enchanting touch of orthodoxy itself. His commitment to what Christianity has historically believed and proclaimed is evident not only in the substance of his chapter and epilogue in Heresies and How to Avoid Them—a work he co-edited and published the same year as Planet Narnia—but also in his very motivation to produce such a book. Of the many interesting theological claims he makes in that work, I would like to explore and unpack how he catalyzes a recovery of vision and appreciation for the paradoxical nature of orthodox Christianity.

Consider what he writes in the following passage of his epilogue.

Orthodoxy is far too rich, subtle, lively and paradoxical to be reduced to a set of philosophical categories. We must never presume to think that we can suck the heart out of its mystery. To construe it as something apprehensible by the intellect alone would be to suggest that what we’re talking about is merely a proposition, something lying inert and analysable in a system of thought. But in reality, Christian orthodoxy, understood properly, is not something that we can fully grasp, still less dissect. Rather, it is a means of keeping ourselves exposed to the truth which grasps us.[1]

Swayed largely by Enlightenment rationalism, theologians and apologists bent on demonstrating the reasonableness of Christian faith have tended to deflate its mysteries. Under the influence of “Cartesian anxiety,”[2] they have developed an allergy to paradoxes, so that the less mysterious, the more rationally appealing Christianity is thought to be. Christian orthodoxy is construed as if it has nothing more or better to offer than intellectual understanding.

Ward invites us to wonder whether Christianity is meant to appeal to more than just the human mind. What if, as Paul Tillich put it, Christian faith involves and therefore ought to appeal to the “total personality,” the whole being of a person?[3] After all, is not the Greatest Commandment to love the Lord our God with everything; mind but also heart and soul? If this is so, there are other ways Christianity ought to appeal to us than just rationally, and paradoxes may play a role in making these different forms of appeal possible.

Following G.K. Chesterton, Ward affirms that, far from being logical problems to resolve, paradoxes are the essence of Christian orthodoxy. Sublime mysteries like the three-in-oneness of God and the hypostatic union of Christ make the Christian faith what it is. These living mysteries are irreducible, inextricable and constitutive of the Gospel, so much so that any attempt to reduce them results in not simply misunderstanding but also impoverishment. Whereas rationalist theologians and apologists view a strictly logical account as either a neutral lateral explication of orthodoxy or an elevation of its apparent opaque nonsense to rational transparency, Ward sees this as a reduction of the extravagance, richness, and intricate mystery of orthodoxy that overflows neat philosophical categories.

Intriguingly, Ward observes that heresies are often the product of a desire to avoid paradox. He writes, “the alternative to orthodoxy was always quite plausible, quite attractive, and convincing; it took intellectual effort, moral courage, and political skill to resist it.”[4] Heresies make sense; too much sense for orthodoxy. To deny the full divinity or humanity of Jesus, as Arianism and Docetism do, is an attempt to circumvent the paradoxical orthodox affirmation that he was fully both. The same goes for Theopaschitism; the heretical belief that the unchangeable divine nature in Jesus can suffer because of its union to his changeable human nature. “By dissolving the mystery,” writes Ward, “Theopaschitism makes easy and plausible what in reality is the deepest, most staggering and humbling Christian mystery of all: God, the impassible, suffers as a man.”[5] It is difficult to imagine how this truth could appeal to us in a profound, staggering, and humbling manner without its paradoxicality. It is not clear, in other words, that what would remain after excising the paradox is something that would strike us as profoundly astonishing and humbling. Christian orthodoxy affirms the paradox, whereas heresies seek to dissolve it in various ways, rendering what is inherently mysterious into something comfortable and plausible to the natural human mind. In this sense, heresies have something in common with those who seek to present an exclusively rational view of Christianity.[6]

This does not mean that orthodoxy is where unreason runs amok. It does not encourage all or any manner of absurdities. Just as it is possible to make bitter liquid medicine taste worse by, say, adding vinegar to it, it is possible to make the foolishness of God that is the Gospel more offensive to human reason than it necessarily has to be. There are ways to blacken or break the dim glass through which we now see and know in part. To foreground the necessity of paradox in Christian orthodoxy, as Ward does, is no excuse to proliferate mystery in it unnecessarily. Like Lewis, who titled it a “Warning” in his anthology, Ward heeds George MacDonald’s exhortation: “We must not wonder things away into nonentity.”[7] At the opposite extreme of staunch rationalist theologians and apologists are those who would bloat the essential paradoxes of orthodoxy into exaggerated nonsense. The former deflate the mysteries of orthodoxy, whereas the latter arbitrarily inflate them to the point of nonexistence and irrelevance. We must beware the yeast of both.

But orthodoxy does more than avoid such extremes. It is, writes Ward, “more than the sum of its avoidances.”[8] The enticing image that comes to mind is of someone walking straight, balanced between two false extremes, yet remaining ready at any step to dive headlong into the depths of extreme love of God, with all the truth, beauty, and goodness that entails. Nuancing Lewis’s comment through Screwtape, that a “moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all,”[9] Ward states that we need “moderation in all things, including moderation! If we think that balance is the be-all and end-all we will be selling orthodoxy short, for there is such a thing as excessive balance.”[10] We can imagine that now: a man so obsessed with being perfectly balanced that his gaze is fixed downward to his feet so that his stiff gait barely moves forward. Ward adds, “this unnatural symmetry, this calculated colonization of the dead-point between two transmitters, this insistent compromise, is robotic.”[11] Indeed, experience may confirm that intense, exclusive concentration tends to hinder rather than help our bodies balance things in our hands. It is as if the body can balance better when narrow mental concentration gets slightly out of its way. So too with the body of Christ that is the Church. It moves freely and naturally forward, balanced much better among extremes, when its eyes are fixed upward on Jesus, ready to love and worship him with everything. As Ward puts it, “Orthodoxy is a matter of the heart and soul, not just of balance.”[12]

The very word ‘orthodoxy,’ especially today, is stalked by a “horror of the Same Old Thing,” which Screwtape describes as “one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart—an endless source of heresies in religion…”[13] Familiarity produces contempt in so many people who think the old truths of orthodoxy are old news. Ward’s vision of the paradoxical nature of Christian orthodoxy is better equipped to overcome this obstacle and gain a fresh hearing among audiences today. Mystery tends to resist over-familiarity, incite curiosity, and discourage contempt. Ward invites the mysteries of Christian orthodoxy to shine forth. His view of orthodoxy reopens a wardrobe into a world where paradoxes play and keep us “exposed to the truth which grasps us.” What could be more fascinating than that?

Citation Information

Jahdiel Perez. “Where Paradoxes Play.” An Unexpected Journal 1, no. 4. (Advent 2018): 24-29

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[1] Michael Ward, “Epilogue” in Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe, eds. Ben Quash and Michael Ward (London: SPCK, 2007), 140.

[2] A phrase coined by philosopher Richard Bernstein, “Cartesian anxiety” refers to the disquieting desire for absolute certainty Descartes entrenched in modern philosophy. See his Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), 16-22.

[3] Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper One, 1957), 4-9.

[4] Ward, Heresies and How to Avoid Them, 60.

[5] Ibid, 68.

[6] Influenced by Michael Ward’s work with Ben Quash, Josephine Gabelman makes much of this point in her A Theology of Nonsense (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2016), 46-52.

[7] As quoted in C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology of 365 Readings (London: Collins, 2016), 87.

[8] Ward, Heresies and How to Avoid Them,131.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), 46.

[10] Ward, Heresies and How to Avoid Them, 134.

[11] Ibid., 134-135.

[12] Ibid., 135.

[13] Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 135.