The Meaning of Life – Part 5 (Paradox)

How do we understand and manage paradox in our lives? Bishop David Evans explores how Jesus and the philosopher Blaise Pascal interpret paradox through the values we pursue, including some gospel encounters with children and the woman’s mite.

Spelling bee
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What is the meaning of life? This question may become significant at any stage of life. It may be a fleeting feeling, or something more profound. The answer may seem obvious. The question may also seem perplexing, and prompt further reflection. This series is for all who are touched by the sense that life itself raises questions that need to be explored, for the sake of our own understanding of ourselves, of how we relate to other people, and how we may respond to God.

Bishop David Evans identifies six related topics that can begin to provide answers to this question. Our first resource is Scripture, the Word of God, which may be found to prompt and respond to many human questions. Modern Philosophy is another resource. This provides a rich array of how European thinkers have addressed the question of life’s meaning from the 17th to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is no need to be put off by the word ‘philosophy’. According to the philosopher Pope St John Paul II, everyone has a philosophy of life. Reflecting with more systematic philosophers may help to broaden and deepen that personal philosophy.

The six themes

Identity – it’s not all about me but about us.
Generosity – giving and giving away.
Adaptability – being and becoming.
Empathy – are we each other’s keeper?
Paradox – managing without resolution. 
Community – building now and beyond.

How this series works

Each theme follows the same model of:

A themed reflection from the Bible and modern Philosophical thinking.
An image and reflection inspired by the main theme.
A question and action point to help with individual or group discussion.
A short prayer to end the session.
Suggested further reading for going deeper.

Part 5 – Paradox – managing without resolution

Let the Little Children Come Unto Jesus by Carl Bloch. c1800.              Blaise Pascal –1623-1662. Unknown artist. 

Scripture passages 

True Greatness

Matthew 18:1-4
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 9:33-37 and Luke 18:15-17
Then children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

The Widow’s Offering

Mark 12:41-44 
He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

When the disciples became accustomed to Jesus talking about the kingdom of God, they interpreted that phrase in the light of their own experience of the worldly kingdom in which they lived. ‘Kingdom’ meant ‘power’. ‘Power’ meant survival, wealth, respect, and having to concern oneself with no one but oneself. To be a friend of the emperor, or king, or governor, gave a person protection and permission to disregard the rights and even lives of anyone else. These privileges appealed to Jesus’ disciples. When Jesus succeeded in establishing his kingdom their lives would be a success such as few people from the fishing community of Galilee ever attained.

But there were twelve of them, including two sets of brothers, a tax collector, possibly a political agitator, and one or two nonentities (in that society’s way of thinking). Who was to be the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom? The previous reflection in this series raised that question, found in the mouth of the mother of the sons of Zebedee. Mark recalls another occasion, when Jesus, who had obviously become aware that something was going on, asked what the disciples had been discussing along the way. After a silent pause, they admitted that they had been vying with each other as to who was the greatest.

The fact that that question arose so persistently shows that being the greatest was considered of the highest importance in giving the disciples’ lives meaning. They could well have been shocked and annoyed when, in effect, Jesus answered, ‘None of you.’ Jesus answered with a gesture and words. The child that he set before them is the replica of himself. Jesus gave a double response to the disciples’ question. He, Jesus, is the greatest, in God’s kingdom, in virtue of being God’s Son. The child is the greatest, because children have no earthly ambition. No one would rally to a child who tried to raise an army to challenge Herod in Galilee, let alone Caesar in Rome. Life’s meaning is not bestowed by brute power over others, but by adopting the menial position of the lowest in society. 

The paradox at the heart of life’s meaning is that it is the weakest who are the greatest. The kingdom is promised to the peacemaker, not the warmonger; the merciful, not the ruthless. The disciples had heard the Sermon on the Mount, but it took them till the crucifixion to realise what it meant. The widow in the temple was a much more apt disciple than they were as Jesus also pointed out: the one with nothing gave away all she had, and left the temple to die, and be raised to glory in God’s kingdom of heaven.

