Saturday, January 31, 2009

See Gran Torino: Forget the Oscars

Just a very quick note to say that Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino is full of paradoxes, the foremost ones being (1) that an ostensibly racist old man demonstrates what it means to relate to other people on the basis of their character rather than their race, religion, etc., (2) that an ostensibly angry old man epitomizes selfless love, and (3) that an ostensibly anti-religious old man teaches the priest in the movie the essence of religion. The Gran Torino (car) in the movie instantiates the paradoxes (but I will not say why for the sake of those who have not seen the movie).

This movie makes a thoughtful viewer rethink what it means to be a good person. It does so by putting its hero in the body of an old, scowling, disillusioned man whose attitudes and language are not just politically incorrect, but the stereotype of racism in action. Yet Eastwood's character (Walt) comes to realize that "I have more in common with these people (his Hmong neighbors) than my own family."

By the end of Gran Torino it is apparent that Walt's anger and disillusionment come from his awareness that America has become superficial and spoiled, and that those who have the courage to buck the shallow values cannot be superficially identified by race or class or religion, etc. but only by their character. "Walt" may be the most unlikely character imaginable to embody Martin Luther King's goal to have it be the content of a person's character that matters, but that is what makes Gran Torino a wonderful movie--along with the terrific acting and compelling story. It is outrageous and funny and exciting and important in its ability to confront our easy assumptions.

The Academy has lost its credibility with me for failing to give Eastwood a single nomination for this terrific movie.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Last Comments on Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?

I exchanged comments on the Templeton Foundation's Big Questions site a few weeks back, again. It's been a good opportunity to think through this, well, big question. Having just checked out the site to copy the comments, I see that the "conversation" is winding down. In fact, it's beginning to look like I was the person most determined to get in the last word. Kind of embarrassing. But I'm done now, and maybe someone will come along and rescue me from taking "last place." :-)

You'll see that I used the quote from William James' Varieties that you see on the side bar.

RE: Whole Series
Eugene Bucamp
Let's go back to Tracy Witham's example (12/19) of the young person wondering whether "she should become a teacher to use her life to help others or become an actor to fulfill a personal passion," an example given, as he put it (01/10), to illustrate that "existential questions are not answered by science but can be answered by religion."

Witham may call this an existential question (I call this a moral question), but my point remains that Witham still has to show that belief in God helps. In my view, God does not exist, and values are formed in the crucible of our personal, social, and political relationships, through time, and so-called religious values are no exception. Like Witham put it, "human beings can decide what their lives are about." To claim that religion helps is to claim that it helps people find an appropriate response to moral problems. But how could we assess whether this is the case? As Witham contends, this is not a scientific issue, so presumably there is no way to do that. So we cannot assess Witham's claim, which is therefore gratuitous.

From a rational perspective, moral problems cannot be the object of any short-cut methodology. Science can help us guess to some extent what the near future will be, but it will never tell us all the consequences for all time of our actions now. This is the reason why we remain free. We are free because there is no rational methodology to tell us what our actions should be. Let me repeat that animals, small and large, as well as pre-historic man, including Australopithicus, Homo erectus, Homo neanderthal, and Homo sapiens have all thrived for eons without the support of the Ten Commandments. Witham may think religion or a belief in God can help, but he still needs to substantiate his claim, whereas we already know how science helps. Nobody really needs religion or a belief in God, but we are all free to soothe our anxieties as best we can.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham
Few educated people would choose scripture over science as a means of understanding the origin of the universe and its features. By that measure, science clearly makes belief in God obsolete. On an emotional level, things are less clear. Nature does inspire awe, and an understanding of science helps further those emotions. But it does not tie the awe to a sense of devotion to something greater than oneself the way belief in God does. That leaves a huge void for religion to fill when we consider the crucial aspects of human life that outstrip any factual understanding of the world that science can--even in principle--offer. Hopes, fears, desires, hunches, metaphysical speculations, etc. go beyond the known facts and yet serve to motivate us. Moral sensibilities, emotional commitments, and competing cultural values add further layers of complexity that no understanding of the "facts" that science might give us can encompass. In William James' words (conclusion to The Varieties of Religious Experience) "our overbeliefs are the most interesting and important things about us."

