Saturday, September 14, 2013
God is the source of courage precisely because God also embraces nonbeing in Godself and thus eternally conquers it. Tillich argues that God could not be the ground of finite life without God’s inclusion of and victory over nonbeing in the divine life. The nonbeing in the ground of being is what makes God “living creativity” rather than “dead identity.” As such, it follows that the living God as the ground of being in which everything that is participates “is the pattern of the self-affirmation of every finite being and the source of the courage to be.” God is not closed off from the finite because “Nonbeing...opens up the divine self-seclusion and reveals him as power and love.” This affirmation of the living God is the starting point for Tillich’s development of a more complex doctrine of the Trinity. In the dynamics of the triune life, the ‘Father’ is understood as the abyss, power, or depth of Being, the ‘Son’ as the content, meaning, or logos of Being, and the ‘Spirit’ as the unity of power (the Father) and meaning (the Son) in the divine life. Without the logos, the divine self-objectification, God would be abysmal chaos. Without the Spirit, God would not go out from Godself to become creative.
But we must remember the symbolic status of this discussion, for there can be no literal language about that which transcends the subject-object structure of the finite world. Tillich thus affirms a trans-theistic concept of God in which God is not a supreme being but being-itself: “The acceptance of the God above the God of theism makes us a part of that which is not also a part but is the ground of the whole.” As such, God cannot be thought of as a being or a person alongside other beings or persons, but is rather “Being itself, the ground and abyss of every being...[and] the Personal itself, the ground and abyss of every person.” This does not mean that God is an impersonal force but rather that God is not-less-than-personal. Although God is trans-personal for Tillich, he argues that the symbol of a personal God is essential to religion. A sub-personal God “cannot grasp the center of our personality; it can satisfy our aesthetic feeling or our intellectual needs, but...it cannot overcome our loneliness, anxiety, and despair.”
As we have seen, Jesus as the Christ remains the norm of Tillich’s system and it is through Jesus that the absolute is made concrete in the symbol of Jesus as the Christ. By the absolute becoming concrete in Jesus, estranged creatures can be reconciled to God. Sin as separation from one’s true self, others, and the ground of being is universally expressed in anxiety. Salvation through Jesus as the Christ is the overcoming of this separation, which cannot be achieved through the efforts of finite creatures. Through Jesus’ life, the divine entered into finite existence without sin, the distortion of essential being, and therefore actualized the New Being that brings healing to our fallen condition when received in faith. By receiving Jesus as the Christ we can be reunited with the ground of being. But in his death on the cross, Jesus as a mediating symbol was negated: “The ultimate concern of the Christian is not Jesus but the Christ Jesus who is manifest as the crucified.” By sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ on the cross, he kept his unity with God by refusing to elevate himself as medium of the ultimate to the level of the ultimate itself (idolatry). Jesus as the Christ is the final revelation who created “the new reality of which the Church is the communal and historical embodiment.”
In this series of posts on Tillich’s theology, we have been able to explore in some depth one of the most important Western minds of the 20th century. Now that we are into the postmodern age of the 21st century, Tillich’s significance only seems to be of greater weight in many ways – although certainly not without some ambiguity. Tillich is obviously a modern theologian who exhibits some of the tendencies and perspectives that are strongly criticized by some postmodern religious scholars and theologians today: his insistence on defining religion in ways that seem suspiciously Western and totalizing, his relative lack of attention to the experiences of women and marginalized persons, his apparently foundationalist epistemology, engaging in onto-theology, advocating a totalizing metanarrative, and utilizing an ‘emotive-espressivist’ method that is sharply criticized by post-liberal conservative postmodernists. But as David Kelsey argues, Tillich may avoid the worst of these critiques because he limits ontology to analyzing the finite, argues that there is no ‘world history’ but only the history of groups, insists that existence cannot be captured in a single story, and his rather apophatic way of speaking about God are all more postmodern than some of Tillich’s critics recognize. Yet one must take notice of poststructuralist theologians like John Caputo who see themselves as post-Tillichians in the sense that they take Tillich's project to its logical conclusion by rejecting any attempt to speak of 'Being' in favor of 'the event' on the plane of immanence. For Caputo, the name "God" may or may not be "wired up" to a Supreme Being or even the Ground of Being. A different critique of Tillich comes from process theologians like David Ray Griffin, who argues against Tillich’s doctrine of God on the grounds that it cannot do justice to divine agency because it is ultimately semi-deistic and for its “extreme conceptual transcendence.” But even for those of us who are attracted to a process doctrine of God in some ways, there is much to gain from Tillich’s theological system - in fact, contemporary constructive theologians like Catherine Keller and John Thatamanil have both brought Tillich and process together in their own ways (via postmodern ecofeminism and comparative theology, respectively). My own work is currently influenced by this search for a viable process-Tillichianism. Tillich's work stands as one of the great achievements of 20th century Christian theology that will remain important for many years to come.
