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Krish Kandiah: A Faithful Enigma—Part 1

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Two wrongs may not make a right, but do two truths make a false? Tough questions arise when we are forced into the tension between opposing truths. How do we reconcile the goodness of God with his apparent inaction in the face of tragedy? How do we deal with vital doctrines that seem to pull our minds in opposite directions? How do we present our sometimes-mysterious faith in a culture that has a troubled relationship with truth?

This central concept of paradox is one that has haunted Dr. Krish Kandiah since his university days. Kandiah, the founder of U.K.-based charity Home for Good, as well as an internationally regarded speaker, broadcaster, theologian and activist for Christian mission and cultural engagement, has spent decades pulling together seemingly disparate elements of faith.

His book, Paradoxology: Why Christianity Was Never Meant to Be Simple, previously published in the U.K. (Hodder & Stoughton, 2014), was recently released in the U.S. by InterVarsity Press.

Outreach contributing writer Paul J. Pastor spoke with Kandiah to find out more about the power of paradox in the complex world church leaders face today.

Paradox is a word we all use but rarely define. What, precisely, does it mean?

A paradox is when two seemingly contradictory things can hold to be true at the same time. The book wrestles with elements of God’s character that don’t seem to compute, that don’t seem to go together. We’re trying to find a way to hold seemingly opposing truths without losing either, then trying to find a way to enjoy and celebrate those paradoxes as opportunities to get closer in relationship with the true and living God, rather than a God who necessarily fits neatly into our systematic categories.

The title of your book manages to combine “paradox” with “doxology.” What is the relationship between paradox and worship?

Great question. My first undergraduate degree was in chemistry, and there were lots of times we were told two things that I couldn’t quite understand how they could be true at the same time. The classic example is light—it has been proven that light is a wave, meaning that it can be in two places at the same time, and yet light has also been proven to be a particle. It has physicality and can impact things. Those are two competing truths. Scientists could have said to themselves, “You know, that’s too complicated. It doesn’t make sense. Let’s cut out the experimental data that points to one and just go with the other. It will make life easier for everyone, and it’s much easier to illustrate.”

But in their humility—and science isn’t always humble—scientists decided that we need to embrace light as the experimental data indicates, whether we have a conceptual category for it or not. So they created a new category to try to visualize it, called wave-particle duality. No one has easy illustrations to understand it—the most common involves a cat being left in a fridge with a cyanide pill—but with God, who we expect to be infinitely more wonderful, mysterious and complex, we often try to slice God down to fit our conceptual categories. But part of the wonder of God is that he is beyond our imagining.

Who can fathom the richness of God’s grace? He’s so transcendent. Rather than being fearful of that, or worried, we should turn to face it, look directly at it in Scripture. It will increase how our minds and hearts can worship him. Rather than cutting him down to a manageable size, I want to know the real and living God, the raw God, the true God, the holy God, the awesome God. That’s the God I want. But sometimes in a bid to make things simple, we’ve made them simplistic, robbing the church of fuel for worship by downgrading God to a manageable scale. We should instead unlock our sense of wonder at who he is.

In the book, you tell the story of this moment in a physics class when a professor put the Schrödinger equation up on the board, illustrating that wave-particle paradox. You say it “scared the living daylights” out of your class. Is fear our typical human response to encountering a paradox?

I think it is. We fear what we don’t understand. And of course, there is a holy fear that is entirely appropriate when we come to God. The opposite is familiarity, which breeds contempt. Maybe we become so familiar with God that we don’t have room to be astounded and have our minds rebooted by the truths about him.

Why does that happen? Because we don’t spend enough time actually reading Scripture. We’re often only reading or preaching from safe, selected parts of the Bible—the epistles of Paul and maybe a few teachings of Jesus from the Gospels. We only really engage with the bits of the Bible that people feel comfortable underlining. A lot of preaching stays in relatively safe territory. Because of that, we haven’t explored the beauty and riches of the Old Testament as much as we should, or other “toxic texts” on tough doctrines that people are afraid to look at. But it’s through those difficult parts of the Bible that I think we might come to know the true and living God.

