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December 18, 2013
The mystery of paradoxes
By Alice von Hildebrand *

By Alice von Hildebrand *

A careful reading of the New Testament will inevitably make the reader wonder that one and the same book offers seemingly contradictory views of God. Our Savior and King is presented as the Good Pastor who abandons 99 percent of his sheep in search of the lost one. He has no peace until He finds it and brings it back to the fold. This is love indeed. We are further told that there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one’s friends. This is precisely what Christ did in dying for us on the Cross.

In the very same book, however we read, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire...” (Matt. 25:41)  These are words that make one tremble. They are matched in severity with the words Christ uttered about the traitor: “it would have been better for this man, had he not be born.” (Matt. 26-24) He also said: “...whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned into the depth of the sea.” (Matt. 18:6) How can the Evangelium – the Good News – be darkened by such menaces? How is love compatible with eternal punishment? 

These are grave questions that should be addressed.

What the Holy Script is teaching us becomes luminous only when we read it (as Kierkegaard urges us to do) “on our knees.” That is, with humble receptivity and trembling reverence. With this basic attitude failing, it is tempting indeed to put the Holy Book “on trial” and command it to “justify” itself. That being the case, every word will inevitably be distorted and caricatured. Was it not Lichtenberger who wrote that when a gorilla looks into a mirror, he will see a gorilla? When a radical atheist reads the Bible, he will see what he himself has projected into the Holy Script. This might explain why so many “brilliant minds” have been experts at misreading it. Bertrand Russell comes to mind. Once reverence is eliminated, “free spirits” have a field day misinterpreting the divine message by squeezing it into secular corsets. All heresies were the “children” of “brilliant minds” whose talents being poisoned by pride, inevitably gave birth to grave errors, and opened the door wide to all the vagaries that the human mind is talented at producing.

The question we should raise is the following: is the Bible (the New Testament in this case,) full of contradictions, or does it present us with paradoxes?

Every single human being made to God’s image and likeness and therefore a “person”, can claim to be a “metaphysical aristocrat.” But it is also true that some men chose to abdicate their noble title by “resenting” the fact that they are not God, and turning against the “giver of all gifts.” In so doing, they joined the ugly crown at Calvary screaming, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” and freely “renounced” their dignity as God’s children.

God could have denied free will to all his creatures – and thereby “forced” them by their very existence and without any collaboration, to glorify Him as Creator. But God – being Love itself – wanted to be freely loved, and chose to “take the risk” of creating persons, that is to say creatures necessarily endowed with free will. These creature-persons both adore and love their Creator by choice, (for a “forced” love is no love at all) or can freely choose to echo Lucifer and declare with him, “I shall not serve.” It was Kierkegaard, I believe, who wrote that only an immensely perfect and powerful  God would venture to give existence to persons capable of choosing rebellion in “waging” war on their Creator to whom they owe their very being. St. Peter urged us: “to live as free men, yet not using your freedom as a pretext for evil, but as servants of God.” (1Peter 2:16) These words should be the object of our daily meditation. The misuse of the admirable gift of free will is a mysterium iniquitatis.

Once we realize this, the apparent “contradictions” found in the Holy Book, take a radically different character.

Logical contradictions should be thrown out of court: it makes no sense whatever to claim that one and the same proposition can be both true and false at the same time. Yet – and this should not surprise us – some “geniuses” have chosen to challenge this luminous truth by proclaiming that the rejection of contradictions is symptomatic of a certain “narrow mindedness.” I have Suzuki in mind, a very famous Yoga teacher. Father Henry van Straelen – a Catholic missionary who spent half of his long life in the Far East – wrote that this “brilliant mind” defended the thesis that two plus two is four is one possibility among others: for example, it could also be three or five. (See Henry van Straelen, S.VD: Le Zen Demystifie, p. 94)
If a high school kid would defend this view, he would flunk his test. But once a person has gained the reputation of being a genius, most people will kowtow to him in awe. (Suzuki claimed…) In such cases, any “dialogue” (often assumed today to give us a golden key to clear any “misunderstandings”), becomes meaningless. If the principle of contradiction is challenged, further discussion is a waste of time. 

Whereas truths can neither contradict each other, nor “compete” with one another, (for all truths harmonize), they can complement each other. The claim that there is only one God is enriched by revelation informing us that the one true God is a Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To say that God is infinite love does not exclude His being infinitely just and therefore “obliged” to punish his rebellious creatures.

