Warning: Paradoxes can turn tricky

I have no doubt the last thing Professor John Milbank wants is to encourage tricksters and charlatans. Indeed his ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ and scepticism about secular reason and 20th century trends contains a protest against shallow thinking – with some justification. But like so many campaigners Professor Milbank threatens to take us out of a pothole and into a quagmire. Accepting paradoxes jumps outside healthy criticism of the messy mix of rationalism, empiricism, and in some quarters sheer scepticism, which characterises modern secular thought.

Paradoxes will, one suspects, always be with us. But even in their stimulating and amusing role as brain teasers or teaching aids (not least for logical thought) they carry a health warning. The traditional secularist assumes paradoxes in orthodox religion, including most obviously the nature of God as just or loving and yet an omnipotent Creator, reflect the danger of blind superstition. So they can, but nowadays and especially if endorsed by academic thinkers, they also carry the very different risk of a shallow cleverness which preens itself on its ability to shock conventional wisdom. (Again, I must make clear I am not accusing Milbank of anything like this; I am only warning about a hazard for all of us.) The danger here goes deeper if we reflect that exposing inconsistencies is an essential tool for combating corruption, deception, and depravity in all walks of life alongside the its role in establishing the ground rules for logic and modelling rational thought. If orthodox religion cannot resolve its paradoxes that is not a mere intellectual quibble; it is a profound ethical and even spiritual rend.






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