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!