Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Exploring Tillich

Intro: Over the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the thought of one Paul Tillich. I am not approaching this series as an expert on Tillich’s theology philosophy; on the contrary, I’m going to be blogging through Tillich for the express purpose of becoming acquainted with this figure who I know so little about. My text of introduction is Theology of Culture (Oxford, 1959), an assortment of Tillich’s essays. Hopefully some of you will find this interesting and informative. And for those of you who know Tillich well and are theologically and philosophically astute, I urge you to weigh in and make sense out of this sometimes-hard-to-understand thinker.

Summary: The first section of Tillich’s Theology of Culture, consisting of four essays, is called “Basic Considerations.” The first chapter is titled “Religion as a Dimension of Man’s Spiritual Life,” a title which, quite transparently, is also the proposition that Tillich desires to affirm. To affirm that “religion is an aspect of the human spirit,” Tillich has to dismiss the criticisms of two strangely allied groups: “Christian theologians” and “secular scientists.”

The Christian theologians reject Tillich’s assertion in order to insist that, rather, religion is something that is given to man from without and may therefore “stand against him.” “One could summarize the intention of these theologians in the sentence that religion is not a creation of the human spirit (spirit with a small s) but a gift of the divine Spirit (Spirit with a capital S).” The theologians, according to Tillich, see man’s spirit as creative with regard to self and the world, but not with respect to the transcendent God. God is free to relate himself to man, but not vice versa.

The criticism coming from the secular scientists (psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history) is made on much different grounds. They drudge up the existence of the diversity of beliefs and practices present within the world and the existence of non-religion in order to deny the uniformity of “religion” found within humanity. Instead, this group contends that religion is simply a special stage in human development and not an enduring, essential quality of man’s spirit.

So far, so understandable, right? However, Tillich leaves me in the dark here. He says that both parties (theologians and scientists), for all their differences, have this in common: they “define religion as man’s relation to divine beings, whose existence the theological critics assert and the scientific critics deny.” Tillich says that if we define religion as such (man’s relation to divine beings) we make “any understanding of religion impossible.” He goes on to explain that if we start by considering the existence or non-existence of God we can never reach Him. When the scientists set out to disprove God’s existence, thus refuting religion, that they actually help religion by forcing it to reconsider the word God. The theologians, starting with the assertion that God exists and that they have received his revelation, have taken “the first step on the road to what inescapably leads to what is called atheism.” I’m not sure why Tillich thinks it is justified to make such a claim, other than that he must have already accepted a naturalistic, scientific definition of “existence” and that presumably, since God’s existence cannot be demonstrated thus, God must not “exist.” Essentially it seems that Tillich is saying that God does not exist because he is beyond existence.

And so Tillich affirms, in spite of the critics on both sides, that religion is indeed “an aspect of the human spirit.” Tillich expounds this theorem thus: “Religion is not a special function of man’s spiritual life, but it is the dimension of depth in all of its functions.” Religion is not a special function of the human spirit because it cannot be isolated to one realm of man’s life; it cannot simply be collapsed into the moral function, the cognitive function, the emotional function, or the aesthetic function.

“In this situation, without a home, religion suddenly realizes that it does not need such a place, that it does not need to seek for a home. It is at home everywhere, namely, in the depth of all functions of man’s spiritual life. Religion is the dimension of depth in all of them. Religion is the aspect of depth in the totality of the human spirit.”

Tillich says that by “depth” he means that the religious aspect of man points to what is “ultimate, infinite, and unconditional in man’s spiritual life.” Thus he simply equates religion with “ultimate concern.” So it is that we see, according to Tillich, religion at play in every function of man, be it moral, cognitive, aesthetic, or emotional. In the sense that all of these express “ultimate concern” they are part of man, who is unceasingly religious.

So, having thus defined religion as an essential aspect of man’s spirit—indeed, the controlling aspect of man’s spirit—Tillich asks, “what about religion in the narrower and customary sense of the word…?” That is, why has humanity developed religion externally and as a separate entity? The answer: “because of the tragic estrangement of man’s spiritual life from its own ground and depth.” So institutional and external religion, which opposes itself to the “secular” realm, finds its glory in that it opens up man to what is ultimate. However, to its detriment (according to Tillich), this religion makes itself and its doctrines and laws and rituals ultimate and forgets that they are not ultimate, but exist because of “man’s tragic estrangement from his true being.”

Because this form of external and institutionalized religion has forgotten that it exists because of man’s estrangement, the secular world has reacted sharply against it. Ironically though, the secular world, by dismissing the religious, inflicts harm upon itself. Why? Because both the religious and the secular have the same concern: namely, ultimate concern. As we realize this, the separation between the secular and the religious is overcome and religion assumes its true meaning as that which gives depth and meaning to all functions of the human spirit.

Questions: As I read Tillich for the first time here, I'm somewhat intrigued by what he is saying. I see some validity in the way he describes everything that man does as an aspect of an incurably religious nature. This is insightful, for God can not be relegated to merely a religious realm. Beyond this insight, which is not wholly unique to Tillich, I have some questions which I hope readers will be able to answer or that I hope Tillich himself will answer as my reading progresses:

  • What does Tillich mean by "existence"? This term is clearly pregnant and is very important, as Tillich seems already preoccupied with man's existence.
  • Why does Tillich feel so comfortable dismissing the possibility of God's "existence"? Why does he say that those who assert God's existence are on the path to atheism?

  • What role, if any, do metaphysics play in Tillich's philosophy? I already have the sneaking feeling that, to Tillich, this "science" is irrelevant. Am I right? If so, why?

  • Tillich says that man has experienced a "tragic estrangement from his true being." I am assuming that this is what remains of the Christian doctrine of "the Fall." I'm anxious to see how this "tragic estrangement" philosophy plays out. Any hints?

  • I get the feeling at points that Tillich is aiming at transcendence when he says things about how God cannot be classified as an object within the universe of existent things. It seems, however, that Tillich collapses God into the human psyche or spirit with his definition of religion. Am I on the right track with this?
Reaction: So far I find Tillich quite titillating. I also find him quite disagreeable right out of the gate. When I started reading Barth I was surprised to find such robust doctrines and solid exegesis of Scripture. I had always heard Barth's name mentioned in negative terms and was pleasantly surprised; Barth speaks in a language I find intelligible. Tillich on the other hand seems like he is from a different planet! I look forward to continuing this exploration nonetheless.

1 comment:

Natalie Wilcoxen said...

you have peaked my interest in Tillich brother, I will have to do some research in to him.
Barth is good?