Tillich’s Missteps

I have a great admiration for the work of Paul Tillich. I consider him one of the greatest modern theologians. However, I do think that Tillich made a misstep in his core ontology that destined his theology to be less than adequate for the 3rd millennium.

Tillich adopts a version of the Greek ontology that dates at least back to Plato. Plato’s allegory of the cave is a good example of this ontology. In this allegory Plato uses the illustration of shadows on the cave wall that are created from eternal forms or ideas but in this world they are distorted. This creates an ontology where there is a “perfect” essence but an imperfect existence to things. Tillich adopts something similar to this where he summarizes the flow of being from essence to existence (and estrangement) to return to the divine ground (essentialization).

Now this may seem like a reasonable ontology given the evil we find in our world. But the consequences of this ontology is that it places a negative connotation on existence as estrangement. In Tillich’s theology in existence we are estranged from the ground of our being and find ourselves in ambiguous life where we only fragmentarily participate in the divine. While it is true that life is ambiguous, what does this mean? If it is framed under the rubric of estrangement this colors all the subsequent theology in negative ontological terms. With this and Tillich’s method of correlation, there will necessarily be a core rejection of existence as it is and the need for a “New Creation, New Being”, one with unambiguous life. But what would such a life be like? It is on this point that I find some confusing theology from Tillich concerning blessedness which I think he would attribute to this “New Creation, New Being” he writes:

This leads to a fundamental assertion: The Divine Life is the eternal conquest of the negative; this is its blessedness. Eternal blessedness is not a state of immovable perfection — the philosophers of becoming are right in rejecting such a concept. But the Divine Life is blessedness through fight and victory.” Systematic Theology, Vol 3, p. 405

If the Divine Life is blessedness through fight and victory this necessarily entails an eternal conflict, not an ultimate resolution. Tillich states elsewhere that the negative is a necessary component of life. If this is so then it is hard for me to understand Tillich’s soteriology.

The paradox of the Christian message is in one personal life essential manhood has appeared under the conditions of existence without being conquered by them. Systematic Theology II, 94.

This is truly a fundamental assertion in Tillich’s theology. Here we see Tillich’s reliance on the Greek paradigm of essence and existence, with existence being some distorted type of being. But is this the only way to view the importance of the life of Jesus and the subsequent profound theology that ensued? Does Jesus overcome estrangement or is it possible to frame his extraordinary life in a different way? I think there is. In my view, the event of the life of Jesus is not a one time unique event that is the center of history as Tillich states. Rather individuals like Jesus are with us always, embracing the depth of their being in the divine life and creating victory in the face of the negatives they experience. Today in 3rd millennium theology we can no longer embrace a one time unique event of one human being as the focal point of “salvation”, but instead we should see blessedness in the ubiquitous events in everyday life by everyday people who face the struggles of life, draw on the depth of their being in God, and freely choose the good.

Existence is not estrangement from God but God engaging in existence, as it eternally and beautifully is. Perhaps the paradox that Tillich posits is not really a paradox but a seamless flowing of God’s self as a Living God. Tillich was profoundly influenced by existential thought and he experienced the great horrors of war first hand as a chaplain in World War I. I have to wonder if this background, his intimate familiarity with Greek thought, and his ties to Christian theology made this line of thinking inevitable. I also wonder what Tillich’s theology would have been like if he had opted for a more positive ontology.

4 thoughts on “Tillich’s Missteps

  1. Maybe Ken Wilber is the closest to the 3rd millennium theology you are getting at here. Or check out Paul Smith’s Integral Christianity which takes Wilber’s framework and applies it to the Christian message. I think you are articulating this integral view discussed in their work.

    “Existence is not estrangement from God but God engaging in existence, as it eternally and beautifully is.”
    – Isn’t Tillich careful to state (and restate) that it is both, that existence is estrangement (the word used here as a symbol rather than the human notion of alienation, hostility, disaffection) from the ‘realm’ of God or the true essence as well as including an engaged God?

    See this statement in Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 on pg.28:
    “The word “pessimism” should be avoided in connections with descriptions of human nature, for it is a mood, not a concept or description….Essential as well as existential elements are always abstractions from the concrete actuality of being, namely, Life….For the sake of analysis, however, abstractions are necessary, even if they have a strongly negative sound. And no existentialist analysis of the human predicament can escape this, even if it is hard to bear — as the doctrine of sin always has been in traditional theology.”

    So, are you getting at the fact that a new language shall be used? Estrangement is one of those terms he claims to be loaded with meaning, especially pessimistic…so are abstractions still necessary? Is there a better way? Can we have a more positive theology? (Is this what you are getting at here?) I believe that his theology is positive, though he must allow for us to reach the ultimate ground, whether positive or negative in our eyes, through the positive and negative experience of human existence, to reach that higher place, or stage, of realization of Love, etc..

