Table of Contents
Title Page
Copyright Page
Blessings Abound
What’s Promising About Paradox?
A Concluding Postscript
CHAPTER I - In the Belly of a Paradox
Contradiction, Paradox, and the Life of the Spirit
The Way of Marxism
The Way of Chuang Tzu
The Way of the Cross
CHAPTER II - The Stations of the Cross
CHAPTER III - Paradoxes of Community
Why Community?
Community and Contradiction
Community and the World
CHAPTER IV - A Place Called Community
The Quest for Community
The Resurgence of Individualism
The Risk of Seeking Community
The Politics of Community
True Community or False?
Some Myths About Community
Forms of Life Together
Community and the Churches
CHAPTER V - A World of Scarcity, a Gospel of Abundance
The Scarcity Assumption
The Reality of Abundance
The Dynamics of Scarcity
The Gospel of Abundance
The Way of Education
The Way of Community
The Way of Prayer
CHAPTER VI - The Conversion of Knowledge

The Company of Strangers
To Know as We Are Known
The Active Life
The Courage to Teach
The Courage to Teach Guide for Reflection and Renewal
Let Your Life Speak
A Hidden Wholeness


My heartfelt thanks go to several people who helped bring this thirty-year-old book back to life. First and foremost, to Sheryl Fullerton, my editor at Jossey-Bass, who always sees more in my writing than I do and who surprised me one day by proposing this project. I ’m ever grateful for her confidence, imagination, skill, and sense of humor.
Thanks, too, to Marcy Jackson, who read and commented astutely on the 2008 Introduction, and Sharon Palmer, who cast a keen editorial eye on the entire manuscript with her usual insight, care, and skill. Both of them helped me say what I wanted to say in the best way I know how.
Special thanks to my friends at the Servant Leadership School in Washington, D.C. The school was started in 1986 in the Adams Morgan neighborhood as an expression of the Church of the Saviour. The church, founded in 1947, was guided for decades by some of my heroes in the faith—Gordon Cosby, Mary Cosby, and Elizabeth O’Connor.
Shortly after Ave Maria Press let The Promise of Paradox go out of print, the Servant Leadership School offered to republish it. In gratitude and with deep respect for its work, I assigned the copyright and all royalties from the book to the school. When Jossey-Bass suggested yet another republication, the folks at the school graciously returned the copyright to me.
If you want to know what kind of church the Church of the Saviour is or what kind of ministry the Servant Leadership School has, imagine Christianity at its very best, serving the least among us with profound humility and effectiveness, deeply rooted in its own faith tradition but radically open to the truth that is in others.
I am pleased that all royalties from this third incarnation of The Promise of Paradox will go to support the good work of the Servant Leadership School in the spirit of the Church of the Saviour. For more information or to make a gift to this important ministry, you may go to www.slschool.org, send e-mail to school@slschool.org, or call (202) 328-7312.

Henri J. M. Nouwen
It is a real joy for me to introduce this first book by Parker Palmer. It is the joy that grows from friendship. I met Parker for the first time only five years ago and today I can hardly think of my life and work apart from the crucial role that Parker has played in them. The many hours we have spent eating together, playing together, dreaming together, talking together, studying together, reading together, writing together, and most of all praying together, have laid the basis for a supportive, nurturing and creative friendship.
This friendship has allowed me to see the pages of this book being born from Parker’s own direct struggles with life and its many options and possibilities. Parker has shown me how true it is that you don’t think your way into a new kind of living but live your way into a new kind of thinking. Every part of this book is a reflection of a new kind of living in which Parker and his family have engaged.
Parker’s life story contains all the elements which contribute to making a well-known scholar: he studied theology, received a Ph.D. in sociology, taught at universities, did successful work as a community organizer, and wrote many remarkable articles. But this book is not the direct fruit of all of these accomplishments. On the contrary, it is the fruit of the many questions with which Parker bracketed these accomplishments. It is born out of the courageous and often agonizing critique of his own social, educational, and religious development.
This book is indeed the beautiful fruit of contradictions which became paradoxes: the contradiction between an educational success story and the growing need for simple community life; the contradiction between acceptance in respectable circles and the feeling of alienation and separation; the contradiction between speaking and lecturing about community and the loneliness of a highly individualized suburban existence; the contradiction between speaking more and more about religion and knowing God less and less. Parker lived these contradictions and tested them with his wife and children in spite of the cautionary voices surrounding him. Living these contradictions brought him to insights, ideas, and perspectives which could have been found in no other way.
This book is important not because it is written by a good scholar, but because it is written by a scholar who dared to wonder if his scholarship really led him to the truth. It is important not because it is written by a man who knows more than most people about the dynamics of community life, but because it is written by a man who gave up a large salary and moved away from a successful career to find community. It is important not because it is written by a man who has been a consultant to many on educational matters, but because it is written by a man who kept wondering if his own education didn’t do him more harm than good and who gave much of his energy to a form of education not dominated by grades and degrees. It is important not because it is written by a man who knows the Bible well, but because it is written by a man who dared to let the Bible make radical claims on his own life and the lives of those he loves.
The way this book came about is the best testimony to its value. It came out of living the contradictions even when it was hard and painful to do so. This explains why the book does not offer one sustained argument; it contains six experiments in thinking which are all very radical in intent. I cannot read these pieces without wondering about my own life and without having to deal with my desire as well as resistance to move in the direction Parker points out.
The issues that Parker discusses are basic: solitude, community, social action, political responsibility, prayer, and contemplation. They are raised in the context of the words of William Johnston: “Faith is the breakthrough into that deep realm of the soul which accepts paradox . . . with humility.” Accepting paradox with humility is the spirit that binds the quite diverse pieces of this book together. And it is the spirit that makes this book worth reading.
Parker Palmer has taught me much over the years. He has given me some very helpful concepts to work with; he has shown me how to think clearly and concisely; he has introduced me to many inspiring people and books. But most of all, he has challenged me by his own decisions to keep moving to unknown fields without apprehension or fear. He has taught me to live boldly and freely. That our many hours together can now be shared with others through this book is a source of great joy to me.
I hope and pray that those who read these essays will sense the spirit in which they were written and thus be challenged as I have been to break out of illusions and compulsions and seek a new freedom.

