Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Process Response To Tony Jones' 5 Questions

Tony Jones’ love of Jürgen Moltmann’s theology is absolutely contagious. His status as a ‘Moltmanniac’ strongly influenced my master’s thesis topic that I wrote at Claremont with Philip Clayton a couple of years ago, which was a comparison of Moltmann’s eco-theology with John Cobb’s. If it were not for Jones, I would not have fallen in love with Moltmann’s social Trinitarian theology. But perhaps to Tony’s disappointment, Moltmann then led me deep into the world of process theology. As any close reading of Moltmann’s God in Creation or the Spirit of Life will suggest, the later Moltmann is profoundly influenced by Whitehead (see my post on the topic here). I still love Moltmann, having read most of his work, but I’ve moved closer to the process theologies of Clayton, Cobb, Joseph Bracken, and Catherine Keller, my professor for my doctoral program at Drew.

Today, I would join Clayton in describing my own view as neo-process theology. I would not resist the label of process theologian for a minute, but I try to draw on a deeper well of philosophers and theologians than just Whitehead. With Bracken, I’ve learned to draw on Thomas Aquinas, Teilhard de Chardin, and Meister Eckhart; with Clayton (and Tripp Fuller), I’ve learned to draw on Wolfhart Pannenberg and a bit of Schelling; with Cobb, I’ve learned to draw on liberation-political theologies and to think interreligiously as a Christian; with Keller, I’ve learned to draw on poststructuralists like Derrida and Deleuze, feminists, postcolonialists, and the Christian apophatic tradition (especially Dionysius and Nicholas of Cusa). In my own studies this semester, I’ve been relating my process thinking to Karl Barth, Paul Tillich, Hegel, and René Girard

I say all of this in response to some of Tony’s questions that he has posed to those of us in the process camp. Let me respond to them one by one:

1) Do we get nervous about being so deeply rooted in Whitehead? Not at all, but that’s because I think Tony perhaps isn’t aware of the depth of philosophical engagement that process philosophers have been involved in for the last sixty years or so. Process philosophy in the most general sense is of course older than Whitehead, who is the philosopher to provide the most systematic synthesis of this way of thinking. Process theism is deeply related to Plato, with his understanding of God as persuasive in power and creating the world out of unformed chaos rather than nothing. Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa both arguably developed embryonic process-theistic relational ontologies – with Cusa even denying omnipotence. The process ontology of interrelated becoming events connects back to Heraclitus and resonates with much Buddhist and Taoist thought. The process cosmology was developed with the theories of Einstein in mind. We find analogies for process thinking in much of the American pragmatist tradition of Peirce, Dewey, and James as well as in poststructuralists like Gilles Deleuze and Judith Butler. On Deleuze, who is now reportedly the most influential poststructuralist philosopher in the English-speaking academic world today (in terms of research and dissertations being published), rivaling even Derrida’s dominance over previous decades, his entire cosmology (or “chaosmology”) is explicitly developed on the grounds of Whitehead’s magnum opus Process and Reality, which he called “one of the greatest books of modern philosophy.” Let me also mention that Whitehead is no small-time philosopher these days. Aside from a deep interest in his work amongst Chinese philosophers over recent decades, according to Catherine Keller, he is increasingly one of the most written-about philosophers in Europe today for dissertation topics. So Whitehead is hip, make no mistake. (; Having said all of this, I think I’ve made my case that process theologians have moved beyond any Whiteheadian orthodoxy. We’re a diverse bunch and draw on lots of different philosophers and theologies today. Keller is clearly one of the leaders of process thought today, and I have rarely known someone who is so intellectually diverse and cutting edge.

2) As one who continues to learn from (and disagree with much of) Aquinas, I don’t agree with Bo’s comments about not needing him today – but then again, I’m not a practical theologian, so I’m not going to speak for him here. As a philosophical and constructive Christian theologian, I am absolutely committed to taking the tradition seriously. That’s why I have been trying to engage with people like Aquinas, Eckhart, Cusa, Dionysius, Barth, Tillich, and Moltmann. On the issue of respecting the past while being open to transforming it, I follow John Cobb’s distinction of secularism and secularizing that he outlines in his Spiritual Bankruptcy (see my post on that here). While secularism is a perspective that neglects the wisdom of the past in favor of almost exclusively standing on present knowledge, secularizing is a dynamic of respecting the past, committing to a particular tradition, and taking its accumulated wisdom seriously, but critically engaging it and being willing to transform it when finally deemed necessary. Cobb sees Plato, Aristotle, the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and Paul as great secularizers. I think Cobb’s Christ in A Pluralistic Age, agree with its conclusions or not, exemplifies such respectful, secularizing engagement with the wisdom of our Christian tradition.

3) I certainly wouldn’t say that process theologians are the first to get the gospel right, no. I would say that the way we understand divine power as omni-potential and persuasive rather than omni-potent and coercive makes more sense to me of the picture we have of Jesus in the gospels. Classical theism generally denied that God has the power to act in a way that would contradict God’s nature, and process theists simply add to this that if God’s nature is truly primarily defined by love (as even Barth in fact states, 1 John 4:8 being one of the two abstract definitions of God in the entire Bible), then God does not have the power to unilaterally intervene. In that sense, God can be said to be omnipotent, but unilateral power contradicts God’s nature and it is thus impossible for God to act in that way. After the horrors of the 20th century, from Hiroshima to the Holocaust, process theism’s notion of power is extremely helpful for the problem of evil. While it does complicate the issue of resurrection and miracles, so central to Christian theology, it certainly does not exclude them. Unlike most forms of progressive theology, the process God literally, specifically acts in the world.

4) I believe process theology can strongly affirm God’s unique identity, contra what Tony has argued. This is the most misunderstood part of process theism, with both Moltmann and Tillich joining the ranks of theologians who believe that Whitehead’s God is dissolved into the cosmic process. I firmly believe that this is a tragic misunderstanding. First of all, Clayton and Bracken are what you would called “asymmetrical” process theologians who affirm creation out of nothing. This provides a clear image of a God who is ontologically distinct from creation, who is infinitely other. But what of those like myself who don’t affirm creation out of nothing? Moltmann in particular thinks this is the big problem with process not giving a place for the uniqueness of God, so he tries to maintain creation out of nothing. God is unique in that while God is always in creative relation to some world, God did not have to create this particular world. Our world is radically contingent upon the Divine Other who graciously chose to take the risk to lure this kind of world forth rather than one that could not produce conscious, complex beings like ourselves. God is also unique, in Marjorie Suchocki’s words, as “The Supremely Related One.” God is the most effective power in reality as the necessary ground of order and novelty and is omniscient of the entire past and present of creation. Furthermore, God’s primordial nature (which Whitehead almost always talks about when speaking of God) is God’s radically transcendent and eternal pole, the source of infinite possibilities for creaturely becoming, as opposed to the consequent nature, which is God’s immanently related temporal pole. And as Catherine Keller explains, following Nicholas of Cusa’s logic, rather than God’s difference being diminished in relation (which is always the concern for non-relational substance thinkers - even in Tillich, despite his intentions to be relational), process theologians believe that, once you get rid of substance metaphysics, difference heightens in relation. This insight is why process theology today has been so reenergized by the apophatic tradition.

5) I admit, many process theologians eagerly relativize the incarnation. No argument there. But others do not. Cobb believes Jesus is the center of history, the decisive revelation of God who saves us from sin through his life, death, and resurrection. Cobb’s atonement is a type of Christus Victor mixed with Abelard’s moral theory. He can say that Jesus, because his subjectivity, his ‘I’, was co-constituted by God by perfectly responding at every moment to God’s call or lure for his life, he is qualitatively, not just quantitatively different from other humans. Cobb thus even says Jesus is both God and human, quite literally, since in a process-relational rather than classical substance paradigm there is no problem with two things (God and Jesus) occupying the same space at the same time. That’s not a low Christology – it’s an attempt to take the creeds as seriously as possible in our contemporary world! The incarnation is literally true, unique, and universally important. Bracken is very similar, though a process social Trinitarian, and Clayton can say much the same of Jesus with what he admits is an adoptionist Christology in his book The Predicament of Belief. But Christ remains uniquely the incarnation of God for him, unlike any others, and saving through his work.