In comments exchanged here with Eugene Bucamp, I had assumed it would be obvious that, historically and factually, belief in God provides an authoritative center by which the diverse points of view--the hopes, fears, desires, morals, etc.--that are not subject to science can be ordered. Thus, my point is extremely simple, and can be conceived by imagining a simple Venn diagram. Science cannot rule in the crucial sphere of human understanding where "overbeliefs" play a major role in human life. That sphere has traditionally been the sphere of religion. Now Bucamp might think that science can eliminate all overbeliefs in some hypothetical future omniscience. In that case, it will certainly make belief in God obsolete. But I think that overbelief is based on a confusion. I believe that human beings will always face existential questions that science cannot answer, leaving the door open for religious beliefs of all kinds--including Bucamp's seeming faith in science.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Notes and a Paradox

Last Sunday morning I watched EWTN's Bookmark, on which Richard M. Hogan was interviewed about his book, The Theology of the Body. I learned that John Paul II had taken an existential approach to theology to make it more relevant to contemporary culture. That could also be said of Tillich's theology, which he framed as a "reinterpretation" for our time. But the outcome of John Paul II's thought was very different from Tillich's--though I say this as a person who knows very little about John Paul II's thought (I've got his Fides Et Ratio on a shelf somewhere, and have intended to read it).

Hogan neatly divided the intellectual orientation of those over 45 years old from those under this way. Those under tend to be inductive, subjective, and experiential in their thinking, whereas those over tend to be deductive, objective, and principled. The phenomenological/existential approach, according to Hogan, appealed to John Paul II, because it was a way for an older person to frame his thought in a way that would work for reaching younger minds. Since a second, more conservative take on the existential approach would be worthwhile, I plan to read Hogan's book, and will share it with you, if in fact it complementsTillich.

But in thinking about this, I realized something. I'm neither conservative nor liberal. If a conservative is one who concedes little or nothing to religion's (or culture's) critics and a liberal is ones who accedes much or all, theologically I am neither. I am, rather, an intellectual Christian who thinks that Christianity is not about the intellect, and yet thinks that to be intellectually honest one must have a good intellectual justification for that stance.

Paradoxically, this allows me to be both an intellectual and a non-intellectual when it comes to faith. Intellectuals tend to accede to faith's critics, not realizing that an intellectual approach to a conceptually transcendent object is impossible; conservatives tend to to define their approach to faith in contrast with faith's critics, making faith into a determination to concede nothing to faith's critics, and thus also not realizing that an intellectual approach--in their case an intellectual approach based on an anti-intellectualism--to a conceptually transcendent is impossible. Therefore, both conservative and liberal approaches to faith are fundamentally in error. In fact they make the same error.

Well, this week was very difficult at work and I must start work on a prototype this weekend, so these off the cuff comments take the place of the Tillich post I had intended to do. Nevertheless, I think it is a good thing to have revealed a little bit about the larger context I use to frame my thoughts. I look forward to continuing the posts on Tillich next week.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tillich Simplifying Tillich

I opened a book of Paul Tillich's sermons this week to see how he simplified his thought for presentation to groups that were not scholars of religion and theology. I was pleased to see that I can use his sermons to present his abstract theology in concrete terms. For example, here's a statement from Tillich's theology--extremely abstract as is typical--followed by a quote from a sermon that helps explain the theology. The subject is still "transparency."

"In every picture of [Jesus'] individuality appears his universal significance." (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 151.

"Jesus could have become an idol, a national and religious hero, fascinating and destructive. This is what the disciples and the masses wanted him to be. They saw Him, they loved Him, they saw with and through Him the good and the true, the holy itself. But they succumbed to the temptation of seeing [by making an idol of him]. They kept to that which must be sacrificed if God shall be seen with and through any mortal being. And when He sacrificed Himself, they looked away in despair... But He was too strong; He drew their eyes back to Him, but now to Him crucified. ...they say with Him and through Him the God who is really God. He who has seen Him has seen the Father: This is true only of the Crucified. But of Him it is true." ("Seeing and Hearing" in The New Being, p. 133.)

