Paul Tillich’s View of God as “The Ground of Being”

Paul Tillich has been one of the pivotal figures in my spiritual and intellectual life.  He introduced me to meaningful concepts like God as “the Ground of Being,” and “The Wholly Other,” and the notion I’d like to kick arounds today, “God as the unifying Ground”.  In the lengthy quotation provided below, gleaned from a Paul Tillich Facebook page, Tillich’s teachings present sin as estrangement from God, as a separation from God as “the Unifying Ground of Being.”  The unified state that he describes is what I often describe as “the unity of all things” before “the fall” occurred in the Garden of Eden when Adam ate of “the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil.”  When Adam took that bite of the apple from that famous seductress Eve (wink, wink) mankind fell from this unified state into the bifurcated world of object separateness where good and evil, male and female, us and them, subject and object, et al were separate.  It is the hunger to return to this state of Grace that has driven mankind since, producing religion, art, and the whole of culture, including…alas and alack…consumerism, addiction, and the arms race!  This hunger, until it is satisfied by the “Unconditional Positive Regard” (see psychologist Carl Rogers) that Christians know as the Grace of God, humankind is fated to fill it up with “stuff” which will only fade away.  The Christian tradition teaches that Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, can fill that emptiness and alleviate that hunger though I aver not in the way that historic Christianity of the past few centuries has taught us.  For the past few centuries has witnessed the objectification of mankind via the philosophy of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”) and the poison of capitalism which turned us into “things” and crusted over our hearts with that cursed tendency to “thingify” everything we touch, including God.

The story of mankind is the narrative of our quest to know God and find again that unifying ground.  And, with that point, I’m going to bid adieu with the warning, “Ponder seriously over that word “God” I just used for “the word is not the ‘thing.’” And though organized religion has much to offer on this search, what it offers is usually so institutionalized that it is so completely devoid of spirituality value in addressing the existential plight that threatens civilization.

For Augustine as for Tillich, the loss of the unifying ground of life results in a disunity, a separation from one another of the interrelated facets and aspects of life. Thus (to use slightly different language) God is the principle of unity and harmony, and separation from God is the cause of disunity, disharmony, and a final consequent loss of being (reality) and meaning (value). As did Augustine, Tillich applies this fundamental principle of interpretation both to individual and to social or historical existence. He sees Enlightenment culture as beginning with a powerful assertion of the *autonomy* of reason against *heteronomy*, the absolute and yet uncreative authority of the now alien and external religious powers of the receding medieval world. This was, however, an autonomy with *theonomous* elements: it assumed the ultimate identity of reason and nature, of the rational, the good, and the beautiful, and so of objective and subjective, of reality and value, of cognition, morals, and art. As a consequence, in the Enlightenment the ‘rational’ stood not only for that which is true (the result of the rational cognitive processes of science) but also for that which is just (the result of rational and radical politics) and that which is beautiful (the harmonious and the orderly). In that theonomous unity (that is, through the exercise of ontological reason) the power and meaning of modern culture were nurtured.”

Langdon Gilkey, *Gilkey on Tillich*, 1990, p. 63

Romney Puts Falwell Jr./Jeffress to Shame!

Mitt Romney this morning spoke out firmly about the moral bankruptcy of Trump, declaring that he is a threat to the “fabric of our country.”  In my conservative background, Romney being a Mormon would fall into the category “them” and would have no more standing to hold forth on moral integrity than Trump.  But in my estimation today he does have standing and is here again taking a bold stance against this morally profligate man who occupies the White House while evangelical/fundamentalist Christians like Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress continue to support him, even arguing still that the Lord is leading him.

Earlier in this debacle, when Trump’s perfidy was becoming so apparent, Jeffress and Falwell Jr. and their ilk had the lame response, “Well, who am I to judge?” and sometimes the note, “Well, he is only a baby Christian.”  Well, alas and alack, I am going to judge and let me declare here my credential—I HAVE ONE EYE AND HALF-SENSE…well, actually I have two eyes and I admit the amount of “sense” might be subjected to question.  But no longer subscribing to the guilt-ridden version of Christian faith I have the courage to declare…here in this cyber back-water…that Trump is not only mentally ill but he is morally and spiritually depraved.  And those of any spiritual persuasion, Christian or otherwise, who dare to defend this man need to look a bit deeper into their heart for there I think they will discover a hefty dollop of self-serving ego at work, sometimes hiding behind the name of Jesus Christ.  I speak with some authority for I’ve spent at least half of my sixty-five years doing the same thing.