I hope this helps the conversation about process theology that's been going on lately.  Thanks to Tony for engaging it so seriously!  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Things I Loved In 2013: Music, Films, & Books

Top 10 Albums of 2013:

1) City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm: This is my personal favorite this year for a lot of reasons.  First of all, my fiance introduced me to City & Colour and then I took her to see him in concert this year in Central Park (which was wonderful - oh, and it's where I proposed to her too!).  Anyways, the album itself is beautiful acoustic folk-rock with a tinge of dreamy americana.  Dallas Greene's voice is something to behold and his songwriting, as always, is in absolute top form here. 





2) Typhoon - White Lighter:  I almost missed this release but was fortunate enough to have a friend recommend it to me a few months ago.  It is the new music discovery that I am most excited about from this year.  Aspects of this Portland, Oregon band remind me of Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, and Bright Eyes.  Well-worth your time and money.














3) The National - Trouble Will Find Me: This band just keeps getting better - and darker - with each new release.  If you have never given the National a listen, this is a great place to start.  This album is haunting, beautiful, and thoughtful from beginning to end.













4) Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Vol. 1: What? You're surprised to see me include a solo album from the former Mouseketeer and N'Sync member?  Yeah, me too, but I offer no apology here. This is easily one of the most enjoyable and impressive art-pop records I have ever listened to, channeling Prince, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder.  One could easily use the album to teach a history of pop music from the last few decades.  Keep 'em coming, JT.















5) Local Natives - Hummingbird: What do you get when you fuse some of the best elements of the Fleet Foxes, Arcade Fire, and My Morning Jacket? This brilliant album, which is nevertheless all their own sound.  This is definitely a band worth watching and an album that merits repeated listens.  I have a feeling that Local Natives are just getting started.  














6) Sigur Ros - Kveikur: Having had the opportunity to see the album performed live earlier this summer (my third live experience with the band), I can't ignore this one for my list.  It's more aggressive and darker than recent records by the band, but still just as gorgeous as ever.  Few bands move me the way that Sigur Ros does with their ethereal walls of sound and angelic vocals.














7) Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park: I know, this seems like an odd choice.  But trust me - it's fantastic contemporary country music that should also appeal to listeners like me who normally prefer alt-country, folk, and Americana.  The musicianship is solid and the songwriting catchy as hell - and edgier than your average Nashville country-pop song.  Musgraves was the soundtrack of my cross-country drive from California to New Jersey in August. 














8) John Mayer - Paradise Valley: This was also a road trip album for me in August, and as a long time Mayer fan, I have to say that this one works well.  I doubt he will ever do something as brilliant as Continuum, but this comes close from another angle, blending folk, blues, pop, and country styles with his signature guitar playing and singing.













 9) Kanye West - Yeezus: I've never enjoyed hip-hop very much, but Kanye's work has always fascinated me.  A genius producer, talented rapper, and a wildly egotistical person, this album is easily his best.  It is to hip-hop what Radiohead's Kid A was to rock over a decade ago, deconstructing the predictable, the cliches, and reinventing the genre itself.












10) Daft Punk - Random Access Memory: Not only have I included country, pop, and hip-hop in this year's best of list...I've included a disco/funk influenced electronic dance album!  But seriously, here's another stroke of genius in music this year from a band that rarely has a misstep. 














Honorable Mentions: Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City, James Blake - Overgrown, Phoenix - Bankrupt!, Arcade Fire - Reflektor, Civil Wars - Civil Wars


Top 5 Films of 2013:

1) 12 Years a Slave: Easily my favorite film of 2013.  I haven't cried in a film as I did in this one in years - and even then, I can count on one hand how many times this has happened to me ever.  The acting is astounding, the cinematography is stunning, and the story itself is simultaneously horrifying and deeply, profoundly moving.

 2) Captain Phillips: With fairly high expectations due to the leading role by Tom Hanks, I have never been more surprised by how much I loved a film.  The last 15 minutes of this fantastically entertaining film involves some of the most impressive acting I have ever seen in my life.  Hanks is a genius, something I already firmly believed, but this film confirmed it yet again.

3) The Butler: I greatly appreciated the historical approach of this film, tracing the experience of a White House butler that is based on a true story.  The film raises provocative questions about race and power and includes an excellent cast of actors playing different presidents.

4) The Great Gatsby: First of all, I loved the soundtrack.  In fact, I haven't enjoyed a film's musical component this much in a very long time.  Second, DeCaprio is in top form here, cementing him as one of my favorite actors.  But this moving, romantic, and tragic story, while transformed quite a bit for the big screen from the classic book, is one that won't leave your mind for a long time after the film is over. 


5) The Way, Way Back: What a surprise this was!  Steve Carrell is extremely effective in this coming of age story - although every member of the cast are basically perfect for their roles.  Very reminiscent of the related film Little Miss Sunshine, definitely make some time for this quirky drama-comedy.

Honorable Mentions: Inside Llewyn Davis, MudGravity, About Time, Hunger Games 2, World War Z


Top 5 Reads of 2013:

1) The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps by John Caputo (2013): Let me be clear - as a former Philip Clayton student at Claremont, I'm a process theologian who likes metaphysics. Yet as a Catherine Keller student at Drew University, I'm somewhere in-between Clayton's scientific approach to theism and Caputo's deconstructive theology of the event.  So while I prefer a theo-poetics that does not replace theo-logy (or ontology), I also love John Caputo's brand of radical theology that remains purely phenomenological in approach, particularly because I have always appreciated its resonance with process thought in a variety of ways.  Plus, few theologians or philosophers write as well as Caputo does.  So while I'm more Cobbian than Caputan, this new text from one of the so-called "3 JCs" is a must-read.  Check out Homebrewed Christianity's recent blog tour on the book for more.





2) Spirit, Qi, & the Multitude by Hyo-Dong Lee (2013): Full disclosure - Lee is one of my professors at Drew.  But his recent publication is so dense and intellectually impressive that I couldn't resist placing it high on the list.  Fusing Neo-Confucian and Taoist thought with Western thinkers like Deleuze, Hegel, Keller, Whitehead, Hardt, and Negri, this text of comparative theology will probably require multiple readings to be absorbed by most readers.  



















3) Anatheism: Returning to God After God by Richard Kearney (2009): I read this book in the fall for a class at the beginning of my first semester at Drew. While a few years old at this point, it represents an important perspective in continental philosophical theology that has much in common with Caputo.  Reading interreligiously as a philosopher, his notion of God as Stranger is extremely provocative and helpful for me.


















4) Theopoetic Folds: Philosophizing Multifariousness ed. by Roland Faber & Jeremy Fackenthal (2013): Faber was a professor of mine at Claremont while Fackenthal was a PhD student friend of mine during my master's program.  Both were helpful in my thinking about process theology, and this text is a great publication that includes fantastic essays that focus particularly on the process form of theopoetics.  Aside from the editors, the contributors include Caputo, John Thatamanil, Catherine Keller, etc.



















5) Religion, Politics, & the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett & Jeff Robbins (2012): One of the most buzzed about books over the last year or so, definitely check this one out since it's now available in a more affordable paperback version.  Robins and Crockett are doing great work in the field of radical theology and this is a great place to start if you're interested in that conversation. 

















Honorable Mentions: Divine Multiplicity: Trinities, Diversities, & The Nature of Relation ed. by Chris Boesel, The Idolatry of God by Peter Rollins, Dualities: A Theology of Difference by Michelle Voss Roberts, What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell, Religions in the Making: Whitehead and the Wisdom Traditions of the World ed. by John Cobb

Monday, November 4, 2013

Critchley's Atheistic Faith & Mystical Anarchism

The English philosopher Simon Critchley is chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, and author of many books, including his latest (and the topic of this post), The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. He works within the continental tradition primarily on ethics, political theory, and religion. He also moderates for and contributes to The Stone, a weekly New York Times opinion series by thinkers on a wide range of issues, including art, ethics, and popular culture.

Although an atheist, Critchley joins other leftist philosophers like Zizek in utilizing theology to enliven anti-capitalist projects while deeply criticizing the evangelical atheism of Dawkins. For Critchley, Christianity “offers a powerful way of articulating questions of the ultimate meaning and value in human life in ways irreducible to naturalism, ” even if he cannot accept its answers. He starts from the perspective that “philosophy begins in disappointment”, both religious and political disappointment. The former raises the problem of meaning and the threat of nihilism, while the latter raises questions about justice and the need for coherent ethics.

