Oxymorons as Theological Symbols

by Troy Organ

Dr. Organ is distinguished professor emeritus at Ohio  University, Athens.

This article appeared in the Christian Century  November 28, 1984, p. 1128. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


An existent God must be a limited God – limited by all that is non-God. Our understanding of the Divine is enhanced by our joining the Buddhists in recognizing that words are “fingers that point to the moon.” Oxymorons help us, in the words of St. Augustine, to “see ineffably that which is ineffable,” and in the words of Deutero-Isaiah, to find what we do not seek (Isa. 65:1).

An oxymoron is a locution that produces an effect by means of what in ordinary language is a self-contradiction. I first became aware of oxymorons many years ago when my high school Latin teacher informed our class that our motto would be festina lente (make haste slowly). At the tender age of 16 the maxim struck me forcefully, for I had already observed how often I accomplished little when I acted quickly. Forty years later my mind flashed back to that day. I had asked the great Zen Buddhist D. T. Suzuki what he did when he faced a logical contradiction. His answer: “I just plunge right through.”

The absurdity of oxymorons should not be minimized. Oxymorons violate the principle of thought and being which Aristotle called “the most certain of all principles.” He succinctly stated this truth, known as ‘‘the law of noncontradiction.’’ as follows: “The same attribute cannot at the same time belong and not belong to the same subject and in the same respect.” A cannot be both Wand non-B. Aristotle added that the validity of this law can be demonstrated by asking those who think that they reject it to say something. If they make statements following the form “A is B,” one can point out that they have denied “A is non-B.’’

But the defender of oxymorons can point out that human beings sometimes have experiences which cannot be properly described through a logic of exclusion. One of the most obvious of these is the experience of love. The love relationship can be so close to its opposite, hatred, that it can become part of a “love-hate relationship.” The defender of oxymorons might also remind the traditional Western logician that the use of words to describe a referent which has an ontological status independent of the language system is but one of languages functions. Words may denote, but they may also analogize, create and even reject a referent. That is why a seer in the Brihadaranyaka Upanisad advised people not to meditate upon the meaning of words, why the Tao Teh Ching begins with the observation that the reality which can be expressed linguistically is not the Reality, and why Zen masters warn us not to trust anyone who talks about the Buddha.

Oxymorons emerge in many unexpected places. A well-known analgesic balm has an oxymoronic trade name -- Icy Hot. Botanists sometimes refer to trees of the populus, nyssa and plantanus families as “soft-hardwoods” and to the celastrus vine as “bittersweet.” Specialists in the study of American Indian arrowheads refer to a certain arrowhead as having a “fluted-unfluted’’ point. Psychologists use the term ‘passive-aggressive behavior’’ to denote acts in which one person tries to manipulate another by refusing to cooperate unless the other acts as the manipulator wishes. Zen masters speak of effortless-effort,’’ and coaches advise long-distance runners to make an effort to run effortlessly.

Oxymorons are perhaps more widely used in the Orient than in the Occident. All lovers of Chinese food are aware of sweet-sour meats. The Taoist way of life, known as wu wei. means literally ‘‘the way of active-inactivity.” Chih-t’ao, a 17th-century artist, described the preferred method of Chinese art as ‘‘the method of no-method.’’ Buddhists are told to desire the state of desirelessness, and Zen Buddhists speak of the satori experience as taking place in “a timeless moment.” In the Vimatakirti Sutra, a Mahayana Buddhist text, the Bodhisattva Manjushri, when asked about the nature of reality, replies with ‘‘a thunderous silence.”