Parker J. Palmer
When my friends at Jossey-Bass said they wanted to reissue The Promise of Paradox: A Celebration of Contradictions in the Christian Life, I was delighted. Few things could make a writer happier than knowing that his first book, a book with real age on it, still has legs. At the same time, I knew that revisiting Promise thirty years after publishing it would be both a blessing and a curse.
The curse seemed clear to me. Preparing this new edition would require me to compare what I believed at age forty to what I believe today. And that, I thought, might be awkward. The first edition of Promise has an author photo of such studied intensity that it embarrasses me, though I do admire—OK, envy—that young man’s big hair. What if some of my 1980 convictions proved as embarrassing as that photo? What if I felt unable to explain them to myself, let alone to my readers? In particular, how would I deal with the way my relationship to Christianity has changed from my first book to my most recent?
The Promise of Paradox has a lot of Christian language in it, from its subtitle to chapters on the way of the cross and the politically incorrect apostle Paul. But the books I’ve written in the last decade or so—A Hidden Wholeness, Let Your Life Speak, and The Courage to Teach—rarely use the word God and never speak of Jesus, and not by accident.
I’ve worked hard for a long time to find a language about the inner life that builds bridges, not walls, and today I am grateful to have both Christian and non-Christian readers. I am especially grateful for readers like Richard Hughes who bridge that gap with open-mindedness and insight. Hughes, a longtime professor of history at Pepperdine University, now at Messiah College, wrote about my book, The Courage to Teach:
Parker Palmer has written a book that appears to be—and, in fact, in many ways is—a secular text for a secular audience on a secular topic: the improvement of classroom teaching. At the same time, this text draws so profoundly on the riches of the Quaker tradition that I am forced to regard it as one of the finest examples of Christian scholarship that I have encountered. I regard the book in this way not because it promotes itself as a Christian text, since most certainly it does not, but rather because its secular content draws strength and power from a Christian vision of reality.1
Richard Hughes understands my method and my madness. But as I contemplated reissuing Promise, it seemed unlikely to me that I would fare so well with all of my readers as I traced my changed relationship to Christianity over the past thirty years. My non-Christian readers might not like where I came from, my Christian readers might not like where I’ve been going, and this could create what is known in the book biz as a “marketing problem.”
I’ ll return to that little problem later, after I explore some of the blessings this project has brought me. I’ve learned that I deal better with curses when I remind myself that blessings abound, just as I deal better with my shadows when I remember that forgiveness is real.
Working on these pages has given me a chance to reconnect in memory and meaning with people, places, and events that were formative in my life. It has allowed me to give thanks once again for those miraculously graced friendships and experiences without which my life would have been unspeakably poorer. And as often happens when I am willing to take the risk, I have found blessing laced through what I anticipated might be pure curse.
Revisiting what I believed as a forty-year-old—and retracing the spiritual journey that took me from then to now—has helped me, as I approach age seventy, to get ready to take next steps. Check with me thirty years from now, and I ’ll let you know what those next steps turned out to be.