As we move through the main theological concepts that Tillich uses--transparency, estrangement, cross, ultimate concern, courage to be/destiny/freedom, the ground of Being--the structure of his thought will appear as though a jigsaw puzzle were being put together. I am very pleased to have discovered the help of Tillich's sermons as sources of simplification and guides to the correct extrapolation of his thought.

By the way, visit to see some beautiful pictures of steeple-topped churches of the Great Plains. The site does not include pictures of the prairie trinity together, as it focuses on the churches, but the churches are beautiful expressions of "the point" of Christian faith, with their cross-topped steeples.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Tillich's "Transparency" and All Roads Lead to Church

Three kinds of man-made structures are typically seen against the horizon of the Great Plains: grain elevators, water towers, and church steeples. And these three structures are related by the core symbols of the New Testament: "the bread of life"/communion, "living water"/baptism, and of course, the cross, which stands atop most steeples. (See, for example, Matthew 4:4 and John 4:11.) But is there a real link beyond the symbols' centrality in the New Testament?

I grew up on the Great Plains, and no town that I have ever seen lacked a steeple. Likewise grain elevators and water towers are ubiquitous. Since roads link the towns, in my experience all roads lead to church. But what's the point?

Clearly, the point of the symbolic linking is that the cross on top of the steeple is just as crucial to human life as is water and food. But is it really?

I think that a very simple and compelling case can be made that it is. People often do not get along. If the reasons for their disagreements are judged to be more important than keeping the peace, the peace will not be kept. What gatherings of people need, obviously, is something that effectively communicates the overriding need of loving one's neighbor, rather than fighting with her. Roads lead to churches because they preach that message and symbolize it on and by their steeples. They are needed in human communities just as water and grain is. (And on a side note, the role of so many churches in the so-called 'culture wars" puts that underlying reality in danger.) So steeples--or the counterparts in other religions-- belong with water towers and grain elevators, and the Church's core symbols express that connection: We do not live by bread and water alone.

This simple truth, however, is not an easy truth. Loving others as I love myself is more ambitious than doing just what I can get by with. And sometimes sacrifices must be made to keep the peace. That's the way the world is. The Church symbolizes that tough truth with the cross. In fact, if the truth weren't tough, there would be no need for cross-toped steeples. In Paul Tillich's words, "The Christ of the biblical picture takes upon himself the consequences of his tragic involvement in existence." (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 134.) And so this constitutes his transparency: "The decisive trait in [Jesus'] picture is the continuous self-surrender of Jesus who is Jesus to Jesus who is the Christ." (Ibid.) The transparency is this: Jesus getting out of the way for Christ to show us the way--and the way is symbolized by the cross. We need that picture, and we need to believe in it, just as we need the water towers and grain elevators. That's what the steeple, the elevator, and the water tower against the horizon of the Great Plains tell us. That's what the roads leading to prairie towns tell us. That's what the core Christian symbols tell us. And if you are a Christian, that's what your heart tells you.

[Note to readers: I had planed to simplify Tillich's ideas to make their importance clearer, since his extremely abstract style can be a barrier. But simplification required further abstraction yet, and the writing wasn't working. So I went the other direction here by making the ideas more concrete. It's a real challenge for me, but an enjoyable one... Thanks for your patience!]

Monday, January 12, 2009

More Templeton "Big Q" Comments

Here's one more exchange in the comment section of the Templeton Foundation's Big Question, "Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?"

RE: Whole Series
Eugene Bucamp
I fail to identify any substantive point in Tracy Witham's comment (12/19) or indeed in any of his previous comments. Animals, small and large, as well as prehistoric man...and Home sapiens have all thrived for eons without the support of the Ten Commandments. Witham may think religion or a belief in God can help, but he still needs to substantiate this strange notion, whereas we already know how science can help. Nobody really needs religion or a belief in God.

RE: Whole Series
What really needs to be done is to advance the whole "God" discussion. For example, it seems to me that the question is largely rhetorical, and many of the essayists said so in their opening statements. It is not about belief or if there is a God, but whether, if there is a God, you can prove it or not. It seems things like these could be organized on a flowchart of sorts--that is, let's clarify where to begin the discussion of God by discarding or explaining away the standard errors in logic.

