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.