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.

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