Simon Critchley
Positioning his argument in our context of ongoing religious violence that shapes global politics, Critchley asserts that effective politics today requires a deeper motivation to cooperate that neither a purely atheistic rationality nor traditional theism can provide. What is politically required “in order that citizens might pledge themselves to the good” and live for others is an “atheistic conception of faith”. His phenomenology of faith can be understood in terms of the self being constantly called and divided against itself by fidelity to an infinite demand, which is thus “all about the experience of failure” although “in failing something is learned [and] experienced from the depths."  He argues that such a faith of the faithless is truer because it is not supported by dogma, institutions, or metaphysics. Only when reason is connected to such faith can an alternative politics take shape, avoiding “demotivated cynicism."  Again, this faith is not belief in God but “the rigorous activity of the subject that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantees or security, and which seeks to abide with the infinite demand of love." This connection between faith and love will become more important in what follows.

To see how Critchley further develops his political theology, I will be concentrating on the “mystical anarchism” of the Beguine mystic Marguerite Porete in Chapter 3. Critchley concurs with philosopher Carl Schmitt in his argument that “All significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” In the liberal state, Schmitt sees the theological triumph of deism: just as deists deny the possibility of miracles, liberalism refuses to break with the constitutional norm to make political decisions. But this cripples political action when it is most needed, leading him to argue for the sovereignty of the state. Thus the state intervenes to override any legal norm as necessary. Critchley agrees with the diagnosis of liberalism as anti-political but is critical of Schmitt’s justification of dictatorship.

He also agrees with Schmitt’s view that original sin forms a dividing line for two major alternatives to liberalism. If human nature is wicked, as authoritarians like Schmitt affirm, then there is a constant need for a corrective at the level of state to save humans from themselves. Anarchists do not deny that humans are often evil, but believe this need not be the case because social mechanisms are what make them evil and must be replaced with autonomous self-governing communes. Critchley writes, “if the force of life itself is not repressed by the deathly repressive activity of the state that operates through the force of law, then it will be possible to organize society on the basis of mutual aid and cooperation…anarchism is the political expression of freedom from original sin…”

Yet another alternative to liberalism that relies on a naturalized concept of original sin is philosopher John Gray’s Darwinian political realism. He argues that since humans are essentially “killer apes,” they cannot transform the world towards any utopia. The solution is to abandon utopianism, recognize evil in humans, and cope with reality as best we can.

Marguerite Porete
But to move beyond authoritarianism, political realism, and liberalism, Critchley explores the possibilities of mystical anarchism through a reading of Porete’s The Mirror. While his own neo-anarchist position pulls back from this more radical mystical anarchism, he nevertheless finds it compelling. New political possibilities may come to light when original sin is overcome, as in Porete’s theology.

He notes that revolutionary millenarian movements throughout history tended to attract the poor, to advocate a radical social transformation by a mythical return to the Garden of Eden pre-original sin, and hold basically communist views. The most famous revolutionary millenarian movement was the heretical Movement of the Free Spirit, of which Porete was a part. Critchley describes it as a highly mobile and “secret network of small activist groups linked together by powerful bonds of solidarity and love.” A key theological conviction for them was that the Lord’s Spirit is within the self rather than external to it. This ultimately means for them that “the soul is free and…there is no difference between the soul and God…[and therefore] no need of the agencies of the…Church, the state, law, or police."

Within this theological perspective, Porete described the soul’s process of overcoming original sin in seven stages of self-deification, where it annihilates itself through the work of love to become the place for God’s infinite self-reflection. The end result, she writes, is that “there is nothing but he…when I become nothing, I become God."  She is more radical than many mystics in that she is not merely talking about a contemplative union with the One, but surpassing her own humanity to become God. 

Porete’s overcoming of original sin brings about radical human freedom. Critchley notes the following political consequences of her thought: all conceptions of private property are demolished since “the only true owner of property is God, [whose] wealth is held in common by all creatures without hierarchy or distinctions."  And because Porete sees the work of love as the audacity of the Soul’s annihilation, “there can be no higher authority than divine love, which entails that communism would be a political form higher than law."  Finally, morality flows only from our freedom derived from the Free Spirit held in common rather than from external constraints.

Critchley admits that Porete’s idea of becoming God goes too far for him, but she nevertheless offers something valuable: a politics of love. The act of love is the “attempt to extend beyond oneself by annihilating oneself…to give what one does not have and to receive that over which one has no power.” This mystical insight enriches his notion of faith as openness to the infinite demand of love, in the face of which we necessarily fall short and never reach a kind of divine perfection. Critchley sees this as the way into a new subjectivity that can transform our relation to others, opening up new anarchic potentials and conceptions of the common. He concludes, “Anarchism can only begin with an act of inward colonization, the act of love that demands a transformation of the self."

Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Resurrection of Nature: Thinking Beyond Borg & Jones

What follows is a highly condensed version of my argument for a neo-process theology of the ‘resurrection of nature', which I defended in the concluding chapter for my Master's thesis (Perichoresis and Process: The Eco-Theologies of Moltmann and Cobb) at Claremont School of Theology a couple of years ago. I'm posting this in response to the debate about the necessity of a material resurrection between Marcus Borg and Tony Jones.  My argument for a kind of third way beyond their perspectives essentially comes down to this: by maintaining a social trinitarian panentheism in which everything material already exists (and continues to exist in a reconciled state) at every new moment of becoming within the divine life, and also by understanding matter as more akin to energy (as quantum physicists and process thinkers continue to claim), Christians need not worry about whether there was an empty tomb or not to hold a robust view of the resurrection of Jesus.  I am drawing especially on the work of Jurgen Moltmann, Joseph Bracken, and John Haught, as well as four of my teachers from Claremont: Philip Clayton, Marjorie Suchocki, Tripp Fuller, and John Cobb (although that is not to suggest that they all completely agree with what I argue here).

As the majority of contemporary biblical scholars agree, the Jewish understanding of ‘resurrection’ that Jesus and Paul affirmed had to do with a transformed body, not just the soul. N.T. Wright argues that the Jewish view of resurrection is that it is “for the whole world – meaning, by world, the entire cosmos with all its history.” Resurrection hope is thus cosmic in scope. But is there a way to think about a cosmic resurrection that is plausible, ecological, and faithful to Christian intuitions, avoiding the problems of theodicy the are implied by asserting a coercive form of divine action required for the resurrection of Jesus? I will argue that a "field-oriented approach" to resurrection better succeeds in meeting these three criteria (see Joseph Bracken's Christianity and Process Thought, John Haught's God After Darwin, Philip Clayton's The Predicament of Belief, and Thomas Jay Oord's The Nature of Love for a more technical explanation of much of what follows).

John Haught rightly points out that bodily resurrection is an inherently ecological concept, since bodies are interconnected and constituted by the whole of creation. As such, bodily resurrection would logically include the rest of the natural world throughout evolutionary history. However, a common criticism of resurrection from eco-theologians like Rosemary Radford Ruether is that it demonizes death, which is a necessary part of life. But as Latin American liberation theologians remind us, it is important to understand the primary motivations for the biblical views of death and resurrection. Although death was generally seen as natural in the Old Testament, the New Testament’s more negative perspective on death is rooted in the view that it is the oppressive tool of Empire, used to terrorize the poor and crucify Jesus. Jon Sobrino explains that resurrection hope “applies directly to justice, not simply to survival; its primary subjects are victims, not simply human beings; the scandal it has to overcome is death inflicted unjustly, not simply natural death as our destiny.”

Resurrection is then first and foremost about justice for the victims, whether human or nonhuman. From a process perspective, only if all creatures are able to enjoy richness of experience, have joy outweigh suffering, have most of their felt needs be fulfilled, and their existence preferable to nonexistence, was God’s decision to lure our kind of world into being worth the risk for each creature as an intrinsically valuable subject of experience. But it seems apparent that this is not generally the case, especially in the tragically violent history of evolution and in the long and bloody history of empires. Death cannot be merely a contribution to something greater than ourselves. If we are to think ecologically, considering the value of the individual parts of creation and not only the whole, some notion of resurrection seems necessary. As Jay McDaniel writes, “Given the inescapable lure to live with wholeness and satisfaction, a lure that itself is the immanence of a creative God, one life does not seem to be enough” for most creatures to realize shalom.

