Tag Archives: Wholly Other

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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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