Let me focus on Mr. Jeffress.  I don’t know the man but having known many of his ilk, and once setting out on the course of becoming a Baptist pastor myself, let me insist that he probably is one good human being and is sincere about his faith.  And, if I might briefly speak from the faith-expression he lives in, his faith covers his sins, he is forgiven of them, and is in no danger of any eternal punishment.  For, the work of Christ is complete, the “Lamb which is slain before the foundation of this world” has been offered to Mr. Jeffress and Jesus does say to him, “I got you covered, Bobby” just as he says to all of us.  But this does not obliterate “the flesh” and leaves us with the lamentation of the Apostle Paul who declared, “I will to do good, but evil is present with me.”

Mr. Jeffress, Mr. Falwell Jr, and many others of their faith persuasion are now facing the spiritual dilemma that Trump cowers before—“can I admit making a mistake?  Can I admit, as did Rick Perry once on a relevant occasion, ‘Oops!’”  We all need to do that on occasion and certainly those of us who purport to be “spiritual beings” under any label we might subscribe to.  Spirituality is such a ripe arena for “the flesh” to establish itself and the most effective way to do this is under the guise of our faith.  For our faith is never a finished product, it is always a work in progress, and periodically we need to utter the Rick Perry cry-for-mercy and hope for forgiveness, not only from God (who always grants our wish) but from ourselves and from others.  It is so much easier just to follow the dictates of the ego and dig our heels in and cling more tenaciously to our self-serving mindset.  As W. H. Auden put it, “And Truth me him, and held out her hand.  And he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

A Personal Note To Readers

I often receive “hits” and subscriptions from readers who are much more conservative than I appear to be and, yes, even more than I am.  I hope that it is recognized that my faith is no longer “ex” clusive and that it includes those of a conservative stripe, a culture that provided me my spiritual, intellectual, and emotional roots.  I am very proud of this background. I sometimes think that some of the people who drop by here do not know what they have gotten into.  But, I’m glad that each of you are here even if you have just dropped by for a “cup of coffee” and I will not see you again.

Faith is the bedrock of my life and I’m only now tippy-toeing into its riches and find it a mysterious and elusive, though ever-present domain.  I’ve spent my life trying desperately to “wrap my head around ‘it’” and realize that this ego pursuit has been a “work of the flesh” and clearly a demonstration of “riding an oxen, trying to find an oxen.”  I even had a dream months ago which suggested I was no longer riding the oxen but was on the ground, plodding along behind him arm-in-arm with a brother.  W. H. Auden offered relevant wisdom, “The Center that I cannot find is known to the unconscious mind.  There is no need to despair.  I am already there.”

The mistake I have made spiritually and emotionally is that fulfillment is “out there.”  I gathered that validation is to be found externally but the teachings of Jesus, contrasting with much of the Christian tradition, is that “the kingdom is within” and failure to orient oneself in that direction is to submit to “the letter of the law” which, according to the Apostle Paul, “kills.”  And as one of my many literary kindred spirits, Shakespeare, put it, “Within be rich, without be fed no more.”

Eyes to See…that Actually See!!!

Vision is subtle and frequently we “have eyes to see but see not” and, yes, ” ears to hear but hear not.”  And it is very challenging to realize that human nature subjects us to this limitation yet without meaning, necessarily, that we are a bad person.  But if we never let the wisdom of this quip from Jesus sink in it can lead to a lot of “bad” that will emanate from the resulting unexamined life.