Although it must be held together with Sobrino’s notion of resurrection as justice for the victims, Haught’s view is that death in the most general sense is a natural and necessary part of the creative process of becoming. But if death in the sense of nonexistence were the final word of the creative process, the purpose and identity of creatures that God has so patiently lured into existence to maximize overall value in the universe would be difficult to affirm. Haught thus argues that resurrection is not so much a rescue operation from natural processes as it is our entrance into a deeper mode of participation in the universe through the triune life: “Resurrection, if it is truly bodily, could mean a person being set free from a limited relationship to nature in order to take on an even deeper intimacy with it, a relationship that Karl Rahner has called ‘pancosmic.’” From this perspective, the pain of death seems to be partially due to “our undergoing the transition from a relatively narrow range of relationships ‘in the present age’ to the wider web of relations that would pertain to a perfected creation.”

Such a profoundly ecological view of resurrection would seem to encourage an ethic of solidarity with the natural world, over against a flight to the beyond. One may even be reminded of Teilhard’s material mysticism: “Bathe yourself in the ocean of matter; plunge into it where it is deepest and most violent; struggle in its currents and drink of its waters. For it cradled you long ago in your preconscious experience; and it is that ocean that will raise you up to God…” Within the framework of trinitarian panentheism, one can see how resurrection into the divine life would involve an intensification of communion with the three divine persons, and therefore an intensification of one’s participation in the reign of God. Resurrected life in the fullest sense of being reconciled to God, both body and soul, would somehow involve one’s continuing participation in God’s ongoing creative-redemptive activity in the world.

But how is this view to be understood metaphysically? Joseph Bracken makes an interesting proposal within his social trinitarian metaphysics that makes a difference for resurrection theology. Such a view requires a shift in the conventional understanding of matter as instead being more akin to energy fields and thus not as solid as it seems to ordinary sense experience. As Bracken explains (with just a bit of technical terminology from Whitehead: "actual occasions" can be defined as momentary energetic events of becoming, which is what reality is ultimately composed of at the basic level; "fields of activity" are what Bracken describes as the shape that certain patterns of actual occasions take when organized into ordinary objects of sense experience - such as human bodies):

"If the human body is a complex structured field of activity for all the actual occasions existing within it at any given moment, then the body is far less physical and material than our senses here and now tell us. What is important about the body is the flow of energy from moment to moment in virtue of a fixed pattern of relations among the body parts. This pattern of relations can presumably be incorporated into the divine field of activity at every moment without difficulty and can be integrated with the pattern of relations governing our bodies from the first moment of conception onwards. When we die, therefore, we will be reunited with our bodies…[as] what has been recorded in our characteristic bodily pattern of behavior."

In this metaphysics of resurrection then, material bodies continue to live in a transformed state in the triune life. Reunited with their final occasions through God’s (non-coercive) resurrecting power, a creature as a psychosomatic unity would continue “to grow in its appreciation and evaluation of its contribution to an ontological reality much greater than itself, namely, the kingdom of God.” From a panentheistic perspective, this means an intensification of a relationship to the triune God, who is always already present, along with the creature’s continued contribution to the infinite creative process as a whole.

In this perspective, questions about an empty tomb of Jesus after his resurrection are relevant, but not decisively so. As evangelical theologian Thomas Jay Oord has argued (in agreement with John Cobb), process metaphysics certainly does not rule out the possibility that Jesus’ physical body was literally transformed, leaving behind an empty tomb. Indeed, for him it is of ultimate importance for his Christian faith that this occurred. From an emergentist perspective with a more limited view of divine action, Philip Clayton shows how the resurrection of Jesus can be conceived of in a way that neither requires an empty tomb nor a denial that Jesus was personally raised to new life and somehow made present to the disciples. This goes beyond what Marcus Borg has argued for in his popular books. Within the presently proposed trinitarian metaphysics, a person of faith does not necessarily have to decide either way on an empty tomb in order to affirm a real resurrection of Jesus. If material bodies are really energetic bodies that are always at every moment being resurrected into the triune life (since pan-en-theism = all-in-God), they need not necessarily disappear at some particular moment from normal space-time to be literally, materially resurrected. One might then stress the historical importance of the appearance narratives over the empty tomb narratives, as some scholars do, as well as the Pauline emphasis on the “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

It seem to me that such a theology of resurrection is faithful to Christian intuitions, entirely plausible in terms of contemporary science, avoids the problems of theodicy by emphasizing a non-interventionist but realist view of divine action, and deeply ecological in that it does not require an absolute reversal of natural processes for resurrection to occur (as in Moltmann's theology). While initially providing justice for history’s victims through healing and reconciliation, with Haught we can think of the climax of our resurrected life as the deepening of our relationships to the cosmic community in a new mode of collaboration with the ongoing work of the triune God.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Theology of Paul Tillich: Redemption and the Doctrine of God (Conclusion/pt.7)

The discussions of the various types of anxiety in the previous post raises the question of how we can be saved from the threat of nonbeing, which as we have seen is due to our fallen nature, our estrangement from the ground of being and meaning. Recognized or not, the courage to be is also a universal condition since we are not immediately overwhelmed and totally destroyed by the threat of nonbeing. Something continues to provide the finite with the power of being as the source of this wavering existential courage. For Tillich, “God” is the symbol of the infinite ground and power of being and meaning. God is thus the source of our courage to be as the power that transcends the threat of nonbeing. Our participation in God empowers us to take the threefold anxiety into ourselves in spite of our guilt, doubt, and horizon of death. This courage to be is “rooted in the personal, total, and immediate certainty of divine forgiveness." Here we see how Tillich can formulate a Protestant doctrine of justification by grace through faith.

God is the source of courage precisely because God also embraces nonbeing in Godself and thus eternally conquers it. Tillich argues that God could not be the ground of finite life without God’s inclusion of and victory over nonbeing in the divine life. The nonbeing in the ground of being is what makes God “living creativity” rather than “dead identity.” As such, it follows that the living God as the ground of being in which everything that is participates “is the pattern of the self-affirmation of every finite being and the source of the courage to be.” God is not closed off from the finite because “Nonbeing...opens up the divine self-seclusion and reveals him as power and love.” This affirmation of the living God is the starting point for Tillich’s development of a more complex doctrine of the Trinity. In the dynamics of the triune life, the ‘Father’ is understood as the abyss, power, or depth of Being, the ‘Son’ as the content, meaning, or logos of Being, and the ‘Spirit’ as the unity of power (the Father) and meaning (the Son) in the divine life. Without the logos, the divine self-objectification, God would be abysmal chaos. Without the Spirit, God would not go out from Godself to become creative.

But we must remember the symbolic status of this discussion, for there can be no literal language about that which transcends the subject-object structure of the finite world. Tillich thus affirms a trans-theistic concept of God in which God is not a supreme being but being-itself: “The acceptance of the God above the God of theism makes us a part of that which is not also a part but is the ground of the whole.” As such, God cannot be thought of as a being or a person alongside other beings or persons, but is rather “Being itself, the ground and abyss of every being...[and] the Personal itself, the ground and abyss of every person.” This does not mean that God is an impersonal force but rather that God is not-less-than-personal. Although God is trans-personal for Tillich, he argues that the symbol of a personal God is essential to religion. A sub-personal God “cannot grasp the center of our personality; it can satisfy our aesthetic feeling or our intellectual needs, but...it cannot overcome our loneliness, anxiety, and despair.”

As we have seen, Jesus as the Christ remains the norm of Tillich’s system and it is through Jesus that the absolute is made concrete in the symbol of Jesus as the Christ. By the absolute becoming concrete in Jesus, estranged creatures can be reconciled to God. Sin as separation from one’s true self, others, and the ground of being is universally expressed in anxiety. Salvation through Jesus as the Christ is the overcoming of this separation, which cannot be achieved through the efforts of finite creatures. Through Jesus’ life, the divine entered into finite existence without sin, the distortion of essential being, and therefore actualized the New Being that brings healing to our fallen condition when received in faith. By receiving Jesus as the Christ we can be reunited with the ground of being. But in his death on the cross, Jesus as a mediating symbol was negated: “The ultimate concern of the Christian is not Jesus but the Christ Jesus who is manifest as the crucified.” By sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ on the cross, he kept his unity with God by refusing to elevate himself as medium of the ultimate to the level of the ultimate itself (idolatry). Jesus as the Christ is the final revelation who created “the new reality of which the Church is the communal and historical embodiment.”