I hope to shed some modest light on paradoxes; that is statements which, while seemingly conflicting, are in facts two facets of the same truth.
To say that man is a creature made to God’s image and likeness informs us that he has been given a high metaphysical rank: way above all impersonal creatures. Between man and mammals – in spite of all their striking “similarities” gleefully underlined by Darwin and his disciples – there is a metaphysical abyss separating persons from non-persons. The first are “traces” of God; the second are “images” of God. (St. Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum). This is confirmed by God’s words to our first parents in giving them dominion over all other material creatures: the fish in the sea, the birds in the air, and every living thing that moves over the earth. (Gen. 1:28) This fact does not preclude the possibility that man by his own fault, can stain his royal vestment. St. Anselm of Canterbury, referring to the damage that original sin has done to the human soul writes: “O hard and terrible fate! Alas, what has he lost and what has he found?…He has lost the blessedness for which he was made, and has found the misery for which he was not made.” (Proslogion,  Chapter I)

He is now a vile sinner desperately in need of redemption. And yet, God’s infinite love is still ready to go in search of the lost sheep, and when found to bring him back to the fold. That God’s infinite mercifulness is always offered is magnificently expressed in Dante’s Purgatory. He writes referring to Manfredi: “Orribil furon li peccati miei; ma la bonta infinita ha si gran braccia che prende cio che si rivolge a lei…” (III 121,123 – Horrible were my sins, but Infinite Bounty has arms of an embrace so broad that it accepts whoever turn to it.) All sinful man need do is to utter the words: “Forgive me, O Lord.”

Puzzling as these “radically” opposite truths are (love and punishment) – yet anyone “receptive” to the divine message will see that they essentially belong together.

It is the duty of our pastors, from the Pope down, to remind us that God’s infinite love can, alas, be rejected by rambunctious creatures who resent not being God, and yet also remind them that as long as they live, they are lovingly sought by the Good Pastor. Gueranger puts it well; “in a few days Thou art coming to us to clothe our misery with the garment of your mercy.” (Advent, p. 13) Forgiveness and mercy are always offered but alas, as C.S. Lewis put it, the doors of hell are locked “from the inside.” The sinner, misusing his freedom, can reject the loving forgiveness of the very God who waits for him with open arms.

God is infinite love and yet infinitely just; he “cannot” force his creatures to love him. Indeed, a “forced marriage” is an invalid one.

When commenting on the Gospels, it is crucial for any loving pastor to complement the texts full of mercy with those which remind us that as long as we live, we are “in danger”, “for the devil  like a roaring lion is always on the lookout for someone to devour.” (1Peter, 4:8). Gueranger writes: “The day will come when Thou wilt disperse the spiritual and voluntary darkness of men with the awful light of Thy Justice.”

The word “awful” should be underlined, for indeed, it is terrible to fall into the Hands of the Living God. It is worth mentioning that the Little Flower when referring to Heaven tells us that it is the place where there is “perfect justice.” We would expect her to say, “It is the place where Love reigns supreme.” This remark is worth meditating upon.

Yet in the course of the last fifty years, I do not recall any homily reminding us that sin is something terrible. Not only does it offend God, but it also deeply wounds the sinner. The “tendency” today is to “water down” the divine message, so that it does not “upset” modern man and make him run away from the Church. I even know a priest who was reprehended by his bishop for having mentioned “hell” in his homily. It “shocked” some parishioners! 

On a secular plane, what would we say of a medical doctor who never warns his patients that certain diseases are contagious and teaches them how to protect themselves from these deadly poisons?  Preventive medicine is crucial for many of our ailments are self caused.

How many priests today “dare” condemn abortion, homosexuality, or same-sex “marriage” – sins of such gravity that, years ago, “they were not even mentioned among Christians”? Their claim is that it simply “does not harmonize” with the “climate of the time” which propagates the good news that “it is practically impossible to commit a mortal sin” as one priest claims. In that case, it makes no sense to inform us that God is infinitely compassionate and forgiving … for in fact there is nothing to forgive. Why make such fuss about peccadilloes, minor lapses and human foibles? On the other hand, as I wrote above, it would also be not only wrong but gravely misleading to thunder how sinful and repulsive a sinner man is, without mentioning God’s infinite loving mercy. Jansenism and Calvinism, under their various forms, are abominable deformations of the Gospel.

Both love and justice belong so essentially together that to mention only one of them, is bound to lead either to permissiveness (“God is so good, he does not mind the weaknesses of his children”), or to despair. This was Judas’ sin, and led him to take his life.

Indeed it is true that where sin abounds, so does God’s mercy, but this mercy must be asked for.

Why have so many of our pastors forgotten that it is the abysmal betrayal of Adam and Eve that has motivated an infinitely loving God to sacrifice His beloved son in order to save us? If their sin was not an abomination, God’s offer to sacrifice his only son to save humanity would be sheer sadism and madness combined.

Another crucial, but “forgotten”, truth is that in weighing the gravity of a sin, two things should be kept in mind: first, the hierarchy of evils; some sins are more grievous than others. Theft is condemned in the 5th commandment, but it is “trumped” by murder. One can in principle return the property stolen. The murderer cannot bring his victim back to life. But it is also crucial (is it ever mentioned?) that the gravity of the offense also depends upon the dignity of the person offended. Cruelty toward animals is morally evil. But to torture a child is much worse because he is a person. This leads me to a key insight: any offense of God, the Infinitely Holy, the Infinitely Good, the Infinitely Perfect One, is of such gravity that Christ alone, being the second Person of the Holy Trinity, could properly atone for the sin of our First Parents.

