Friday, October 10, 2008

Into the World--Chapter Eight: Tillich's Challenge

Paul Tillich wrote, “A word is spoken to someone; the ‘inner word’ is the awareness of what is already present and does not need to be said.”1 He connects that comment to the voice of God as conscience, noting that as an historic fact, the inner word has been “more and more identified with the logical and ethical norms which constitute the rational structure of mind and reality. The voice of revelation was replaced by the voice of our moral conscience, reminding us of what we already know.”2 In short, an “inner word” communicates nothing if it duplicates the “ethical norms” which inform “the voice of our moral conscience.” Since I have argued that the hypothesis that The Gospel According to John portrays the divine Logos as “speaking” to Pilate through Pilate’s conscience at the very moment that Pilate asks his famous question, Tillich’s view clearly needs to be incorporated into our understanding of the Gospel narrative.

In fact, I concede that the trial scene does not inform conscience in any critical way at the level of ordinary analysis, by which I mean this. Anyone Pilate judged to be innocent but for whom stating their innocence could have harmed Pilate’s standing as the Roman Governor would have put him in substantially the same position as did Jesus’ case. Yet there is another sense in which the scene changes everything. For since John’s Jesus claimed to be, in effect, the king of truth giving testimony to the truth, we cannot interpret the meaning of his words at the level of ordinary analysis. We must seek an extraordinary meaning.

The weak part of Tillich’s statements about the inner word is the opening assertion that “A word is spoken to someone…”3 In fact, that is often false, since language functions apart from communication between persons. At this very moment I am using language to clarify and make explicit my thoughts on this very subject, and my use of language to do so does not depend on having a reader or hearer for my words. When we add that Tillich wrote about a revelation that has come into the world, however, his point is inescapable with respect to the present impasse. For that something new has come “into the world,” something that reveals “the truth” about this world, is impossible to claim unless that truth can be judged to be true with respect to this world. But in that case an examination of this world should reveal that truth without Jesus’ help; and more importantly, without requiring belief in him (unless belief is Jesus is equated with belief in the truth he reveals). This is a real conundrum in addressing the meaning of the text. Without a solution it becomes impossible to see how Jesus testimony (John 18: 37 ) can be seen as in any way necessary to understanding the truth, let alone Jesus being identified with it (John 14: 6).

The solution comes in two parts, with the easy part first. Anyone who has experiences that someone else has not had can inform the inexperienced person about the “truth” regarding the wider experience. Jesus’ parables explaining what the kingdom of heaven is like all fit that mode of explanation. It is a mode that depends on an analogy between the wider experience of the person doing the explaining and the narrower experience of the person listening to the explanation. Since our focal text begins with Jesus’ claim that “My kingdom is not from this world…” this easy part of the explanation fits our text precisely.

The harder part is to understand how Jesus can testify to “the truth” (John 18: 37) or be “the truth” (John 14: 6) in a meaningful way. For instead of setting up an analogy between his wider truth and his hearers’ narrower experience, Jesus’ words claim something far grander for which there seemingly can be no analogy in his hearers’ experience: “Truth” itself. Granted, the “Logos” claim from John’s Prologue does make a fittingly grand claim on Jesus’ behalf, but in that case Platonism and Stoicism have already “revealed” the truth that Jesus claimed for himself and his testimony, and he did not need to come into the world. Furthermore, we have already seen that the metaphysical luster that those philosophical schools may have lent the Johannine text has faded. A suitable meaning particular to our text is, therefore, needed.

If we press the view that the voice of conscience is Jesus’ voice in the Johannine text, we gain the possibility that Jesus’ words inform the true meaning of conscience. In that case we must have default false meanings in place to which Jesus’ life and words bring the truth—at least to those who listen to him and understand the meaning of his life. What might that truth to which Jesus’ life testifies be, and just as importantly, what are the default false meanings against which Jesus’ life exemplifies living in accord with conscience?