    You:
    “But is this the only way to view the importance of the life of Jesus and the subsequent profound theology that ensued? Does Jesus overcome estrangement or is it possible to frame his extraordinary life in a different way? I think there is. In my view, the event of the life of Jesus is not a one time unique event that is the center of history as Tillich states. Rather individuals like Jesus are with us always, embracing the depth of their being in the divine life and creating victory in the face of the negatives they experience.”

    I have yet to read this section of Vol II, but isn’t he using Jesus as the symbol for all of mankind, or “essential manhood?” Isn’t his New Being the symbol that can be used by each individual to realize their depth and reach salvation? I am slowly chugging along Volume II now and know my understanding is limited. I too have reached the conclusion that we are amongst enlightened individuals and that to focus solely on Jesus may be limited…so what do we do? Maybe his ontology is stretching the negative elements of being beyond necessity. I do see a handful of deep thinkers treading in the positive direction. And we all are reaching for the postive in some way, aren’t we?

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  2. Maybe Ken Wilber is the closest to the 3rd millennium theology you are getting at here. Or check out Paul Smith’s Integral Christianity which takes Wilber’s framework and applies it to the Christian message. I think you are articulating this integral view discussed in their work.

    I’ve read some of Wilber’s works and can’t really make very much out of it. It’s too all over the place. People like Wilber and Depak Chopra can be popular because what they say seems profound but in reality it’s just unsystematic gobbledygook.

    Isn’t Tillich careful to state (and restate) that it is both, that existence is estrangement (the word used here as a symbol rather than the human notion of alienation, hostility, disaffection) from the ‘realm’ of God or the true essence as well as including an engaged God?

    Tillich was a complex thinker. In reading his works he often tries to “thread the needle” in a dialectic. So this means that he makes statements that may seem a bit contradictory but they are in fact just an attempt to navigate the subtleties of the issue.

    The problem is that in Christianity, Jesus is posited as a cosmic unique event with regard to reality. He is essential humanhood within existence. I don’t know how else one could take that except to say that there is something in reality that needs to be fixed and Jesus as the Christ represents that fix. This is why I say that this represents a negative view of reality as it is. This is that platonic view like the metaphor of the cave where the shadows represent the essential nature and the cave dwellers present the existential distortion of that essential being.

    My view is that this reality is, ontologically as it is supposed to be and that there is no essential being that is “better”. What is better is to embrace the divine depth in everything and try to instantiate its goals in this life. This is not an ontological change but rather a practical embracing of “the good”.

    See this statement in Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 on pg.28:
    “The word “pessimism” should be avoided in connections with descriptions of human nature, for it is a mood, not a concept or description….Essential as well as existential elements are always abstractions from the concrete actuality of being, namely, Life….For the sake of analysis, however, abstractions are necessary, even if they have a strongly negative sound. And no existentialist analysis of the human predicament can escape this, even if it is hard to bear — as the doctrine of sin always has been in traditional theology.

    The text I bolded demonstrates where Tillich is stuck with the ancient Christian legalism that I think spawned it’s theology. If the primary existential issue is misdeeds (i.e. sin) then this leads to a legal remedy. The legal debt must be paid so there is a need for atonement, an ultimate sacrifice that Jesus provided. The theology or religious philosophy emerges according to the essential existential issues it focuses on. In Christianity the focus was on sin and guilt so the answer was atonement. In Buddhism the primary existential issue was suffering so the answers offered were detachment, illusion, and right living. The answers are determined by the questions. Tillich was clear about this with his method of correlation. The issue Tillich had to deal with was that he had to look for the answers within the Christian tradition. Since the Christian tradition focused heavily on the law and atonement, that limited the scope of both the existential questions and their answers.

    I have yet to read this section of Vol II, but isn’t he using Jesus as the symbol for all of mankind, or “essential manhood?” Isn’t his New Being the symbol that can be used by each individual to realize their depth and reach salvation? I am slowly chugging along Volume II now and know my understanding is limited. I too have reached the conclusion that we are amongst enlightened individuals and that to focus solely on Jesus may be limited…so what do we do? Maybe his ontology is stretching the negative elements of being beyond necessity. I do see a handful of deep thinkers treading in the positive direction. And we all are reaching for the postive in some way, aren’t we?

    I don’t think “salvation” is what should be the goal. Salvation from what? The goal, I think, should be to embrace “the good” found in the divine depth in all of us and live accordingly. There is no salvation (“new being” or a “new heaven and earth”), there is only life and how it is lived in the here and now. What happens after death is unknown except that each life is eternal in the mind of God.

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  3. On Wilber:
    Maybe a general understanding of Wilber’s system would help clarify some of your own theology, though not necessary. It is useful as a framework and is quite systematic, though wading through his process at reaching the point is often gobbledygook, and his analysis of Aurobindo and many others often shifts their words to fit into his framework.

    On Tillich’s missteps:
    In my layman’s understanding, Tillich develops a God that is a bit beyond what any Christian theology had previously developed and, I believe, it is a necessary God, a necessary progression of the idea of God in order to encapsulate all of Being/Nonbeing.

    Since the Christian tradition focused heavily on the law and atonement, that limited the scope of both the existential questions and their answers.

