Monday, March 2, 2009

Planting One's Foot in One's Mouth as Revelation

There are layers of our experience that lie deep enough for us to be unaware of them, till they surprise in an unguarded moment or during an emotional outburst. Those times can be revelations. They reveal ourselves in ways that we would otherwise hide to others or even ourselves. A word spoken in anger; an untimely laugh; or a Freudian slip can expose an inappropriate undercurrent of thought. Today I have a particular instance of foot-in-mouth disease in mind. I performed the psycho-social contortion last summer.

I will give an account of it here because doing so will place my appreciation of Paul Tillich's thought on a very personal level. Tillich's shorthand definition of faith is "ultimate concern." Clearly, one's ultimate concern is the animating core of who we are as conscious, intelligent beings. That's what it means, and by defining faith as ultimate concern he designated it as that which forms the animating center of our personal life--that than which nothing can affect us more personally. (Of course in the context of a post relating moments of unwitting personal revelation, it must be admitted that what we assume to be our ultimate concern may be burlesqued in a moment of passion or vulnerability to be different than we had thought--which is to say that it is entirely possible that a person fails to understand her- or himself in the most radical possible way. But we set that possibility aside here, since it is difficult to write about something that one does not realize to be the case.)

I must set the stage for the faux pas. My wife and I used to attend a Bible study with a group of people, most of whom share an interest in music and cooking with us. We still go to Christmas and Valentine's Day parties and summer picnics with the group and count ourselves to be graced by the wonderful persons we have met through the study. One couple--Jim and Jennifer--started getting together with my wife and me when Jim and I were conscripted to cook for the Valentine's Day party and we decided that we should test our recipes in advance. (Jim has worked as a baker and I as a cook.) Because Jennifer is a talented musician, and I went to college years ago with a failed determination to become one, there is that connection too, in addition to a love of theology and philosophy that all four of us share to one degree or another.

Imagine, then, hearing me say aloud during a meal hosted in Jim and Jennifer's home that I used to be interested in gourmet food and fine music. In the first place, it branded me as a boor. Second, it contradicted the common interests on which the blossoming friendship we as couple's were sharing was based. Third, it seemed to indicate that I had found our friends' interests to be somehow beneath me. And last, it was just plain stupid and insensitive. It's the kind of remark that is difficult even to apologize for, since it's so wildly obtuse. "I apologize to you for being acquainted with me."

So how does a bright person find himself saying something so bizarre? The facts of my biography stated above can account for it. For a time during my young adulthood I wanted to be a musician more than anything else. Paul Tillich would have called that my "ultimate concern." When that didn't happen, despite my best efforts, I turned from my actual ultimate concern to the one sanctioned by by upbringing, and decided to go to seminary. But in the course of preparation that I entered into for seminary, my faith was undercut, leaving me skeptical, cynical, disappointed, and disillusioned. My almost involuntary reaction was to make philosophy my ultimate concern in a reactionary determination not to be duped or disappointed again. I have referred to myself as an amateur philosopher in the past, but more accurately I have been more desperate for wisdom than a lover of it. It is Tillich's connection of my personal history to the hinges of past ultimate concerns that best accounts for the twists and turns of my life--including the occasional foot-in-mouth remark that begs for an accounting.

Very simply, as the conversation turned to interests my wife and I share with Jim and Jennifer, the wounds of lost hopes and dreams and faith welled up and reminded me not to be too taken in. "I used to be interested..." I said to persons who had presumed that I shared a passionate interest with them. A boorish, foolish comment. On another level an honest, understandable one.

It is central to Paul Tillich's thought that only an ultimate concern that opens us outward to others and the world in a spirit of good will can fulfill us as human beings. By contrast, anything that limits our ability to remain outwardly focused in a spirit of love for others and the world leaves us diminished. Music, food, theology, philosophy, friends, and any of thousands of other good things and pursuits can be ways of expressing love and concern and good will. In that case they can be fulfilling. But they can become our focus in a way that we look to them to fulfill us. They can become our ultimate concern. In that case we will be disappointed, and my personal history, including an occasional inappropriate remark, bears that out.

The Ten Commandments begin by directing us to have no Gods before God and to make no idols. Tillich saw his thought as an extrapolation of those commands: "[That] is what ultimate concern means..." (Dynamics of Faith, p. 3.) The gospel story can best be seen, according to this hermeneutic, as Jesus' refusal to become a national idol so that he could depict the real end of human life, agape love. Every once in a while I say something so foolish that I give myself an opportunity to meditate on the wisdom of that message.


Jason Coriell said...


I want to express that I am enjoying your blog. I am a regular reader (poor commenter). I have especially appreciated the reflections on Tillich.

Tracy Witham said...

Thanks, Jason. It's nice to know that others enjoy struggling with these ideas!