The answer is that Jesus’ life and words bring clarity to an almost hopelessly ambiguous word: “good.” First, consider the extraordinary ambiguity. Different peoples define “good” differently. Different people within different people groups define good differently. Different contexts imply a sense of “good” particular to them, thus multiplying the possible sense of “good” indefinitely, both for individuals and groups. There is “good” as an ideal, and there is “good” as a practical goal which takes into account the extent to which it is possible to realize an ideal good. There are overarching ideas of goodness, and there goods that are contingent, and there is disagreement about which is which. In consequence just about anyone can create a sense in which their idea of good couples with their life in a way that endorses just about any behavior.

In Plato’s Euthryphro Socrate’s asks, “...whether the beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved...?”4 One may be forgiven, perhaps, for asking which gods, and whose idea of holiness, and why should I give credence to any possible answer that does not suit me? In default of a really good answer, one’s idea of goodness has not just a wax nose, but a wax head and neck and torso and limbs.

A person who is not taken by the strength of moral skepticism has never considered it carefully. In a world where not just differing ideals struggle for supremacy, but life itself is the ongoing record of who has won, perhaps it is best to admit that there must be winners and losers and to view the deeper moral questions as a luxury that must be set aside precisely when the questions become tough.

If so, Pilate was right to condemn an innocent man to death rather than to allow his loyalty to Rome to be put in question. If so, the religious leaders were right to arrest Jesus as a threat not only to their authority but to the delicate peace that preserved their nation. If so, the crowd was right to celebrate Jesus when he appeared to be a credible “messiah,” and then to turn on him when he failed to fulfill their hopes. In short, it is entirely defensible to put one’s self-interest over abstract moral principles: One can always weigh the greater good in terms of self-interest. If an innocent man is blamed, condemned, killed, one cannot always make everything right, and ought not to be expected to sacrifice the concrete, actual goods that make one’s life worth living for an abstraction one can live without. On this view, a person does not solve the problem of moral ambiguity. One decides for oneself what is best for oneself using one’s own criteria.

What, then, is the alternative? The only way to find moral clarity is to decide not to tie one’s moral perspective to oneself, or to any other limited perspective, but to commit oneself to the abstract idea that everyone should be treated with the same respect. On this view one must be willing to sacrifice self-interest to one’s commitment to the equal dignity of all people. In the words of The Gospel According to John, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away…” (John 10: 11, 12)

Hidden in a children’s story is a sophisticated realism about moral commitment. For some, moral ideals represent contingent goods that can be abandoned when it doesn’t pay to “stay on.” These are the “hired hands,” and their moral perspective is literally self-justified. Others are committed—at least as an ideal—to loving others with their lives without respect to self-interest. Such is the good shepherd. And of course the narrative of the trial and crucifixion is precisely the depiction of Jesus as the good shepherd who lays down his life for “the sheep.”

What, then, does the narrative offer us as “revelation”? It offers us the revelation that conscience clarified by a commitment to love others as we love ourselves is rooted in a reality deeper than the confusing moral ambiguities that we encounter in this world. It is a revelation that requires that greater reality to come into our world in order to give testimony to it, as the facts of this world will not support such a faith, unless one has faith that Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth: hence the Christian insistence on the central importance of belief in Jesus the Christ, and that answers Paul Tillich’s objection.

If we see conscience as crucial to what it means to be human, we are left with this observation made by Gabriel Marcel:

There is no shared ground on which common sense and the hero or martyr could meet; they are like two axes that can never intersect. In itself, sacrifice seems madness; but a deeper reflection…enables us…to recognize and to approve it as a worthy madness. We understand that if a man were to shirk from such a madness, he would be falling below himself. The truth seems to be that…there is no middle ground between the subhuman and the superhuman.5

John’s Gospel presents that choice to us as one of belief or disbelief in Jesus, the Word of God, the Son of God, the divine Logos, come into the world to testify to the truth. In Part Two we consider philosophical challenges to the authenticity of this core human existential dilemma.

1. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. I (The University of Chicago Press, 1973) p. 125.
2. Ibid
., p. 126.
3. Ibid
., p. 125.
4. The Works of Plato, Jowett tr., (The Modern Library, New York, 1956) p. 46.
5. Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being, Vol. I: Reflection and Mystery (St. Augustine’s Press, South Bend, 2001) p. 166.

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