Saturday, August 31, 2013

Theology of Tillich: Apostle to the Intellectuals (pt.2)

In considering the method of Tillich’s complex theological project, it is important to understand that he was primarily concerned to make Christianity intelligible and attractive again to a mid-20th century Western society and culture that had become permeated by a post- Enlightenment skepticism. Tillich’s major theological works were published after the end of World War II when the naïve optimism of the West in the inevitability of civilizational progress had been deeply shaken. In Christian circles, the influence of the more optimistic Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch with its goal of establishing the kingdom of God on earth by working for social justice had thus declined significantly. In its place, Barth’s neo-orthodox theology had gained a lot of traction with its radically confessional approach as the supposed solution to the various social and religious dilemmas of the age.

But skepticism about religion as a whole and the existence of God in particular was also rapidly increasing in response to recent events in history, facilitating much more secular societies in America and Europe. Nietzsche’s announcement of the ‘death of God’ continued to have a great influence throughout the West and the natural sciences seemed to continually make supernatural explanations of the world superfluous. Additionally, the results of biblical criticism and the quest for the historical Jesus undermined traditional notions of biblical authority while comparative religious scholars such as Ernst Troeltsch had persuasively shown the historical relativity of all religions. As such, with these massive paradigm shifts in the West came the loss of traditional foundations for meaning.

It was in this extremely challenging context that Tillich embraced his vocation as a mediator between Western culture and traditional Christianity. As his biographer Marion Pauck explains, Tillich became an ‘apostle to the intellectuals,’ believing "...he could help his contemporaries withstand the existential problems and difficulties that tend to emerge in a time of cultural transition. It was clear to him that because traditional values had lost their appeal, many people were overcome by a sense of emptiness. They had become victims of the anxiety of meaninglessness...Tillich therefore endeavored to interpret the Christian message so that his contemporaries would be able to understand it as a living gospel, one that would speak to them."

In a sense then, Tillich can certainly be seen as a Christian apologist. However, the connotations that such a title carries (e.g., an over reliance on rational ‘proofs’ for the existence of God, a God-of-the-gaps engagement with science, etc.) make it misleading when applied to Tillich. Furthermore, Tillich is critical of those modern apologists who have so sacrificed the substance of the Christian message (kerygma) in their attempt to find common ground with those outside the Christian circle that they have completely dissolved any meaningful or compelling faith. While Tillich is certainly opposed to the neo-orthodox kerygmatic method that rejects any apologetic attempt to find common ground for the (false) safety of biblical revelation, he argues that Christian apologetic theology must remain committed to the kerygma in their task lest they foolishly attempt to derive theological answers from the questions implied in existence.

Tillich’s theology is thus characterized by synthesis rather than diastasis (“to stand apart”), the latter of which is an accurate descriptor of Barth’s theology. Tillich explains that he is firmly committed to the apologetic task of bringing biblical religion into harmony with the philosophical search for ultimate reality:

"Since the breakdown of the great synthesis between Christianity and the modern mind as attempted by Schleiermacher, Hegel, and nineteenth century liberalism, an attitude of weariness has grasped the minds of people who are unable to accept one or the other alternative. They are too disappointed to try another synthesis after so many have failed. But there is no choice for us. We must try again!"

Over against Barth, he argues that kerygmatic theology requires a strong partnership with apologetic theology, for it is quite simply impossible on its own without utilizing the conceptual tools of its period and without relating itself to the contemporary situation as distinct from the situation of the biblical writers: “Kerygmatic theology must give up its exclusive transcendence and take seriously the attempt of apologetic theology to answer the questions put before it by the contemporary situation.”

Theology of Paul Tillich: Introduction (pt.1)

The German-American philosophical theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1985) was one of the great Western intellectuals of the 20th century. He was a prolific author, influential professor, charismatic Lutheran preacher, and a committed religious socialist who publicly and sharply criticized the Nazi movement, resulting in his dismissal from teaching at the University of Frankfurt in 1933 when Hitler came to power – a “blessing in disguise”, as his biographer Marion Pauck notes. He soon relocated to Union Theological Seminary in New York at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, became an American citizen, and later went on to teach at Harvard Divinity School and University of Chicago during his tremendously successful American teaching career.

Tillich is partly remembered as a respected philosopher in the existentialist tradition. His major influences include Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Schelling, Kähler, and Heidegger, although he was also deeply engaged with the philosophies of Plato, Plotinus, Aristotle, the Stoics, Kant, Marx, Spinoza, and Hegel. But more than anything, it is Tillich the Christian theologian who has remained especially important, clearly standing within the tradition of the great liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. He was also significantly influenced by the theologies of Augustine and Luther. Reinhold Niebuhr once called Tillich “a seminal theologian” and Georgia Harkness even claimed that “[w]hat Whitehead was to American philosophy, Tillich has been to American theology.” Indeed, next to Karl Barth he is arguably the most significant Protestant theologian of the 20th century.

While there is not a “Tillichean” school of thought in quite the same way as one finds in process, liberation, or Barthian schools, Tillich’s work has had an enormous impact on virtually all of the liberal or progressive theological traditions from his time down to the present. As we
will see in this series of six blog posts, his method of correlation, theory of symbols, doctrine of God as ‘ground of being’, and definition of religion as ‘ultimate concern’ are some of Tillich’s most impressive ideas that have left a mark on not only Christian philosophical theology, but also on cultural and religious studies. In what follows, we will examine some of the major components of Tillich’s thought, primarily considering his overarching method, and then concluding with a shorter consideration of Tillich’s existential ontology and brief explanations of how he understands some of the major Christian doctrines.