In this series of posts on Tillich’s theology, we have been able to explore in some depth one of the most important Western minds of the 20th century. Now that we are into the postmodern age of the 21st century, Tillich’s significance only seems to be of greater weight in many ways – although certainly not without some ambiguity. Tillich is obviously a modern theologian who exhibits some of the tendencies and perspectives that are strongly criticized by some postmodern religious scholars and theologians today: his insistence on defining religion in ways that seem suspiciously Western and totalizing, his relative lack of attention to the experiences of women and marginalized persons, his apparently foundationalist epistemology, engaging in onto-theology, advocating a totalizing metanarrative, and utilizing an ‘emotive-espressivist’ method that is sharply criticized by post-liberal conservative postmodernists. But as David Kelsey argues, Tillich may avoid the worst of these critiques because he limits ontology to analyzing the finite, argues that there is no ‘world history’ but only the history of groups, insists that existence cannot be captured in a single story, and his rather apophatic way of speaking about God are all more postmodern than some of Tillich’s critics recognize. Yet one must take notice of poststructuralist theologians like John Caputo who see themselves as post-Tillichians in the sense that they take Tillich's project to its logical conclusion by rejecting any attempt to speak of 'Being' in favor of 'the event' on the plane of immanence.  For Caputo, the name "God" may or may not be "wired up" to a Supreme Being or even the Ground of Being.  A different critique of Tillich comes from process theologians like David Ray Griffin, who argues against Tillich’s doctrine of God on the grounds that it cannot do justice to divine agency because it is ultimately semi-deistic and for its “extreme conceptual transcendence.” But even for those of us who are attracted to a process doctrine of God in some ways, there is much to gain from Tillich’s theological system - in fact, contemporary constructive theologians like Catherine Keller and John Thatamanil have both brought Tillich and process together in their own ways (via postmodern ecofeminism and comparative theology, respectively). My own work is currently influenced by this search for a viable process-Tillichianism.  Tillich's work stands as one of the great achievements of 20th century Christian theology that will remain important for many years to come.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Theology of Paul Tillich: Existentialist Ontology (pt.6)

At this point in the series (which I intend to complete in the next post or two), we need to consider in greater depth the existential ontology of Tillich that was implicit in the section on his method. We have already seen that Tillich is influenced by existentialism and that he develops his system around concepts such as the finite and the infinite, the conditioned and the unconditioned. These ingredients are important to understand Tillich’s ontology, and thus his existential anthropology, doctrine of God, and Christology. What are human beings and what is their condition that requires salvation? Who or what is the triune “God”? Who is Jesus and what is his role in God’s redemptive work? We will consider each of these questions briefly in the course of what follows.

Because Tillich attempts to synthesize biblical religion and philosophy, he spends a great deal of time considering what he considers to be the fundamental question of existence: the ontological question. This is explained with great clarity in his short book Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality, which one his colleagues John C. Bennett described as “Tillich’s perfect book.” In that book, Tillich argues that ontology is the center of all philosophy because it asks “the question of what it means to be. It is the simplest, most profound, and absolutely inexhaustible question – the question of what it means to say something is.” By asking the question of being, there is an implication of some understanding of being since being provides the very possibility for the ability or power to ask in the first place. But the power to ask the question of being presupposes both participation in and separation from being, that we are a mixture of being and nonbeing – in a word, we are finite. That which is infinite would not ask the ontological question since it has/is the power of being in full. As far as we know, the nonhuman does not ask the ontological question because it does not realize its finitude by transcending itself, moving towards the infinite as the human does through the powers of imagination.

The essential task of ontological analysis then is to “discover the principles, the structures, and the nature of being as it is embodied in everything that is.” This analysis includes the whole of the natural world since everything that is participates in being and therefore resists nonbeing. Here we see Tillich’s existentialism on display, since the question of being and nonbeing is the central consideration in that school of thought. Ontological analysis thus necessarily involves the search for the ‘really real’, for ‘ultimate reality’, for that which grounds all levels of finite being by “giving them their structure and their power of being” to resist the continuous threat of nonbeing. As Tillich writes, “Because we stand between being and nonbeing and long for a form of being that prevails against nonbeing in ourselves and in our world, we philosophize.” As the philosopher analyzes the ongoing flux of nature and history, she attempts to discover some constant principles or categories that constitute the structure of finite being. The analysis naturally leads to the attempt to discover being-itself, that which is always present as the ground of the categories of finite being and the power to resist nonbeing.

In The Courage To Be, which Marion Pauck calls Tillich’s “masterpiece”, he engages in a profound existential-ontological analysis of finitude. He argues that to be finite is to experience the threat of nonbeing, particularly in the always-present awareness of the inevitability of death as the total loss of one’s being. This generates anxiety, not of the pathological kind and also not to be confused with fear, which is directed toward an object that can be overcome. Anxiety is not directed toward an object that can be overcome because its ‘object’ of nonbeing is paradoxically “the negation of every object.” Existential anxiety is an essential and permanent quality of finite human existence. Tillich defines it as “the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing”, not as an abstract knowledge of nonbeing, but rather “the awareness that nonbeing is a part of one’s own being.”

Tillich also shows that there are three basic types of anxiety relative to three different directions in which nonbeing threatens finite being. The first type of anxiety (the most basic and inescapable, according to Tillich) threatens humanity’s ontic self-affirmation, relatively in terms of fate or contingency and absolutely in terms of death. It was a particularly dominant form of anxiety at the end of ancient civilization. Upon reflection, we realize that we have no ultimate necessity in the grand scheme of things and that we cannot escape our ultimate horizon of death. We experience this because we are separated from our ground of being, although not completely since we still participate in its power. Such is the anxiety of death for which we require the courage to be, to affirm one’s being in spite of the threat of nonbeing.

The second type of anxiety threatens humanity’s spiritual self-affirmation, relatively in terms of emptiness and absolutely in terms of meaninglessness. It was/is a particularly dominant form of anxiety at the end of the modern age. In this anxiety, we lose contact with that which gives meaning to all meanings. It is expressed in spiritual doubt, which is an ever-present awareness of our separation or estrangement from the ground of meaning. It is also expressed in the extreme situation of despair, the condition in which one has lost all hope and in which nonbeing appears victorious over being. As Tillich writes, “all human life can be interpreted as a continuous attempt to avoid despair. And this attempt is mostly successful.”

The third and final type of anxiety threatens humanity’s moral self-affirmation, relatively in terms of guilt and absolutely in terms of condemnation. It was a particularly dominant form of anxiety at the end of the Middle Ages. As Tillich explains, a person’s being is not simply given to her but also demanded of her. In other words, we know that we are responsible for what we have made of ourselves, for we are finite freedom and therefore capable of choosing (to some degree) what we are to become, to fulfill our destiny. We are thus capable of contradicting our essential being, of falling from essence to estranged existence. This is the way in which Tillich develops his impressive doctrines of the Fall and original sin. Universally, human moral existence is ambiguous because it is a mixture of being and nonbeing.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Theology of Paul Tillich: The Bible, Jesus, & Symbols (pt.5)

At this point in this ongoing blog series, I want to consider Tillich’s understanding of the sources of theology. While church history and the history of religions are two significant sources for Tillich, the bible is the basic source because it is a witness to the original revelatory event of Jesus as the Christ as received by the disciples. The bible is inspired in the sense that it is the original (receptive) document that witnesses to the original (giving) event in Jesus of Nazareth: “it witnesses to that of which it is a part.” But even so, “revelation through words must not be confused with ‘revealed words’” and “there are no revealed doctrines, but there are revelatory events and situations which can be described in doctrinal terms.” This frees the theologian to truly be committed to the Protestant principle, always being open to the possibility that a particular doctrine may need to be set aside because it has lost its symbolic power.

Moreover, Tillich argues that the biblical document is certainly not to be sheltered from even the most radical forms of biblical criticism, for faith is not dependent on the historical accuracy of a text. What is important about the text are its myths and symbols that point beyond themselves to that which is of ultimate concern. As with science and psychology then, Tillich sees textual critics as “allies of theology in the fight against the supranaturalistic distortions of genuine revelation.” At minimum, Tillich does affirm that somebody like Jesus must have been real in history as the bearer of New Being for the world. But as he also writes in this important passage, "The truth of faith cannot be made dependent on the historical truth of the stories and legends in which faith has expressed itself. It is a disastrous distortion of the meaning of faith to identity it with the belief in the historical validity of the biblical stories...Faith can say that something of ultimate concern has happened in history because the question of the ultimate in being and meaning is involved...Faith can say that the reality which is manifest in the New Testament picture of Jesus as the Christ has saving power for those who are grasped by it, no matter how much or how little can be traced to the historical figure who is called Jesus of Nazareth."