Blessings Abound

Whatever its flaws in substance and style—and I found a few!—The Promise of Paradox will always be dear to me, in the way I hold dear all the generous people who opened doors for me along the way. It’s not that Promise launched me as a writer. By age forty, I had been writing short pieces for nearly twenty years and had even published a few. But Promise proved that I could write a book despite my conviction that I could not—and did so even as I clung to that belief. And therein lies a tale.
In the spring of 1978, I was dean of studies at Pendle Hill, the Quaker adult study center near Philadelphia.2 I was teaching a course on Thomas Merton and had rented a film of Merton’s last talk for our final session. A week before the end of term, I called the Abbey of Gethsemane to ask when the film would arrive, only to learn that the movie monk had double-booked it and sent it to the other place. (That’s when I realized that Merton was not blowing smoke when he complained that even monasteries have bureaucratic screw-ups!)
Wanting to bring the class to a fitting conclusion, I spent the next few days writing a lecture on Merton’s spirituality of paradox, a theme that runs through his work. I hardly ever write out lectures word for word, preferring the freedom of speaking from an outline, but this time I broke my own rule. One of my students asked for a copy of the talk, saying that her uncle, a Catholic priest, had a great interest in Merton. A month or so later, an editor at Ave Maria Press, a small Catholic publishing house in Notre Dame, Indiana, called. My student’s uncle had sent him my talk, and he wondered if I’d let Ave Maria publish it in its monthly newsletter. Of course, I gladly said yes.
After a few months, the editor called again to say that reader response to my piece had been enthusiastic. “Do you have any more essays lying around, especially related to paradox?” When I told him that I had been filling file drawers with essays for years, he asked me to send him a dozen or so. A month later, he called a third time to say that he thought six of my pieces could be arranged in a book. Would I be willing to sign a contract?
In a moment of satori worthy of a Zen wannabe, I realized that not only could I write a book, I already had! It was a great reminder of the first lesson in Spirituality 101: Pay attention! You may discover that what you wanted is right in front of you, a secret hidden in plain sight.
The Promise of Paradox was an accidental book. But once I held a copy in my hands, I knew I could write more books if I wanted to. Apparently I did. The Company of Strangers came out in 1981 and To Know as We Are Known in 1983. After that breathless sprint, I began to write at a more sustainable pace, with four more books over the next twenty-five years.
Closely tied in memory to the launch of my book-writing career is my friendship with Henri Nouwen, who wrote the Introduction to Promise. I met Henri in the mid-seventies, a couple of years before the book was published. We were among a small group of people called together by the Lilly Endowment for a consultation on spirituality, a notion that was just beginning to attract mainstream attention. We spent three days in New York’s Algonquin Hotel evaluating dozens of grant proposals. All of the judges emerged with generous stipends for their time, and some of the applicants emerged with handsome grants. But I emerged with something far more precious: a friendship with Henri that animated a decade of shared work.
When I met Henri, he was already a well-known and much-loved writer. His classic Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life (1975) had touched me and many other readers.3 Henri was only seven years older than I, but to me, he seemed like a wise older brother, a virtuoso of the spiritual life with a genius for writing and teaching. He was also very funny, a requisite quality for any guru who hopes to win my trust.
Given my high regard for Henri and my insecurity as a writer, it was with fear and trembling that I asked if he would help put my accidental book on the map by writing an introduction. Henri immediately said, “Yes, of course,” an answer he gave many people on many occasions. A month later, he sent me several pages that I read over and over again, hardly able to believe that those words of affirmation were about me.
Today I understand that those words are only partly about me. They are also about Henri Nouwen ’s open and generous heart. His death in 1996 at the far-too-young age of sixty-five means that a lot of us need to step up to replace the generosity lost to the universe when that heart stopped beating.
To round out this recounting of blessings, the reissuing of Promise has helped me revisit one of the most transformative periods of my life, my eleven-year sojourn at Pendle Hill. Founded in 1930, this Quaker adult study center is organized as a residential community where some seventy people share a daily round of worship, study, physical work, and shared decision making—a place that has elements of a kibbutz, an ashram, a monastery, a zendo, and on occasion, a madhouse. It is also a place where I received powerful and lasting lessons about the inner journey, the kind of community that supports it, and the way such a journey rightly taken returns us to caring for the needs of the world.
In 1975, when I began working at Pendle Hill as dean of studies, my salary was $2,400 a year, the equivalent of about $10,000 in 2008. In addition, my family and I received free room and board, a very helpful supplement to the cash, but even so, not what a person with a Ph.D. from Berkeley would expect to be making then or now. Back in the day, everyone on staff at Pendle Hill received the same compensation package, including an eighteen-year-old with a high school diploma who worked in the garden, the shop, or the kitchen. It was communism Quaker-style, and to a white male who had grown up on Chicago’s affluent North Shore, it was a challenge.
Every member of the Pendle Hill staff had a daily job related to one of the meals, either preparing it or cleaning up afterward. My qualifications for dishwashing were weak but much stronger than my gifts for food preparation. So for eleven years, luncheon cleanup was my afternoon delight. As dean, I had to be on the road from time to time, raising money or giving a talk. But like everyone else at Pendle Hill, I had to line up a sub whenever I missed a meal job and then repay that person by doing his or her job as well as my own for as many days as I had been gone. If you can name a dean of anything who currently lives under such a stricture, I will gladly volunteer to do his or her dishes for a day!
And what did Pendle Hill’s salary scale and work program have to do with those powerful and lasting spiritual lessons I mentioned? Well, it’s all right there: a setup that slammed me into my narcissistic feelings of entitlement, step one on the inner journey for a lot of folks like me; a form of community that not only forced such issues on me but offered disciplines (like shared silence and gentle truth-telling) for dealing with them; and a way of life that deepened my solidarity with people who live with little not by choice but because of economic injustice. These, I daresay, are different from the spiritual challenges that I would have faced had I taken a job at some university.
Remembering all of that is, for me, much more than a trip down memory lane. It is a true blessing, an opportunity as I near age seventy to reclaim and recommit to what I know to be true about myself and my world.