In India oxymorons proliferate. According to the Upanisadic view of the Brahman, Nirguna Brahman is not being or nonbeing, but being-nonbeing (sat-asat). The reality of nonbeing is often described as the reality of “the son of a barren woman.’’ In his commentaries on the Upanisads, Shankara referred to “the knowability of the Unknowable’’ and to “the whole real-unreal course of ordinary life.” According to Mysore Hiriyanna, the Atman is “known only to those who do not know it.” Nimbarka’s form of Vedantism is known as Dvaita-Advaita (Dualism-Nondualism) and Ramanuja referred to his Vedantism as Bhedabheda (Difference-Nondifference). R. C. Zaehner titled his 1967-68 Gifford Lectures on Indian religions Concordant Discord. Mahatma Gandhi described himself as a ‘‘cruelly kind husband. “In early Indian philosophy, cosmic energy was symbolized by Vac, the primordial sound, which is described as ‘‘the inaudible sound.” Vac, in time, was visually hypostatized as bindu (dot) -- that is, as position without dimension. This thing-nonthing has been represented in a painting by the modern Indian artist S. H. Raza. Raza painted bindu as a dark circle dissected vertically and horizontally by two hardly visible white lines. Theoretically the four sections of the dark circle are said to appear as white, yellow, red and blue. In 1982 the Indian Postal Service reproduced this painting on a two-rupee stamp.

In the Madhyamika school of Buddhist thought a key term is sunyata. This term, which is commonly translated as ‘‘emptiness,’’ is used to express a condition in which there is no ontological substance in the process of becoming, and no reality independent of a language system. Sun yata is an “emptiness’’ which is neither eternalism (absolute oneness) nor nihilism (absolute nothingness). It is religiously more, but metaphysically less, than being or becoming. Oxymorons are so integral to the Madhyamika that one of its chief scriptures -- the Prajnaparamita  -- asserts that because intuitive wisdom (prajna) is unobtainable, human beings should strive to attain it with all their powers. In his study of the Madhyamika, Frederick I. Streng distinguished the “mystical” and the “intuitive” structure of religious apprehension. The latter provides meaning through combining concepts which the former would regard as logically inconsistent -- for example, that Absolute Reality be known as both “being’’ and “nonbeing,’’ as “here” and “not here,” and as “God” and “man” (Emptiness [Abingdon, 1967], p. 81). What Streng calls the “intuitive structure’’ of religious apprehension is not the conjunctive, but the oxymoronic, relationship. Hence, Absolute Reality should really be known as “being-nonbeing,” ‘‘here” “not here’’ and ‘‘God-man.’’

According to Benjamin Walker, sunyata represents ‘‘an experience of final Non-beingness flashing forth through the state of natural beingness which is our temporal human existence. It is not mere negation, but a Negation of negation that is an Existence. Being beyond existence and being” (Hindu World. Vol. II [George Allen & Unwin, 1968], p. 453). But Walker confuses rather than clarifies when he adds, “It is best defined by negatives.” What Walker should have stated is that the universe as sunyata is best expressed by the negation of oxymorons -- as “not being-nonbeing,” or “not existence-nonexistence,” or “not becoming-nonbecoming.”

Modern physicists use oxymorons to express the nature of reality: ‘‘space-time,’’ “matter-energy” and “wavicles”. In The Tao of Physics Fritjof Capra prepares the way for “matter-antimatter,” “evolution-devolution,” ‘‘particles-antiparticles,’’ “quarks-antiquarks” and “part-whole.”

Christianity is the most oxymoronic of all religions in that it is centered on the deus-homo, the one described in the Definition of Chalcedon as “truly God and truly man.” The church councils explained that this does not mean that the Christ was either half God and half man, or 100 per cent God and 100 per cent man. The formulation represented an effort to find a position between the Monophysites, who stressed Christ’s divinity, and the Nestorians, who stressed his humanity. The creedal statement strikingly affirms that divinity and humanity are nondestructive polarities. Karl Barth made this discovery in his own theological pilgrimage. Whereas the early Barth insisted that God is “Wholly Other,’’ the later Barth admitted that he had turned the rudder an angle of exactly 180 degrees” (The Humanity of God [Collins, 1961], p. 41). In his lecture ‘The Christian Message and the New Humanism” (given in Geneva at the Recontres Internationales on September 1, 1949), he confessed, “God and man are one in Jesus Christ and Jesus is perfect God and perfect man. It is from this point of view that we regard men” (Against the Stream [Camelot, 1954], p. 186). In The Humanity of God, Barth stated -- with a curious reference to his former characterization of God as the “wholly other” -- that his eyes had been opened “to the fact that God might actually be wholly other than the God confined to the musty shell of the Christian religious self-consciousness.’’ He added,

It is precisely God’s deity which, rightly understood, includes his humanity. . . It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude but includes his humanity. . . . God requires no exclusion of humanity, no non-humanity, in order to be truly God. . . . God in his deity is human.

