Note from JD: This essay owes much to the thoughts of G. K. Chesterton from his classic work, Orthodoxy.
This is an interactive essay, one that requires your participation. You will need a piece of paper, a pencil or pen or crayon or some sort of marker, and a compass or something you can trace around to make a circle, such as a soup can. Go gather your materials. I’ll wait.
No, really. Go get your things. You need will need them in order to “get” what I will be talking about.
Got them? Good. Mmmm…Campbell’s Chunky Chicken and Noodle. Good choice.
Now, on your nice white piece of paper, I want you to draw a circle. If you have a compass (the kind you used in geometry, not the type you use in the woods when you want to find your way), you can spread it out to make it as big as the paper will allow. If you are tracing, well, your circle will only be as large as the can. Any size circle will do, actually. Are you done? Do you have a perfectly round circle? Good.
The circle is the basis for most all mathematics. It led to what we now know as geometry and calculus. From the circle we get the wheel which, along with gears (also circles), puts the world around us in motion. The circle, if drawn properly, is a perfect shape. There are 360 points, or degrees, in your circle, each one equidistant from the center point. If you draw a straight line from the center point to the any point on the circle, you have the radius. A line that goes from one point on the circle to another while passing through the center point is the diameter. Â The distance around the circle is called theÂ circumference. The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter is measured as pi, an irrational number, meaning its digits never repeat and never end. It short form, pi is equal to 3.14159. Modern computers have been able to measure pi in digits exceeding a trillion without the sequence repeating.
Have I lost you yet? Hang in there—our lesson in math is just about over.
The circle is about as perfect of a shape as you will find. But it is a finite shape. It cannot grow larger or smaller. Look again at the circle you drew on your paper. In order to make it even one degree larger, you will have to recreate the entire circle. You can’t just stick another dot in there and make it bigger. A circle is 360 degrees period. If you want a circle with a larger diameter, you have to start over. Circles may be a perfect shape, but they cannot change. They are stuck being what they are.
Many of us want our Christian lives to be like the circle. We have Jesus as our center, and everything revolves around him. What is wrong with that? We use the Bible as the radius, checking and rechecking verses in the Bible to be sure we are staying in proper orbit around the center, Jesus. Each point in our lives, all 360 of them, must stay in the proper place, otherwise we might become warped in our thinking. Then we will not be able to turn like a circle should. We will be “out of round.” If that happens, get the Bible and find out where we have gone wrong. Our goal is to stay a perfect circle. There is no growth, of course. We can’t make our circle any larger–we would have to deconstruct it first, and that would involve great pain, great stress, incredible turmoil. No, that is not what we want at all. Peace–that’s what a circle is. Perfect and peaceful. Why mess with that?
Let’s make another drawing on your paper. You can do it on the same side at as the circle if you like, or you can turn your paper over. Ready? Draw one vertical line–a line up and and down. It doesn’t have to be perfectly straight. As a matter of fact, it will be more real if it isn’t straight. Now, starting about a third of the way from the top of this line, draw a horizontal line through the vertical line. Make it as large or small as you like. You have just drawn a cross. A cross is not a perfect shape. Euclid did not use a cross when he developed our modern theories of geometry. A cross is a coarse object, not perfect in any sense. Just two lines that intersect somewhere.
Yet for the Christian, the cross is where our lives end, and where they begin. You cannot be a Christian without the cross. Let me say that again: You cannot be a Christian without the cross. And the place where the two lines intersect? That we can call the paradox of Christianity. An intersection of two ideas that don’t go together.
God becoming man. Now really–how can the God who created the entire universe shrink himself to become a newborn baby?
God the man suffering and dying. Again, how can that be? How can God, who is the creator of life, succumb to death?
There are many other paradoxes that form the teaching Christians are to follow. To be rich, you must become poor. To live, you must die. The weak person is the strongest. You want to get even with an enemy? Love him. These are the paradoxes we find at the intersection of the cross.
Then there is the whole thing about faith. We are to believe something before we see it. We are to have faith in something we don’t understand. This faith makes up the biggest paradox of all. Parker Palmer puts it well in his book, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. He says:
The deeper our faith, the more doubt we must endure;
the deeper our hope, the more prone we are to despair;
the deeper our love, the more pain its loss will bring:
these are a few of the paradoxes we must hold as human beings.
If we refuse to hold them
in hopes of living without doubt, despair, and pain,
we also find ourselves living without faith, hope, and love.
Great. So in order to have the Christian virtues we all want to display—faith, hope, and love—we have to endure doubt, despair and pain. Let me get back to my circle. It is peaceful. I just keep myself at the same distance from Jesus, using verses in the Bible to check and be sure I am “in round.” The cross causes too much confusion. I don’t understand these contradictions. Lose my life in order to find it? Believe before I understand? That is much too hard.
I cannot grow in my circle. It is finite. It cannot be other than what it is. But look at the cross you drew. Use your pencil and extend one of the lines, any one you like. Draw it to the edge of the paper. Then onto your table, across the floor, out the window, across your lawn to your neighbor’s house. The lines of the cross are infinite. They can go on forever.
And they do.
So this day you must choose. Do you live in your safe, perfect circle? Or do you embrace the cross of paradox and contradiction? There is safety and predictability in the circle. You get to be in control. And when people look at you, they see symmetry. A circle is nice and neat and tidy. People will look at you and see a good person. The circle is a place where you can have a nice, safe life.
Or do you choose the cross? Two lines, unevenly drawn, that intersect in inconsistencies. There are challenges to what you think is right. Things are turned upside down from what you think they should be. You are called to believe when you can’t see. You are told to trust when it doesn’t make sense. And here is the kicker. The cross means your death. It is the death of you being in charge. Death of you controlling what is right and what is wrong. It means you are dead—and the life you now live is Christ Jesus living through you.
He is not a tame lion, you know. He won’t do as you please. He will lead you to places you didn’t think you should go. He will not stay nice and round. If you go the way of the cross, you will be a misshaped misfit in this world. People, especially people of the circle, will tell you just how wrong you are to be doing what you do.
The only consolation you have is that you will walking the way of the cross with Jesus. And really, what else is there to consider?