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.

1 comment:

  1. This was really helpful. Thank you. I think that Tillich's theory of symbols are especially important when considering those doctrines that seemingly contradict one another, or pull against one another as they try to continually describe our experience/relationship with faith. It provides a buffer for the logic of faith to falter, as it will inevitably, and I think satiates our anxiety of losing faith if our theological house of cards crumbles.