The theological ideas of Karl Barth, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Fr. Alexander Schmemann and other theologians of the XX century are sometimes encapsulated in paradoxical formulas, such as: "Christ is the end of religion," "Christianity is not a religion," "Christianity is the trial of religion." Even those all these formulas are partly true, they risk to divest Christianity of something essential, significant and important in it. Studies of history and psychology of Christianity and other religions lead us to the conclusion that Christianity is a religion of paradox.

Apostle Paul wrote: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness” (1Cor 1:23). Even Friedrich Engels, who did not understand the essence of Christianity, rightly noted the obvious historical fact: "Having arisen, Christianity came into sharp contradiction with all the religions that existed so far"[1]. Karl Marx also called Christianity a "revolutionary religion". Indeed, for the whole world, Christianity was a paradox because it required complete revision of all the doctrines of religion. And any such revision will only be an approximation to the correct understanding of Christianity. Therefore it is necessary to revise these doctrines not only once, but constantly.

Paradox[2] is a phenomenon that can exist in reality, but has no logical explanation. Paradoxes surprise us, they are unusual. They contradict to conventional, traditional (orthodox) views. An antinomy is also a kind of a paradox; it is a combination of real facts that logically contradict each other. The Byzantine theologians, hymnographers and icon painters loved to emphasize antinomies of Christianity. Lots of paradoxes can be found in the liturgical hymns for Christmas and Easter. For example, a Christmas kontakion[3] in five lines includes five antinomies. Therefore, it is correct to characterize Christianity as paradoxical.

An antonym for the "paradoxical" is "orthodox" which means something proven, traditional, following the mainstream tradition. Paradoxicality and orthodoxy are two opposites. The first more corresponds to Christianity, and the second — to paganism. The source of all differences between them is a quite different relationship to God and the spiritual world in general.

According to the Christian concept, God creates man in His image and likeness, that is, in the act of creation an opportunity is put in place for overcoming the ontological and spiritual abyss between the created and the uncreated. The connection of the Creator with the creation can be so close that even the Incarnation has occurred, that is, the real union of God with human nature. God believes in man and is ready to accept even death on the Cross for his sake. He calls on a person to establish a relationship of mutual love (characterized by freedom, selflessness and self-giving). This relationship of free personalities, which cannot be subordinated to any formal scheme.

On the contrary, paganism is characterized by an essential ontological and spiritual alienation of a person from any deities. The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus said that the gods will never go to accept a real human body. Even the material human body pagans considered as punishment, the prison of the soul. Similar views are also typical for Hinduism, where the deities accepted only ghostly forms (avatars), not connecting with material human bodies. Thus, a human becomes enclosed in himself, because the abyss between him and deities is insuperable in principle. In addition, paganism seeks the possibility of either protecting a man from deities, or gaining their patronage for ‘a bribe’ (an offering), or by using some magical action to make the deities serve humans. The ideal of paganism is to "catch God" and make Him fulfill the desires of man. To achieve this goal, a special religious system of methods, means and ways is being developed. Therefore in paganism "orthodoxy" is very much appreciated, that is, understandable logical explanations and formal schemes, the ability to achieve the desired result by simply following a known technique.

That is why the Gentiles of different countries and nations easily understood each other, because the psychology of idolatry was almost the same everywhere. In the Roman Empire, Babylon and Egypt the profession of non-local religions by foreigners was tolerated, provided that they honor traditional local (state) gods. Only Christianity was persecuted everywhere, because from the point of view of the Gentiles it undermined the fundamental principles of any religion. Indeed, the New Testament says that the religious worldview (in the pagan sense) is fundamentally wrong.

But unfortunately, in historical Christianity the pagan approach and the Christian actually coexist in parallel. This is not surprising, because the Old Testament also abounds with examples of the facts that, despite all the divine revelations, people often inclined to paganism. This is a very big and important topic. For brevity, we confine ourselves to only three aspects: views on theology, worship, and the organization of the believers' community (the Church).

Firstly, the intellectual cognition of the mysteries of the real world does not necessarily lead to understanding the mystery of God Himself. If we cognize the material world by the methods of science and philosophy, then this will only lead to other questions. But a purely logical conclusion about the existence of God is not enough for the Christian faith in Him. If an atheist loses in a dispute with some very clever believer and will be forced to recognize correctness of Christianity, then the logically correct conclusions will not let him touch the reality of God and to go through any religious experience. This phenomenon is practically non-formalizable. A person can only feel that he knows about God personally, from his own experience, and not by hearsay, not forced by any authority.

And yet it is necessary to emphasize another property of theological calculations — these are just models collected from the data of Revelation. Between the formulated truth and reality there is a link, but not an identity. Therefore, Christians seek a meeting with God and stand before the mystery of God, and not before the knowledge of Him, accumulated by many generations in the past centuries. It is necessary to distinguish the partial Revelation from the fullness of what is still offered to our knowledge, from the vision of God Himself. St. Gregory the Theologian in the IV century said about this, that if we could collect all the data of the Revelation and create from them the most rich and full image of God, if at this moment we foolishly say: "Here is my God," we would create an idol that closes the vision of the true God, instead of creating a transparent image that would allow us to see through it a reality that is more and more superior to it[4]. In addition, one should take into account the fact that even the holy fathers are not immune from intellectual errors. The famous patrologist Fr. George Florovsky said, that there is not one father of the Church, except St. Gregory the Theologian, who cannot find any not entirely correct statements. At the St. Gregory the Theologian, they are not only because he was too cautious in his writings[5]. It is necessary to evince wisdom and courage and not try to build an imaginary presence of God to fill the horrible emptiness of His absence.

