The Concept Of Paradox

The stage is now set for the introduction of Christ as the absolute paradox. It is important first of all, however, to clarify what a paradox is before there

can be any talk of an absolute paradox. Etymologically, this term is derived from the Greek words para ('beyond') and doxa ('opinion'), connoting something that goes beyond or is contrary to common opinion. A common misunderstanding of the concept of paradox is to regard it as a formal or logical contradiction.14 A paradox contains two terms that stand in opposition to one another, both of which are affirmed as true, whereas in a logical contradiction each term necessarily excludes the other.15 Although Climacus frequently speaks of paradox as a contradiction, claiming for example that 'the paradox specifically unites the contradictories', he clearly affirms the principle of contradiction, which holds that a statement cannot be both true and untrue at the same time (PF 61, 101, 108). Thus he does not understand a paradox to be a contradiction in that sense. In fact, Climacus enjoins us not to think ill of paradox inasmuch as in his view it constitutes 'the passion of thought' without which a thinker is like a 'lover without passion', namely 'a mediocre fellow' (37). Paradox, then, is an essential component of thought, not antithetical to it. The paradoxical passion that is 'fundamentally present everywhere in thought' is to will its own downfall by discovering something thought cannot think, namely the unknown (37). Another way of expressing this is to say that the understanding is always in hot pursuit of discovering its limit, whether that be in philosophy, religion, or science. Climacus stands squarely in the Kantian tradition here in recognizing the limits of thought and the paradoxical nature of that limit, which Kant calls antinomies or apparent contradictions that defy resolution on the basis of reason alone.16 For Climacus the unknown against which thought ultimately collides and meets its limit is the divine. We have already seen the futility, for Climacus and Kierkegaard at least, of trying to prove the existence of God, who is absolutely different from human beings and thus unknowable because of their sinfulness. That which is absolutely different cannot be known or understood by thought, not even if revealed by the god, since there is no distinguishing mark by which it can be identified and assimilated into human thought. The only way of coming to know and understand the divine, therefore, is by the god annulling the absolute difference in absolute equality in the absolute paradox of the incarnation.

While there may be many relative paradoxes that appear to be contradictory or rationally inexplicable but ultimately can be explained, Climacus maintains that there is only one absolute paradox, which is absolute

14 Cf. Knappe (2004: 15, 24). 15 See also Evans (1992: 96-109).

16 See Kant (1956: 328, 384-484), and ibid. 7: 'Human reason has this peculiar fate that in one species of its knowledge it is burdened by questions which, as prescribed by the very nature of reason itself, it is not able to ignore, but which, as transcending all its powers, it is also not able to answer.'

precisely because it cannot be resolved or explained by the canons of reason. The absolute paradox is thus distinguished first of all by the fact that, as suggested in Climacus's thought-project and parable, it is inconceivable to the understanding: 'The understanding certainly cannot think it, cannot hit upon it on its own, and if it is proclaimed, the understanding cannot understand it and merely detects that it will likely be its downfall' (PF 47). In its paradoxical passion to discover that which thought cannot think, the understanding is naturally driven to will its own downfall yet has 'strong objections' to the absolute paradox because it is absurd and most improbable (47, 52). If the understanding chooses to will its own downfall and comes to an understanding with the absolute paradox by understanding that it is a paradox that absolutely cannot be understood, then a happy relation, to which Climacus gives the name faith, will result between them. But if the understanding's objections prevail, the encounter will result in an unhappy relation, taking the form of offence. Offence can be either active or passive in nature but in relation to the absolute paradox is essentially passive, which means that the absolute paradox is not something discovered by the understanding itself, as in the case of a relative paradox, but is announced or made known to the understanding by the absolute paradox itself. When the understanding proclaims that it has discovered the absolute paradox and declares it to be absurd, therefore, this is merely an 'acoustical illusion' or echo of the absolute paradox's claim that the offended consciousness is foolish and absurd because it has made an 'erroneous accounting' of the absolute paradox that is directed back upon the absolute paradox as an objection to it (51).17 Does this mean then that the absolute paradox is not really absurd? This is a thorny question that must be considered in historical context.

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