Some very significant oxymorons are hidden in the Bible. For example, although Revelation I :8a -- “Ego eimi to Alpha kai Omega” -- is translated “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (Revised Standard Version), it might be translated “I am the Alpha-Omega” or ‘‘I am the Beginning-End.” The alternative translation is defensible because of the use of the word ‘kai” in Koine. Writers and speakers of Koine appear to have used ‘kai” as a transition or hesitation word, much as some modem Americans use “and-a,” “really” or “you know.” Therefore, Revelation 1:8b may be translated “the Lord God, the Was-Is-Will-Be,” rather than “the Lord God, who is, who was, and who is to come.” This translation defines God as that transcendence within which time may be differentiated, rather than as that being whose nature includes -- and presumably is exhausted by --  time past, time present and time future. In the “Was-Is-Will-Be,” temporal differentiations are irrelevant. God cannot be measured by past, present and future, for in the One who is Past-Present-Future there is no “past,” no “present” and no “future.”

A similar oxymoron is hidden in the Bhagavad Gita. The Sanskrit text of 10:32, “Sarganam adiratas ca madhyam cai ‘Va ‘ham,” is usually translated “Of creatures I am the beginning, the end, and also the middle.” But an oxymoronic translation would be better: “Of creatures I am the Beginning-Middle-End.” The justification for this translation lies in the fact that the previous chapter contains an oxymoronic statement: “All beings rest in Me . . . and yet beings do not rest in Me” (9:4,5). Moreover, 9:17 should be “I am Father-Mother,’’ rather than “I am father and mother,” and 9:16 should be “I am Fire-Water,’’ the integration of destructive dualities, rather than “I am the fire of offering, and I am the poured oblation.”

The Gnostic texts discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945 reveal the richness of the oxymoronic use of terms to designate the Deity. Many of these texts refer to God as the dyad, the divine as masculofeminine -- “The Great Male-Female Power.” (See Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels [Random House, 1981], p. 61). A remarkable poem in the texts, titled “Thunder, Perfect Mind,” is this soliloquy of a feminine divine power:

I am the first and the last.

I am the honored one and the scorned one.

I am the whore and the holy one.

I am the wife and the virgin.

I am knowledge and ignorance.

I am foolish and I am wise.


A more accurate translation would be, “I am the first-last, the scorned-honored one, the holy whore and the virgin mother. I am the way of ignorant knowledge, and I am the way of foolish wisdom.”

St. Augustine occasionally used oxymorons, referring to God as “that simple multiplicity, or multiform simplicity.” Holy Scripture, he said, in order to make its message understood, purges the human mind by the use of “words drawn from any class of things really existing.’’ Thus it “suits itself to babes.” It frames “allurements for children from the things which are found in the creature.” Augustine mentions two ways in which this is done. One is by taking words from corporeal things and using them for that which is incorporeal, as when the psalmist pleads “hide me under the shadow of Thy wings” (Ps. 17:8), although God has no shadowing wings. Another is by using words suitable to human psychology, but unsuitable when applied to deity: “I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” (Exod. 20:5). Augustine points out that Scripture does not use words “to frame either figures or speech or enigmatic sayings from things which do not exist at all,” although these would be appropriate were the Bible written for philosophers rather than for “babes,” since philosophers would understand that, since existence is not a proper attribute of God, words signifying nonexistence might be apropos. Augustine observes that “Scripture rarely employs those things which are spoken properly of God and are not found in any creature” -- for example, “I am that I am” (Exod. 3:14).

