Sunday, February 1, 2009

Tillich's Functional God

"The religious principle cannot come to and end. For the question of the ultimate meaning of life cannot be silenced as long as men are men." ( Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions (Columbia University Press, New York, 1963) p. 96.) The foregoing statement appeared on the next to last page of Tillich's Encounter. The opening statements of his Dynamics of Faith read, "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man's ultimate concern." ((Harper and Row, New York, 1957) p. 1.)These statements function as conceptual bookends to Tillich's thought in this sense; they are two ways of stating the place of religion in human life. The first says, in effect, that it is human nature to ask about life's meaning, while the second says, in effect, that this asking (and consequent answering) can be traced in terms of a definite "dynamic" in human life. More emphatically, this dynamic of question and answer centered on the meaning of life is inherent in our human nature--as an essential part of it, no less--since it "cannot be silenced as long as [human beings] are [human beings]."

If we call the object of ultimate concern God--and that is precisely what Tillich intends--then it follows that whatever one thinks about the reality of God, that a functional deity presides in the hearts and minds of all human beings.

It is for this reason that we began the Tillich posts with a consideration of the "primary question," as I called it: How can Jesus Christ represent God to Christians when Christianity originates and extends a tradition in which the representation of God is forbidden? The answer, that Jesus lived in a way that made God transparent through his human nature because he embodied the image of God in human nature by the way he lived, was the answer. We must now turn to the question of why we think that the way that Jesus lived can meaningfully and really be called the embodiment of the life of God. As we will see, for Tillich, the answer "is derived from the basic christological assertion that in the Christ the eternal unity of God and man becomes actual..." (Systematic Theology, Vol. III, 269-70)

And that leads us to an elaboration of the meaning of faith: " is the state of being grasped by the transcendent unity of unambiguous life--it embodies love as the state of being taken into that transcendent unity." (Vol. III, p. 129.) So, how does "love as the state of being taken into that transcendent unity" play out?

Unity is achieved by overcoming the plethora of ambiguities that compete with each other in human life. There are ambiguities of religion, culture, morality, life, and creativity. To take the moral sphere as an example the following ambiguities vie with each other. In the moral act "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, social conditions. But the moral act is not the diagonal in which all these vectors...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." (Vol. III, p. 27-8.)

Here it is important to note that the ability to transcend the psychological interplay of competing, ambiguous motives and make a moral decision does not imply that one has made a decision about which one is not conflicted. In other words, the ability to decide does not imply the ability to resolve the dilemmas of being a finite being who wishes to fulfill ends and ideals that compete for our limited ability, attention, energy, and time. Failure is built into human experience.

That is the meaning of Tillich's important concept, "existential estrangement." It is human to have ideals and goals and morals, etc., and it is universal to human experience to have only limited success in fulfilling those ends. We thus become estranged from ourselves when we consider the gulf between what we believe we should be, what we want to be, what we desire to accomplish, etc., and what we are and do, "for life is neither essential nor existential, but ambiguous." (Vol. III, p. 32.) This follows in that our ideals and morals, etc., are expressions of our essential side and our limited abilities to fulfill those essential ends, against which our human limitations ensure that our experience will include a large doses of failure. Better stated, our best wishes "burden our consciences because we cannot do justice to all of them." (Tillich, The New Being (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2005) p. 158.)

What are we to do? In this context that question is a meta-moral. It asks, how does one solve a problem embedded in morals and life itself, more generally? The answer that Tillich gives us has two parts.

First, we are to solve the ambiguity of our attitude toward the moral frameworks which have authority for us by adopting love as the lens through which we view our moral obligations: "Love contains and transcends the law. It does voluntarily what the law commands." (Vol. III, 272.) But if we adopt the law of love, aren't we just bound by law on another level? Tillich asks and answers this question by saying, "" is not a law; it is a reality. It is not a matter of ought-to-be...but a matter of being." (Ibid.) The ought/is divide which estranges us is conquered, in this case, by being motivated by love.

But what about our finitude? Aren't we still estranged by our failure to fully achieve our goals in the moral sphere and so many others? Yes, we are. And here we need the Christian message of forgiveness as acceptance by God despite our unacceptability. When we are united to the reality of love, we are accepted into the reality of God. In Tillich's words again, "He who is grasped by the one thing that is needed has the many things under his feet. They concern him, but not ultimately, and when he loses them he does not lose the one thing he needs and that cannot be taken from him." (The New Being, p. 160.) It is possible to enter into love in a way that our wills overcome the ought/is divide and our experience tells us that we are united with God, despite our moral failures, and the experience of failure is inescapably part of human nature.

It is possible to make love one's ultimate concern, and it is possible to make belief in the God who is love the object of a faith that heals the estrangement that can rob our lives of any credible moral meaning. In the story of Jesus the Christ we are told of a life in which the preliminary concerns that compete with love never eclipse the picture of human life unconditionally committed to portraying the love of God as a reality open to all people. Isn't that what the cross means--that abandoned on all sides by human failure that God still loves us? Tillich's thought should be seen, most basically, as a theological picture of why the answer "Yes" to that question is the very answer that is most needed for the sake of our humanity. And when that answer is accepted, it is accepted because it is seen as the true representation of God to humanity precisely because it is the best representation of our humanity.

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