RE: Whole Series
Tracy Witham
Eugene Bucamp (01/05/09) comments that he fails "to identify any substantive point" in the examples I gave to illustrate that existential questions are not answered by science but can be answered by religion (12/19/08). But then how could he, since he does not know what an existential question is? For Bucamp: Jean Paul Sartre's famous slogan, "existence precedes essence," is the usual shorthand way of defining existentialism. From it we are to grasp that--in contrast to other kinds of beings--human beings can decide what their lives are about.

Careers, moral frameworks, marriage, children, and, yes, belief in God are all subject to choices via values and assumptions that science cannot determine for us. Religion informs value systems and so helps answer existential questions in ways that science cannot. In a discussion about whether science makes belief in God obsolete, that is a very "substantive" point. I take this to be an instance of Mary Midgley's view that the question of God "is an element in something larger and more puzzling" than science considered apart from wider questions of human existence.

On a separate point I think that p (01/07/09) made a great suggestion: "let's clarify where to begin the discussion of God." How about starting with two separate definitions that would give us a real subject matter that everyone can subscribe to: 1. objectively, God is whatever explains the existence of the universe (or would explain it if human beings understood it), and 2. subjectively, God is whatever contributes most fundamentally to one's value systems. In both cases, "God" attains agreed upon "existence" via semantics, albeit semantics that retain core aspects of the traditional meaning of "God," and yet real referents are also given. It might be a way to start p's "flowchart."

Note to readers: The more i think about the difficulty of having a productive conversation about this issue the more I think that Tillich's contribution to it is crucial. I'll put the next Tillich post up on Saturday (the 17th).

Friday, January 9, 2009

Tillich's "Transparency of Jesus"--Why It's Needed

" abject is their punishment,
Disfiguring not God's likeness, but their own,
...since they
God's image did not reverence in themselves."
Paradise Lost, Book XI--520-25

One way, and I think it is a good one, of viewing Tillich's overall view of theology, is as an explanation of Milton's words, quoted above. If the gospels give us "a lens of transparent vision," as claimed in the first post, then presumably there is a need for the transparency and the "lens" which imparts it. A short recap of the first post will set up the metaphor.

There we considered what I called the "primary question" for understanding the gospel writers' message: How can Jesus be "a vision that imparts knowledge of God" from within a tradition that forbids any representation of God? Now there must be a negative as well as a positive answer to this primary question. The negative answer is that Jesus must been seen as a "transparent vision." As a "transparency," Jesus can then become the "lens" that makes it possible to see God, and as a "transparency" he thereby avoids being a literal image of God. In fact, his "transparency" consists precisely in his not being in any way an idol: something that is not God that is (supposedly, but impossibly) used to represent God. Tillich quotes from The Gospel According to John to make the basic point of "transparency," that one must avoid confusing "the bearer of the ultimate with the ultimate itself."1

"A protest against such a confusion is found in the Fourth Gospel, which has Jesus say: 'He who believes in me does not believe in me but in him who has sent me."2

This "negative" view is supported by the fact that there is no physical description of Jesus given in the gospels. And the only scriptural "exception," if it is taken to be one, is the exception that proves the rule: "...he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him." (From the description of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53) On a side point, that the gnostic gospels are in vogue as ways to shed light on the early church and perhaps the historic Jesus--since they clearly cannot be understood to function as answers to the primary question--shows that contemporary scholarship has taken a very wrong turn from the standpoint of historical analysis, not to mention faith.

In fact, the need for this "negative" aspect to an answer to the primary question makes the search for the historical Jesus into a search for an idol. It is a search for what the gospel writers left out precisely because it had to be! So it is ironic in the extreme that the inability of scholars to shed definite light on the historic Jesus is seen as a problem for faith: An understanding of the gospels from the perspective of the primary question tells us that it is Jesus' "transparency," and not his historicity, that the gospel writers wanted to confront their readers with. To understand this is to understand Paul Tillich's lack of concern with the historical Jesus, which was confronted in the first post in the form of a joke (recall: the story goes that Tillich was told that Jesus' bones were found to which he replies, "So, he really did exist, then?"). The joke is on the critics who don't understand what they are critiquing.