Once again, the “climate” of the time makes us forget how fearful their sin was. We have lost sight of who God is (let us recall the priest who in his Sunday homily, referred to God “as the nice guy upstairs”). That a “well meaning” priest (for subjectively he probably wished to convince the people in the pews that God is not to be feared: he is essentially a jolly good fellow, who loves his children even when they are dirty) can make such a remark must make the angels sob. The Bible tells us explicitly that “the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom”. (Proverbs, 9-10)  Indeed, the same Holy Book tells us that “we cannot see God and live.” In my youth, the parishioners would have risen up in protest had the homilist make such a vulgar remark about a God adored by the Seraphins murmuring: “Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus.”

Once again our anti-culture (as Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed it) likes to remind us that God as creator, has linked certain activities with intense pleasure. Would it not be “ungrateful” not to fully appreciate these “gifts”? Is it clearly “unfair” to blame men for enjoying them to the full? God Himself has granted freedom to some of His creatures: in doing so, He clearly gave them “freedom of choice.” The obvious consequence it is therefore that a woman has a right to decide whether or not she will keep “the blob of tissue” developing in her womb. Moreover, an unwelcome child will be a neglected and unhappy child. Is it not “cruel” to give birth to someone unwanted? Christian morality, as taught in manuals, leaves no room for “compassion.” We have now progressed enough to practice this form of love by making abortion legally available to everyone. It should also be luminous that we should “help” crippled, diseased and elderly people – who neither contribute to the good of society nor enjoy life – to have a “dignified” death by assisted suicide.

Indeed, the Ten Commandments should be rewritten according to the demands of the time.

This “new” morality is a much more “human” morality, and will finally liberate people from unbearable burdens that stale traditions have crippled them with.

Why should we object to same-sex “marriage”, if some people can only find “self-fulfillment” in such relationships? Does not God wish his children to be happy? Or is He a sadist punishing them if they – having freedom of choice – make an abundant use of the pleasures that God Himself has related to food, drink or “sex” under any form. Whatever makes an individual happy should be endorsed. 

We live in a word characterized by total confusion; evil deeds, moral perversions traditionally condemned, are now viewed with “compassion” and those who uphold not only divine teaching, but the natural moral law (so clearly perceived by Plato when he condemned homosexuality – see Laws, Book VIII) are accused of being pharisaical and lacking in Christian charity. Years ago, a colleague of mine – a committed Communist – sent a letter to the New York Archdiocese explaining why he had left the Church upon discovering that “she was not a Church of love.” Apparently the Gulags were.

Moral perversions are propagated by the news media, cleverly hijacked by the Evil one, accusing those who oppose the same-sex “marriage” of “imposing their views on other persons.” Radical moral relativism has the peculiarity of generously embracing all opinions, except the true one.

This sad state of affair should not surprise us: St. Matthew warned us that at the end of time there will be a confusion of such dimension as to seduce “even the elect.” (Matt. 24) What is particularly confusing is that “well intentioned” people can spread misleading messages. A typical confusion is the one between ontological “evil” and moral “evil.” When God created the world, He declared that “it was very good.” He was clearly referring to the value and dignity of existence. Every single creature He brought into existence, be it a small gnat, had some of this ontological dignity. Had it not been created (obviously God could have brought many more beings into existence) those not created would not have caused an evil, but just “an absence of”, it would have been just an “absence of.” A non-existing insect is clearly not an evil.

But it is a serious philosophical error to apply this to moral evil; for moral evil is not just “an absence of moral goodness,” but it is, alas, a fearful reality. A priest once told my husband that a lady confessed that “she did not love her husband enough.” Puzzled by this remark, the priest questioned her further, and found out that she had been living in adultery for months. Indeed, adultery was “a lack of love.”

The great St. Augustine has shared with us a truth of key importance. He wrote: Interficere errorem; diligere errantem. (“Kill the error; love the erring one.”) Wage merciless war on the fearful reality of the sin; but love the sinner.

There is nothing “redeemable” in pornography; there is nothing redeemable in sadism, in rape, in sexual perversions. They are evil and must be not only defeated but, if possible, annihilated. To look for “good” behind pornography is to fall prey to a very grave confusion. But Christian charity commands us to look anxiously for some redeeming feature in the pornographer. To put it plainly:  Kill Playboy; lovingly look for some positive trait in Hugh Hefner, the unfortunate father of this filthy magazine. Today love for the pornographer (a tragic figure) tempts some well intentioned people to look for the good “behind pornography.” This vice is a product of hell, and has nothing to do with God’s beautiful creation. Love for the pornographer is best shown by fighting the filth that endangers his immortal soul.

One grace we should all beg us for is the grace of “seeing.” The climate of the time has spread so many dark clouds over our minds that we truly need divine help to distinguish between truth and its diabolical counterfeits.  From confusion, deliver us, O Lord.

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.
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