Category Archives: epistemology

Paul Tillich and Objectification

Paul Tillich was one of the most powerful prophetic voices of the 20th century in American culture.  In the excerpt which I offer below from his book, “The Courage to Be,” he eloquently describes what I often describe as the “thing-i-fication” of mankind, in which humans have become more of a “human doing” than a, “human be-ing.”  This is particularly apparent in American religion as God is often merely a “thing” among other things, some “thing” that we can own by virtue of appropriating him/”it” by use of our rational faculties.  This parallels the historical process in which humankind itself has become “thingified” with little to no more appreciation of our subjective experience.  It reveals our illusion that life itself is wholly a rational enterprise, some “thing” therefore than can be figured out figured out…or, as I like to put it, “figgered out”:

It was the threat of an Infinite loss, namely the loss of their individual persons, which drove the revolutionary Existentialists of the 19th century to their attack.  They realized that a process was going on in which people were turned into things, into pieces of reality which pure science can calculate, and technical science can control.  The idealistic wing of bourgeois made of the person a vessel in which universals find a more or less adequate place.  The naturalistic wing of bourgeois thinking made of the person an empty field into which sense impressions enter and prevail according to the degree of their intensity.  In both cases the individual self is an empty space and the bearer of something which is not himself, something strange by which the self is estranged from itself.  Idealism and naturalism in their attitude to the existing person; both of them eliminate his infinite significance and make him a space through which something else passes.  Both philosophies are expressions of a society which was devised for the liberation of man but which fell under the bondage of objects it itself had created.  The safety which is guaranteed by well-functioning mechanisms for the technical control of nature, by the refined psychological control of the person, by the rapidly increasing organizational control of society—this safety is bought at a high price:  man, for whom all this was invented as a means, becomes a means himself in service of the means.    (pp 137, 138; Yale University Press, 2000)

I would like to first bring attention to his addressing the “infinite loss” which galvanized the “existentialists” to rise in revolt.  These men and women, not cloaked in the obscurantism of culturally contrived religious views, realized that “infinite loss” was taking place which German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche described as the “death of God.”  Nietzsche was not claiming that god was dead but that mankind in relation to his “Infinite” source was dying.  The human soul was becoming objectified…”thingified”…and the pregnant Emptiness of the heart was being filled with “stuff,” including theological/religious stuff, all of which amounted to ideology.  And to the degree this happens, the “letter of the law” has taken over and, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “the letter killeth, but the Spirit maketh alive.”  And when this takes place it is easy for devout Christians to be passionate devotees of someone like Donald Trump.

God is a term that we use to describe what Rudolph Otto termed, the “Wholly Other.”  And by, “the Wholly Other” he was emphasizing that the Source of our Being lies beyond the grasp of human contrivance, including that of reason.  This “God/god” is the infinite dimension of the human heart in which the Unknown intersects with the known and we humans, all of us being “mere” humans, have to immediately wrap our heads around this Divine intersection buried in the depths of our heart and give it a label.  And, that would not be so bad but that our ego then insists on taking this simple “label” as the thing-in-itself and that is where the mischief begins!


A Cartoon Illustration of Judgement and Hypocrisy

I think the following cartoon best illustrates hypocrisy, in the vein of, “Judge not lest thou shalt be judged” for as we describe (or “define”) others were are always saying something about ourselves.  We are but mortal and anytime we make an observation, we are doing so from our perspective which is merely a framework or prism through which we view the world.  Being mortal, we cannot escape this existential predicament but if we get this point it can allow us to be a bit less harsh in our observations, realizing that the distinction between “me and thee” is more nebulous than we might imagine.  To be human it is imperative that we make these “judgements” for any pseudo-pious effort to escape the responsibility, as in the oft-used and abused, “Who am I to judge,” is to fail to bring our Presence to the table in our world.

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Our Denial System Challenged by Lao Tzu and David Whyte

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,
By vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use;
The use of clay in moulding pitchers
Comes from the hollow of its absence;
Doors, windows, in a house,
Are used for their emptiness:
Thus we are helped by what is not
To use what is.

I want to write again about this little ditty, written in the 6th century B.C. by Lao Tzu that “moved in like a bitch” (to use a Trumpism) on my soul and has mesmerized me ever since. I was in my thirties and know that I must have been bewildered by this verse as it totally had no place the very literal mind of mine that predominated back in my innocence. Increasingly I have “grokked” this wisdom the past decade realizing the importance of recognizing that there is an “absent” dimension of life which is very present even in its “absence.” Actually, it is the only thing that “is,” but then it “is” not nor “is” it a thing. If you understand this, then “Bless you” and if you don’t, I encourage you to flash the sign of the cross to your computer screen and run away screaming! For understanding this will cost you everything you have and even deny you the ego-satisfaction of thinking you are any better off than those who do not get it.
It is so daunting to realize that one has spent his life denying reality, has lived his life in a trance designed to keep himself out of touch with himself, with the world, and with God. In some way I know this is the “hell” that I used to preach against though I now realize the “hell” I saw threatening others had already gnawed deeply into my own soul. The denial system that we acquire with birth and upbringing is very important, but it is so very important that at some point we find the grace and humility to own our dishonesty with ourselves, with others, and with God. And this is really no big deal as it merely means we have a chance to accept our human-ness, a dimension of which is our mortality, which civilization, composed of comforting “fig-leaves” is designed to hide. Poet David Whyte wrote in “Consolations,” that we are in denial of the grace that lies just beyond the horizon of our view of the world, described by Conrad Aiken as, “the small bright circle of consciousness.” And Whyte avowed that to be in denial is to find oneself with a lot of company, noting then that “denial is the crossroads between perception and readiness, to deny denial is to invite powers into our lives we have not yet readied ourselves to meet.”