As I reread this book, two things jumped out at me. First, there are many pages where I would not change a word were I to write about the same topic today, in part because I still believe what those words say and in part because I don’t know how to say it any better. Second, there are pages in this book that I would not write today, and I feel a bit squeamish about allowing them to be republished. I am doing so largely because I believe that my forty-year-old self has as much right to freedom of speech as the sixty-nine-year-old version!4
My squeamishness has little to do with any fundamental change in my beliefs. I still understand myself as a Christian, and many traditional Christian understandings still shape my life. But in 2008, I find it hard to name my beliefs using traditional Christian language because that vocabulary has been taken hostage by theological terrorists and tortured beyond recognition. Of course, this is not the first time Christian rhetoric has been violated in public places. But the violence I ’m talking about is happening right here and right now, and the wounds—my wounds—are very raw.
I would be lost in the dark without the light Christianity sheds on my life, the light I find in truths like incarnation, grace, sacrament, forgiveness, blessing, and the paradoxical dance of death and resurrection. But when Christians claim that their light is the only light and that anyone who does not share their understanding of it is doomed to eternal damnation, things get very dark for me. I want to run screaming out into the so-called secular world—which is, I believe, better - named the wide, wild world of God—where I can recover my God-given mind.
Out there, I catch sight once again of the truth, goodness, and beauty that disappear when pious Christians slam the door on their musty, windowless, lifeless room. Next to a Christian eclipsed by theological arrogance, an honest atheist shines like the sun. Next to a church profaned by its exclusion of “otherness,” a city of true diversity is a cathedral.
How can it be that Christianity—named after one who proclaimed that “the meek shall inherit the earth”—can give rise to so much arrogance? Here, for example, is a scenario that gets played out a lot these days. A man born into wealth and power spends the first twenty years of his adult life as a wastrel and a rake, kept afloat by privilege rather than his own work and wit. Then he encounters Christ, stops drinking, and starts getting serious about something—maybe politics, for example.
I am happy for him. Happy until it becomes clear that this man has emerged from his encounter believing that God speaks clearly and directly to him about all things; that whatever conclusions he comes to “in prayer” are divinely inspired and binding on others; and that the outcomes of his God - inspired decisions are always right, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Let us suppose that this man’s newfound seriousness, fueled by his family’s connections and wealth, leads to political success, and he suddenly has access to real power. Given what he believes about his own corner on truth, I would sooner see him start drinking again. As moral problems go, one person ’s alcoholism is not nearly as serious as the social, economic, and political damage such a delusional leader can do, all in the name of God. If he stays in office long enough, part of that damage is called “creeping totalitarianism.”
If I had been on a journey like this man ’s—and I have, of course; who hasn’t had to be saved from oneself in one way or another?—my take-home lesson would be simple: “I’ m capable of making really big mistakes, like being a callow and witless nincompoop for the first two decades of my adult life. Now that I’ve been given another chance, I must live with appropriate humility.”
How does someone meet the grandeur and grace of God in Christ, get saved from his own smallness, and emerge from the experience cocky instead of humble? I can think of only two answers: either he did not meet the Real Deal but a cheap imitation thereof, or he met the Real Deal and blew a chance to be saved. Fortunately, that chance comes again and again, even to nincompoops like him. And me.
Yes, I believe in forgiveness, grace, salvation (which means becoming whole), and in the Word made flesh (which I believe everyone is). In fact, the major convictions of Christian faith are much more than “articles of belief” for me. They are lenses on life that have helped me make sense of myself, a person I find at least as baffling as the fellow I’ve just described.