The Protestant Era by Paul Tillich
Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. The Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<
Chapter 5: Realism and Faith
For those who have followed with sympathy or enthusiasm the development of painting in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, two events will stand out in memory: first, the emergence and success of "expressionism," then the flagging of its energies and the rise of a style called neue Sachlichkeit ("the new objectivity"). When expressionism appeared, it was largely rejected as repulsive, dark, and ugly. But slowly it began to fascinate many people because of the riddle implied in it and the radicalism of its solutions. Finally, it won most enthusiastic adherence from groups who saw in it a new mysticism or the way to a new religious cultus. This is understandable. Expressionism was a revolution against the realism of the nineteenth century. It was a rebellion against the naturalistic-critical, as well as against the idealistic-conventional wing of realism, and it also trespassed the limits of the subjective-impressionistic realism from which it came. Things were interpreted by the expressionistic painters in their cosmic setting and their immeasurable depth. Their natural forms were broken so that their spiritual significance could become transparent. Colors, expressing divine and demonic ecstasies, broke through the gray of the daily life. It seemed as if the period of the myth had returned, and developments in other realms seemed to confirm the visions of the artists. But this feeling lasted no longer than to the middle of the third decade. At this time, works of art appeared which kept much closer to the natural forms of things than the expressionists did. They could, however, not be considered as a relapse to the nineteenth-century naturalism. They represented a post-expressionistic, not a pre-expressionistic style. They repudiated the elements of subjectivism and romanticism in the preceding period without giving up the depth and cosmic symbolism of their predecessors. Those who expected from this development a return to the idealizing naturalism of bourgeois liking were destined to disappointment, for the new realism was not interested in the natural forms of things for their own sake but for their power of expressing the profounder levels and the universal significance of things. Nineteenth-century realism had deprived reality of its symbolic power; expressionism had tried to re-establish this power by shattering the surface of reality. The new realism tries to point to the spiritual meaning of the real by using its given forms. In these movements art is driving toward a self-transcending realism. There is no guaranty that this goal will be reached; many tendencies in our period work against it, some of them honest, some of them merely ideological. But it is a tendency which should be understood and supported by Protestantism because it has a genuinely Protestant character.
Self-transcending realism is a universal attitude toward reality. It is neither a merely theoretical view of the world nor a practical discipline for life; it lies underneath the cleavage between theory and practice. Nor is it a special religion or a special philosophy. But it is a basic attitude in every realm of life, expressing itself in the shaping of every realm.
Self-transcending realism combines two elements, the emphasis on the real and the transcending power of faith. There seems to be no wider gap than that between a realistic and a belief-ful attitude. Faith transcends every conceivable reality; realism questions every transcending of the real, calling it utopian or romantic. Such a tension is hard to stand, and it is not surprising that the human mind always tries to evade it. Evasion is possible in two ways—in the way of a realism without self-transcendence or in the way of a self-transcendence which is not realistic. For the latter I want to use the word "idealism," for the former the word "self-limiting realism." Neither of these attitudes is necessarily irreligious. Positivism, pragmatism, empiricism—the different forms of realism which refuse self-transcendence—may accept religion as a realm beside the philosophical and scientific interpretation of reality, or they may connect the two realms in terms of a theology of immanent experience (the former more an English, the latter more an American, type). Idealism, on the other hand, in its different forms, such as metaphysical, epistemological, moral idealism (the first a classical German, the second a universal bourgeois, the third an Anglo-Saxon type) is essentially religious but in such a way that genuine religion must be critical of it. Faith is an ecstatic transcending of reality in the power of that which cannot be derived from the whole of reality and cannot be approached by ways which belong to the whole of reality. Idealism does not see the gap between the unconditional and the conditioned which no ontological or ethical self-elevation can bridge. Therefore it must be judged from a prophetic and Protestant point of view as religious arrogance and from the point of view of a self-limiting realism as metaphysical arrogance. In this double attack, from the side of faith and from the side of realism, idealism breaks down, historically and systematically, practically and theoretically. It is the glory of idealism that it tries to unite an autonomous interpretation of reality with a religious transcending of reality. Idealism is always on the way to "theonomy." Most of the theological, philosophical, and political critics of idealism have not even understood its problems. Their feeling of superiority over idealism is based on their ignorance about the depth of its questions and answers. The limitation and tragedy of idealism lie in the fact that it idealizes the real instead of transcending it in the power of the transcendent, i.e., in faith. Hence we are led to the result that faith and realism, just because of their radical tension, belong together. For faith implies an absolute tension and cannot be united with any attitude in which the tension is weakened. Idealism relativizes, self-limiting realism denies, but self-transcending realism accepts the tension.
