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.

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