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The Danger of Biblical Literalism

Bishop John Shelby Spong in “Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism” has argued forcefully that Biblical literalism is a fundamental threat to Christianity.  This notion is anti-thetical to everything I was taught in my youth but now as I age I find it weighing on me to join Spong…and others…in weighing in with my two cents.  Biblical literalism reflects the sin of misplaced concreteness, mistaking the symbol for the thing which it represents.  Thus the Bible, certainly Holy Writ, becomes a barrier to hearing what the various people contributing to the Bible were trying to say as well as the One we credit with writing the Bible in the first place.  The bible is used to avoid the Bible just as god is used to avoid God, and our grasp of who we are is used to avoid the inner essence, i.e. experience, of who we are.  Our culture teaches us to live on the surface, to look no deeper than the surface, and this mandate applies also to religion even though it is so convenient to think otherwise.  It is convenient, and often fashionable to subscribe to “easy believism” that doesn’t cost anything substantial yet will provide in religion a social accoutrement that many of us find necessary, much like a nice suit of clothes. It is another thing to “have religion” that penetrates into the very depths of our being, shakes us to the core, challenges our preconceptions, and brings us to the point where we can but “glory, bow, and tremble.”  Meaningful religion, in short, brings us face to face with our human-ness, including our mortality. This “easy believism” is now egregiously manifest in our culture with the throngs of conservative Christians who have pledged their troth to a political leader who is the antitheses of everything Jesus stood for.  Yes, cursed like Trump with the same inability to acknowledge fault, they “stand by their man” even as his perfidy and moral obtuseness becomes more obvious; for, to do otherwise would be to acknowledge, “Oh, well maybe God wasn’t leading me to support him.  Maybe it was just my own personal lust for power and glory.”

I want to share here the wisdom of two 20th century religious scholars who grasped this phenomenon of bibliolatry.  The first, Jacques Ellul wrote in “The Judgement of Jonah”:

…Thus obedience to the letter of scripture can be obedience to Satan if the text serves to bring about isolation and independence in relation to the one who has inspired it.  It can be a means of self-affirmation over against God in in repression of his truth and his will.  The biblical text, and obedience to it, do not guarantee anything.  They may be the best means of not hearing God speak.  (Ellul here points out that the Pharisees were) authentic believers, faithful adherents of scripture, and rich in good works and piety.  In reality everything depends on our attitude to the text of the scripture.  If I seize it, use it, and exploit it to my own ends...then I am obeying Satan under the cover of what the Bible says.

The following is an excerpt from a book about Paul Tillich, one of the most prominent American theologians of the 20th century who clearly understood bibliolatry, presenting it as taking what is merely a symbol for the “thing-in-itself.”  Here a Tillich scholar explains bibliolatry in terms of taking a “religious symbol” literally and thereby disallowing it to reveal its inner value:

The problem for all symbols, but especially for religious symbols, is that they often tend to become identified completely with that which they symbolize. In so doing they have a tendency to supplant their referents. The problem is heightened by the nature of the dual task of religious symbols, which must express not only ultimate reality but also the character of the material that serves as the symbol. The symbol must not be transparent, losing all its self-identity; instead, it must be translucent, maintaining its own character but revealing light from another source. When religious symbols become confused with the reality they represent, they become idolatrous and demonic, for idolatry is nothing other than making symbols of the holy absolute and identical with the absolute itself.” {Donald W. Musser, Joseph L. Price, *Tillich* (Abingdon Pillars of Theology)}


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Paul Tillich’s “Mutilated Religion” Will be Addressed Here

A couple of responses from my last few posts have really impressed me, including one that was actually very critical.  The critical gentleman took me to task for being “non-sensical” and immature to which I had to agree.  I have always taken a bold tack in this blog but I am now coming out more boldly and taking spirituality, as I now understand it, into a new dimension which is very non-linear and therefore in a sense very “non-sensical.”  Paul Tillich declared that a religion within the bounds of reason is a mutilated religion and I now choose to address this “mutilation” far more openly and will do it with reason itself.  You might say I will turn reason upon itself.

I don’t know the gentleman that was critical of my observations but he did demonstrate a graciousness and intelligence even as he made his concerns known in a very pointed manner.  And, I think I know where he was coming from as I grew up in a very linear culture and still have the capacity to understand and respect that way of viewing the world.  And, I’m glad that I do as otherwise I would be taking “non-sensical” to another dimension in which I would be, shall we say, “functionally impaired.”  Our world functions on the basis of linear thought and those who subscribe to that way of viewing the world are usually quite intelligent and noble people.  Unfortunately….or fortunately”…I am not blessed with the comfort of that world view and see life, including religion, from broader perspective and do so without any illusion that it is the only way.

Again, I must employ the bumper stick that I overwork—DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU THINK! Thinking is not autonomous, its roots lie in the depths of our being, often thought of as the unconscious.  We think in accordance with premises and biases which are not easily acknowledged and sometimes impossible.  Religion is particularly susceptible to this dimension of our heart as it reflects our innermost being, including our deepest fears, insecurities, and hopes.  Though religion offers “re-ligio” (tieing together of that which has been disconnected, as with a “ligament”) it often proffers ignoble impulses to accomplish this purpose.  For example, one of the things which can most unify a group of people is hatred aimed against another group or even a particular person.


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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.

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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….