II. Three Types of Realism
Knowing is a union between the knower and the known. The cognitive will is the will of a separated life to unite itself with other life. Theoria is not detached observation, although different degrees of separation and detachment are a necessary element in knowledge; but theoria is union with the really real, with that level of a thing in which the "power of being" (ousia, "Seinsmächtigkeit") is situated. Every real has different levels with more or less power of being. This (Platonic) doctrine has been challenged by Neo-Kantianism because it seems to confuse being and value. But we confront here just the question whether values must not have an ontological foundation and whether the understanding of being as power is not the way to give such a foundation to values and, at the same time, to give back to theoria the "existential" significance which it formerly had. Of course, if being is defined as "object of thought" no matter what content it has, the idea of "degrees of being" is senseless. But if being is "power" the assertion of such degrees is natural, and it is a vital necessity for the mind to penetrate into the strata in which the real power of a thing reveals itself.
It is characteristic of Greek thought that from the beginning it sought the power of a thing, the "really real" of it, in that element which can be grasped by the "logos," the word, the speech, the notion. The "rational" (that which is susceptible to the logos) is the really real. The power of a thing is to be discovered in that which can be grasped by word and concept. This view is unique in comparison with the attitude of the largest part of mankind, for whom a magical, psychic, mystical element, something like mana, is the inner power of things. For this reason it is understandable, although not justified, that Greek philosophy could be interpreted as the way of depriving things of their power and that the Platonic ontology could be conceived of as epistemological logic (Natorp). But for the Greek philosophers from Parmenides to Plotinus, the rationality and the inner power of things are identical, which is clearly expressed in their belief that the highest goal of reason is, at the same time, the highest goal of the movement of every life. Only in the light of this identity of the will to knowledge and the will to union is the role of Greek philosophy in the ancient world understandable. Only on the basis of this assumption is it possible to understand the transition of Greek classicism into the Neo-Platonic synthesis of the mystical and the rational. There is, however, one point in Plotinus which shows that he represents the end of autonomous Greek thought, namely, the fact that he finds the ultimate power of being beyond the nous (the power of reason) in the abyss of the formless One. In this he is oriental and not Greek.
The unity of rationality and the power of being may be interpreted in different ways. Since the power of being is discovered by thought, the thinking subject may become, intentionally or unintentionally, the bearer of all power. In this case the things are subjected to control and use by the rational man. They become powerless means for him who analyzes them or enjoys them or transforms them or rises above them or retires from them. From the critical and ethical schools of Greek philosophy this attitude is transmitted through late nominalism to modern technical science and the technocratic world view. One concedes to things only so much power as they should have in order to he useful. Reason becomes the means of controlling the world. The really real (ousia) of things is their calculable element, that which is determined by natural laws. Anything beyond this level is without interest and not an object of knowledge. This relation to reality is called "realistic" today. Through technical science and its economic utilization this realism is so predominant in our social and intellectual situation that the fight against it seems romantic and almost hopeless. Later Neo-Kantianism and, more consistently, positivism are the philosophical expressions of this radical reduction of the power of things to their theoretical calculability and their practical utility. Even theology was largely drawn into the orbit of this "technological realism."
