Rationalists frequently point out that religions, at core, usually rely on a paradox for their strength. Christianity has the Trinity, the question of three in one; it also has, possibly, the virgin birth. Similarly, Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, has innumerable koans and questions about whether the flag moves in the wind or if the flag stands still and the wind moves around it. Even Critical Race Theory has its own paradoxes for adherents to chew over: it asserts that racism is systemic, and yet demands that white people feel guilty as individuals for their complicity in racism. How an individual can be responsible for an entire system—for events that took place before they were born—is not explained, and yet to agonise over this question part of the, if you like, fun; or part of the social prestige derived from participation in the belief system, anyway.
For the rationalist, these paradoxes represent sociological facets that explains how religions gain ground. The holy man arrives in town, proclaims the novel paradox, and overawes the rubes with his new paradox. “Please, master, explain the tale of the ox and the Buddha.” “The tale cannot be explained, except with this,” says the master, as he tickles the initiate’s nose with a daisy. “Nobody can say what the mystery at the heart of our faith is,” announces the, slightly smug, priest; and so the adherents gather round to ponder the paradox, to meditate on the illogical core of their faith—and compete to demonstrate the seriousness of their reflection.
The flat-footed sceptic attempts to explain the paradox in historical or allegorical terms; the sophisticated rationalist sees it as an emergent strategy to generate status for holy men; the paradox, whether systemic racism or the Buddha’s ox, does not matter—except perhaps insofar as a novel paradox can gain new adherents. There is no need to worry much about the paradox itself.
However, there is a practical application for the paradox: these religious paradoxes can be resolved, though not with logic. The rationalist is right to think that the paradox serves a sociological function, but it also serves what could be called a genuine or real function. The paradox exists to induce an engagement with reality, with what comes before categories. Put simply: the person who retreats to a hut in the Black Forest to dwell on the Trinity—the logical perturbations implied by this idea, apparently nonsensical by superficial logical standards—will, as they mull over the impossible paradox, at a certain point split; their categories will be torn asunder, and they will experience reality.
They will experience isness—what the Buddhists call satori or enlightenment. Everything will seem to hum with an intense interconnected energy; and their sense of individual self will dissipate. This is the real purpose behind all these paradoxes, to induce a psychic break and to bring a person beyond categories and back to reality; back to what comes before categories. It cannot be done with logically ordered arguments.
I think this could even be achieved with Critical Race Theory; the serious adherent who really ponders how it can be that they, as a white man, bear a particular guilt for what is described as a systemic problem for which, by definition, no individual is responsible, may, eventually, experience a psychic break. Reality will flood in, possibly with disastrous consequences; we know what happens when people meditate on the Trinity for extended periods of time, we do not know what happens when people meditate on CRT for extended periods of time; in all probability, given the nature of CRT, the ideology is set up in such a way as to not encourage people to dwell too long on the paradoxes—though, of course, some will; and they will probably become the ideology’s greatest foes once reality has a purchase on them. As for the old religions, they offer what religion was always meant to offer: a direct reconnection with reality, with what is absolutely prior.