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.

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