Tillich also goes on to argue that because of the correlative character of revelation, we must distinguish between original and dependent revelation. While we have seen that there is always a giving and receiving side of revelation, such as the giving of revelation through Jesus as received by the disciples, this does not account for the continuing life of the church in relation to the original revelatory event in both its objective and subjective dimensions. As such, there is an original giving and receiving but there is also a dependent giving and receiving. The first is traditionally called “inspiration” and the latter “illumination.” In illumination, the original revelation (as both miracle and ecstasy) becomes the giving side for the receiving church throughout history that enters into the revelatory correlation in ever-new contexts.

This highlights Tillich’s concern to maintain the kerygma while also recognizing the relativity involved in the continuous interpretation of the kerygma by the church. It is a subtle but powerful point. The church is not the locus of original revelations that are added to the one on which it is based in Jesus as the Christ. However, it is the locus of continuous dependent revelations through the illuminating work of the Spirit. This does not create a firm foundation in Jesus “the same yesterday, today and forever,” although this is the original revelation that must always be referred to. As Tillich explains, “the act of referring is never the same, since new generations with new potentialities of reception enter the correlation and transform it.” But if the correlation is transformed by new generations of Christians to some degree, is the original revelation in danger of eventually dissolving completely? Is Jesus in danger of becoming a mere poetic symbol like Apollo rather than a genuinely revelatory symbol? If it is genuine revelation, if “the concreteness of the concern is in unity with its ultimacy,” than the revelatory symbols will not die. Tillich argues that Jesus as a symbol is the final revelation who does not come to an end because he “does not claim anything for himself.”

I conclude this post by explaining Tillich's theory of symbols, which I have been referring to throughout the entire blog series. While both symbols and signs point beyond themselves to something else, only symbols participate in the power and meaning of that to which they point.  Only symbols open up levels of reality that are otherwise closed off from normal human awareness. This is their objective function, but true to the method of correlation, symbols also have a subjective function of opening up dimensions of the human soul that correspond to objective elements of reality. This is what Tillich calls the “two-edged” function of symbols. Anything finite can become a symbol, but unlike signs, they cannot be created intentionally. They originate in the individual or collective unconscious, growing “when the situation is ripe for them and they die when the situation changes.” Symbols cease to be revelatory if they no longer elicit an existential response by the group that originally expressed them (e.g., polytheism is a dead symbol because of this). New symbols are born when the relationship to “the Holy” is changed. While symbols appear in all areas of cultural life, Tillich considers symbols as necessary for religion if it is to give expression to the unconditioned: "That which is of true ultimate concern transcends the finite realm infinitely. Therefore, no finite reality can express it directly and properly...Whatever we say about that which concerns us ultimately, whether or not we call it God, has a symbolic meaning. It points beyond itself while participating in that to which it points. In no other way can faith express itself adequately. The language of faith is the language of symbols."

With this theory of symbols, Tillich argues that all Christian doctrines are symbolic rather
than literal. Upon hearing this, many Christians may think that Tillich ‘reduces’ a literal truth to
a mere symbolic truth when in fact it is the other way around. A sign is merely literal, as it
points to something within the subject-object structure of reality. A symbol is more than literal,
because it can point to something that transcends the subject-object structure with more than a
single layer of meaning. For example, blood may be understood as a sign when it points to the
actual fluid consisting of plasma, cells, and platelets. But as a symbol, it has much more power
by communicating meaning and depth as life, passion, family relationships, or love. For
Christian faith, the symbol of the blood of Jesus can open up the reality of God’s liberating and
redemptive work for the oppressed and oppressors (as in Andrew Sung Park's Triune Atonement). Tillich uses this theory of symbols throughout his Systematic Theology to explain everything from Jesus as the Christ to the Trinity.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Theology of Paul Tillich: On Revelation, Faith, & Miracles (pt.4)

The previous post raised the question of how Tillich understands revelation. As we have seen, Tillich argues that humans in their individual contexts must receive revelation in their particular categories of thought. It is not dictated by God as the fundamentalists would have it, nor does it completely rupture our existence as Barth believes it does. In that case, revelation would either destroy the human receiver or it would be totally incomprehensible. Tillich writes, "Revelation is never revelation in general, however universal its claim may be. It is always revelation for someone and for a group in a definite environment, under unique circumstances. Therefore, he who receives revelation witnesses to it in terms of his individuality and in terms of the social and spiritual conditions in which the revelation has been manifested in him...there is no pure revelation. Wherever the divine is manifest, it is manifest in ‘flesh’..." As such, Tillich’s philosophy of revelation is to be understood as dialectical, always requiring a correlation or mediation between event and reception.

With this in mind, we can understand what Tillich means by the two sides of any revelatory event: the receiving side and the giving side. The first describes the subjective or “ecstatic” side in which an individual or a group in a concrete situation is completely grasped in the entirety of their being by a revelatory event. The second describes the objective or “miraculous” side in which the mystery of our ultimate concern is made manifest through the finite, especially as expressed through religious symbols and myth. Revelatory events that include both receiving and giving sides are “shaking, transforming, demanding, significant in an ultimate way. They derive from divine sources, from the power of that which is holy and which therefore has an unconditional claim on us.”

It must be stressed that by “revelation”, Tillich does not mean the impartation of propositional truths or special words. Revelation of the ground of meaning in human life is expressed in and through finite mediums. For Christians, Jesus is the primary medium, the ultimate symbol of revelation precisely because in his death as the Christ he points beyond himself to that which is ultimate, thus not becoming idolatrous in his ultimacy. It follows that for Tillich, “faith” does not mean belief in certain propositions or questionable theories about history or the cosmos. While faith does involve “the acceptance of symbols that express our ultimate concern,” faith is not directed toward the symbols themselves. Tillich defines the “Protestant principle” as the rejection of anything finite as appropriate objects of ultimate concern. Furthermore, faith is not merely a cognitive activity because it involves the whole person. Faith is directed toward the unconditional but also grounded in something concrete: “Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith.” Faith as ultimate concern about the unconditional is distorted and idolatrous if one is ultimately concerned about something conditioned and finite.

Faith as ultimate concern involves total surrender of the self to either that which is truly ultimate or something less than ultimate (e.g., a nation, career, money, etc.) and the expectation of fulfillment through it. Defined in this way, faith (or religion) as ultimate concern is necessarily a universal phenomenon. Tillich even argues, “You cannot reject religion with ultimate seriousness, because ultimate seriousness, or the state of being ultimately concerned, is itself religion.” So even a misplaced, idolatrous ultimate concern implies a relation to the unconditional. This is what Tillich calls the ‘dynamics of faith’: “It is the triumph of the dynamics of faith that any denial of faith is itself an expression of faith, of an ultimate concern.” While we will explore this more fully later in this blog series, this analysis of human experience is Tillich’s appropriation of the ontological argument for God. It does not provide an answer but raises the question of “God” by pointing to the unconditional elements in human experience – such as beauty, truth, and goodness that ‘judge’ all finite approximations of themselves. It is precisely this question of God universally implied in finite being that drives reason to the “quest for revelation.”

It is also important to understand that by the “ecstasy” of the receiver(s) of revelation, Tillich does not mean “religious overexcitement, artificially produced.” This too is antithetical to his definition of faith, which of course includes emotion and excitement, but transcends them just as it transcends cognitive activities. In such a case, there is no “miracle” of revelation that correlates with the “ecstatic” side of revelation in faith. Both a giving and receiving are necessary for revelation.

Lastly, we must also note that revelation does not violate reason even though it transcends it. If the manifestation of the unconditional through the finite violated reason it would be ‘demonic’, for reason is itself grounded in the unconditional. Similarly, revelation is not a supernatural miracle in the sense that it violates natural processes: “If such an interpretation were true, the manifestation of the ground of being would destroy the structure of being.” Tillich defines a genuine miracle in three ways: first, it is unusual and astonishing but does not contradict reason; second, it points to the mystery of being; and third, it is received in faith as a sign-event. It does not contradict what science, psychology, or history say about the nature of things – nor can it be dissolved by them. Tillich argues pragmatically that religious faith based on such miraculous sign-events remains alive so long as it adequately expresses ultimate concern by creating “reply, action, and communication.”