Monday, September 9, 2013
Because Tillich attempts to synthesize biblical religion and philosophy, he spends a great deal of time considering what he considers to be the fundamental question of existence: the ontological question. This is explained with great clarity in his short book Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, which one his colleagues John C. Bennett described as “Tillich’s perfect book.” In that book, Tillich argues that ontology is the center of all philosophy because it asks “the question of what it means to be. It is the simplest, most profound, and absolutely inexhaustible question – the question of what it means to say something is.” By asking the question of being, there is an implication of some understanding of being since being provides the very possibility for the ability or power to ask in the first place. But the power to ask the question of being presupposes both participation in and separation from being, that we are a mixture of being and nonbeing – in a word, we are finite. That which is infinite would not ask the ontological question since it has/is the power of being in full. As far as we know, the nonhuman does not ask the ontological question because it does not realize its finitude by transcending itself, moving towards the infinite as the human does through the powers of imagination.
The essential task of ontological analysis then is to “discover the principles, the structures, and the nature of being as it is embodied in everything that is.” This analysis includes the whole of the natural world since everything that is participates in being and therefore resists nonbeing. Here we see Tillich’s existentialism on display, since the question of being and nonbeing is the central consideration in that school of thought. Ontological analysis thus necessarily involves the search for the ‘really real’, for ‘ultimate reality’, for that which grounds all levels of finite being by “giving them their structure and their power of being” to resist the continuous threat of nonbeing. As Tillich writes, “Because we stand between being and nonbeing and long for a form of being that prevails against nonbeing in ourselves and in our world, we philosophize.” As the philosopher analyzes the ongoing flux of nature and history, she attempts to discover some constant principles or categories that constitute the structure of finite being. The analysis naturally leads to the attempt to discover being-itself, that which is always present as the ground of the categories of finite being and the power to resist nonbeing.
In The Courage To Be, which Marion Pauck calls Tillich’s “masterpiece”, he engages in a profound existential-ontological analysis of finitude. He argues that to be finite is to experience the threat of nonbeing, particularly in the always-present awareness of the inevitability of death as the total loss of one’s being. This generates anxiety, not of the pathological kind and also not to be confused with fear, which is directed toward an object that can be overcome. Anxiety is not directed toward an object that can be overcome because its ‘object’ of nonbeing is paradoxically “the negation of every object.” Existential anxiety is an essential and permanent quality of finite human existence. Tillich defines it as “the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing”, not as an abstract knowledge of nonbeing, but rather “the awareness that nonbeing is a part of one’s own being.”
Tillich also shows that there are three basic types of anxiety relative to three different directions in which nonbeing threatens finite being. The first type of anxiety (the most basic and inescapable, according to Tillich) threatens humanity’s ontic self-affirmation, relatively in terms of fate or contingency and absolutely in terms of death. It was a particularly dominant form of anxiety at the end of ancient civilization. Upon reflection, we realize that we have no ultimate necessity in the grand scheme of things and that we cannot escape our ultimate horizon of death. We experience this because we are separated from our ground of being, although not completely since we still participate in its power. Such is the anxiety of death for which we require the courage to be, to affirm one’s being in spite of the threat of nonbeing.
The second type of anxiety threatens humanity’s spiritual self-affirmation, relatively in terms of emptiness and absolutely in terms of meaninglessness. It was/is a particularly dominant form of anxiety at the end of the modern age. In this anxiety, we lose contact with that which gives meaning to all meanings. It is expressed in spiritual doubt, which is an ever-present awareness of our separation or estrangement from the ground of meaning. It is also expressed in the extreme situation of despair, the condition in which one has lost all hope and in which nonbeing appears victorious over being. As Tillich writes, “all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful.”