Those of us who were raised in a Christian culture, especially the evangelical/fundamentalist wing of that culture, are steeped in this biblical wisdom from early in our life and are taught that when Jesus comes into our life we are then given the gift of perfect vision, led by the Holy Spirit that “will guide you into all truth.”  But this is usually intrinsically self-serving wisdom and fails to consider how our faith is influenced by enculturation and “enculturated wisdom”, regardless of how noble it is, is of the vein described by the Apostle Paul as “the wisdom of the world.”  Therefore, being steeped in the knowledge acquired very clearly, as our peer group has told us that we do, we can stand smugly in the comfort this knowledge provides us. It is disorienting to say the least to realize that our faith has been largely the result of enculturation and that our “vision” is more lacking than we ever imagined.  Understanding this teaching brings us to understand the wisdom of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, “We see through a glass darkly.”  Yes, God is with us and leads us but he does so as we stumble through “darkly” vision and imperfect hearing.

Relevant to this subject, John Berger wrote a classic little book in 1972 entitled, “Ways of Seeing.”  When I discovered the book 25 years ago it grabbed me immediately even though it was written to artists by an art critic and I am far removed from either.  But at that time in my life I was very familiar with the ambiguity of life, including “ways of seeing” and readily grasped the wisdom from the eye of this art critic. Berger pointed out that seeing ultimately is not so much a deed as it is an experience as an evocation as we focus on an object and allow that object to evoke from the depths of our heart a meaningful experience.  Each of us have these interior depths though so often circumstances have confined us to the surface of life where we scurry about our three-score and ten without ever daring to venture into the deep places of the heart that hide the mystery of life.  Venturing there will force us to encounter the significance of the teaching the aforementioned teaching of Jesus that we “have eyes to see but see not, ears to hear but hear not.”

Here are the opening words of Berger’s brilliant book:

Seeing comes before words.  The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.  But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words.  It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it.  The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.  Each evening we see the sun set.  We know that the earth is turning away from it.  Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.

The following is a list of my blogs.  Please check the others out!

Literarylew.wordpress.com

anrrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

Theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

A Crisis of Meaning in Our Culture

Several nights ago I watched Stephen Colbert again shred the daily edition of Trumpian and Conservative lunacy and I noted that our culture…and even our world…is in a crisis of meaning.  Colbert and other comedians find Trump and his ilk easy fodder for their comic genius and provide immense pleasure for we progressives who also see the lunacy of what is going on in our country.  But watching last night’s edition of Colbert’s show and delighting in an ironic look at biblical literalism I suddenly had a flash of insight of how this would appear to conservatives.  They would be deeply offended and angry as they would take it personal, feeling that their way of looking at the world was being attacked.  I would tell them, however, that Colbert is merely showing them that their way of viewing…and experiencing…the world is only one way of many.  But that is precisely the problem; for, in their view, there is only one way of viewing the world and they just happen to be privy to that way and often God has revealed it to them!  When worldviews are challenged the threat of meaningless always presents a challenge, usually kept on an unconscious level with conscious focus maintained on some superficial concern like “building a wall” or “Making America Great Again.”

I don’t have the answer for this.  But, as an old saying from my youth has it, “It will all come out in the wash.”  In terms of history, this is but another in an endless array of “tempests in a teapot” though to us in the throes of the tempest it does look frightening.  And I do mean frightening.  I am troubled.  I think humility is in order and that requires that all of us realize that our viewpoint is only finite, regardless of how noble, enlightened, and “correct” it appears to be.  There is a certain foolishness to even our certainties, inspiring Saint William to tell us, “Life is a tale told by an idiot…”  I do not think the Bard was a nihilist but he grasped that the things we are most certain of are often proven self-serving in the long run.

Colbert used a parody of Jesus in the aforementioned episode to poke fun at conservatives and it even stirred a dissonant chord in my own heart given my hyper-conservative past in which a sense of humor was not readily welcome in faith.  But I now think that Jesus could watch Colbert’s parody of Him last night and laugh uproariously, not taking himself as seriously as Christians are wont to take him.  Many conservative Christians cannot do this, and are offended at this vein of humor, because they take themselves too seriously and are not able to acknowledge the foolish dimension of the whole of their life, including their faith and politics.  Foolishness is an intrinsically human quality though it does not lessen the ultimate nobility of the human endeavor.  But failure to acknowledge our foolishness, and laugh at ourselves, will leave us with a false sense of self-importance.  I think religion is so easily lampooned as life is intrinsically a spiritual enterprise so the Darkness that besets us knows that the best way to weaken faith is to infect the most ardent of the faithful with a false sense of self-importance and piety so that to on-lookers they look ridiculous and are easily ridiculed.  Thus, “with devotions visage and pious action they sugar o’er the devil himself” and this is apparent to all except those who are dispensing the sugar on a whole-sale basis.

