Saturday, February 7, 2009

Tillich on Transcendence

Every coherent theology must make the question of transcendence central and primary. The classic expression comes from Thomas Aquinas' great Summa (Part I, Question I, Article 1): "...[humanity] is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of [its] reason."

Here is Paul Tillich's statement, which is couched in the context of his section on "The Reality of God" from Vol. I of his Systematic Theology: "The crucial question must now be faced. Can a segment of finite reality become the basis for an assertion about that which is infinite? The answer is that it can, because that which is infinite is being itself [which Tillich identifies with God] and because everything participates in being itself." (p. 238)

It is fun to get to this point in studying the thoughts of a truly great thinker, where the major parts can be fit in place according to the principles that determine them. Starting with Tillich's definition of God as Being Itself, we can trace his connection of concepts as diverse as essence, freedom, morality, humanity, love (agape), and transcendence as connected directly to his starting point. It is the last, "transcendence," will be the key to seeing the theological circle that Tillich sets up.

How is it, in light of Tillich's statement above, that humanity "participates in being itself"? Because we have a sense of how we ought to be, we have an essence: a defining sense of ideal humanity against which we measure our individual humanity. But please do not think that this individual sense is something that can be "cloned." We are individual persons with unique histories and perspectives by which we weigh experiences and ideas in light of their impact on our destinies. We need to unpack this cluster of notions.

We are moral beings; we have senses of "ought"--derived from norms, ideals, goods, virtues, moral perspectives, etc.--to which we assent and to which we feel obligation. But it is only when we connect these external "oughts" to a sense of destiny that takes the oughts and combines them with our individual sense of how we should live that we make them ours, that we combine our "senses of ought" with individual senses of how we can participate fully as human beings to realize those "oughts." In short, we assent to our destiny as human beings by acting on our senses of how we ought to live.

But that implies that we combine freedom--implied by the assent--with a sense of destiny. An extended quote will help (the first portion was quoted in last week's post).

"...a large amount of material is present in the psychological center--drives, inclinations, desires, more or less compulsory trends, moral experiences, ethical traditions and authorities, relations to other persons,k csocial conditions. But the moral act is not the diagonal in which all these vectors limit each other and converge; it is the centered self which actualizes itself as a personal self by distinguishing, separating, rejecting, preferring, connecting, and in doing so, transcending its elements. The act...in which this happens has the character of freedom...in the sense of a total reaction of a centered self which deliberates and decides. Such freedom is united with destiny in such a way that the psychological naterial which enters into the moral act represents the pole of destiny, while the deliberating and deciding self represents the pole of freedom... (Systematic Theology, Vol. III, p. 27-8, emphasis added.)

Given the shortest possible expression, freedom is choosing to live authentically (or, to be fully human) the subject of Tillich's The Courage to Be. This might still seem a bit counterintuitive. But combining this aspect of Tillich's view of human freedom with his statement that our decision making process represents a transcending of self will help.

If I were to shoot off a bottle rocket on the Fourth of July, a rocket scientist could note the weight of the firework, the amounts, proportions and condition of the explosive agents, the elevation and air density and wind speed and direction, etc., to explain why the firework performed as it did. In Tillich's language, just quoted, it would be explained by the way "in which all these vectors limit each other and converge." But human freedom, by contrast, is "a total reaction of a centered self which deliberates and decides." (Vol. III, p. 28. Emphasis added.) To understand the bottlerocket, the unique physical circumstances contributing to its trajectory and explosion need to be understood. Likewise, to understand a person's decision, the unique psychological circumstances contributing to it need to be understood. But in addition, there needs to be "a centered self" in order for there to be human freedom and consequently an authentic human decision enacted out of our senses of "ought" and individual "destiny." What is this "centered self"?

Tillich, to my knowledge, never explicitly defines what "centered" means. But implicitly he refers to a perspective which takes in the various relevant considerations and impulses contributing to a comtemplated action and evaluates them by means of a sense of self, including: one's goals, hopes, fears, needs, abilities, disabilities, and so on up to and including one's sense of what life is about. The last is the crucial part--the sense of what life is about. Because, if a person does not have that sense, then they have no overriding concept or sensibility by which the competing psychological factors contributing to a decision should be ordered. In that case, a person's "choice," though psychologically determined, resembles the account we imagined with the bottlerocket: "these vectors limit each other and converge" on a decision. By contrast, a self centered by virtue of possessing a sense of what life is about has a meaningful criterion by which to order the various factors and decide. It's the difference between what Aristotle called a "passive" and an "active" intellect. The active intellect is not defined by the way in which the various factors "limit each other and converge" on a decision. It defines its own criterion and makes a decision based on it.