Moreover, a frank description of the "results" of biblical criticism is enlightening. In Harold Bloom's introduction to The Book of J he states, "...I will begin by pointing out that all of our accounts of the Bible are scholarly fictions or religious fantasies..."3 In Tillich's words the same point is made this way.

"Historical research... ...sketched 'Lives of Jesus.' But they were more like novels than biographies; they certainly could not provide a safe foundation for the Christian faith. Christianity is not based on the acceptance of a historical novel; it is based on the witness to the messianic character of Jesus by people who were not interested at all in a biography of the Messiah."4

What they were interested in, again, is how Jesus represented God to them, without violating the scriptural prohibition on representing God. The point of Tillich's metaphor of "transparency" is precisely that to represent Jesus' life, except as a means to representing God, is to misrepresent what his life was about in the minds of the gospel writers. And I have argued that it is in Tillich's thought that we find a theology that is consonant with what I have called the primary question.

We must also consider the positive side of the answer--how the end of representing God is reached without violating the prohibition behind the primary question. (The answer will be found in the idea that human beings are made in the image of God. To avoid the appearance of incoherence, I stress that ultimately the metaphor of transparency will be seen to rest on faith in a mystical analogy. And interestingly faith is contrasted with "vision" biblically just in the sense required: "Now faith is...the conviction of things not seen." (Hebrews 11:1) Faith thereby supplies what a vision cannot without violating the prohibition on representing God. The interesting thing here is that once we ask the primary question we can unpack the implicit rationale operating in the biblical narratives and teachings.)

But we do all this to no avail, unless we can show why it matters. And that is the reason Tillich stresses the correlation of faith's symbols with humanity's existential situation of estrangement. We will dig into the specifics of Tillich's use of the metaphor of "transparency" in the next post.

A final note of contrition. I wrote with conceit to the effect that I would make Tillich's difficult ideas easier to understand and appreciate. I must add to that now that if I am to do so, these posts will have to be read as first drafts in route to that goal. My defense in asking any readers that I have to remain with me is this: Tillich's thought is profound and insightful and repays serious effort. If I can point out a few of his main themes and make them understood, well, that can't help but be of interest to anyone who is wrestling with the meaning of faith and belief in God.

1. Dynamics of Faith, (Harper and Row, New York, 1957) p. 104.
2. Ibid.
3. Bloom in The Book of J, (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, 1990) p. 10.
4. Systematic Theology (The University of Chicago Press, 1975) p. 105.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Strength Can Be Weakness: Note to Readers

A quick comment on why I won't be posting on Tillich again till next weekend fits the general stated purposes of this blog: showing how the "point of view we take with respect to what we don't or can't know" has a big impact on our lives. In this case I'd like to make the point that something I can't know because it would require giftedness in an area where I have ordinary gifts (at best) makes me innovative in a significant way. For, paradoxically, lacking giftedness can be a gift--and since very few of us are gifted in all areas, think of this post as an incentive to love yourself and others for all of your, and their, quirks and deficits.

(For those of you who wish that I would write in simpler prose, you already think of my areas of giftedness--logic and language--as a deficit that impacts clear communication. That is, I display the reverse of my claim that a lack of giftedness can be a gift: the presence of giftedness can produce a deficit too. And viewed from the outside, it might not be apparent whether a person suffers from too little ability or too much. For instance, I recall well an English professor who celebrated a paper that I handed in in which I finally wrote in a style that he found suitably easy to read. Annoyed, I told him that since I didn't have anything very interesting to say, I thought I had better at least follow his advice. Life really is quite fun.)

To the point. I have rather poor visual intelligence. As a consequence, if I am to think of a way to accomplish a goal that requires visual intelligence to conceive, it will only be really simple ways of accomplishing the goal that I come up with. But, assuming that there is such a way, simplicity is often good thing. It tends toward elegance, and structural integrity, and, practically speaking, relative ease of manufacture. And by eliminating complexity it can mean saving in areas like weight and resources.Simplicity can be really cool! And you can think of my deficit of visual intelligence as functioning like "conceptual gravity" attracting only really simple solutions to problems requiring visual intelligence, well then my simple mind (visually) is a good mind.

