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.


  1. Thank you for this excellent presentation. I'm a school teacher in England and this has helped my students a lot!

  2. profound reflection!

  3. Thanks for reading, and I'm glad this post has been so helpful.