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Harmonization of Paradox

by David L. Paulsen

Because Latter-day Saints reject the influences of Neoplatonism on original Christian theology, they are not on the horns of the dilemmas posed by some of the paradoxes in traditional Christian theology. This is not to say, however, that LDS ethical life and religious thought are free of paradox. LDS perspective tends to harmonize many paradoxes through its views that opposition is necessary in all things and that God and mankind are in the same order of reality but at different stages of knowledge and progression.

As used in ordinary discourse, "paradox" usually refers to a statement that on its face is unbelievable because it is apparently self-contradictory or is contrary to well-established facts, common sense, or generally received belief. While many paradoxes are no doubt false, not all necessarily are. Indeed, in the history of human thought, many brash paradoxes have overthrown a generally received but false belief, eventually to become widely accepted themselves —"some time a paradox, but now time gives it proof" (Hamlet 3.1.115).

Classical Christian theology is in many ways paradoxical. This is often the result of the unstable theological blending that occurred in the early centuries of Christianity when (a) insights that came from personal Judeo-Christian revelation were (b) interpretatively recast within an impersonal Neo-platonic view of reality. To mention a few:

1. (a) The loving God who is profoundly touched by the feelings of our infirmities is (b) without passions or outside influences.

2. (a) The God who acts in human history and responds to personal prayers is (b) timeless and unchangeable.

3. (b) The God without body or parts became (a) embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

4. The God who is (b) absolutely unlimited and good, and who created all things out of nothing (a) created a world abounding with evils.

5. (a) The Godhead consists of three perfect and separate persons who (b) collectively constitute one metaphysical substance.

Latter-day Saint doctrine, while affirming (a) the Judeo-Christian dimensions of the foregoing propositions regarding God, rejects (b) the Neo-platonic framework and metaphysic within which Judeo-Christian revelation has historically been interpreted. Accordingly, LDS understanding of Christian doctrine does not manifest those paradoxes that are generated by the union of these two incompatible sets of beliefs.

Latter-day Saint thought builds bridges between entities and quantities that are normally thought to be incongruous (see Metaphysics). Reality is not seen as a dichotomy but as a graded continuum: Thus, spirit is understood to be a form of matter, but a highly refined form; and time is part of eternity. A corporeal God is omnipresent through the light that emanates from him and that is in and through all things (D&C 88: 12-13).

In ethical discourse, the axiomatic and eternal principle of agency demands that there be "an opposition in all things" (2 Ne. 2:11) to ensure that meaningful choices can be made—not only between good and evil but also from among an array of righteous alternatives (see Ethics; Evil; Suffering in the World; Theodicy). Weakness exists that it may bring strength (Ether 12:27). Thus, Latter-day Saint moral life ranges between options that are often paradoxical: the imperatives of improving oneself or serving other people; spending time at home or rendering Church service; favoring individuality or institutionality; obtaining wealth or giving to the poor; finding one's life by losing it in service to others (Matt. 10:39).

Such tensions, however, do not impede LDS action, nor are they transcended through mysticism, irony, or resignation (whether optimistically or pessimistically). They are embraced in a series of interrelated gospel principles that guide LDS life, including

• personal revelation (by the Holy Ghost each individual can tell what leads to Christ [Moro. 7:12-13; 10:5-6])

• the mandate to act (knowledge of what is right comes by doing it [John 7:17])

• the making of voluntary covenants (people obligate themselves by what they agree to do)

• an extended concept of self (helping others is tantamount to helping oneself)

• the Atonement of Jesus Christ (his judgment will encompass both divine grace and human works, retributive justice and compassionate mercy)

• the eternal relativity of kingdoms and progression (with all their differences, all people are on the same pathway to perfection).

For Latter-day Saints, the paradoxes of knowledge are generally resolved under the concept of "continuing revelation" (see Epistemology; Revelation). While Latter-day Saints are inclined to hold that each truth is self-consistent and coherent with all other truth, they also acknowledge the imperfection of human understanding. Mortal attempts to comprehend or express divine truths are inherently liable to error for at least two reasons: (1) the linguistic-conceptual frameworks within which such facts are expressed and interpreted are culturally conditioned and manifestly inadequate; and (2) mankind's awareness of the facts is fragmentary and incomplete, "for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9), and in mortality "man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend" (Mosiah 4:9). But by revelation, human knowledge may increase: "No man knoweth of [God's] ways save it be revealed unto him" (Jacob 4:8). "The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God,…neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14).

Thus where definitively clear revelation appears to contradict generally received opinion, common sense, or well-established facts, Latter-day Saints give priority to revelation and trust that time will give proof to what now seems paradoxical or that within God's more complete comprehension of things there may be mediating principles by which two apparently conflicting partial truths may be reconciled. This trust and hope for further revelation quiet such unsearchable paradoxes as how God's complete knowledge can be reconciled with mankind's agency, how scriptural and scientific accounts of creation can be harmonized, or how, in general, study and faith, reason and revelation, symbolic vision and practical literal-mindedness can all be accommodated concurrently. LDS doctrine is resistant to extremes: Its authoritativeness has not been transformed into abstractions or absolutes; nor have its revelations wandered into mysticism or vagueness. In such ways, the doctrines of the eternal gospel maintain their own set of tensions in a mortal world.

(See Daily Living home page; Interfaith Relations home page)


Hafen, Bruce C. "Love Is Not Blind: Some Thoughts for College Students on Faith and Ambiguity." In BYU Speeches of the Year, pp. 8-17. Provo, Utah, 1979.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Doctrine, LDS Differences

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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