The Promise of Paradox

This little book by Parker Palmer was the last of my Lenten readings for this year. At first glance, it seemed like a perfect choice, Henri Nouwen, whose writing I also read for Lent, wrote the introduction. In the introduction to the 2008 reissue, Palmer quotes one of my heroes, Anne Lamott. And I’m fully on board with the idea of paradox and contradiction being important elements of the Christian faith. When I read Palmer’s explanation of the title, I felt sure this would be a great book to end the Lenten season with:

The promise of paradox is the promise that apparent opposites—like order and disorder—can cohere in our lives, the promise that if we replace either-or with both-and, our lives will become larger and more filled with light. It is a promise at the heart of every wisdom tradition I know, not least the Christian faith. How else can I make sense of the statement “If you seek your life, you will lose it, but if you lose your life, you will find it?” Or “The first shall be last and the last shall be first”? Or the affirmation that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine? Or the notion that we know there is a God but we cannot claim to know the God that is?

Perhaps some of you sense a “but” coming. If so, you’re right. As much as this seemed like an ideal book for me at this time and as much as I liked bits and pieces of it, the book as a whole failed to engage me. A lot of the discussion felt too vague or too easy. I often ended up thinking, so what? It wasn’t that I disagreed with most of the ideas Palmer presents (although I did want to push back on a couple of things); it was more that I felt I was reading a lot of nice, true ideas that didn’t lead anywhere much.

When I read books about the spiritual life, I’m looking for at least one of a few things. Sometimes I’m looking for ideas to expand and transform my thinking. At other times, I’m looking for someone to put into words some of the ideas I’ve been grappling with but have been unable to articulate. I don’t need to agree with the author to be satisfied, and I don’t need—or even want—easy answers to difficult questions. This book, while almost certainly valuable to many readers, just didn’t give me much of what I was wanting.

Part of the problem might be that this is really a collection of essays that were developed into a book first published in 1980. Most of the essays deal in some way with the idea of contradiction and paradox, but there’s so single argument built throughout the book. An essay collection is a fine thing, but that’s not how this book is billed, so when I got to the last couple of selections, which were more about teaching than about faith, I felt that I wasn’t getting what I’d signed up for.

The other problem is that I never felt persuaded by much of what Palmer said. Often, he was saying things I already believe and agree with, but he wasn’t saying them in a way that made me want to stand up and shout amen. It’s important to translate our feelings into action, both community and solitude are important, people today aren’t able to empathize with strangers enough, the bell curve makes education too much about competition because it means someone has to fail. Yes, fine. And?

When I didn’t already agree with what Palmer said, I got annoyed with his tendency to state certain ideas as if they were obvious facts. Some of these statements brought me up short because they seemed so obviously wrong. For instance, when he talks about the problem of our culture’s overemphasis on individualism, he says this:

When we meet, we quickly ask for evidence of our differences: What do you do? Where did you go to school? Behind it all is the weighing and the measuring, the assessment of who has more and who has less, the search for our distinctions.

Really? Really? When I ask those questions, I’m searching desperately for something we have in common so that we’ll have something to talk about. I don’t deny that some weighing and measuring goes on in these conversations, but that’s not the main objective for me—or for most people, I imagine. My reading of some of the sections on individualism and community was probably not helped by my recent reading of Marilynne Robinson’s and Susan Cain’s thoughts on the topic. I also wonder if, writing 30 years ago, Palmer was addressing a society that embraced individualism more than we do today because he takes on the problem of individualism and promotes community with such vigor.

I don’t want to sound too negative about this book because I think many people would love it. It just didn’t quite work for me. If you’re curious about Palmer’s writing, you can find several of his essays at the website of his nonprofit organization, The Center for Courage and Renewal.

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