The third and final type of anxiety threatens humanity’s moral self-affirmation, relatively in terms of guilt and absolutely in terms of condemnation. It was a particularly dominant form of anxiety at the end of the Middle Ages. As Tillich explains, a person’s being is not simply given to her but also demanded of her. In other words, we know that we are responsible for what we have made of ourselves, for we are finite freedom and therefore capable of choosing (to some degree) what we are to become, to fulfill our destiny. We are thus capable of contradicting our essential being, of falling from essence to estranged existence. This is the way in which Tillich develops his impressive doctrines of the Fall and original sin. Universally, human moral existence is ambiguous because it is a mixture of being and nonbeing.
Thursday, September 5, 2013
Moreover, Tillich argues that the biblical document is certainly not to be sheltered from even the most radical forms of biblical criticism, for faith is not dependent on the historical accuracy of a text. What is important about the text are its myths and symbols that point beyond themselves to that which is of ultimate concern. As with science and psychology then, Tillich sees textual critics as “allies of theology in the fight against the supranaturalistic distortions of genuine revelation.” At minimum, Tillich does affirm that somebody like Jesus must have been real in history as the bearer of New Being for the world. But as he also writes in this important passage, "The truth of faith cannot be made dependent on the historical truth of the stories and legends in which faith has expressed itself. It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identity it with the belief in the historical validity of the biblical stories...Faith can say that something of ultimate concern has happened in history because the question of the ultimate in being and meaning is involved...Faith can say that the reality which is manifest in the New Testament picture of Jesus as the Christ has saving power for those who are grasped by it, no matter how much or how little can be traced to the historical figure who is called Jesus of Nazareth."
Tillich also goes on to argue that because of the correlative character of revelation, we must distinguish between original and dependent revelation. While we have seen that there is always a giving and receiving side of revelation, such as the giving of revelation through Jesus as received by the disciples, this does not account for the continuing life of the church in relation to the original revelatory event in both its objective and subjective dimensions. As such, there is an original giving and receiving but there is also a dependent giving and receiving. The first is traditionally called “inspiration” and the latter “illumination.” In illumination, the original revelation (as both miracle and ecstasy) becomes the giving side for the receiving church throughout history that enters into the revelatory correlation in ever-new contexts.
This highlights Tillich’s concern to maintain the kerygma while also recognizing the relativity involved in the continuous interpretation of the kerygma by the church. It is a subtle but powerful point. The church is not the locus of original revelations that are added to the one on which it is based in Jesus as the Christ. However, it is the locus of continuous dependent revelations through the illuminating work of the Spirit. This does not create a firm foundation in Jesus “the same yesterday, today and forever,” although this is the original revelation that must always be referred to. As Tillich explains, “the act of referring is never the same, since new generations with new potentialities of reception enter the correlation and transform it.” But if the correlation is transformed by new generations of Christians to some degree, is the original revelation in danger of eventually dissolving completely? Is Jesus in danger of becoming a mere poetic symbol like Apollo rather than a genuinely revelatory symbol? If it is genuine revelation, if “the concreteness of the concern is in unity with its ultimacy,” than the revelatory symbols will not die. Tillich argues that Jesus as a symbol is the final revelation who does not come to an end because he “does not claim anything for himself.”
I conclude this post by explaining Tillich's theory of symbols, which I have been referring to throughout the entire blog series. While both symbols and signs point beyond themselves to something else, only symbols participate in the power and meaning of that to which they point. Only symbols open up levels of reality that are otherwise closed off from normal human awareness. This is their objective function, but true to the method of correlation, symbols also have a subjective function of opening up dimensions of the human soul that correspond to objective elements of reality. This is what Tillich calls the “two-edged” function of symbols. Anything finite can become a symbol, but unlike signs, they cannot be created intentionally. They originate in the individual or collective unconscious, growing “when the situation is ripe for them and they die when the situation changes.” Symbols cease to be revelatory if they no longer elicit an existential response by the group that originally expressed them (e.g., polytheism is a dead symbol because of this). New symbols are born when the relationship to “the Holy” is changed. While symbols appear in all areas of cultural life, Tillich considers symbols as necessary for religion if it is to give expression to the unconditioned: "That which is of true ultimate concern transcends the finite realm infinitely. Therefore, no finite reality can express it directly and properly...Whatever we say about that which concerns us ultimately, whether or not we call it God, has a symbolic meaning. It points beyond itself while participating in that to which it points. In no other way can faith express itself adequately. The language of faith is the language of symbols."
