Friday 26 May 2006

For the love of God (4): Why I love Paul Tillich

A guest-post by Patrik Hagman

My first encounter with Paul Tillich was within the first weeks of my theological studies. Obviously this was not a course I was supposed to take, but I had bluffed my way in. One of the texts we worked with was the final chapter of Tillich’s The Courage to Be. This is not an easy text, especially taken out of its context like that. But something made me read it again and again. A few years later I read the whole book and I decided to write my Master’s thesis (or pro gradu as we call it in Finland) on Tillich and the Systematic Theology.

Many people find Tillich’s language difficult. All this talk of “being,” “ultimate concern,” “self-alienation.” But for me, then completely fed up with conventional religious language, this was enlightenment. It was like I had been given back my faith.

Reading the system was an overwhelming experience. It was as though Tillich put into words every vague notion I had ever had. Suddenly everything made sense. The genius of Tillich’s method is that it creates meaning. Everything becomes relevant. The system is based on experience. It is not the product of cool reflection; it is about getting involved in the world and in the revelation.

I think this was what made me “fall in love” with Tillich: he completely rejected the notion that being Christian meant existing on some higher plane than the rest of the world. He showed that culture and religions are two sides of the same coin: only a false religion separates them.

Tillich’s reinterpretation of the Christina doctrine enabled me to see that theology is a way of life, not a body of information. There are no limits whatsoever to what theology can be or what can be theology.


::aaron g:: said...

I love Tillich too. As good as his Systematics (perhaps better) are his sermons.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrik,

Thank you for your billet-doux on Paul Tillich. The Courage to Be had a big impact on me too as a student in the sixties, at a time when I thought that theologians were ecclesiastical house pets. It turned out to be seed that finally bore fruit ten years later when Tillich's famous sermon "You Are Accepted" helped to secure my nascent faith.

Subsequently the greater doctor gratiae Karl Barth has marginalised Tillich in my theological affections, but he remains a date I will never forget, and snide dismissals fill me (as they filled Barth) with dismay. Indeed Tillich's (in)famous "method of correlation", his attempt to mediate between religion and culture - which Barth rejected as a version of natural theology, declaring that revelation doesn't answer existential questions, it asks them - continues to be influential, overtly in David Tracy, implicitly in Pannenberg. At the very least it is a perennial discussion-starter.

David W. Congdon said...

The system is based on experience.

This is why, in the end, I have to reject Tillich. His understanding of revelation is not the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ but in the experience of being -- God as the "ground of being." By locating God here, he establishes a natural theology that renders the self-disclosure in the cross and resurrection marginal to the faith. His work is quite amenable to a pluralistic society which wants to find a "common ground" between religious systems. But when, as he says and others like J.A.T. Robinson follow, you can lose any of the names of God and still be a "believer" in the ground of all being, we have a serious problem which Barth is right to reject. We only know of God because of God's self-revelation in Jesus Christ; anything else is our experiential speculation.

Patrik said...

Well, that it is based on experience does not mean that it discards God's revelation. In fact, the point is that the answer containd in God's revelation can only be understood if the relate somehow to our experience.

Anonymous said...

Hi Patrik,

Of course revelation "relate[s] somehow to our experience" - but everything depends on this "somehow".

Against Tillich, Barth's position - gleaned from revelation itself - is that this "somehow" is not given with experience as such, as if we had an innate capacity for God, as if the experience of God were a human possibility, as if, from experience, we could pick the real God out of a line-up of divine impersonators, and God would throw up his hands and say, "Fair cop, guv."

In other words, there is no way of experiencing God apart from God introducing himself to us, and giving himself to us to be experienced, in the event of revelation itself. Revelation tells us that apart from revelation we are ignorant of God, and possess no criteria for determining the divine bona fides. Even our much-vaunted "search" for God is unmasked as a sham, like cats searching for a dog. We experience God only as the hound of heaven himself hunts us down, pounces and rips into our experience.

Which is not to say that God is knowable only in the event of Jesus Christ, but rather that the event of Jesus Christ is the only criterion for God's knowability. It is not that God is known because God is knowable -just the reverse: God is knowable because God is, in fact, known - in the event of Jesus Christ.

As Eberhard Busch sums up Barth's thinking on the issue: "The point is this. Only after we have recognized God where he has unambiguously revealed himself, can we then, afterwards, recognize the extent to which he may have revealed himself elsewhere." In various cultural phenomena, for example.

C. Stirling Bartholomew said...

My favorite story about Paul Tillich is from Bishop James Pike who claimed to have contact with the late Paul Tillich while communicating through a medium with the bishop's deceased son. Tillich told Pike he was looking after his son quote "He is surrounded by our Love" in a place the son describes in terms that could only mean hell.

James Chang said...

Sufficient to say that while Barth clearly stuck to the classically Platonic Christian worldview; Tillich subjectivize the whole thing. As such, although I hesitate, I would say he's basically in line with men like Kojeve and Hegel. Sometimes I would even wonder why the hell Tillich would even bother himself with the idea of God.

I am a Quaker, and modern liberal Quakers are big on this warm, fuzzy, I-could-so-feel-God thing. I'm so sick and tired of all these liberal bullshit. No you don't get to even *experience* the Spirit before you first die to yourself (Kierkegaard), and it is by setting yourself up as some being capable of comprehending the Spirit that you commit the unpardonable sin (blasphemy of the Spirit). When the Spirit does come, it comes out of nowhere, at a time that you have no foreknowledge of whatsoever (John). When it does come, it breaks you into pieces, it paralyzes you, and it is only after such reproof that it would redeem you and make you into a new creature (John Wesley; George Fox).

So much with warm, liberal fuzziness.

Timothy Miller said...

I find Paul Tillich quite helpful and delightful in asking the questions of a modern existentialist instead of parotting answers to questions no one is currently asking.

His method of correlation is brilliant - even though he and I would differ on what exactly constitutes the kerygma, even his explanation of it would no doubt be instructive and clarifying.

Of those who apparently don't find him helpful and feel the need to damn him to the lowest level of hell, I ask, why discard the wheat with the chaff? Surely you don't think he's wrong about everything? Hasn't he something about your Lord he can show you? Not a thing?

More or less helpful is perhaps a better dialectic than "right on all points or a damned heretic" when evaluating the thoughts of other mere mortals.

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