In those countries where Christianity enjoyed the support of the state, attempts to preach it with purely intellectual methods were typical, with the help of the authority of theology. But this approach does not always lead to the desired results. Suffice it to recall that in the atheistic revolution of 1917 in Russia numerous graduates of Orthodox educational institutions took an active part.

Secondly, the liturgical aspect should be noted. Before the beginning of the Liturgy, the most important Christian worship, the deacon tells to the priest very important words: “It is time for the Lord to act”. By that time, the Proskomide, the preparatory part of the Liturgy, has already been performed, and these words serve as a reminder to the priest that all his further movements and prayers cannot accomplish anything: the time has come when only the Lord will act. In Christianity there is no magic, there is no other High Priest except Christ, there is no power other than the power of the Holy Spirit. No human effort, words and tricks can transform earthly into heavenly. God cannot be forced to commit something, He responds only to invoking Him with a pure heart, that is, when the thoughts of man are pure from all that is unworthy of love. However, in His immeasurable love He descends to sinful people, not forced by anyone, like a father to disobedient children.

In this sense, Christianity really is the end of religion, that is, the end of the system of rituals, prayers, incantations, spells and other tricks in order to force or at least convince God to approach people. None of this is required. The paradox of Christianity is that God became man and through His Incarnation invisible became visible, the imperceptible became tangible, inaccessible became available. There is no rite, ritual or spell that can add or subtract anything.

Christian worship is born out of a sense of God's presence; it is an expression of worship and reverence. It can facilitate the acquisition of a personal spiritual experience of communion with God, but cannot give it in some magical way. Unfortunately, it should be noted again that in historical Christianity there was a lot of deviations towards pagan, magical attitudes to ecclesiastical rites and sacraments.

Metropolitan Antoniy Surozhsky wrote about this thus: “I know a number of cases where Anglican or Catholic priests simply told a person who does not believe, who, as if in darkness, was in search of: ‘Be baptized and you will be given faith’. This is a catastrophe. Faith is given, but not simply because the person was baptized. I knew two such people and accepted them into Orthodoxy, but I had to work with them for decades of years to make them out of despair and disappointment that God deceived them. The priest promised them in the name of God: ‘I will dip you into holy water, and you will receive faith’. Dipped — and exactly nothing happened. In one case it was even worse: the man was mentally upset, he was promised not only faith, but also healing, and there was neither healing nor faith. So one must not promise that the sacraments will affect a person automatically. This is not a morphine injection, not a medicine that will work, whoever you are and whatever you do”[6]. Christian sacraments may be valid, but not act, because there is no soil, which would perceive them. You cannot accept the sacrament in the hope that something will happen magically. It is necessary for a person to experience spiritual hunger, striving to God. Then, through the sacraments, something can happen which cannot be achieved by dialectic and dispute.

Sometimes the pagan attitude to the worship was manifested very frankly. For example, in the rite of the Psalmocatara — curses by the psalms[7]. The purpose of the Psalmocatara was to deliver a man into the hands of the devil and call upon him all sorts of calamities even up to his physical and spiritual death. The rite was prescribed to be performed in the temple by seven priests. In this case, priests put on all priestly clothes inside out, and shoes with the right foot put on the left and vice versa. They use unusual black candles. All this indicates that the priests were aware that this whole ritual is contrary to the Gospel and the purposes of Christian worship. Christ would have rebuked them, and said: “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of” (Luk. 9:55). Nevertheless, the Psalmocatara, a prayer for evil, in the XII-XVII centuries was practiced very, very often. Professor of Canon Law at Moscow University A. I. Almazov describes three versions of this rite[8]. Later texts of the rank become more occult and practical (in the last edition it can be performed only by one priest and not necessarily in temple). Perhaps the Psalmocatara was a borrowing not only from pagan magic, but also from the Talmudic and Kabbalistic practices. For example, from the rite of the “pulse de Nura.” By the way, the rite of the Psalmocatara is not officially abolished, and there has never been its conciliar condemnation, and if you consider that it was used for at least 500 years, you can generally talk about its reception, inclusion in the Church tradition and consensus patrum.

Thirdly, we note one more paradox of Christianity in relation to the Christian Church. In a sense, the concept of a Church is very close to the concept of religion (the Church is a religious organization), one can define another. However, there is still no unambiguous and universally accepted definition of the Church, although theologians have written about it for almost two thousand years[9].

