The Paradox of Intention 3

Martin Shaw in his book The Paradox of Intention, Reaching the goal by giving up the attempt to reach it (published in 1988) refers to the experience of William James the psychologist of religion who was well schooled in the late 19th century philosophy of the ‘mechanistic materialist’ which, among other beliefs, included the idea that the mind is simply a by-product of the material and the universe devoid of any care for human hopes and aspirations.

James whilst accepting this intellectually, felt emotionally disconnected from it and following a personal crisis of depression and suicidal thoughts he went to search for a different belief and to find the meaning of life and a philosophy of free will and a belief in a God who might connect with us in our struggles. James was puzzled by what he called the ‘healthy minded’ who seemingly denied the reality of darkness and evil. He concluded that such an outlook is fine as long as it works, but it may easily break down in the face of tragedy. To him the most complete religions are those that admit the truth about the world, so Buddhism and Christianity are truest and deepest because they centre on despair and rebirth – in other words finding a way to overcome despair rather than deny it. The link to the paradox of intention is that in both religions there is the belief that effort is unnecessary because the solution is already present, either in Christianity in the form of God’s offer of forgiveness for sin, or, in Buddhism with the idea that the real self is perfect and only suffers due to its ignorance of this. Reaching peace and affirmation comes in both religions through letting go and surrender. In the everyday life James saw that sometimes when we struggle to remember a name we can’t but often when we stop trying so hard the name pops unbidden into our mind.

In his discussion of St Paul’s teachings Shaw notes that the very attempt to attain righteousness and to justify oneself by one’s own endeavours is an expression of sinful pride, whereas true life lived as a gift from God would be free from both pride and anxiety as one is living through God’s power and not one’s own efforts.

Shaw writes: ‘The right relation of creature to Creator cannot be a human achievement, but arises only when we set aside the attempt to achieve it by our own efforts and receive it as a gift.’ This is then true wisdom that our right relation to God is not achieved through attainment but by the paradoxically indirect method of not attempting this, instead this is faith and is received as God’s grace.