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.


John L said...

"One then has a break with the tradition that Christians claim Jesus Christ fulfills."

Tracy, I would suggest that in "dying daily" we are constantly breaking from tradition, not to abandon it, but to transform it - from dead religion to living Spirit. HNY.

Tracy Witham said...

Hi John,

Great point. In fact if Tillich would have turned his theology into practical devotions, I think that would have been the central point.

The meaning of "transparency" is negative, i.e., no tradition, no one, nothing, can be a person's "ultimate concern" (God--faith object) without distorting that person morally and spiritually. That's straight Tillich. The "vision" side is that human beings are made in the image of God--and Jesus as the Son of God gives us that undistorted vision.

I think you'll find Tillich's take interesting and helpful, even if you don't swallow it whole.