Irenacus, in his effort to integrate Christian insights and Greek wisdom, backed into an oxymoron: the God who cannot suffer (Deus impassibilis) is the God who suffers (Deus passibilis). In the next century Gregory Thaumaturgus picked up the theme of “the Suffering of Him who cannot suffer.” and the same oxymoronic expression continues to appear in the 20th-century works of H. Crouzel, L. Abramowski and B. R. Brasnett (see especially Brasnett’s 1928 work, The Suffering of the Impassible God. Jurgen Moltmann creates a quasi-oxymoron when he writes, “If God is love he is at once the lover, the beloved and the love itself” (The Trinity and the Kingdom [Harper& Row, 1981], p. 57). God is Beloved-Lover-Love. Could the Trinity symbol, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, itself be the ultimate oxymoron? Moltmann, in claiming that the Holy Spirit is the feminine principle of the Godhead, adumbrates an even more striking oxymoron: God is Father-Mother-Son.

The Christian Scholastics, concluding that God cannot be defined positively, tried the way of negation (Via negativa), seeing God as that which negates attributes. God is infinite, timeless, unchangeable, sinless and deathless. The way of negation defines God by exclusion. When the theologian denies that God is spatial, temporal, changeable, sinful and mortal, he or she also denies that God is human. God becomes the Wholly Other; God and man exclude each other. But the way of the oxymoron defines God by inclusion. God includes space, for God is finite-infinite; God includes time, for God is the Past-Present-Future: God includes change, for God is change-nonchange: God includes sin, for God is sin-redemption: God includes death, for God is mortality-immortality: and God includes the human, for God is deus-homo. This is the view of God expressed by Deutero-Isaiah:

I am the Lord, there is no other;

I make the light, I create darkness,

author alike of prosperity and trouble.

I. the Lord, do all these things.

[Isa. 45:6b-7].


Was it not this conception of an inclusive God that stimulated Paul’s song of praise? “For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God” (Rom. 8:38). We cannot be separated from God, for God includes all. Sin, suffering and death itself are not beyond the reality which we symbolize by the word “God.”

If someone would object that a being symbolized by an oxymoron cannot exist, I would reply as follows: You correctly grasp one of the values in the use of oxymorons as theological symbols. Does God exist? Keep in mind that the word ‘‘existence” comes from the Latin ex-sistere (to stand out from). Existence is the mode of being which consists in interaction with other things in a class.

Does God interact with other gods? If God stands out from any thing, then God is not inclusive. An existent God must be a limited God -- limited by all that is non-God. The traditional philosophical “proofs’’ for God -- the cosmological, the teleological and the ontological -- err in that they argue for the existence, for the limited reality, of an excluding God, rather than for the unlimited reality of an including God.

The oxymoron as a symbol for God has another value: it reminds us that the word ‘‘God’’ is equivocal. The two fundamental uses of ‘‘God’’ are often confused. Eckhart distinguished Gott (God) and Gottheit (Godhead). Shankara distinguished Saguna Brahman (the Brahman with attributes) and Nirguna Brahman (the Brahman without attributes). Tillich distinguished “God’’ and “the God Beyond God” or “the Ground of Being.’’ These are distinctions between a symbol and the thing symbolized. We might use the word “God” as the symbol, and “the Divine” as the referent. Other possibilities for the referent might be Plato’s “the Good,” Plotinus’s ‘‘the One’’ and Aurobindo’s “Satchitananda.” “God” as symbol is relevant and important for worship. “The Divine” as the thing symbolized is relevant and important when one wishes to refer as rationally as possible to the integration of Ultimate Reality and Ultimate Value. Confusions between “God” as symbol and “the Divine’’ as referent can be ludicrous. Thus the phrase “May God bless you” is appropriate, while “May the Ground of Being bless you” is an absurd mixing of two universes of discourse.

A poem by the American poet Gene Derwood (l909-l954), titled “With God Conversing,’’ contains these two lines: “The gloomy silhouettes of wings we forged/With reason reasonless, are now enlarged.” Our understanding of the Divine is enhanced by our joining the Buddhists in recognizing that words are “fingers that point to the moon.” Oxymorons help us, in the words of St. Augustine, to “see ineffably that which is ineffable,” and in the words of Deutero-Isaiah, to find what we do not seek (Isa. 65:1). The understanding which an affirmation of the Divine is supposed to convey is distorted by the affirmation itself, but understanding may dawn like an eklampsis (illumination) -- as Plato says in the Seventh Letter -- when the affirmation is coupled with its negation.