I will have to wait till next weekend to post further on Tillich, because I had a breakthrough in designing my next rowing prototype. It's really simple--and will save resourses and cost and make for greater efficiency and will look a lot better than my previous design. And all that because I'm not very smart in the way most relevant to creating that design. Very cool.

Well, I half lied. The other reason why I won't be posting on Tillich till the weekend is that I have to do my year-end bookkeeping for my little startup company.

But let's focus on the positive. Dumb can be smart. Or if you enjoy focusing on the negative, in which case it is negative to focus on the positive, smart can be dumb...


More Tillich on the 10th or 11th. And I do hope that this doesn't convince any of you that Tillich is too complicated to be worth the effort. You see, not everything worth knowing is simple...

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Lens of Transparent Vision: Tillich Introduction

If God cannot be represented (second commandment; Deut. 5: 8-10; Ex. 20: 4-6), how is it possible for a specific man of history to be the true representation of God to humanity? This is not a question for an idle conceptual game. If one looks to the tradition out of which Christianity arose, it must be the primary question. For apart from a compelling answer one does not have a coherent way to claim that in Jesus of Nazareth human beings encountered God. One then has a break with the tradition that Christians claim Jesus Christ fulfills. The solution to this question is therefore central and primary for Christian faith.

The following is a metaphor borrowed from New Testament scripture to use in approaching this primary question, and used as the title for this post: "The Lens of Transparent Vision." Now a "vision" is something seen, whereas to be "transparent" is to be something through which something else is seen. A transparent vision, then, is an oxymoron. That is, unless there is a specific circumstance that turns the meaning of the concepts inside out.

Imagine that there is a race of people who are blind, but for whom a special lens has been made that can cure their blindness. For that people the lens would constitute a transparency that creates vision, and by so doing it would bring an awareness of light into their world. It seems that the gospel writers viewed the entire human race as "blind" in just this sense, and that they viewed the gospel as providing a lens to see the light--and thus cure their blindness.

My Bible lies open to the end of Luke and beginning of John. On its pages I can read "'These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.' Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and said to them, 'Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations..." (Luke 24: 44-47) And in John, "The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God..." (John 1: 9-12)

These quotes suggest that the gospel writers were wrestling with the primary question of how the story of Jesus the Christ can represent God to us, can be for us a vision that imparts knowledge of God. Clearly these quotes address the conceptual puzzle contained in this primary question: "...he opened their minds to understand the scriptures," and " The true light that enlightens every man...was in the world...yet the world knew him not. But to all who received him...he gave power to become children of God..." For clearly something very like a conceptual lens that opens one's understanding and shows us "the Way" is at work here. And it is this very conceptual lens that must be in place to see Jesus as the Christ imparting a vision of God to us rather than a radical break with the tradition out of which the expectation of the Christ arose. In short, something very like the answer to the question that had to be primary in the minds of a group of Jewish believers in First Century Palestine must be found in the gospels, and is, I believe.

This resolution of the gospel story as a break with the tradition out of which it came seems top have been the foremost "problem" on the minds of the gospel writers, both in terms of giving the gospel story "truth traction" in its native land and giving it conceptual coherence in its native tradition. Thus, the idea of the gospel story as a lens by which those who "receive it" can now see the truth about God seems especially apt, as the gospel quotes here indicate. And if we go to the first gospel (in terms of its writing) we see the vision of Jesus as the Son of God presented literally at the point that Jesus is introduced: "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, 'Thou art my beloved Son..." (Mark 1: 9-11)

And so I make an immodest claim. If we do not ask the primary question of how a man can represent God to humanity from within a tradition in which God cannot be represented, we do not understand the gospels. For the answer to that question is the lens through which the gospel is presented. In fact, to fail to perceive the answer to that primary, implicit question is to ignore the historical reality in which devout Jewish people proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God and the Christ. It is bewildering that this is not the central piece in the puzzle both of Christian believers and scholars who employ methodical doubt in approaching the historical rise of the Christian faith. For neither group can make sense of what they seek to know apart for seeing Jesus' life as the answer to this primary question.