With this theory of symbols, Tillich argues that all Christian doctrines are symbolic rather
than literal. Upon hearing this, many Christians may think that Tillich ‘reduces’ a literal truth to
a mere symbolic truth when in fact it is the other way around. A sign is merely literal, as it
points to something within the subject-object structure of reality. A symbol is more than literal,
because it can point to something that transcends the subject-object structure with more than a
single layer of meaning. For example, blood may be understood as a sign when it points to the
actual fluid consisting of plasma, cells, and platelets. But as a symbol, it has much more power
by communicating meaning and depth as life, passion, family relationships, or love. For
Christian faith, the symbol of the blood of Jesus can open up the reality of God’s liberating and
redemptive work for the oppressed and oppressors (as in Andrew Sung Park's Triune Atonement). Tillich uses this theory of symbols throughout his Systematic Theology to explain everything from Jesus as the Christ to the Trinity.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
With this in mind, we can understand what Tillich means by the two sides of any revelatory event: the receiving side and the giving side. The first describes the subjective or “ecstatic” side in which an individual or a group in a concrete situation is completely grasped in the entirety of their being by a revelatory event. The second describes the objective or “miraculous” side in which the mystery of our ultimate concern is made manifest through the finite, especially as expressed through religious symbols and myth. Revelatory events that include both receiving and giving sides are “shaking, transforming, demanding, significant in an ultimate way. They derive from divine sources, from the power of that which is holy and which therefore has an unconditional claim on us.”
It must be stressed that by “revelation”, Tillich does not mean the impartation of propositional truths or special words. Revelation of the ground of meaning in human life is expressed in and through finite mediums. For Christians, Jesus is the primary medium, the ultimate symbol of revelation precisely because in his death as the Christ he points beyond himself to that which is ultimate, thus not becoming idolatrous in his ultimacy. It follows that for Tillich, “faith” does not mean belief in certain propositions or questionable theories about history or the cosmos. While faith does involve “the acceptance of symbols that express our ultimate concern,” faith is not directed toward the symbols themselves. Tillich defines the “Protestant principle” as the rejection of anything finite as appropriate objects of ultimate concern. Furthermore, faith is not merely a cognitive activity because it involves the whole person. Faith is directed toward the unconditional but also grounded in something concrete: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith.” Faith as ultimate concern about the unconditional is distorted and idolatrous if one is ultimately concerned about something conditioned and finite.
Faith as ultimate concern involves total surrender of the self to either that which is truly ultimate or something less than ultimate (e.g., a nation, career, money, etc.) and the expectation of fulfillment through it. Defined in this way, faith (or religion) as ultimate concern is necessarily a universal phenomenon. Tillich even argues, “You cannot reject religion with ultimate seriousness, because ultimate seriousness, or the state of being ultimately concerned, is itself religion.” So even a misplaced, idolatrous ultimate concern implies a relation to the unconditional. This is what Tillich calls the ‘dynamics of faith’: “It is the triumph of the dynamics of faith that any denial of faith is itself an expression of faith, of an ultimate concern.” While we will explore this more fully later in this blog series, this analysis of human experience is Tillich’s appropriation of the ontological argument for God. It does not provide an answer but raises the question of “God” by pointing to the unconditional elements in human experience – such as beauty, truth, and goodness that ‘judge’ all finite approximations of themselves. It is precisely this question of God universally implied in finite being that drives reason to the “quest for revelation.”
It is also important to understand that by the “ecstasy” of the receiver(s) of revelation, Tillich does not mean “religious overexcitement, artificially produced.” This too is antithetical to his definition of faith, which of course includes emotion and excitement, but transcends them just as it transcends cognitive activities. In such a case, there is no “miracle” of revelation that correlates with the “ecstatic” side of revelation in faith. Both a giving and receiving are necessary for revelation.
Lastly, we must also note that revelation does not violate reason even though it transcends it. If the manifestation of the unconditional through the finite violated reason it would be ‘demonic’, for reason is itself grounded in the unconditional. Similarly, revelation is not a supernatural miracle in the sense that it violates natural processes: “If such an interpretation were true, the manifestation of the ground of being would destroy the structure of being.” Tillich defines a genuine miracle in three ways: first, it is unusual and astonishing but does not contradict reason; second, it points to the mystery of being; and third, it is received in faith as a sign-event. It does not contradict what science, psychology, or history say about the nature of things – nor can it be dissolved by them. Tillich argues pragmatically that religious faith based on such miraculous sign-events remains alive so long as it adequately expresses ultimate concern by creating “reply, action, and communication.”