But reason as the way of grasping the power of things may be understood in a quite different way. The power of being within reality may be preserved also in a rationalized and spiritualized form. In this case the true being, discovered by the logos, becomes a matter of contemplation and union. There are degrees of the power of being (Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus agree on this point), and on these degrees the human mind climbs theoretically and practically to the highest one, the supreme power of being. Mere vital existence, the control and transformation of reality, practice generally, and even physical and mathematical knowledge are transcended, and the eternal essences and their unity and ground are sought. Here "matter" exercises a permanently retarding and often preventive influence on the ascending mind. Matter, although without form or essential being, has a negative, half-demonic power which cannot be overcome in the material world. Therefore, the mind must transcend the visible cosmos as a whole, in order to find the ultimate power of being in that which is beyond being, the "good," the "pure actuality," "the One." Their longing for the true power of being drives the Greeks into a flight from the ambiguous half-demonic power of things. This is the conceptual foundation of Neo-Platonic asceticism and of that type of realism which we should call "mystical realism."
Mystical realism was dominant in the early and high Middle Ages before its nominalistic disintegration. It was not a radical, but a moderate, realism which the Middle Ages accepted. On the basis of biblical religion it was impossible to follow Greek mysticism in its ultimately negative attitude toward individuality and personality. But mystical realism was "realism" and not romanticism or idealism. Although our present terminology makes it difficult for us to use the word "realistic" for something that seems to be just the opposite of what the word generally means today, we must understand that medieval realism was as much right in using the word "real" for its attitude as modern realism is in using it for its attitude. In both cases realism gives an answer to the question of the really real or the essential power of things, but the place where this power is sought and found is different. We are prevented, however, from acknowledging this if we interpret the belief that the universals are the really real merely as a logical theory (which it also is) instead of understanding it primarily as the ontological expression of a social and spiritual situation.
The mystical realism of the Middle Ages is still alive in our time. The technological concept of reality is permanently challenged by the mystical concept, which reappears in many transformations. Theories of intuitive knowledge, classicist and romantic revivals of ancient or medieval forms of thought, phenomenology, the philosophy of life (aesthetic or vitalistic), the "theory of Gestalt," some types of the psychology of the "unconscious"—all these seek for the inner power of things beyond (or below) the level at which they are calculable and dominable. The fight between the two types of realism is continuously going on, with changing results. On the whole, however, technological realism is victorious because the real situation of the man of today, his personal and his social situation, and his relation to things are determined by its effects. But though not yet victorious, the struggles of the modern offsprings of mystical realism have not been in vain, as is noticeable in all fields of knowledge. The fate of our culture is, in the long run, bound up with this conflict and with our ability to go forward to a new kind of realism.
Both technological and mystical realism have, according to their Greek origin, one thing in common. They do not look at concrete existence, its "here and now," in order to discover the power of things. They abstract from it—technological realism for the sake of means and ends, mystical realism for the sake of essence and intuition. It is, of course, a necessary quality of all thinking to go beyond the given as given, but it is possible to seek for the power of reality within the concreteness of its existence. This is the nature of historical knowledge on which a third type of realism, namely, "historical realism," is based. Historical realism is a creation of the Occident, and especially of the Occident in so far as it stands under Protestant influence. The really real is asked for in time and space, in our historical existence, in that sphere from which all Greeks had taken flight. It was now no longer necessary to flee, since the world is divinely created and no demonic ambiguity can be found in the material world as such.
For historical realism the really real appears in the structures created by the historical process. Historical logic is still in a beginning stage, but this much is already clear: History cannot be understood in terms of technological realism. It cannot become an object of calculation and control like some levels of natural objects. History, on the other hand, cannot be grasped in a mystical contemplation of its essence. It is open to interpretation only through active participation. We can grasp the power of historical being only if we are grasped by it in our own historical existence. Detached observation of historical events and registration of assumed historical laws removes us from the possibility of approaching history.