“God Talk” and Meaning

I had a provocative discussion with a good friend of mine yesterday, a “local” who often reads one of my blogs who is troubled by my frequent use of the word “god.”  Furthermore, this man is one of the keenest spiritual beings I’ve ever met and he believes in the same “god” that I do…though now I know even more clearly he balks at the use of that word.  And, he’s got a point! First of all, there is the simple problem of “god talk.”  The term “god” is probably the anchor of the verbiage I like to describe as “god talk” in which the Wholly Other is tossed around so loosely and casually it might as well be a discussion of the local sports team.  “God” is a simple coin in the verbal currency of our tribe and will certainly “purchase” a lot of social cache if we adroitly toss it around in the right circumstance. But when I use this term I am not using the vulgarized common coin described above, a coin that is worn bare and devoid of any meaning, I am using a very personal “coin” which refers to the Wholly Other which can never be put into words.  Ahem.  Alas and alack, suddenly I have “talked” my way here into a conundrum as I am using words even as I suggest words have no meaning!  So, just why in the hell bother?  Why in the hell continue to drone on and on????  The only answer I have is, “Cause I want to” as I’m not smart enough to explore neurophysiology or astrophysics.  In other words, the answer lies in the very mystery of life and I’m reduced to a simple, “Cuz I wanta!”

But “I want to” and so I drone on again using this common coin “god” in part just to annoy my dear friend!  This god I believe in…and I’m going to discard the parentheses here and I’m not even going to worry about the gender of the term or the meaning of “believe.”  God is a label that I apply to an incomprehensible mystery that I’ve been drawn to since birth, or even since way before birth.  And I can’t explain that either and intend to try to do so with less frequency.  It is some primordial yearning in the depths of my being, a yearning that I believe is present in all human hearts and even in the very fabric of the universe.  This yearning seeks expression and in our ancient past one expression was some guttural cry before a camp fire which eventually was refined over the centuries into the shiny, pristine new coin in a corner of the African continent into a word which, when Westernized became, “god.”  And, yes, I think that this guttural cry of one human heart eventually did find one expression in the person of a young man named Jesus Christ….but that is a story for another time.

For some reason I’m stubbornly insistent that I continue to use the word “god” though I’m not opposed to whatever term one uses or does not use.  I think words, all words, have value and in the course of human events words tend to lose this value; these “coins” get “worn out” so that the value is hidden beneath the daily grind of common usage.  And thus, “last year’s words are for last year’s season and next years words await another voice.” This T.S. Eliot quip referred to our responsibility is to “find our voice” and use this word…and all words…to express who we are in the depths of our being and in so doing give the language into which we were born renewed meaning.  If we merely occupy the persona that we happen into and merely use the words as they are given to us by our tribe, they will only have the meaning of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals”; or, as Jerry Seinfield put it, “yada, yada, yada. yada”

Thoughts about a Meaningful Christianity

For meaning to be present, there must be lack of meaning.  To illustrate, if blue was the only color in the world we would never see blue for it would not exist without non-blue.  This is relevant to my early belief about the Christian faith when I felt it was the ultimate truth for everyone and that the mission of the church should be converting the entire world to Jesus.  But if this should occur, the phenomenon of “Christian” would cease to have any meaning whatsoever.  This thought reminds me of a time in graduate school when I posed the question to a counseling professor during a relevant discussion, “What would counselors do if suddenly the world was free of all mental illness?”  I’m proud to say, I rattled his cage!

Here is another example that Trumpism has put on our table with his slogan, “Make America Great Again.”  What if America was Great, even the Greatest, even “bigly” greatest so that the issue was not even on the table but was a given throughout the planet.  What would the innocents who have imbibed of the “Make America Great Again” nectar do for meaning in their life?

Just thinking….