A while ago, I was privileged to interview Tim Keller. He talked about the idea of a “Stepford God,” referencing The Stepford Wives. In that book, that world, there are no arguments between husbands and wives. The wives have all been replaced with false versions of themselves. So there’s no argument. It looks like the relationship is good, right? But the truth is that one party has been replaced by an idealized version of themselves. Looks great. Not real.

We’ve done that with God. We’ve replaced the raw, wild, exciting, doesn’t-quite-fit-into-our-categories God that the whole of Scripture tells us about, with one that we can manage. That’s driven by fear. Just not the holy kind of fear. In the process, we become overfamiliar with him, and miss out on his true beauty. That’s why a lot of our Christianity is limp, anemic. We don’t engage.

Expand that idea. Why was this book important to write?

Two reasons. First, I was genuinely trying to wrestle with some of the challenges in Scripture that I couldn’t quite get my head around. I’ve been in paid Christian ministry for 24 years, have worked in campus ministry, cross-cultural missions, pastoral ministry, theological education and more. And I’m still wrestling with these issues. I’d sure guess others are, too. I wanted to do that with a kind of cathartic energy that might be able to benefit others, too.

I did think the book might be interesting for a limited audience, but how deeply it connected with people really surprised us. I met one man in his 70s who said that he’d been looking for a book like that for 50 years. He’s a respected Christian leader here in the U.K. As well, it’s hugely resonated with teenagers here, who feel like it gives them permission to struggle with their questions in an honest way.

I hold a very high view of Scripture, a traditional view of theology. So I think that’s made it appealing for more conservative Christians. But my more progressive friends have also been attracted to it, since it expresses many of the hard questions they’ve been asking for a long time. I hope that wide audience all hears the same thing—an invitation to a fresh engagement with the Bible, particularly its more difficult parts.

You begin Paradoxology with a heartbreaking scene by the bedside of a newly disabled and suffering 1-year-old, telling of the hard questions about God you saw in the parents’ eyes. This isn’t just an abstract theological conversation, is it? It’s pastoral, concrete, gut-level.

Yes. We have a couple problems as church leaders. We haven’t given people a sufficiently real, large picture of God that will help them deal with the realities of life. Many people are working with an understanding of the gospel that is so limited that when they hit tragedy, their faith is not robust enough to weather it. That’s particularly true with upcoming generations today. We have so dumbed down Christianity that many of our younger people are not ready for the harsh realities of life, or even of work, study and relationships, because we have failed them. We have never helped them explore the challenging part of their faith—which they want, which they’re poised to handle. Our young people are more than capable of engaging the toughest questions of our faith.

A friend of mine reminded me the other day of his teenage son, who is doing nuclear physics in his school classroom, but then goes to church and is given a thin, dumbed-down version of Jesus and the faith. His intellectual grasp is very high, and he is being given nothing that challenges or compels. We need to be giving our young people at least the same level of intellectual challenge in their understanding of Christianity as they’re getting in the rest of their education. If we don’t do that for people, we send them out completely ill-prepared for life, and reap the pastoral fallout from that because we haven’t theologically formed people enough.

This can be, like I’ve tried to do in this book, an accessible process. You don’t have to use long and complicated words to expose people to the riches of biblical theology. We just need to have an attentive eye and ear to where the Bible’s message is sending us and not be afraid to look at those challenging parts.

That’s what this book is—I look at the parts of the Bible that I find most challenging personally. What do you do with a God who owns the universe, but still asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son? What kind of God would deliberately tease a couple who had been childless for decades by giving them the child they’d always dreamt of, then asking for him back? I want to look at those kinds of questions face-to-face, not just brush them under the carpet.

Those questions run through the whole Bible. Why would God call the people of Israel out of slavery to be with him, then set up the whole Levitical priestly system, seemingly to keep them as far away from his intimate presence as possible? But of course, those seemingly paradoxical things are a real key to understanding more about God, not less.