Historical realism transcends technological, as well as mystical, realism. Its decisive characteristic is consciousness of the present situation, of the "here and now." It sees the power of being, in the depth of "our historical situation." It is contemporaneous, and in this it differs from the technological, as well as from the mystical, idea of reality.
Neither technological nor mystical realism knows the principle of contemporaneity. The technological does not, because it relates every moment in the historical process to a purpose the fulfillment of which lies in the future. There is no "present" in the vicious circle of means and ends, as the doctrine of infinite progress clearly indicates. Life, in so far as it occurs in the present, is concerned only with the surface, the accidental, with the experience of pleasure and pain, the mere impression. It is just the lack of contemporaneity that subjects us to the bondage of the passing moment. There is no contemporaneity in mystical realism either. It transcends the concrete historical existence and tries to create a union of the mind with the eternal essences in which individual things and events participate in a transitory way and for which they are only examples. The Christian, especially the Protestant, understanding of history as the history of salvation, has overcome this attitude of indifference toward our historical existence. The prophetic-Christian interpretation of history is the background of historical realism.
Contemporaneity is not bondage to the passing moment, it is not living in mere impressions. Not only historical realism but every intellectual penetration into things transcends the accidental, the mere flux of events. Such a transcending is presupposed in all our relations to reality, even before philosophy has created methods and discovered categories. Our very being as "minds" divides our world into essential and accidental elements, into that level which contains the power of being and that level which is without power. But what is the power of the here and now? It is its unique, unrepeatable, and fateful character. It is the merging of the still actual past and the already actual future in the present moment which creates the power of a historical situation. Even nature has one side which makes a historical interpretation of it possible. Although the particular event in nature is subject to the law of repetition, the natural process as a whole runs forward and is irreversible.
III. Historical Realism and Knowledge
The principle of contemporaneity as emphasized by historical realism has important consequences for the relation of the cognitive sphere to the whole of human existence. Neither mystical nor technological realism demands the participation in all elements of life, the mystical because of its ascetic attitude toward the dynamics of life, the technological because of its domineering attitude toward reality. Only historical realism makes the participation in the whole of human existence a condition of true knowledge.
This applies to the personal, as well as to the social, reality of man in history. Nobody is able to penetrate into the deeper levels of a historical situation without penetrating into the deeper levels of his personality. Knowing the really real of our historical existence presupposes the knowledge of the really real in ourselves. But knowing one’s self on this level is transforming one’s self. Detached observation of one’s self is here impossible. And knowing our historical situation on this level transforms our historical situation. Detached observation of our historical situation is here impossible. He who knows in terms of historical realism is he who is creative in himself and in history. Even technological realism has a certain awareness of this situation. Through its educational methods and its public communications it has shaped the forces of intellect and will through which man controls things, scientifically and technically. A psychological type has been created, in Europe as well as in America, which is powerful and empty at the same time and is feared by those Europeans and Asiatics who are still under the influence of some form of mystical realism. The latter, on the other hand, has in connection with the scientific ideals of the Occident produced that type of theoretical detachment from history and of scholarly asceticism which has transformed the scholar into an apparatus for the registration of facts, without critical or creative passion. I do not want to underestimate the heroism of scientific self-surrender in every inquiry, an attitude that corresponds to the immovable, eternal element in all knowledge. But this is only one element. The other one is the change, the movement, the here and now. While the elder generation of scholars (e.g., Max Weber) emphasized the ascetic element, thus producing an estrangement from life in the academic world, the scholars of the younger generation have more and more emphasized the active element in knowledge and the need for participation in all sides of life. The ideal of knowledge in historical realism is the union of scientific objectivity with passionate self-interpretation and self -transformation.