    As I interpret your conclusions here, as Tillich develops the idea of the New Being, one that can carry the essential torch to the existential realm, his incorporation of the Christian New Being as seen in Jesus as the Christ automatically limits this God as the ground of being. The use of ‘salvation’ and ‘healing’ or “redemption’ makes sense as he redefines or gives a sort of secular clarity to the Christian terms, but is it necessary to come from this point, to utilize Christian thought in such an all encompassing framework? It is a tough question with various answers.

    Initially, once I gave full attention to his ST, I wanted a perfect framework. He was ‘on the boundary’ of some new thinking and was taking God and the human experience to a new level of understanding. He then limits this system by zooming in on Christian legalism, symbols, etc. He did seem to reach a strong secular and Christian audience but the critics were not ready for this type of theology. The secular in me shuns his sole focus on Christianity (it is Systematic Theology, not Systematic Christian theology, right?); the Christian has difficulty accepting such abstract ideas. I can only hope that one reads with an open mind.

    Can Tillich be revived today, can his missteps be shifted into a better pattern? As I read the introduction to Volume III, I see his disclaimer that his ST is far from perfect, nor can it be. It is a product of his age, and will need the criticism and revision to apply to different historical contexts. Not all theologians would be willing to admit this. I am highly anticipating the reading of Volume III and the digging into your theology as provided on this site.

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  4. I was probably too hasty in my characterization of Wilber’s thought. I started reading Wilber many years ago but he didn’t appeal to me in many of the same ways Hindu thought didn’t. Now maybe my opinion about him is borne out of not studying him thoroughly but his approach just rubbed me the wrong way. It’s extremely complex, speculative, and category/mapping crazy. (I mean just look at this) Every new work of his seems to create a new map, categories, or heuristic. While Wilber’s thought is systematic in that there is an effort to fit things together, I also think a system should be elegant. I like Einstein’s approach when he said “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler”. There should be a reasonable balance. I think this particularly applies to metaphysics. When systems like Wilber’s, Aurobindo’s, and other Hindu and Buddhist systems get overly elaborate with their speculations, I get a feeling something is amiss.

    I also think a systematic theology should be actionable without having to go to a guru or study and practice a system for years. If a systematic theology can’t be actionably accessible to ordinary folk then I think that is flat wrong. It stinks of elitism. The power of the Christian message is that it is accessible and actionable to anyone no matter their intellect, education, or situation in life. That’s why I took the minimalist approach to the DLC system. I didn’t get the impression that Wilber’s system would be accessible to common folk. Also as I remember, both he and Aurobindo have a hierarchy of being where only those who dedicate their lives to the system can attain the higher orders. In my view, a cleaning lady working 60 hr weeks to support her family with very little education can be just as saintly a person as anyone else. To me that person embraces the divine depth within them without having to know some complex system.

    Now I’m not saying that learning and studying a religious system is worthless. To the contrary. Everyone can benefit from study and practice. But some people are naturally intuitive when it comes to spiritual matters. Most of us aren’t. We have to work at it. We need guidance anywhere we can find it. But I don’t think that study has to be of a complex, highly speculative type.

    As I interpret your conclusions here, as Tillich develops the idea of the New Being, one that can carry the essential torch to the existential realm, his incorporation of the Christian New Being as seen in Jesus as the Christ automatically limits this God as the ground of being. The use of ‘salvation’ and ‘healing’ or “redemption’ makes sense as he redefines or gives a sort of secular clarity to the Christian terms, but is it necessary to come from this point, to utilize Christian thought in such an all encompassing framework? It is a tough question with various answers.

    Well I don’t think Tillich’s “New Being” terminology is helpful when understood in the context of his essentialist/existentialist ontology. As I said before, this says there needs to be an ontological fix in the offing (essential being in existence). My view is that existence is as it should be and the purpose is for existential beings to embrace their divine depth and instantiate “the good” in this current life.

    Can Tillich be revived today, can his missteps be shifted into a better pattern? As I read the introduction to Volume III, I see his disclaimer that his ST is far from perfect, nor can it be. It is a product of his age, and will need the criticism and revision to apply to different historical contexts. Not all theologians would be willing to admit this. I am highly anticipating the reading of Volume III and the digging into your theology as provided on this site.

    I think Tillich’s thought is still very relevant but more for its rigor, method and some metaphysical insights and less from it’s specifically Christian content. I think there are some great insights I have drawn greatly from. I think his Dimension of Depth is an enormously powerful concept. It is one of the key components of my system.

    An interesting thing I learned about Tillich was that towards the end of his life he regretted that he hadn’t been able to spend enough time on the other world religions. I think religious pluralism was weighing heavily on him and I wonder if he had taken a broader approach to theology than just Christianity if his theology would have been markedly different. With his great mind, I think it would have. This is a problem with academic theology. All one has to do is scan the theological programs out there in university and it’s easy to see that while there is some attention given to other systems, invariably the curriculum is all about some particular tradition.

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