At this point we could go in various directions in connecting Tillich's thought. For instance, we could focus on how this provides the groundword for understanding the second of the conceptual bookends quoted in the last post: "If faith is understood as what it centrally is, ultimate concern, it cannot be undercut by modern science or any kind of philosophy." (Dynamics of Faith, p. 126.) The connection here is that the centering perspective referred to above is the sense or idea of what life is about, and that is also the content of one's "ultimate concern," Tillich's shorthand definition of faith. And it would be fun to trace the reason why faith is essential in Tillich's view of freedom. It would also be instructive to inquire further into his ideas on freedom. But here we have another critical point to make.

If we are fully human only in achieving a centered sense of self by which we transcend the various factors that motivate us as beings in the world, then never, ever, can we be fully human and identify the sense of self with any of the possible factors that can compete to determine us as an object rather than a self or person. To do so is to degrade ourselves. Religiously and biblically, it is idolatry--making a mere thing "the object of life." Morally, we distort ourselves by elevating a contingent good into the center of the decision process where the contingencies should be evaluated, not determining the evaluation. But if so, how is it possible to have a sense of self that is definite enough to be the psychological center that gives meaning to our lives without that definite sense of self becoming a distorting, degrading, idoloatrous "object of life" which prevents the active engagement of a human personhood as the determining center of our lives.

It is the principle of agape--good will toward all--which provides the answer needed by our humanity.

"All ethical material...is open to ethical criticism under the principle of agape..." (Vol. III, p. 268.) Agape is not one of the factors determining the psychological forces acting on us, but a commitment to remain open to all possibilities in a spirit of good will to all.

In Tillich's words, "This is easily understandable... the elevation of one element of finitude...necessarily produces the reaction from other elements of finitude... The demonic self-elevation of one nation over against all the others in the name of her God or system of values produces the reaction from other nations in the name of their God. The demonic self-elevation of particular forces in the centered personality and the claim of their...superiority leads to the reaction of other forces..." (Vol. III, p. 103.)

The story of Jesus triumphally riding into Jerusalem and ending up on a cross at the end of the week is precisely a story of a man rejecting the temptation to become the object by which a subjected nation is elevated and offering instead as a picture of perfect humanity the need to sacrifice the idolatry implicit in all self-elevation, an elevation that distorts and degrades our humanity by subverting the only answer by which our humanity is adequately expressed: agape.

To return to the theme of past posts, by the gospel story we can see God in the narrative of Jesus' ministry precisely because in him is depicted our undistorted, undegraded humanity, and in that humanity is depicted the image of God. Now we see that, truly--if Tillich's analysis is correct--our humanity can only be depicted paradoxically by seeing it as essentially requiring transcendence of us.

We believe in God, because we are oriented toward transcendence by our human nature. We believe in Jesus, because he is the picture of our human nature transcended. As such we have faith that our humanity "is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of our reason." to return to Thomas Aquinas' classic formulation, and complete this little theological circle.

4 comments:

Richard Beck said...

In the circles I run in no one seems to think much of Tillich. I guess they consider him too liberal. But he speaks so much sense to me.

Tracy Witham said...

I suppose that one way to characterize liberal attitudes to theology is that all theology is bunk; there is only religion. Tillich focuses on the human side, but with the twist that the human side, religion, provides a theological rationale. But he also seems at times to capitulate to a view of faith that leaves all the traditional comforts behind. When he does that it seems that he's using a methodological naturalism that should be considered carefully before importing into theology. I'm sitting on the fence about whether to post on his theory of the resurrection and follow up with a questioning of that approach. It's a great topic, but perhaps way far over my head. Then again, a memorable failure wouldn't be all bad.

Under the Eagle's Wing said...

Such freedom is united with destiny in such a way that the psychological material which enters into the moral act represents the pole of destiny, while the deliberating and deciding self represents the pole of freedom... Is it to be inferred that the psychological make-up, the pole of destimy is predetermined or is it in essence the decisios made which reveal the character of the individual? I would also like to know if this means those decisions which reflect on the concept of self-fulfilling prophecy? I mean our nature forecasting our failures and successes because we have an inherent bent?
That would mean that the pole of freedom is the new direction and parameters of faith in God liberating the person from past inclinations to a redeemed existence without the fears alienating them from thier true self?
Am I out-to-lunch?

Tracy Witham said...

Wow, John, a big set of questions. First, you're not off base in the direction of your thoughts. And second, since you ask, in effect, for clarification about Tillich's view of freedom, I think that I'll make next week's post just that.

Thanks!