on 24 August 2008
Since I only read two books by Tillich, this one plus "The Courage to Be", it may be somewhat risky to comment upon his ideas. This review should therefore be seen as preliminary. It's really a review of both books, although most of the contents covered are found in "The Dynamics of Faith". For those entirely new to the subject, Tillich was a Christian theologian, usually regarded as very liberal and existentialist. He was German, but fled Germany after the Nazi take-over in 1933, becoming a US citizen in 1940.
Tillich does ask interesting questions and make intruiging observations. The key sentence in "The Dynamics of Faith" is: "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned". Since every human is ultimately concerned about something, this means that all humans have faith. The existence of faith cannot be disproven, since all attempts to do so are circular. To "disprove" faith, one must assume that there isn't anything to be ultimately concerned about. But this is in itself an ultimate statement. Besides, the philosopher who frantically attempts to prove that everything is meaningless is also ultimately concerned about something, namely the truth of his nihilism. Thus, faith is as self-evident as the Cartesian "Cogito, ergo sum".
Tillich's point, of course, is that all humans assume that there is something higher than themselves, transcending our everyday existence, something of cosmic importance. And this is not simply an abstract idea. All humans actively seek self-transcendence. All humans have faith, even the atheists. Tillich also makes an observation familiar to readers of C.S. Lewis: All humans operate on the assumption that there are universal moral laws, transcending the individual. Even more curiously, humans seemingly create moral laws that are impossible to live up to, and then feel guilty and condemned when they fail. How is this possible?
Naturally, to Tillich this all points to the existence of God. But it is here that his reasoning becomes problematic. There are myriad different conceptions of God. There are also many different opinions on morality. What religion is the true one? And what morality should we live by? Tillich cannot really answer these questions. His conception of God is strikingly similar to that found in certain forms of Hinduism. Tillich's God is really Brahman, the nameless and formless Being beyond all Being (and Non-Being). All religions are reflections of this God, but all religions are purely symbolic. Even Jesus Christ is simply a symbol. But how can we know which symbols are true, "true" in the sense of expressing the truth about God? Tillich never really answers this question. At one point, he seems to be suggesting that we don't know which faith is the true one. All faith therefore entails a risk, the risk of being wrong. At other times, Tillich says that the liberal form of Protestant Christianity is the highest religion, and that the Cross is a more authentic symbol than the symbols of other religions. However, he never explains why this is the case.
Sometimes, I get the impression that Tillich is somewhat disingenous. He defines "God" in such an abstract and nebulous manner, that any "ultimate concern" becomes "God". He also defines God as "being-itself" (perhaps Being-in-itself would be a better term). Thus, everything that exists, is God, simply by definition. By defining God in this manner, Tillich makes it impossible to falsify the idea of God. And by making Christianity symbolic, Tillich makes it impossible to falsify Christianity as well! This sounds like an attempt to save Christianity from being exposed by atheism, by making the Christian concepts completely evasive - a constantly moving target. Paul Tillich's God is all things to all people. But isn't such a God really a nullity?
But perhaps this is a rash criticism of "The Dynamics of Faith" and "The Courage to Be". Still, one wonders what solutions Tillich has to the existential problems he has raised. He doesn't believe in the traditional scenario, where a resurrected Jesus will return one day and set up a Millenium. Nor does he believe in the immortality of the soul. Indeed, he seems to regard the immortal soul as a bad idea, even symbolically speaking! In the end, he can only tell us to be courageously self-assertive in the face of Non-Being, go on living despite our feelings of meaninglessness and guilt, and risk being wrong.
This, of course, could have been said by any atheist of an existentialist bent. Which makes you wonder why "God" is needed as part of the equation at all. Even apart from it not being a very comforting answer...
Paul Tillich is one of the more important theologians of the twentieth century. Born into a culture being enticed away from the importance of things religious and theological in favour of science and philosophy. In particular, in the early part of the twentieth century, the philosophical school of existentialism became a strong, perhaps even the dominant force in intellectual development; it was against this (and the atheistic, nihilistic tendencies that followed) that Tillich undertook to reintroduce theology and faith as important components of human existence. Tillich, much to the consternation of many seminary students and more general readers, largely addresses the academy in the academy's language – he is very philosophical and precise in his constructions, and like many in the long tradition of German theologians, crafts his theology with his own terminology and internally-defined concepts that often make his theology difficult to follow.
This text, 'Dynamics of Faith', is one of Tillich's more accessible writings, more directly relevant to the situation of individuals and congregations. Tillich here looks at what faith is, and is not, from a theological perspective, but his intention is to make this transformative for the humanity that seeks to understand God.
In the first chapter, Tillich introduces one of his key terms – ultimate concern. Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned about something – God – without conditions or reservations. Ultimate concern can be religious or not, and can be misguided (people are tempted into idolatry, according to Tillich, not only by making things such as money, power and fame the objects of ultimate concern, but also by making particular ideas or views of God and religion into inappropriate ultimate concerns). In the second chapter, Tillich explores the ideas of what faith is not – faith is not merely intellectual understanding, emotional bonding, or even an act of will. Faith is rather (going back to the first chapter) an act of total personality – one's whole being is drawn to the ultimate concern.
Through the remainder of the text, Tillich develops an intriguing idea of the symbolic in faith – symbols are not constructed like marketing logos, but rather assume a life of their own and participate in that to which they point, in a community context over time. Community is important to Tillich for symbols and for faith, as it is through community that we develop the language and understanding skills necessary to codify and understand such things. Tillich looks at the different disciplines of science, history, philosophy and reason, asking (perhaps echoing Pilate in a different manner) what is truth? Tillich clearly states that neither scientific nor historical truth can negate or validate the truth of faith, and vice versa. Philosophical truth is a different matter, given that the 'language' of faith, through theology, is often expressed in philosophical terms – however, even here, philosophical truth and reasoning cannot be used as a trump card. However, for the truth of faith to be affirmed, the faith must be focussed upon the 'real' ultimate concern.
Tillich often irritates modern Christians because of mistaken assumptions about what he means. In other texts (such as his massive 'Systematic Theology', also often used in higher-level seminary and graduate courses on theology), Tillich describes God as a Ground of Being, and as such, having no 'existence' as we commonly use the term; this gets reduced to the soundbite 'God does not exist', and Tillich is written off. In 'Dynamics of Faith', Tillich often refers to 'cults' and 'myths', using these terms in specific scholarly manner, to refer to religious and biblical issues and events – again, the soundbite becomes 'Tillich says that the Bible is a myth', and given the popular non-Tillichian definition of the word 'myth', again Tillich is dismissed.
There is much material packed into this small text. It is worth exploring.