Thursday, February 26, 2009

Tillich's Resurrection Theory

Recall a quote from an earlier post:

"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." (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, p. 105.)

There is a sense in which Tillich's statement here is exceedingly odd. That the details of the life of a person called the Christ, the Son of Man and of God, would not interest the world is absurd. Yet in another sense it is completely understandable. It is only because Jesus is said to transcend the ordinary details of life that define humanity that his life is of interest in the senses claimed: Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, etc. In fact, had the New Testament authors not understood that the human details of Jesus' life are not what concerns us, they would have fallen prey to the problem implied in what I called "the primary question" (see the first Tillich post): How can Jesus represent God to us without violating the prohibition (Second Commandment) against idolatry? Tillich's use of the term "transparency" was the answer: "The absolute side of the final revelation, that in it which is unconditional and unchangeable, involves the complete transparency and the complete self-sacrifice of the medium in which it appears." (Vol. I, p. 151.) The details of Jesus' humanity would be the "medium" in which he appeared. Accordingly, the details had to be "sacrificed," since to focus on them would be to confuse oneself on the very point on which the gospel story must be unequivocal: "Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ." (Dynamics of Faith, p. 97.) This all follows from asking the primary question and understanding the only possible way to answer it.

But what about the central events of the ministry of Jesus--those by which the sacrifice of Jesus' humanity in order to represent God to humanity were achieved? Aren't those "details" that depict his life to us? I will answer the rhetorical question: It was by refusing to be a Messiah who would fulfill the expectations of a nation awaiting his rule and accepting the consequences of his denial that he pointed to a Kingdom beyond this world--that is, if his crucifixion is to be seen as a triumph. Let's review the context that informs this paradoxical "triumph." (See previous Tillich posts--the argument to follow is a simplification.) I'll sketch an argument by way of positions argued for in previous posts:

We distort ourselves ethically and degrade ourselves as human beings if we elevate any contingent, finite good to be our overarching good. (See the post on Tillich's view of humanity and freedom.)

We need an overarching sense of good in order to lead lives coherently shaped by our values. (See the post on Tillich's Functional God. Tillich calls the perspective which determines this overarching good "ultimate concern.")

Therefore, to have the overarching sense of good that we need without the distorting and degrading influence of a finite, contingent good filling that role, we need an overarching sense of good that is not finite or contingent.

Agape love, alone, is a value that is neither finite nor contingent:

"All love, except agape, is dependent on contingent characteristics which change and are partial. {They are} dependent on repulsion and attraction, on passion and sympathy. Agape is independent of these states. It affirms the other unconditionally, that is, apart from higher or lower, pleasant or unpleasant qualities. Agape unites the lover and the beloved because of the image of fulfillment which God has of both. Therefore, agape is universal; no one with whom a concrete experience is...possible ("the neighbor") is excluded; nor is anyone preferred." (Vol. I, p. 280.)

By making the commitment to agape one's overarching value, therefore, the ethically deforming, humanly degrading elevation of a finite, contingent good to be one's overarching value is avoided. For we are committed to a value that transcends any finite representation. Love thereby functions as one's "god," a god that cannot be represented, in answer to the primary question with which this series of posts on Tillich began.

We are, therefore, oriented toward the transcendent, and that orientation finds its proper object by making agape love one's ultimate concern. Since for Tillich our "ultimate concern" constitutes our faith and the object of our "ultimate concern" is our God, "it is obvious that this type of love is the basis for the assertion that God is love." (Vol. I, p. 281.)

How does this relate to Tillich's favored theory of the resurrection? To say that "God is love" is to say that ultimate reality is love--that one's overarching sense of good as agape is the very ground of our being. And it is by faith in God so understood that our humanity is kept free of the degrading and deforming elements of placing false gods, idols, where only agape should be.

In Jesus a life of agape was fully manifest. To say that death conquered Jesus is to deny either his full manifestation of agape love or the truth of the claim that God is known through agape love. But Jesus was crucified. Therefore, according to Tillich's "restitution theory," "...the resurrection is the restitution of Jesus as the Christ, a restitution which is rooted in the personal unity between Jesus and God and in the impact of this unity on the minds of the disciples." (Vol. II, p. 157.) In short, the life the disciples experienced could not be reconciled with Jesus' ignoble death. Hence, the resurrection was necessary.

To affirm the good news is to affirm that what is most needed was manifest in the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. This is a far cry from what is usually heard on Easter mornings, where the evidence of the resurrection is preached as an indubitable historical fact (by twists and turns of chop logic). But if we are to believe in Jesus and not take a bait and switch in which the meaning of the gospel is exchanged for a suspension of disbelief in a certain historical assertion, well, then we will want to thank Tillich for pointing us in the right direction: The gospel accounts of Jesus' life help us transcend the finite, contingent focus that continually threatens to estrange us from God and our true humanity. If Tillich is correct, we can know that, but to claim more is to step outside of faith in the name of faith: We are oriented toward transcendence, and should not forget it in the name of affirming the belief by which we assert it.

I hope that you have enjoyed this glimpse into Paul Tillich's theology.

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