Blaise Pascal (1632-1662) was a mathematician, a philosopher, and a religious polemicist. His best known work, Pensées (Thoughts) was published after his death. It is a series of striking paragraphs concerned, indirectly it may be said, with the question of life’s meaning for humans without God. Pascal was struck by human grandeur, as demonstrated by the advance of science, and by humanity being chosen, created and blessed by God. At the same time, there was similarly strong evidence of human sin and misery. This quotation is an example of his literary style, and his philosophical strategy – the strategy of paradox: ‘So it is not only the zeal of those who seek God which proves God, but the blindness of those who do not seek him.’ While Pascal’s Thoughts are his thoughts, they are also designed to help others think. That is something they have in common with the teaching of Jesus. 

Confronting paradox is another means towards exploring the meaning of life, and discovering more securely that meaning is found in action. Jesus’ paradoxes, and Pascal’s, are invitations to change, and so fit ourselves, with the help of grace, for the kingdom of God.

Spelling bee

Reflection on the image by Fleur Dorrell:

What do you see in this image? Here is a Spelling Bee competition in an English school. The idea is thought to have originated in the United States but spelling bee events are now held in many other countries around the world. 

The children on the stage are all waiting their turn to show how good their spelling is but it requires much more than pure memory. Contestants are asked to spell a broad selection of words, usually with varying degrees of difficulty. To compete, whilst they must memorise the spellings of words as written in dictionaries, and recite them accordingly, they are more likely to remember more words when they understand both their meanings and their etymologies. When faced with unexpected words, these children learn how to recall words with similar roots before they attempt to spell the words now presented to them.

To become a Spelling Bee champion at any level requires enormous dedication and learning since there is no limit as to which words they could be tested on. The children here will have negotiated many disciplined hours of reading and knowledge-building to get to this stage. Paradoxically, the adults who run these competitions will often know fewer words than many of the children since their task is simply to read the words out. Parents of spelling bee contestants everywhere, have confessed that their children know far more facts and words than they do. 

It might seem like a futile task yet memory recall and a large vocabulary are key skills for life. There aren’t many professions where communication skills, clearly expressed prose and the correct representation of information don’t make a real difference. In an emergency, they can determine the saving or losing of a life. In a court trial they can be the means to uphold or violate justice. And in a relationship whether personal or professional, they can become a weapon or a gift, destructive or creative.

It is partly Jesus’ language that the disciples fail to understand and partly that their values were so counter to Jesus’ vision of a flourishing society that blinds them to his truths. Jesus always expressed his teaching in actions, he practised what he preached. Pascal similarly promotes the value of words leading to changed behaviour. What we seek is what we will become. So when the disciples are more concerned with who will be the first and the best rather than who will serve the collective good, they had not only missed the whole point, but undermined their own identity. The children and the widow who think wider and bigger than merely what will benefit them, are the first to be blessed by Jesus. The children sought Jesus because they knew instinctively that he offered something different and that he met them as equals.

The Spelling Bee contestants know that only one person will win and that while winning is thrilling, the knowledge they have accrued will always be useful. Their future success lies in how they will navigate the stresses of learning, of taking part, risking failure and of the emotional resilience required, whatever the outcome. The word ‘paradox’ means a person or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities. It originates from the Greek ‘paradoxon’ meaning contrary opinion. Jesus’ attitude towards children and the widow, in the context of ancient hierarchies embodies this definition perfectly.

Many of us adults could learn from these children and from the gift of the widow’s offering. This picture reminds us to take children seriously, to celebrate their knowledge and to benefit from their wisdom. Jesus made sense of this very early on in his ministry and in so doing, turned the world upside down.

Question and Action point: 

Draw together other passages from Jesus’ teaching that rely on paradox for their impact. Ponder whether the paradoxes can be resolved by thought, or whether they are better understood as a call to action.

Discuss how group members might understand ‘greatness’ and compare that understanding with Jesus’ interpretation. What action might the similarity or difference prompt?


Loving Father, 
Enliven the faith of your people through reflection on the paradoxes of Pascal’s thought. 
Give them deeper understanding both of your kingdom, and of the transformation that belonging to it, brings. 
Through Christ our Lord.

Suggested further reading for going deeper

Mark 10:13-16; Luke 1:46-56.

Alban Krailsheimer, A Very Short Introduction to Pascal, Oxford, 1980.

Kathleen A Mulhern, Beyond the Contingent: Epistemological Authority, A Pascalian Revival and the Religious Imagination in Third Republic France, Pickwick Publications, 2011.