A lot of people are nervous about mystery in our theology because they feel it’s just giving up intellectually. But I think mystery is the beginning of our intellectual process. Saying that we’ll work harder to grapple with our tough questions even if we may not have tidy answers for everything, is good. Mystery is an invitation to deepen our thinking about God.

Does this work toward the “anti-fragile faith” you mention in the book?

Absolutely. The idea is that leaders often try and help Christians cope with the difficult parts of life by giving a few comforting verses or nice words, but we often don’t seem to realize that it’s in those difficult parts of life that the most growth happens. Faith gets stronger in the process of going through tough times. They mature and grow us—which is itself a paradox. We grow in the times that seem they should stunt our growth. I want to encourage Christian leaders to engage their people with the Bible’s paradoxes on suffering and grief ahead of time—before a crisis comes and faith is tested.

We need to have a realism about our ministry, a commitment to real equipping. Many times, as leaders we feel that we must put a positive spin on things—to find that encouraging angle. The Bible doesn’t seem to hold that value, though. Instead, it helps us understand and be enriched, to face up to those difficult times.

That deeply resonates, but we’ve also all seen church leaders who use “mystery” as an easy out to those same tough questions. How do we embrace paradox with people without it coming across as a dodge?

Well, when people are in a situation of trauma or at a crossroads of faith, the neat solution can be more damaging than embracing God’s paradox. If they’re not proving an “answer” of ours true in their experience, it’s like trying to build an actual house out of Lego bricks. It’s not up to the task. A lot of the simplistic proof texts that people hear are not an adequate portrayal of the Bible’s theology of a given topic. So it’s very easy to compound the problem, doing two disservices to people at such moments—we’re not being true to Scripture, and we’re not equipping people to cope with the situations of their life.

The Bible doesn’t apologize for its paradoxes. Read the Psalms, for example. These are beautiful, but often tragic poems and songs, inspired by God to help us live. Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross, is the Messiah crying out to God and wondering why he’s been abandoned. That’s a paradox in itself—crying out to one who has abandoned you. He’s giving voice to these paradoxical realities. That living in the tension, choosing to trust God independent of circumstances or resolution, is an example for us of paradoxical prayer.

The Bible leaves room for these kinds of responses. Take Habakkuk. The prophet cannot understand how God has allowed his country to get into the state it’s in. The Law has been mocked; evil is getting away with everything. He cries out to God, and God replies by saying that he’s going to do something that even Habakkuk won’t believe—use a pagan nation to punish Israel. But in this story and prayer, Habakkuk’s whole understanding of God is being reframed. And at the end of the book, Habakkuk doesn’t have resolution. He doesn’t understand why God is doing what he is. Disaster is coming on his nation but with a sense of conviction, he affirms his trust beyond his circumstances, promising to praise God even if the fig tree does not bear fruit. That is the tension that we need to be able to define and discover. Not easy solutions, not a cop-out, but real, raw faith that confronts the difficulty of our world and Scripture, and is still able to confess trust in God.

How do you do that as a leader? What are practical strategies for helping another Christian wrestle with these paradoxes in a healthy manner?

One key way is to increase their appetite for Scripture. It is not ideal to start doing this in the middle of a crisis. Help the congregation develop a true and deep and rich understanding of Scripture—all of it, not just our favorite selected passages—this will begin to happen.

Teaching the Bible systematically is a great way to avoid neglecting tough sections. You are forced to speak on subjects you don’t feel comfortable with. It’s great—but it must be paired with teaching in a way that is very humble, sometimes acknowledging that you don’t have all the answers and that it’s OK to wrestle with the text.

As well, modeling humility, openness and trust in God and his Word is vital. It’s healthy, and it commissions a congregation to bring that to their own faith. You develop a culture in your church that is confident, but also has room for the questions that might not neatly resolve. Show them that you trust the Bible—all the Bible—and leave room for asking questions. We just need to show people that they do not need to be afraid of their own hard questions.

Read part 2 of the interview »