Why Christianity was never meant to be simple
Since so many of us crave certainty and straightforward answers, it's sometimes difficult to live with the many unresolvable paradoxes of the Christian faith. So what can we do about it? Rather than running away from them, or trying to explain them away, author, speaker and theologian Krish Kandiah thinks the tension between opposing doctrines is where faith comes alive and that often, it is in the most difficult parts of the Bible that God is most clearly revealed.
Krish is also not afraid to ask those questions that some of us may have thought we are not allowed to ask now we are grown up. "Often we are taught – or at least we pick up by osmosis – that Christian maturity means giving confident, slick answers without a hint of uncertainty," he says. "But that is simply wrong. False assurance is no assurance at all, and taking time to tackle the difficult passages of the Bible head on may in fact be exactly what we need to help strengthen and life-proof our faith. If what we believe is true, it will stand up to questioning."
The strapline for his new book, Paradoxology, is 'Why Christianity was never meant to be simple'. "...the paradoxes that seem to undermine our faith are actually the very things that lie at the heart of a vibrant faith," he writes, "and...it is only by continually wrestling with them – rather than trying to pin them down or push them away – that we can really worship God, individually and together."
Krish tackles various paradoxes from both the Old and New Testament but, as he says in his chapter on those found in the book of Romans: "the character of God is perhaps the most fundamental paradox of the Christian faith. In the end, all these questions come back to one, central question: is God trustworthy, or not?"
It is as we engage with the biblical characters that Krish examines that we discover the paradoxes and struggles they faced made their faith deeper and more authentic – not weaker. We caught up with Krish to find out more.
CT How did the idea for this book begin? And did you have a particular reader in mind?
I came across a lot of Christians who felt like they hadn't really grown in their faith for a long time. A lot of them have never really thought very deeply about their faith beyond the introduction they might have had as a new Christian. This book was aimed at people who wanted to push on in their faith, deepen it, strengthen it to build a faith that's resilient enough to handle everything life is going to chuck at them.
CT Why do you think it is so important to grapple with these paradoxes?
One way that I like to think about it was when I was at school – I went to an all boys comprehensive in Brighton – our PE teacher wanted a world-class rugby side who could take on the posh schools in the area. We were told that whatever happens, when we went in for a tackle we should go for it and all grab hold as hard as we could to the opposition otherwise we would get a boot in our face. I think for some people their Christian faith isn't strong enough to cope with suffering, disappointment, the violence of God etc. When God doesn't do or deliver what we hope for we can be vulnerable to what is likely to happen to us in our lives. If we want to see our faith deepen we really need to be able to dive all in to the really difficult parts of the Bible.
CT What was your aim when you set out to write this book?
I though that if we could show people that the really tough parts of the Bible actually contain great riches and don't need to be feared then it actually opens up the whole of the Bible to everybody. It might help people to sustain their faith no matter what happens to them.
The other part of it is that in a relationship when everything is going fine you assume that you know the other person. You've probably come across those couples who say they've never argued. I think actually the chances of us never arguing with someone so close to us probably means with don't really know them yet.
We can live with such projections of God – and all is fine as long as God does what we want. So I thought that if we look at the awkward bits, the really difficult bits of the Bible, it's a little bit like a good familial argument in that you get to know the real other person – when you don't agree on something and hit reality rather than just a projection. So if we face up to the bits of the Bible that don't fit into our 'system' or our way of thinking, we are more likely to be connecting with the real God, rather than our project of Him.
CT There are some points in the book when you are defending our faith: do you feel the book could be helpful for those who aren't Christians too as you do cover some of the big objections to Christianity within it?
Yes I think so. I actually had a really good chat on a live phone in debate with an atheist guy who had read the book. Sometimes the [image of Christianity] we present to those who aren't Christians is too simple and that could put people off. This book might be helpful for thinking sceptics because it refuses to give the simple answers, and is humble enough to say we just don't know and the whole thing hangs in tension.
CT Did the book turn out how you were expecting it to, or did it take an unexpected turn as you were preparing it?
I really enjoyed working on it, as I had to look at some of the challenges I'd always wrestled with, ever since I was a boy. Part of it was a research project – I didn't know the answers when I started the book, so I was looking at scripture, reading commentaries, looking at how historically people in the church have viewed these things and also talking to wise people. I came up with ways to reconcile things that I'd been struggling with before.
CT Which paradox did you find most difficult to wrestle with?
The first one, the Abraham paradox – I find that a really tough one. Why would God who owns everything ask Abraham to give so much? I think I've found a way to get my head around it. God uses this horrific incidence to connect Abraham to His own heart. God was one day going to sacrifice his own son voluntarily for the sins of the world so Abraham was being let into that, which is a precious thing.