Contemporaneity in knowing demands not only the penetration into the depth of our personal being but also into the depth of our social being. Mystical realism is far from admitting such an attitude. It uses the cognitive function for the sake of escaping the historical and political reality through an intuition of the immutable truth. All those, therefore, who are directly or indirectly dependent on mystical realism (as is, for instance, recent neoclassicism) disregard the historical constellation to which they are bound, in its significance for knowledge. The situation is different with technological realism. It has always been aware of the connection between technical science and the structure of industrial society. The attitude of the proletariat and its political expression, the socialist movement, toward the scholars and their work is rooted in this awareness. The proletarians look at knowledge as a means of power in the class struggle, in which they find themselves strongly criticized by those members of the intelligentsia who are unable to imagine such a necessity and viciously attacked by those members of the ruling groups who use knowledge as a means of power without any inhibition. It is understandable that in this situation socialism accuses the bourgeoisie of producing not ideas which are true but ideologies which idealize and justify the power of the ruling class, and this through concepts and values that belong to the past and have no actuality today. Our scholars have seldom understood the seriousness of this attack. The concept of ideology in its polemical sense is a symbol for the volcano over which our society lives. If an intellectual system is successfully interpreted as a mere ideology, it has lost its formative power. The official representatives of science and religion have not even noticed how far advanced this undermining process has gone, and not only in the proletariat. These people will face the coming catastrophe of their intellectual world as unprepared as they faced the catastrophe of their political world after the first World War. It is pathetic and provoking to see the naïveté with which many highly educated people absolutize their own favored position in society, without realizing the general structure which gives them this position. Although it is the duty of scientific honesty to reject any propagandistic abuse of the search for truth, it is also a duty of honesty to know the power of the social structure to which one belongs, for one cannot escape it. It determines one’s cognitive functions as much as the system of values in which one lives. He who wants to know the power of reality in the depth of his historical existence must be in actual contact with the concrete, unrepeatable tensions of the present. The ideal of knowledge in historical realism is the union of scientific objectivity with a passionate understanding and transformation of the historical situation.
Historical realism repudiates any attempt to escape the present for the sake of an unreal past or an unreal future. Romanticism which turns toward the past (a past that never did exist) and utopianism which turns toward the future (a future that never will exist) are equally wrong from the point of view of historical realism. Both lose the present and do not reach the really real in the historical existence, for the past can be reached only on the basis of an active participation in the present, and the future can be molded only in concrete decisions about actual historical problems. This does not lead to the so-called Realpolitik which was proposed by the imperialistic bourgeoisie in the Bismarckian and pre-war epochs and was readily—much too readily— accepted by large sections of the German intelligentsia. Realpolitik has nothing to do with historical realism. It is a product of a merely technological realism and derives its goal not from a penetration into the meaning of the present but from the so-called "demands of the moment." Therefore, it is finally self-destructive.
There is no conflict between the principle of contemporaneity and the validity of the ethical norms. "Ethical instinct" can never replace the ethical principles, the criteria of good and evil. Historical realism is not without principles and criteria. It presupposes them on its way to the depth of a historical situation. Without universal criteria of justice, no profound analysis of a historical situation is possible. Without principles of the ideal, the real cannot be interpreted in its depth. But historical realism prevents the principles from becoming abstract. It expresses them in the light of the present and as answers to the questions implied in a historical situation.
IV. Historical Realism and Faith
The question now arises: What is the relation of historical realism to what we have called "self-transcending realism"? Historical realism strives to grasp the power of reality or the really real in a concrete historical situation. But the really real is not reached until the unconditioned ground of everything real, or the unconditioned power in every power of being, is reached. Historical realism remains on a comparatively unrealistic level if it does not grasp that depth of reality in which its divine foundation and meaning become visible. Everything before this point has preliminary, conditioned reality. Therefore, historical realism has truth to the degree that it reaches the ultimate ground and meaning of a historical situation and, through it, of being as such.
