Tag Archives: Paul Tillich

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!

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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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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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

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

 

An Atheist’s View of Rationalism & Religion

I often quote Goethe re our irrational investment in reason, “They call it reason, using Light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”  John Gray, a noted atheist in the link below takes modern man, atheist and theists as well to task for their “child like faith in reason.”  Gray’s argument is essentially that we obsessively cling to a world view that we are predisposed to believe in, one that supports our biases and prejudices, and interpret everything to support this self-serving worldview. To justify this mindset, we use reason to “prove” it.

Here are just a few highlights of his arguments.

Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God….They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits….If history teaches us anything it’s that hatred and cruelty are permanent human flaws, which find expression whatever beliefs people may profess.

What Gray’s essay reveals is that faith cannot lie in reason but, as Goethe recognized, must look beyond the grasp of simple, self-serving human rationality.  This is frightening because our ego is intrinsically a rational structure and is an essential dimension of our faith, regardless of how noble and valid the teachings of this faith tradition might be. This requires a critical, i.e. self-reflective stance toward our faith, if we are going to be able to ferret out some of the instances in which ego is in control.

Of course, I have in mind the tragedy that the Christian faith has facilitated in the political climate of my country by helping elect and continue to support Donald Trump.  The evangelical Christians in particular have insisted that “the Lord has raised him up” to lead our country, justifying his horrible short-comings with such lame excuses as, “He is just a baby Christian” or “Who am I to judge?”  But what they are failing to consider is how he is exploited them, preying on their gullibility, and made a mockery of their faith, leaving Jesus up there in heaven shaking his head!  But now, having pledged their troth to Trump, they cannot back down…just as Trump cannot back down from ridiculous positions…for to do so would be to admit that they made a mistake. They remain ensconced in their rational faith, disregarding the wisdom of Paul Tillich who warned, “A religion bound by the confines of reason is a mutilated religion.”

But being a Christian means recognizing that we have had a lifetime of making mistakes and that we continue to do so!  It means that occasionally we have to recognize, in the immortal words of Texas Governor Rick Perry, “Oops,” I made a mistake.  But anyone tyrannized by the ego cannot admit making a mistake.  And everyon3 around them suffers.

Here is a link to the essay by John Gray:  http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28341562

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