An important concept for Tillich’s view of revelation is the theological circle. To be within the theological circle of faith is to make an “a priori” commitment, based on experience and valuation, to the content of that circle as being ultimately expressive of the ultimate concern of the Christian church. As John Cobb notes, Tillich thus joins the theologians of ‘the leap’ – although not in such a way that he could be accused of irrationalism or fideism. Tillich would certainly want to justify his decision to take his place within the circle, but he rejects the notion that Christian faith simply follows “deductively from ontological principles or inductively from detached observation.” Tillich thus affirms the relativity of religion, but also argues that one can be reasonably committed to a tradition as the bearer of final (though not exclusive) revelation.

However, for those outside this receptive circle of revelation – for those not existentially grasped by the revelatory event – the symbols, myths, and institutions in which revelation is expressed are understandably not sacred. They do not seem to point to the unconditional and so are subjected to critical scholarly analysis in a more detached fashion, abstracting from the concrete Christian commitment. As Tillich argues, “The knowledge of such [revelatory] reports, and even a keen understanding of them, does not make them revelatory for anyone who does not belong to the group which is grasped by the revelation.” Against conservative apologists then, Tillich claims that there is no ‘evidence that demands a verdict’ in the sense that a disinterested reading of the bible could lead to Christian faith. Similarly, this explains why not all 1st century persons in Palestine came to see Jesus as the Christ even after encountering him.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Theology of Paul Tillich: On the Theology of Culture (pt.3)

Tillich is convinced that faith must not reject contemporary culture and contemporary culture must not reject faith. In fact, he sees the two as fully interdependent. As such, all three volumes of his Systematic Theology can be seen as “exercises in the theology of culture.” This brings us to the center of Tillich’s project: the method of correlation. The essential claim of this approach that serves as the organizing principle of Tillich’s Systematic Theology is that there is a correlation or interdependence of religion and culture. As Tillich explains, “religion is the substance of culture, culture is the form of religion.” Religion and culture form a single whole, with culture always expressing existential questions in various ways, particularly through dominant styles of art, while religious traditions offer their answers to existential questions. Existential questions shape the answers given by religion, but the questions are also asked in the light of the religious answers.

It is important to note at this stage that existential questions concern the whole of existence, as do the answers. As such, any attempt to confine religion to a special compartment of spiritual life – the moral, cognitive, aesthetic, or ‘feeling’ – is a disastrous mistake that ultimately makes religion irrelevant to the modern world. For Tillich, religion is the “dimension of depth” in all of these aspects of spiritual life, and it points to “that which is ultimate, infinite, unconditional in man’s spiritual life. Religion, in the largest and most basic sense of the word, is ultimate concern.” Religion opens up the depth of our spiritual life, providing grounds for ultimate meaning and courage.

According to Tillich then, the method of correlation means that the theologian must understand the existential questions of their cultural situation in order to offer the relevant answers of their religion. In particular, Tillich argues for the contemporary relevance of depth psychology and especially Existentialism as the most adequate philosophy to understand the pressing questions of the age. After uncovering the existential questions, the theologian reformulates the meaning of traditional Christian answers (“symbols”) derived from revelation. While some schools of liberal theology attempted to derive the religious answer apart from revelation, Tillich argues that “[t]he answer cannot be derived from the question. It is said to him who asks, but it is not taken from him.” This is precisely because to be human just is to ask the question about one’s being, “living under the impact of the answers given to this question.” Again, we see Tillich attempting to maintain a third way between kerygmatic and apologetic theology.

In one of his most important essays, “The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion”, Tillich implicitly differentiates his method of correlation from Barth’s neo-orthodoxy. The first kind of philosophy of religion (the cosmological type) is like meeting a stranger in the encounter with God. There is an absolute rupture in this perspective between culture and religion, philosophy and revelation, world and gospel. This is a clear description of Barth’s theology, which Tillich admired for its political power to resist a ‘demonic’ culture. In a context where a political tyrant claims absolute authority, swallowing the culture whole, Tillich agreed that the cosmological Barthian approach is, pragmatically speaking, very effective for resistance movements. But that does not mean it is correct – in fact, Tillich persuasively argued that Barth, for all of his genius, is quite mistaken in adopting the cosmological type of philosophy of religion.

The second kind of philosophy of religion (the ontological type) that Tillich himself advocates is the way of overcoming estrangement, the way in which “man discovers himself when he discovers God.” This connects with Tillich’s argument for the need to engage in existential analysis of the human situation, for it is here that “[man] has become aware of the fact that he himself is the door to the deeper levels of reality, that in his own existence he has the only possible approach to existence itself.”  What this means for theology is that the Barthian cosmological emphasis on revelation apart from philosophical analysis of the concrete situation of humanity is, once again, impossible. As Tillich writes, for the Barthian approach to theology in which one encounters God as absolute stranger, “[m]an must become something else than human in order to receive divinity...human receptivity is completely overlooked. But man cannot receive answers to questions he never asked.”

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Theology of Tillich: Apostle to the Intellectuals (pt.2)

In considering the method of Tillich’s complex theological project, it is important to understand that he was primarily concerned to make Christianity intelligible and attractive again to a mid-20th century Western society and culture that had become permeated by a post- Enlightenment skepticism. Tillich’s major theological works were published after the end of World War II when the naïve optimism of the West in the inevitability of civilizational progress had been deeply shaken. In Christian circles, the influence of the more optimistic Social Gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch with its goal of establishing the kingdom of God on earth by working for social justice had thus declined significantly. In its place, Barth’s neo-orthodox theology had gained a lot of traction with its radically confessional approach as the supposed solution to the various social and religious dilemmas of the age.

But skepticism about religion as a whole and the existence of God in particular was also rapidly increasing in response to recent events in history, facilitating much more secular societies in America and Europe. Nietzsche’s announcement of the ‘death of God’ continued to have a great influence throughout the West and the natural sciences seemed to continually make supernatural explanations of the world superfluous. Additionally, the results of biblical criticism and the quest for the historical Jesus undermined traditional notions of biblical authority while comparative religious scholars such as Ernst Troeltsch had persuasively shown the historical relativity of all religions. As such, with these massive paradigm shifts in the West came the loss of traditional foundations for meaning.

It was in this extremely challenging context that Tillich embraced his vocation as a mediator between Western culture and traditional Christianity. As his biographer Marion Pauck explains, Tillich became an ‘apostle to the intellectuals,’ believing "...he could help his contemporaries withstand the existential problems and difficulties that tend to emerge in a time of cultural transition. It was clear to him that because traditional values had lost their appeal, many people were overcome by a sense of emptiness. They had become victims of the anxiety of meaninglessness...Tillich therefore endeavored to interpret the Christian message so that his contemporaries would be able to understand it as a living gospel, one that would speak to them."

In a sense then, Tillich can certainly be seen as a Christian apologist. However, the connotations that such a title carries (e.g., an over reliance on rational ‘proofs’ for the existence of God, a God-of-the-gaps engagement with science, etc.) make it misleading when applied to Tillich. Furthermore, Tillich is critical of those modern apologists who have so sacrificed the substance of the Christian message (kerygma) in their attempt to find common ground with those outside the Christian circle that they have completely dissolved any meaningful or compelling faith. While Tillich is certainly opposed to the neo-orthodox kerygmatic method that rejects any apologetic attempt to find common ground for the (false) safety of biblical revelation, he argues that Christian apologetic theology must remain committed to the kerygma in their task lest they foolishly attempt to derive theological answers from the questions implied in existence.

Tillich’s theology is thus characterized by synthesis rather than diastasis (“to stand apart”), the latter of which is an accurate descriptor of Barth’s theology. Tillich explains that he is firmly committed to the apologetic task of bringing biblical religion into harmony with the philosophical search for ultimate reality:

"Since the breakdown of the great synthesis between Christianity and the modern mind as attempted by Schleiermacher, Hegel, and nineteenth century liberalism, an attitude of weariness has grasped the minds of people who are unable to accept one or the other alternative. They are too disappointed to try another synthesis after so many have failed. But there is no choice for us. We must try again!"

Over against Barth, he argues that kerygmatic theology requires a strong partnership with apologetic theology, for it is quite simply impossible on its own without utilizing the conceptual tools of its period and without relating itself to the contemporary situation as distinct from the situation of the biblical writers: “Kerygmatic theology must give up its exclusive transcendence and take seriously the attempt of apologetic theology to answer the questions put before it by the contemporary situation.”

