Andy Bannister writes in the Bad Theology Gap about the danger of sliding off one side or the other of theological constructs that Scripture holds in tension. For a visual, he describes the Sharp Edge of Mt. Blencathra in northern England that he hiked with his bride on their honeymoon. The way is “perfectly safe” to take the Sharp Edge to the top of the mountain, he says,
“provided you keep to the very top of the arête and don’t start fooling around trying to veer off to one side or the other. Keep your balance and keep a straight line and you’ll be fine.”
I have written before about the theological narrow road – the road that requires remaining in the center of the tension between two theological constructs – in the past. It is a theme that I see running throughout Scripture.
To be fair, the context in which Jesus uses the concept of the narrow path or gate is more pointed:
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is narrow and the way is constricted that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
But, I don’t think the way Jesus uses the narrow gate/way concept is antithetical to the way I am using it here.
It is a theme we see in the universe that reflects God’s design with the fine tuning of physical constants. Those constants were set to razor thin parameters from the moment after the so-called Big Bang, such that carbon-based life was inevitable to form on a planet we call earth. Any slight deviation in those constants, and the Universe would expand too quickly and collapse back in on itself, or it would expand too slowly and lack the energy to spawn life.
This fine-tuning is (perhaps) like the narrow path (or narrow road) in that any deviation off a narrow path takes us into the woods, or weeds, or worse – down a steep mountainside!
A narrow road or (arête) is like the fine-tuning of the cosmological constants in God’s universe that were set just so, within very small tolerances that were necessary to produce life as we know it.
I see these principals in the sweep of Scripture that began with one choice that dooms mankind to futility, setting the stage for another choice that leads to the redemption of the created world. One choice that allowed us freedom doomed us to separation from God, but it was necessary to set up another choice (Jesus) that requires that same freedom to love God – not out of compulsion, but because we want to love God.
Andy Bannister sees this narrow path (arête) in the “classic example” of “the balance between God’s sovereignty and human free will”. The Scripture holds these concepts together, while we tend to want to simplify them and, in so doing, pull them apart.
“Rather than stick to the theological arête, we delight in plunging down one side of an issue or the other, sliding like a mountain goat with greased hooves as we suddenly discover the cliff is sheerer than we thought.”
While the Bible holds in balance the sovereignty of God and a substantive freedom of will for human beings, Bannister observes that people have struggled to hold on to one without letting go the other:
“[T]hroughout church history factions have formed, denominations have split apart, hostilities broken out, and nasty emoticons deployed in anger on Twitter by people who want to play off divine sovereignty versus human freedom.”
I see the same tension in a recent sermon that focused on the difference between childlike love and childishness, which displays a lack of love. Jesus called us to be like little children in our faith, but not childish. Other tensions exist, such as the necessity of faith and works. These are not contradictory concepts, but paradoxes that need to be harmonized.
These paradoxes don’t only exist in metaphysical realms. The reality of quantum mechanics seems to stand in contrast to the constants of classical physics, yet we don’t dispose of one set of principals to hold on to the other. We don’t favor one over the other, because we find the truth lies in holding both. We hold both sets of principals together, even though we might not see how they can be harmonized.
Interestingly, the idea of holding apparently contrasting things in tension is an ancient, biblical principal.
“It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other….” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NASB)