If the definition is specific, unambiguous, then it does not stand up to criticism, because it leaves beyond its scope a set of church phenomena. For example, in the Catechism of the Metropolitan of Moscow Filaret, the following definition is given: “The Church is society of people established by God, united by Orthodox faith, the law of God, the hierarchy and the Sacraments”. But the robber who was crucified to the right of Christ and who entered the Paradise on the same day (Luk 23:43), did not take part in any society, did not even have a concept about “hierarchy” and the Sacraments. And many holy ascetics–deserters tried to keep away from “the hierarchy” far away.

If the definition is broad, multi-valued, then it includes many completely non-church phenomena. For example, Metropolitan of Moscow Platon (Levshin) said, that the Church is a gathering of people, believers in Jesus Christ. But even the demons believe and tremble (Jm 2:19), and the followers of the church of satan also believe in Jesus Christ. Another broad definition was given by A. S. Khomyakov: “The Church is the organism of love”. However, examples of love can be found and in non-Christian societies. In addition, it is one thing to talk about love, and quite another — to show it actively. By the way, the Historical Church, shows many more examples of not love than love. A. S. Khomyakov himself, although he advocate the abolition of serfdom, but he did not release his slaves.

At the same time, God does not belong to a particular religion or confession. He make His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and send rain on the just and on the unjust (Matt 5:45). He does not discriminate, but looks at the heart of a person. A person can be mistaken mentally, but be pure in heart and pray truly, and maybe vice versa.

Thus, all the verbal definitions of the Church are similar to the description of a temple as an architectural work. You can go to it for years, but do not understand its difference from any other building. And you can sit in the silence of an empty temple and feel that this is the place of meeting with God, the place of His particular presence. Similarly, one can understand (or not understand) what the Church is. The definitions of the Church describe it only from the outside, from within it is the secret of the life of the soul in God, the mystery of meeting, presence and intercommunication. People are attached to this mystery in varying degrees. On the one hand, the members of the Church through baptism are clothed in Christ, through chrismation receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, God does not violently invade human life, and members of the Church have the freedom to sin. Therefore, in the Church there are, as it were, different currents. All people are sons of God by vocation, that is, sonship is already there, but at the same time it is still in the stage of formation, in the stage of building a miracle of mutual love and love for God. This is another paradox: Christians have already achieved the goal, but at the same time only on the way to it, are attached to the eternal Kingdom of God, but are in the temporal kingdom of this world. History and eternity are inseparably united in the Church: everything is already completed, but at the same time it is still in the making.

Thus, Christianity is paradoxical in every point, and it could be called “the religion of paradox”. On its historical path it is closely intertwined with its opposite — orthodoxy, which is a consequence of the impact of sinful origin and paganism. However, it should be noted that in this article the term “orthodoxy” has no relation to the name of the Greek Orthodox Church, which appeared due to the Great Split of 1054, but applies to all confessions and to the whole history of the Church, including the Old Testament.

St. Cyprian of Carthage said that the custom without truth is only an old misconception[10]. Therefore, a thoughtful interpretation of the whole church history is necessary. It is necessary to separate the good from the bad (Matt. 13:48) and to assess the apparent apostasy of historical Christianity from Christ and the Gospel. A sober and balanced approach is needed. A good example is the history of the Israeli people, written in the Old Testament. Everything is frankly portrayed there: the people as a whole and individual personalities in one form or another very often adopted paganism, adopted the customs of idolaters. Nevertheless, God did not leave them, which is repeatedly emphasized in the Bible. Therefore, it is necessary to comprehend two ways, paradoxical and orthodox. Until it happens in the Church, there will be a terrible contradiction between words and real deeds.


[1] Engels F. Bruno Bauer and the original Christianity // On the original Christianity.

[2] Gr.: παράδοξος — contradictory to the established opinion, unusual, incredible, extraordinary.

[3] Gr.: Ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον, τὸν ὑπερούσιον τίκτει, καὶ ἡ γῆ τὸ Σπήλαιον, τῷ ἀπροσίτῳ προσάγει. Ἄγγελοι μετὰ Ποιμένων δοξολογοῦσι. Μάγοι δὲ μετὰ ἀστέρος ὁδοιποροῦσι· δι' ἡμᾶς γὰρ ἐγεννήθη, Παιδίον νέον, ὁ πρὸ αἰώνων Θεός.

[4] Quoting on: Митрополит Сурожский Антоний (Блум). Труды. Книга первая. — 2-е изд. — М., «Практика», 2012, с. 361.

[5] Ibid., с. 295.

[6] Ibid., с. 328.

[7] Gr.: Ψαλμοκατάρα (from the Greek “ψαλμός” — “psalm” and “κατάρα” — “curse”) — liturgical rite, which existed in the practice of the Greek Orthodox Church, at least in the XIII—XVII centuries. Is described in the Greek Nomocanon of 1528.

[8] Алмазов А. И. Проклятие преступника псалмами (Ψαλμοκατάρα). К истории суда Божьего в Греческой церкви. Одесса, 1912.

[9] But to religion theologians began to pay attention relatively recently, in the last 200 years, in connection with the controversy with atheists.

[10] St. Cyprian of Carthage. Letter to Pompey against Stefan's letter about the baptism of heretics.