Theology of Paul Tillich: Introduction (pt.1)

The German-American philosophical theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1985) was one of the great Western intellectuals of the 20th century. He was a prolific author, influential professor, charismatic Lutheran preacher, and a committed religious socialist who publicly and sharply criticized the Nazi movement, resulting in his dismissal from teaching at the University of Frankfurt in 1933 when Hitler came to power – a “blessing in disguise”, as his biographer Marion Pauck notes. He soon relocated to Union Theological Seminary in New York at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, became an American citizen, and later went on to teach at Harvard Divinity School and University of Chicago during his tremendously successful American teaching career.

Tillich is partly remembered as a respected philosopher in the existentialist tradition. His major influences include Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Schelling, Kähler, and Heidegger, although he was also deeply engaged with the philosophies of Plato, Plotinus, Aristotle, the Stoics, Kant, Marx, Spinoza, and Hegel. But more than anything, it is Tillich the Christian theologian who has remained especially important, clearly standing within the tradition of the great liberal theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. He was also significantly influenced by the theologies of Augustine and Luther. Reinhold Niebuhr once called Tillich “a seminal theologian” and Georgia Harkness even claimed that “[w]hat Whitehead was to American philosophy, Tillich has been to American theology.” Indeed, next to Karl Barth he is arguably the most significant Protestant theologian of the 20th century.

While there is not a “Tillichean” school of thought in quite the same way as one finds in process, liberation, or Barthian schools, Tillich’s work has had an enormous impact on virtually all of the liberal or progressive theological traditions from his time down to the present. As we
will see in this series of six blog posts, his method of correlation, theory of symbols, doctrine of God as ‘ground of being’, and definition of religion as ‘ultimate concern’ are some of Tillich’s most impressive ideas that have left a mark on not only Christian philosophical theology, but also on cultural and religious studies. In what follows, we will examine some of the major components of Tillich’s thought, primarily considering his overarching method, and then concluding with a shorter consideration of Tillich’s existential ontology and brief explanations of how he understands some of the major Christian doctrines.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Process Response to Crockett & Robbins’ New Materialism

As part of the Homebrewed Christianity blog tour for Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett and Jeffrey Robbins, it was suggested that I write a post in response to just one of the chapters. However, as I read the book I became more and more interested in the connection between the New Materialism and Process Theology. As such, I will be using this opportunity to engage various parts of the book from the perspective of one shaped by the process-Whiteheadian tradition. As a Claremont student, I learned from John Cobb, Marjorie Suchocki, Philip Clayton, Monica Coleman, and Roland Faber – not to mention my good friend Tripp Fuller, process evangelist extraordinaire! This fall I will be heading to Drew University to work with Catherine Keller for my PhD in Theological and Philosophical studies. Clearly my interests are tied to process theology, although I am very interested in exploring the connections between process and radical theologies. Keller and Faber have both done great work to do just this in various publications that bring together Whitehead with Badiou, Deleuze, Butler, Derrida, etc.

All of that goes to say that this new and exciting book from Robbins and Crockett resonates with my current academic interests even though they do not directly engage process theology. On the other hand, both of the authors are very influenced by Deleuze, who was himself influenced by Whitehead. Both Keller and Faber are poststructuralist process theologians working to re-energize the process tradition, largely by reading Whitehead through Deleuze. As such, I am curious to know more about how Crockett and Robbins respond to such a project as radical theologians – no doubt with great appreciation, but I’m sure they have some concerns as well. Is there room at the Radical Theology table for 'radical process theologies', especially in light of the fact that they claim in the book that Radical Theology (as with process theology) is not merely one school of thought but is made up of multiple streams of thought? The New Materialism certainly has some interesting points of connection to the process tradition that I would like to highlight in this post, and indeed, the authors admit that some forms of Radical Theology are informed by the process tradition (xvi). While there are differences between the two schools of thought to be sure, I’m more interested in the common ground between them and will concentrate on some of those in this post. I will not be able to go in depth here and must assume some familiarity with process thought, but I do hope that this provides a short overview of some points of contact I discovered between Crockett and Robbins’ proposals in this book and process theology in general.

First of all, this book reminded me of John Cobb’s prolific work in quite a few ways.  The ability to tackle such a wide variety of key issues with such intellectual intensity is something that Cobb shares with Crockett and Robbins.  With economist Herman Daly, Cobb has written extensively on developing alternative economics in response to the ecological crisis that is informed by a very particular (Whiteheadian) philosophical perspective. I fully expect that Cobb would also be very interested, perhaps even applauding the bold nuclear energy proposal made in chapter 7 of Crockett and Robbins’ book. With biologist Charles Birch, he has written a great deal about the need to rethink science in ways that are nonreductionist as far too much mainstream science tends to be – and of course, this is by way of Whitehead as well. He has collaborated with other philosophers and theologians to develop new ways to think about a truly democratic politics in confrontation with American imperialism and corporate capitalism. He also maintains a deep and respectful conversation with his close friend Thomas J. Altizer, the theological grandfather of the current resurgence of Radical Theology who essentially put Death of God theology on the map decades ago. In his own way, Cobb calls for a secularizing theology from his perspective as a process theologian that is primarily concerned with material existence in this world – a notion that certainly resonates with Radical Theology.  In fact, I believe that all of Cobb's work that I just listed would resonate to a great extent with Crockett and Robbins' New Materialism.

To get a little more specific, it seems to me that Cobb’s Whiteheadian-process metaphysics has a number of interesting connections to the New Materialist ontology developed in chapter 8 of Crockett and Robbins’ book, which is informed by Hegel and Deleuze. Like process theologians, their ontology is nondualistic (118), nonreductionist, pluralistic (though not atomistic), and emergentist (119). And like Whitehead, they see matter as “not really matter at all but matter-energy” (xx).  Cobb regularly explains process metaphysics in almost identical terms to illustrate Whitehead’s central notion of actual occasions, which are more like energy - thus moving away from more static notions of matter or substance. Crockett and Robbins again sound very much like Whitehead when they write, “…we can approach an understanding of being as an irreducible multiplicity that is nevertheless not atomist…Being is the becoming or evolution of space and time and takes the form of energy” (114). And again in the following similar quote: “…spacetime is nothing but an evolving system of relationships” (116). They also join Whiteheadians in their concern to bring philosophy into closer contact with the natural sciences (118) and by rejecting a sharp line between living and nonliving, organic and inorganic things (119). Finally, Crockett and Robbins agree with Whiteheadians in their perspective on thinking/minds/consciousness as “an emergent property” that cannot be subjected to either a traditional dualism or hardcore reductionism (132).  These are not insignificant points of connection between the New Materialism and Process Theology!

On religion, process thinkers like Cobb would have much to agree with Crockett and Robbins on as well. While taking the critique of religion by the masters of suspicion seriously, process thinkers can strongly agree with the authors when they assert that "with the New Materialism, religion might become a source of empowerment and political mobilization…the revolutionary potential is found not by ridding the world of religion but by thinking religion otherwise” (25-26).  Both groups of thinkers, radical and process, also agree that the significance of Jesus has much more to do with material existence in this world, standing in opposition to all exploitative systems such as neoliberal capitalism, than with another world after death. In other words, both are "secularizing theologies" (Cobb's idea explained in his book Spiritual Bankruptcy). Although Cobb is unapologetically committed to theism, unlike Radical Theology, it seems to me that his process framework addresses many of the concerns of materialist critiques of religion in general and theism in particular. For example, Crockett and Robbins write “we do not oppose religion, but we do oppose fanaticism and fundamentalism, including the fairy-tale expectations that a God or gods will rescue us from our predicament and punish the evildoers while rewarding the righteous” (xvi). Process theologians could not agree more with this statement as they do not affirm a form of theism that has room for an interventionist God or even a final eschatological cleanup of the mess we have made of the earth.  Responsibility thus falls back upon human beings rather than placed entirely upon a supernatural and omnipotent being.

I hope this post is useful to those who find both process and radical theologies of interest.  I will continue to explore the various points of contact between these two schools of thought (likely on this blog in the near future) which to me seem to be the most fruitful and interesting conversations going on in theology today.  While representatives of radical and process theology have started conversing more in recent years, I hope that we can deepen this discussion as some of the misunderstandings between them are dismantled and bridges are built.  Crockett and Robbins have done much to do just that by writing this great book.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to review this fascinating text and recommend it to all who find these issues interesting.

Click here for a list of other great bloggers on the HBC blog tour for this book!