Zeno of Elea and understanding ultimate reality

Zeno of Elea was one of history’s first recorded philosophers, living about four hundred and fifty years before Christ. Zeno is remembered for creating paradoxes, such as his famous argument that it’s impossible to ever arrive at a destination. The difficulty, Zeno explained in what is called the “dichotomy paradox,” is that before one arrives at the destination, one must travel half the distance there. Yet, as soon as one arrives at that halfway mark, there’s a new halfway distance which must be traveled before you can get to the destination. And so on. Since any distance, even the very shortest, can be halved, there’s always a half-distance to travel before one can arrive at the destination. With an infinite number of halfway points to reach before the destination, it does seem as if logic demands the conclusion that you can never get there.

One suspects that Zeno may not have been popular in high school, but my point in bringing him up is not to complain about dead Italian philosophers, but to illustrate an unfortunate tendency that most of us have when thinking about theological uncertainties. As an example, consider the question of how God can justly punish us for our sins (thus implying we are guilty for them) despite the fact that human nature is fallen and therefore we cannot help sinning.

Looked at from this perspective, God’s judgment may appear unjust. After all, it’s hardly right to punish someone for wrongdoing if they had no choice in the matter. That is why human courts accept insanity pleas, and it’s why the church has always declared that a rape victim has absolutely no reason to feel moral shame for what happened to them, a principle rooted in God’s Old Testament law (Deuteronomy 22:25-26). It’s why Paul considers it so important in the first two chapters of Romans to show that both Jew and pagan have sinned against the law they know. Unless our God-given moral intuitions and the underlying principles of His law are misleading us, it seems that just punishment is punishment for wrong that was done intentionally.

Yet, doesn’t the Bible teach that “There is none righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10-11) and “[the law] has shut up everyone under sin” (Galatians 3:21-22)? Isn’t the whole reason we needed a Savior because fallen man is unable to do what is right? Are we unjustly judged, then, for what we cannot avoid doing?

Let’s table that question for a moment and return to Zeno. The problem with Zeno’s proof that we can never get anywhere is that, in fact, we can. I am sitting at my desk as I type this, not suspended somewhere in an infinite progression of halfway-theres. Even if we can’t poke holes in Zeno’s argument (and great thinkers throughout the centuries have been frustrated by the difficulty of refuting him), our actual experience tells us there’s plainly something wrong with it. And as a matter of fact, in the last few decades modern calculus has demonstrated that infinite geometric series can converge, which, mathematicians tell us, means Zeno’s paradox isn’t a paradox at all. But we didn’t need to await the arrival of modern calculus to tell us that Zeno was wrong. All we need is the arrival of Aunt Ruth from Des Moine, who is plainly here rather than eternally en route.

Zeno faced two disadvantages: He didn’t know about modern mathematical theory, and he ignored Aunt Ruth from Des Moine. We can hardly fault the Eleatic philosopher for living a couple millennia too early to encounter today’s calculus, but he is somewhat guiltier in the matter of Aunt Ruth, because she was his clue that perhaps he had failed to account for something in his theory; something like modern mathematics. She was his reminder that even the most plausible analysis may be missing some piece of the puzzle so thoroughly that we can’t even guess what we don’t know. But rather than admit that his theory might not fit the facts, Zeno preferred to simply ignore Aunt Ruth and defend an argument that made enough sense to stymie the world’s keenest thinkers for hundreds of years, but which, for all that, was laughably incorrect–even on a theoretical level, if only anyone had known.

We may simply shake our heads at Zeno’s paradoxes, and we certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. But many of the theological puzzles that frustrate us feel very similar to Zeno’s myopic focus on theory over experience… Which brings us back to the question of how God can justly condemn fallen man for his sins. As a matter of theory, our understanding of what it means to judge justly, combined with our understanding of what it means to be born into a fallen world, seem to suggest that it is not fair to condemn humans for sins we cannot avoid.

Yet, in reality, we experience both halves of this paradox every day. As fallen humans, we know both the certainty of sin and the certainty that each individual sin is truly a choice. When I married my wife, I knew there was no way I could make it through our first year (week? day?) of marriage without sinning against her. Yet, on the other hand, I have never been compelled to sin against her. Each instance of selfishness or pride or anger were my own fault, something I could have resisted if I chose.

Like Aunt Ruth from Des Moine who really is there even though Zeno cannot explain how, every one of us really does experience both the reality of a fallen, sinful nature and the reality of actual, meaningful choice when we sin. We may not be able to draw a neat picture of a world that includes both facts, but the actual world in which we find ourselves clearly does. (Thankfully, that actual world also includes a Savior who offers something more than a despairing striving and failing against our fallen nature. Of course, the atonement raises its own set of “How did that work?” questions.)

Is it really so surprising that, just as Zeno’s neat theory stumbled over his limited understanding of the mathematical structure of the universe, our own tidy theological systems strain at points because of our limited understanding of the metaphysical structure of reality? The point is not to throw aside rationality in favor of mindless faith. God appeals to our reason throughout Scripture and seems quite concerned that we understand why our faith makes sense and how it fits into the world at large. But it is really the ultimate irrationality to expect our minds to exhaustively comprehend the creation, plans, and actions of an infinite God. If there are pieces that don’t seem to quite fit together, remember Zeno and realize that reality is probably quite a bit more complicated than even cutting-edge calculus can describe.

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