Category Archives: philosophy

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

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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….

What if Blue was the Only Color???

Trump’s malignant narcissism is closer to full blossom as he is now declaring that he can pardon anyone and everyone, including himself.  He is fulfilling the position that many Christians put him in, acting like an all-powerful God who knows no limits whatsoever.  But the Trumpian Christian’s view of God is not the view that I have, being a view only of the Old Testament God without any regard to the new dispensation that Jesus brought to the table.

The will-to-power is a fundamental human impulse and is so readily available to even our noble impulses such as spirituality.  It appears to me that the millions of Christians who pledged their troth to Trump did so in the hope return to an historical “lost cause” which was only a wish to return our country to the idyllic days of Civil War America.  Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again” spoke to those who are threatened by an egalitarian spirit that is seeking expression in our country and in our world which is perceived to be putting into jeopardy their desire for power and specialness.

Let me illustrate with the mere label “Christian.”  One theme of some Christians is to lead to the world to Jesus so that we live in a Christian world of peace and harmony, often described as the millennium.  But imagine for a minute the phenomenon of everybody in the world being “Christian”?  Then the word would have no value as it can only have value when some people are not “Christian.”  For example, imagine a world in which everything is colored blue.  Then blue would have no meaning.  For Christians who see the label “Christian” only in terms of their ego, the whole world being “Christian” would deny them the ego satisfaction that comes from being special or unique.

Believing in Our Belief to Avoid Faith

Oswald Chambers is one author from my evangelical Christian youth who has survived the test of time and still has my admiration and respect. His devotional book, “My Utmost for His Highest,” is still one of my most valued spiritual books, presenting the Christian faith in a meaningful fashion and not as a dogmatic treatise. But a couple of years ago I discovered “The Collected Works of Oswald Chambers” in one volume and have found there even more treasures, some of them confirming spiritual truths that I had already discovered on my own.

For example, he warned against “believing in one’s belief.” Specifically, he noted that the need for certainty can disrupt the opportunity for faith, declaring, “All certainty brings death to something. When we have a certain belief, we kill God in our lives, because we do not believe Him, we believe our beliefs about Him and do what Job’s friends did–bring God and human life to the standard of our beliefs and not to the standard of God.” Chambers understood that God could not be apprehended with reason, though reason is definitely needed in the whole of life including spirituality. This is because God cannot be “apprehended” at all as He is the “Wholly Other” who can be received only in the simple child-like acceptance of the gift we have been given in Christ, unconditionally. It is not because we believe right, or do right, or are right. It is because what God has done in Christ.

But believing in our belief is easier and keeps the matter under our control. It is the sin of solipsism, a egotistical smugness in which one indulges his own feelings and desires, one of which is the need for control. Simply by adhering to a creed, following a simple verbal formula, we can “know,” with our mind, that we are Christians and embark on a journey of “thinking we are Christians” rather than “being” one. It is similar to Ta Nehesi Coates, in his book, “Between the World and Me,” chiding Caucasians as people who “think they are white” and assuming the prerogatives of that vein of thought.

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The following list includes two other blogs of mine that are available.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/
https://literarylew.wordpress.com/
https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

The Fallacy of Believing in my Belief

When evangelical Christians first trotted out the notion that the Lord had “raised up” Donald Trump to lead our nation I was really upset.  And for good reason.  Their lame justification was that God sometime chooses flawed persons to accomplish His will and that we needed to remember to “judge not that ye be not judged” or that we should, “Be patient, he is only a baby Christian.”  I still think that was merely self-serving palaver but I do increasingly think that he brings to the table such profound spiritual darkness that God is giving all of us a chance to do some soul-searching and posit the question, “Now how did this ever happen?”

What these evangelical Christians did not realize was that they were facilitating a crisis for their faith, a crisis from which they will not emerge unscathed.  None of us ever emerge from any crisis “unscathed” and that is why crises are often times of redemption.  Now, brace yourself evangelicals, I think that “redemption” periodically is in the cards for you just as it is for all of us, regardless of our religious orientation or complete lack thereof.  But for many Christians, especially evangelicals, the need of anything like “redemption” is preposterous as, according to their addictive reliance on dogma, they have been redeemed already by Jesus and His Spirit now leads them into “all truth.”  Well, Jesus will do that.  But I’m reminded of a bromide from my last fundamentalist pastor, in a mega-church in Springdale, Arkansas, “The Truth will set you free.  But it will first make your miserable.”  I don’t think that dear soul knew just how correct he was.

Well, I humbly invite them to, “guess again” the ability of their faith in Christ to keep them from all errors “of the flesh”, i.e. ego. Their whole-hearted, slavish devotion to Trump who is the antithesis to the teachings of Jesus belies the self-serving dimension of their faith, the role of “the flesh” in their approach to religion.  And, I say to them, “Welcome to the world” as I have certainly had to embrace similar disillusionment and now see faith as a path of occasional disillusionment as we discover just how much we have been “seeing through a glass darkly.”

The core issue on the table here is reason.  The Protestant Reformation gave rise to an inordinate, unseemly faith in rationality to the point that we came to believe that with reason alone we can rule this world, our own life, and even reduce the Ineffable to a series of rational constructs.  But Paul Tillich warned us last century, “A religion confined to reason is a mutilated religion” for he saw that reason is always subservient to hidden dimensions of the heart.   God has sent Trump to evangelical Christians to give them a glimpse into the baser dimensions of their spiritual impulse…and we all have those impulses!  The most sinister of all these impulses is that we are immune from them.

I now realize that I grew up trying desperately to “believe in my belief” and never being able to pull it off, leaving me in great anguish about my spiritual welfare.  I often took comfort in rational gymnastics only to eventually realize that the very effort of reasoning oneself to God was futile.  No less of an evangelical luminary as Oswald Chambers himself in the early 20th century warned about the lunacy of “believing in our belief.”

So, what can you believe in?  What, if anything, is real?  “I think, therefore I am” is the way it is, isn’t it?  Descartes surely said so.  I no longer think so.

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ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com

 

If Ignorance Were Bliss…

One of my dearest pastors from my youth would often quip, “If ignorance were bliss, we’d all be blistered.”  This was just a witty, deliberately maladroit Arkansas version of the epistemological insight that basically we are all more ignorant than we light to admit.

The nature of knowledge increasingly fascinates me.  The political situation in my country has intensified this fascination as I watch intelligent and thoughtful people persistently subscribe to things that are patently absurd, giving rise to the phenomena of a “fact-free” world.  Here is a New York Times op-ed from this morning in which this penchant for self-deception is explained, a penchant which the authors point out is present for liberals and conservatives alike. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/opinion/sunday/why-we-believe-obvious-untruths.html?_r=0

The authors point out that ignorance is our natural state. There is an absurdity to that observation unless you look at things closely, including your own life.  They are only restating what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he said that we “see through a glass darkly.”  We see first what we want to see and if we ever get beyond our self-serving premises it will not be merely a function of intelligence.  Particularly, in the area of religion it is very troubling, disillusioning even, to realize that we have been approaching even our spiritual experience with “dark” vision, an insight which immediately subjects us to disillusionment.  But if we can withstand the discomfort, or anguish, of disillusionment than sometimes we can begin to toy with the notion that perhaps those who see things differently, be it in regard to religion or politics, might not be as “wrong” as we had thought.

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(If this subject of “willful blindness” intrigues you, google the terms “epistemic closure” and “confirmation bias.”)