Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Tillich in the Coffee Shop on a Fall Day

We've always loved books. My younger, innocent desire to build a library of texts---maybe someday I might own the complete Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart (whether I read German or not), the entire Anchor Bible series, assorted interesting texts in history, literature, and religion, and, heck, maybe even The Official Record of the War of the Rebellion, all kept in a cozy, shelf-lined office--came down to earth when we moved across country one year and I learned how much even our modest collection of books cost to move.  

So now, whenever we relocate, we sell or donate items that seem unnecessary to move, including books. Beth and I do accumulate many books for our work and our interests, and Emily loves books, too.  I've thinned my book collection several times, notably this last move, when I reduced it by nearly half. I thought that if I hadn't used a book in at least five years (unless the book was an antique or a special keepsake), I should donate it to the local book fair. 

I still have several religion books that I purchased in college or div school in the 1970s and early 1980s. I've my Barth's Dogmatics; the old Interpreter's Bible; Old Testament texts by Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad, Walther Eichrodt; New Testament texts by Howard Clark Kee, Joaquin Jeremias, Nils Alstrup Dahl and Rudolf Bultmann; a few volumes of Karl Rahner's Theological Investigations and of G. C. Berkouwer's Studies in Dogmatics. Stepping up my personal Bible study during the past few years, I've been using several of these books again, giving the double pleasure of study and nostalgia. Because I attended div school in Connecticut, feelings of New England cling to these books: thoughts of cool temperatures, country drives, great friendships which have endured, and autumn leaves.  

With each move, I consider donating or selling my paperback copies of Paul Tillich's three-volume Systematic Theology---no longer read, only a modest keepsake---and never can. I took them from the shelves the other day and noticed that I'd written my name and the date of purchase inside one of the books: October 13, 1977. That's 34 years ago this week! (The 46th anniversary of Tillich's death is next week, the 22nd.) I don't remember where I purchased them---the college bookstore, perhaps; in 1977 I was 20 and in college---but I do remember having them along in 1978 or 79 when my parents and I visited the campus of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, six hours north of my hometown. Garrett was one school I was considering for my masters degree. The family car broke down along I-57, and I read a few sections of Tillich's system as we waited in a garage for the repair work. In addition to anxiety about the delayed visit, I was fascinated at how Tillich used philosophical concepts to explicate biblical truths.

I was never a devoted Tillichian, preferring Barth and his epic Dogmatics, or as John Updike's eponymous character in "Lifeguard" puts it, "the bewildering duplicities of Tillich's divine politicking" and "the terrifying attempts of Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, and Barth to scourge God into being." But I still found Tillich fascinating. One author writes, "The main thrust of Tillich’s thought was to recreate a meaningful link between Christianity and contemporary society. Like Karl Barth, he intended to do so by reintroducing the absoluteness of God and the Christian message, as opposed to its attempted “enculturation” in the liberal Protestantism of that time. That attempt, Tillich and Barth felt, was doomed to fail, as it deprived Christianity of its very essence. Like Barth, Tillich also linked the Christian message to social justice and the socialist movement. Unlike Barth, however, Tillich did not believe that a mere insistence on the absoluteness of faith in God as the “wholly other” was a viable solution. He strongly felt that ways had to be sought to show how religion was a necessary dimension of any society and how the absolute God was at the same time present in all relative cultural life." ( While both theologians were conscious of the need to articulate a basis for theology that respected the critiques of Kant and also Feuerbach, I always wondered if there was a disconnect between Barth's personal appreciation of culture and his insistence that nothing in human knowledge and culture can be a contact-point for revelation. Tillich sees the task of theology as understanding one's own time and as serving one's time via the latter's questions and issues.

For years I looked for a book by my teacher, Robert Clyde Johnson, Authority in Protestant Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958). His to me spellbinding lectures echoed his monograph, and in the days before internet booksellers (where I finally found the text), I searched every used bookstore for a hard copy to replace my old photocopies. Johnson studied under Tillich, so I enjoyed only a degree of separation from the great German-American theologian.

Johnson writes of Tillich's belief that the theological task is "bipolar" (in the sense of having two poles or orientations), the responsibilities to state the truth of the Christian message and also to interpret that truth for each new generation. "Situation" is for Tillich a technical term for one's socio-historical location, including cues from art, politics, science, philosophy, and ethics. But the theologian must also participate in the divine reality that is being articulated theologically. The theologian must find a norm within his/her era---which will not be the norm of other generations---with which to speak with theological authority to the questions of his/her times. "New Being" is Tillich's theological norm. This norm fills out Paul's own conception of "new creation" because Tillich can include the venerable philosophical concept of being into Christology (pp. 119, 136).