It is Paul Tillich who best understood this interface between the primary question of faith and historical research and how Jesus is presented as the answer to it. But Tillich did not communicate the nature of that interplay clearly enough for lay readers or even the majority of scholars, I am afraid, to appreciate his interpretive lens. And so I take up that task here; not as a scholar, but as someone who appreciate the contribution to this core insight, this primary insight, this crucial insight, into Christian faith. It is a contribution that makes of Jesus a lens of transparent vision onto God, no less.

Tillich speaks to the need for that transparency here:

"The question of the final revelation is the question of a medium of revelation which overcomes its own finite conditions by sacrificing them, and itself with them. He who is the bearer of the final revelation must surrender his finitude--not only his life but his finite power and knowledge and perfection. In doing so he confirms that he is the bearer of the final revelation (the 'Son of God' in classical terms). He become completely transparent to the mystery he reveals."1

Tillich's writing style is itself not entirely transparent. Nevertheless, in my estimation he is the most important theologian for understanding and appreciating the Christian faith from the perspective of its primary question. And yet in the eyes of many his work abandons faith. That makes for an interesting paradox; one we need to confront from the start. An old joke about him will convey it.

Antiquities scholars are unanimous: Jesus' bones have been discovered. And so the question arises, how to tell the faithful the news? It is decided that Tillich is the man for the job, at which point he is contacted and after hearing the news says, "So, you're saying there really was a Jesus, then?"2

How is it possible that Tillich rates so highly--has priority as the theologian who understands and responds to the primary question of Christianity--in my estimation and can be the butt of a joke for having abandoned faith in another sense? It is because, in his words, "It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identify it with the belief in the historical validity of the Biblical stories."3

Yet, from the first, faith in the historical Jesus of Nazareth has been preached. "Men of Israel, here these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God..." (From Peter's Pentecost sermon in Acts 1) And as Tillich states, "This [confusing belief in the historicity of the New Testament narrative with Christian faith]...happens on high as well as on low levels of sophistication."4

The question here, I believe, is the same as that with which be began. That is, it is the primary question: How can a human being represent God to us and be seen as a coherent fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures? And the answer here, again, must be by becoming a transparency--in the sense described above--by which the light that illuminates God is seen. Those who saw Jesus saw God; and in saying that it must be emphasized that in Jesus a transparency that allowed God to be seen was present. His humanity functioned as a "lens" by which God was revealed. Otherwise, one is guilty of idolatry. If we read Tillich's theology as an answer to this question, then we are able to laugh at the joke that pokes fun at his apparent lack of concern with the historicity of the gospel accounts. It will takes several posts to make this plain.

Whether there is a back door to belief in the historicity of the narratives through faith is a separate question, and one which Tillich neglected. Accordingly, it will fall to the end of these posts on Tillich, when it is appropriate to appraise the value of his theology to consider it. Here it is enough to know that I view his thought as crucial for our time precisely because it is easy for faith to confuse belief in the gospel accounts or even in the narrative about Jesus for the object of Christian faith, when it is precisely a belief that those narratives and that the man Jesus make God transparent that is the object of Christian faith, correctly understood.

It is the purpose of the coming posts to specify just what this means as understood from the writings of Paul Tillich. There could scarcely be a more crucial "clarity" for Christians to seek than this one, both for our present moment and perennially.

1. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. I (The University of Chicago Press, 1951) p. 134.
2. Joke simplified from version told by Michael Goulder in "Jesus, The Man of Universal Destiny," in The Myth of the God Incarnate, ed. John Hick (The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1977) p. 48. Goulder's account of how to glean an understanding of the historic person from the New Testament narratives of Jesus in this essay is the best simple account that I have ever read. Yet he--and The Myth of the God Incarnate as a whole--fails to see the gospel narratives as implicit answers to this primary question. That crucial omission relegates the majority of historical research into the origins of the gospels to near irrelevance: the main point of the exposition is left out!
3. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (Harper and Row, New York, 1957) p. 87.
4. Ibid.