The Absolute Paradox is a discussion of the philosophical significance of the Christian claim that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. The Socratic view that the truth is somehow within humanity and needs only to be drawn out by a skillful teacher such as Socrates implies that the human mind is adequate for knowing the truth, even religious truth. If, on the contrary, people do not have the truth within themselves in some sense, then what a person ought to know or needs to know is beyond the self—it is the unknown. Or, as Climacus calls it, it is “the other,” the absolutely other. However, if it is the absolutely other than humanity, then a person’s reason is not competent to know it. Yet people, if they are to achieve the truth, must come to know this absolutely other. To this end, so Christians hold, God—the absolutely other—became incarnate in humanity; that is to say, the absolutely other became not absolutely other. This requires us to say, then, that the Unknown (God) is both absolutely other and not absolutely other than humanity. This statement, clearly, is a self-contradiction.
One of the senses of the word “paradox” is such that a paradox is an apparent contradiction that is seen, on examination, not to be a contradiction. Thus, it is paradoxical to say of a certain member of a group, who is very talkative, that he says less than anyone else in the group. Here, at first glance, it looks as if we are saying that the person both talks a great deal and does not talk a great deal. However, the puzzle is resolved quickly when attention is called to the way the words “talk” and “say” are used; namely, although he talks a great deal, he says very little. Most of his talk is insignificant; it is idle chatter. Such a paradox, then, can be resolved by making some kind of distinction between the apparently incompatible predicates.
In saying that his paradox is “Absolute,” however, Climacus seems to be saying that it cannot be resolved. The reason the paradox cannot be resolved lies in the uniqueness of the particular paradox in question. It is essential to Climacus’s paradox that the word “absolutely” be included. God both is and is not absolutely other than humanity. If one said of Jones that he is other and not other than Smith, one could go on to specify the similarities and differences between the two people: Both are philosophers, but one is interested only in logic, while the other is interested only in ethics. They are alike, yet they differ. However, if Jones were said to be absolutely other than Smith, then no comparisons could be made at all. When using the expression “totally different” in ordinary speech, one usually intends to emphasize a difference that is really only partial. One means that two things differ fundamentally in some (but not all) respects. However, Climacus is using “absolutely other” in a rather strict way, and this means that even to express the total difference is to go beyond the strict limits of language and understanding. Strictly speaking, one cannot even mention a total difference between two things. The very mention of them indicates at least one respect in which they are not totally different; namely, they are alike in that they can be talked about.
If this is the case, however—that God or the Unknown is both totally like and totally unlike humanity and that one should not even be able to state this—then the paradox Climacus is expressing cannot be resolved. It cannot be resolved because the very language of this paradox, in one sense at least, does not have meaning. The paradox is absolute. Yet one must express oneself—or at least Christian people feel that they must express themselves. There is an urge in people, Climacus feels, which drives them to try to express the inexpressible. (Reason, Climacus says, seeks its own downfall.) To come at this point in a somewhat different way, most people...