The theologian's analysis of the questions of his/her era allows for a correlation of the symbols of the Christian religion to the questions posed by contemporary times. As Tillich states in the system (I, 61), "symbolically speaking, God answers man's questions, and under the impact of God's answers, man asks them" (pp. 111-113). To the charge that in Tillich's system form determines content (p. 143), Tillich would respond that the questions of one's era (and human experience generally) are not an independent source for theology.

In all this, Tillich seeks a different path than, for instance, Barth's "kerygmatic" theology---wherein there is no contact point between God and humans---as well as American fundamentalism and Protestant orthodoxy, and also a different path than 19th- and 20th-centural liberal theology, which undercuts the knowledge of eternal truth by focusing upon the character of faith within human experience (pp. 112-113). Johnson points out, for instance, that Tillich criticized Schleiermacher for opening the way for a confusion of the medium of theological experience (the believing self) with revelation itself.

Tillich is open to the charge that he does not use biblical expressions in his theology. Johnson writes that the challenge isn't that Tillich uses different language and expressions but that, in using the questions of his own era, alters biblical emphases: for instance, when Tillich makes sin a "state" before it is individual actions---and consequently, in Tillich's system, we find forgiveness, atonement, and redemption given less emphasis and the incarnation expressed as "the negation of finitude" (pp. 122-123). But Tillich himself points out that Calvin's correlation of the knowledge of God and self, expressed in the opening sentence of the Institutes, imply that we cannot seek God until we realize and lament our sin and finitude (p. 123).

Another book by another teacher, Robert P. Scharlemann, is Reflection and Doubt in the Thought of Paul Tillich (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969. Scharlemann---my doctoral advisor, in fact---shows how Tillich takes on the post-Hegelian problem of the historically conditioned character of thinking.

In pre-Kantian times, theology provided a greater certainty than history and science, because metaphysics provided access beyond history and the changing physical world to unchanging being and God. But Kant reduced synthetic a priori knowledge to that of time and space, and thus metaphysical knowledge of God is no longer possible via pure reason (which cannot access the noumena).

Post-Kantian philosophers dealt with this challenge, notably Hegel, who sought a solution by constructing a system wherein temporality is embodied in eternity; thinking travels through logical and historical relationships until we reach the final stage that "thinking is being," and ongoing thinking (acts of reflection) are anticipated by and already included in the whole system of thought. But Scharlemann (echoing Tillich and others) notes that ongoing thinking (the kind which is not anticipated and included) does indeed happen in spite of Hegel's contention otherwise. Consequently, the challenge for theology is that (in Scharlemann's words) "what I think is never identical with the here-and-now act of thinking it; the act is always gone before it comes content" (p. xiii). This is a problem because we can thus never know God with certainty because the eternal vanishes with the continual passing-away of my here-and-now thinking. With no certain presence of God and no objectivity in thinking, Nietzsche declares "the nothingness of being and the death of God" (p. xiii).

But Tillich solves the problem of the failure of Hegel's absolute whole with the ideas of correlation and paradox. Because the self responds in a dual way to reality--both reflection and response---the failure of reflection to "catch" certainty about God in Hegel's system is countered by a system of response: "What being is is answered by God, to whom response is made; and the God to whom total response is made is present as being" (p. xv). Paradox, in turn, also counters the failure of reflection to "catch" knowledge of God in one's here-and-now thinking, via Tillich's definition of temporality as "paradoxical reality" and God as "paradoxical presence. That is, God is thought via the double reflection of my here-and-now thinking and my recognition of its failure (pp. xvi-xvii).

Furthermore, Tillich's conception of "symbol" as that which participates in the depth or ground of being without being an empirical concept prevents our thinking from unsuccessfully trying to grasp God (because of the historical nature of our thinking) or to wrongly fit God into the subject-object quality of our finite knowledge and being; "symbol" allows God to bridge that gap (pp. 29-30).

There is much more to Tillich's system, as well as to his large corpus of writings in both German and English.  Spending an afternoon at my favorite coffee shop, rereading Tillich and these two appreciative authors gave me terrific pleasure amid the week's other tasks.  It's never too late to rediscover an interesting book. So I'm happy that I kept these, first perused in an Illinois repair shop on I-57, then further enjoyed during a sojourn in New England.  They're also a nice reminder that my initial excitement in discovering religious studies, not long before I purchased these books, has never abated in the slightest.

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