An important concept for Tillich’s view of revelation is the theological circle. To be within the theological circle of faith is to make an “a priori” commitment, based on experience and valuation, to the content of that circle as being ultimately expressive of the ultimate concern of the Christian church. As John Cobb notes, Tillich thus joins the theologians of ‘the leap’ – although not in such a way that he could be accused of irrationalism or fideism. Tillich would certainly want to justify his decision to take his place within the circle, but he rejects the notion that Christian faith simply follows “deductively from ontological principles or inductively from detached observation.” Tillich thus affirms the relativity of religion, but also argues that one can be reasonably committed to a tradition as the bearer of final (though not exclusive) revelation.
However, for those outside this receptive circle of revelation – for those not existentially grasped by the revelatory event – the symbols, myths, and institutions in which revelation is expressed are understandably not sacred. They do not seem to point to the unconditional and so are subjected to critical scholarly analysis in a more detached fashion, abstracting from the concrete Christian commitment. As Tillich argues, “The knowledge of such [revelatory] reports, and even a keen understanding of them, does not make them revelatory for anyone who does not belong to the group which is grasped by the revelation.” Against conservative apologists then, Tillich claims that there is no ‘evidence that demands a verdict’ in the sense that a disinterested reading of the bible could lead to Christian faith. Similarly, this explains why not all 1st century persons in Palestine came to see Jesus as the Christ even after encountering him.
Sunday, September 1, 2013
It is important to note at this stage that existential questions concern the whole of existence, as do the answers. As such, any attempt to confine religion to a special compartment of spiritual life – the moral, cognitive, aesthetic, or ‘feeling’ – is a disastrous mistake that ultimately makes religion irrelevant to the modern world. For Tillich, religion is the “dimension of depth” in all of these aspects of spiritual life, and it points to “that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional in man’s spiritual life. Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern.” Religion opens up the depth of our spiritual life, providing grounds for ultimate meaning and courage.
According to Tillich then, the method of correlation means that the theologian must understand the existential questions of their cultural situation in order to offer the relevant answers of their religion. In particular, Tillich argues for the contemporary relevance of depth psychology and especially Existentialism as the most adequate philosophy to understand the pressing questions of the age. After uncovering the existential questions, the theologian reformulates the meaning of traditional Christian answers (“symbols”) derived from revelation. While some schools of liberal theology attempted to derive the religious answer apart from revelation, Tillich argues that “[t]he answer cannot be derived from the question. It is said to him who asks, but it is not taken from him.” This is precisely because to be human just is to ask the question about one’s being, “living under the impact of the answers given to this question.” Again, we see Tillich attempting to maintain a third way between kerygmatic and apologetic theology.
In one of his most important essays, “The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion”, Tillich implicitly differentiates his method of correlation from Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. The first kind of philosophy of religion (the cosmological type) is like meeting a stranger in the encounter with God. There is an absolute rupture in this perspective between culture and religion, philosophy and revelation, world and gospel. This is a clear description of Barth’s theology, which Tillich admired for its political power to resist a ‘demonic’ culture. In a context where a political tyrant claims absolute authority, swallowing the culture whole, Tillich agreed that the cosmological Barthian approach is, pragmatically speaking, very effective for resistance movements. But that does not mean it is correct – in fact, Tillich persuasively argued that Barth, for all of his genius, is quite mistaken in adopting the cosmological type of philosophy of religion.
The second kind of philosophy of religion (the ontological type) that Tillich himself advocates is the way of overcoming estrangement, the way in which “man discovers himself when he discovers God.” This connects with Tillich’s argument for the need to engage in existential analysis of the human situation, for it is here that “[man] has become aware of the fact that he himself is the door to the deeper levels of reality, that in his own existence he has the only possible approach to existence itself.” What this means for theology is that the Barthian cosmological emphasis on revelation apart from philosophical analysis of the concrete situation of humanity is, once again, impossible. As Tillich writes, for the Barthian approach to theology in which one encounters God as absolute stranger, “[m]an must become something else than human in order to receive divinity...human receptivity is completely overlooked. But man cannot receive answers to questions he never asked.”