This idea that God is a god who never demands anything of you that you don't want to give Him is an idol. The real God sometimes ask us to sacrifice because it is the best thing for us.
CT Were there any particular viewpoints/teachings that you once held fast to in the past, but have now shifted on theologically as you were researching the book?
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It was more of a clarification than a shift I think. I had to have another look at the idea in the Judas paradox of free will and the sovereignty of God. I also spent a lot of time wrestling with the exclusivity of Christianity [which Krish covers in the Jonah paradox]. I have lots of Hindu family members and a lot of the time it would be easier to believe that God will find a way to save everyone but I couldn't reconcile that with scripture. The Bible is really clear – there is literally only one way that we can come to Him.
CT What theological and cultural icons/images did you set out to smash?
There are two things here. I spent time with a guy who'd been a hero of mine. He was a track and field star, and after he won gold medals for the country he became a TV presenter. He'd preached at our university as an evangelist and afterwards I was asking how his faith was going. He said it wasn't going well at all. What had happened is that he'd been schooled in a very prescriptive form of Christianity that came as a complete package. There were black and white answers to everything under the sun and for him when one thing got challenged the whole thing came tumbling down. I did want to blow up some of our confidence in overly systemised Christianity that fits God neatly into boxes.
We need to let scripture set the perimeters for our faith – and scripture is happy to live with tension far more than our systematic theological approaches.
The other thing is there is a form of Christianity that says that with God in our lives we will be happier, healthier and wealthier and I just can't find evidence of that in scripture. I looked hard at key narrative moments in the Bible – and want to help people see that that is not how life is going to be. Don't live with those expectations; it is very dangerous for you as you will always be disappointed when God doesn't deliver what you think He's promised. I wanted to deconstruct that myth too.
CT In your book you call us 'time travellers' and 'people in transition' – could you explain these phrases further?
We often think that we enter church as time travellers – we are transported back in time to either the 18th century or the 1970s, depending on your church tradition. Whether that's the style of music, architecture etc. While it is important that we hold on to the good parts of our tradition, we are supposed to be on another form of time travel – giving the world a taste of the future in the present. I wanted to encourage people to think about what it means for visitors coming into our churches; they should see a taste of the Kingdom of God breaking in, not just ancient history.
CT How would you sum up the overall message you hope your book portrays?
You can trust God! God is big enough to answer all our questions – although He may not give complete resolution now. We don't need to fear using our brains to think about God. There's so much more to learn! I'm hoping I will whet people's appetites to delve deeper into scripture, to think hard about it and try to live it out.
CT The book covers so much, and challenges readers on their perception of God, faith and other Christians. What one challenge would you like to draw out today for those reading this interview?
[laughs] I tell a story in the book about my wife – then girlfriend – being in Germany while I was in England. We had arranged a phone date – this was in the days before mobile phones and emails so we had written a letter and she was going to 'meet me' at a phone box at a particular time. She never turned up and I rang and rang and rang. What do you do when you can't get answers to the myriad questions that flood your mind? Well, you hold on to what you definitely know for certain. I trusted her because of what I knew about her so I was certain that there would be a good reason why she wasn't there.
If you are wrestling with something, my book will not give you all the answers – in fact it may give you more questions than you had before – but I want you to hold on to what you do know about God and trust Him even when He doesn't come up with the answers you were hoping for.
CT Now you have finished writing the book, where do you feel you are at personally in terms of grappling with faith's paradoxes?
I'm enjoying it! And I'm seeing more of them now. I'm actually on my way to Southampton University to do a talk on Nehemiah 4 and I'm noticing paradoxes in it. The passage is about the Israelites rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem.
They are praying, with a sword in one hand and a shovel in the other. That's an interesting paradox. They prayed for protection, but are taking swords along too! Are they trusting God or their own strength? Actually they are doing both and both are good – actually it's a bit of a model of how to live in a fallen, broken world in which we wait for God's full restoration. So I'm enjoying the pleasure of thinking of God on a different level.
CT What response have you had about the book so far?
I'm really encouraged by the response. People keep tweeting me one of three things: 1. They like the cover and have found things that look like it, such as a sofa, or a dress 2. Some people are loving it so much they want small group Bible study questions and 3. It's the best book they've read! With that one I think "wow you either haven't read many books at all or it's been really helpful". Either way it's encouraging.
CT How much fun was it to discover IKEA has a sofa design that matches your book's cover?!
Yeah yeah that was great – I was actually meeting up with my brother-in-law to give him a copy of the book so that's how the picture of me with the book on the sofa came about!
Paradoxology is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced at £13.99.