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!]

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