But it is the character of the unconditional that it cannot be grasped; its power includes its unapproachable mystery. If we try to grasp it, it is no longer the unconditional that we have in our hands—even if it has the highest religious or ontological names. Idealism is the philosophy that makes this mistake. It confuses the world of essences and values and their unity with the unconditionally real. It fails to transcend this sphere of pure reason, a sphere that can be transcended only by accepting that which is "before reason," the Unvordenkliche, as Schelling has called it ("that before which thinking cannot penetrate"), the originally given, the ground and abyss of everything that is. There was a feeling for this limit in all Greek philosophy. Indeed, pure idealism is not Greek, because the ancient mind could not overcome the belief in the eternally resisting matter, the negative, restricting power of which excludes an unconditional divine power. Genuine idealism is possible only on Christian soil, on the basis of the idea of creation which affirms the essential goodness and unity of the world. Perfect systems like those of the great idealists presuppose the Christian victory over the remnants of religious dualism in Greek thought. But they arise only because the other Christian idea is disregarded, the gap between God and man through finitude and sin.
In this respect positivism is more Christian than idealism. It accepts the limited and fragmentary character of the human situation and tries to remain in the sphere of the conditioned. It shows more humility than idealism in taking the given as it is and rejecting romantic or utopian syntheses which have no reality. But positivism does not see the problem of self-transcendence. It restricts itself to the immanence, not because of the unapproachable mystery of the transcendent, but because of its unwillingness to trespass the limits of the empirically given. Positivism is realism without self-transcendence or faith.
Self-transcending realism is the religious depth of historical realism; therefore, it is opposed to mystical and technological realism. Mysticism is not aware of the unapproachable nature of the divine ground of reality (including the "soul"). It tries to reach the unconditional in conditioned steps, in degrees of elevation to the highest. Mystical self-transcendence is a continuous approximation to the ultimate; it does not realize the infinite gap between the finite and the infinite; it does not realize the paradoxical character of faith and of a realism which is united with faith. This does not mean that mystical realism excludes faith. In every mystical experience an act of self-transcendence or faith is implicit. The complete union with the ultimate is, according to all mystics, a gift to be received and not a perfection to be achieved. Therefore, it is a mistake when Protestant theologians, from Ritschl to Barth, establish an absolute contrast between mysticism and faith. It is true, however, that mysticism tries to transcend faith in the experience of mystical union and that it disregards the historical situation and its power and depth. This is different in a self-transcending, historical realism which experiences the ultimate in and through a concrete historical situation and denies any degrees of approximation to it, knowing that it is always, at the same time, unconditionally near and unconditionally far.
Technological realism is even less capable of becoming self-transcendent. It separates realism and faith. In later Ritschlianism, faith became the means of elevating the ethical personality above nature to moral independence, leaving nature to technical control. The technological interpretation of nature, its complete subjection to human purposes, was accepted but not transcended. And domineering per-sonality used faith as a means for maintaining this position of independence and control. This theology expresses very well the difficulty of combining faith with technological realism. Although the faith of which, for instance, a man like William Hermann speaks, is in itself warm, powerful, and passionate, its function in the context of a technological interpretation of reality is the creation of the personality of the victorious bourgeoisie. In English positivism no attempt is made to unite faith and realism. "Faith" is the conventional or serious acceptance of the creeds and institutions of the church. And realism is the technological attitude to nature and society. But there is no union between this kind of faith and this kind of realism. They are two worlds, connected only by a powerful social and intellectual conformism.
Self-transcending realism is based on the consciousness of the "here and now." The ultimate power of being, the ground of reality, appears in a special moment, in a concrete situation, revealing the infinite depth and the eternal significance of the present. But this is possible only in terms of a paradox, i.e., by faith, for, in itself, the present is neither infinite nor eternal. The more it is seen in the light of the ultimate power, the more it appears as questionable and void of lasting significance. So the power of a thing is, at the same time, affirmed and negated when it becomes transparent for the ground of its power, the ultimately real. It is as in a thunderstorm at night, when the lightning throws a blinding clarity over all things, leaving them in complete darkness the next moment. When reality is seen in this way with the eye of a self-transcending realism, it has become something new. Its ground has become visible in an "ecstatic" experience, called "faith." It is no longer merely self-subsistent as it seemed to be before; it has become transparent or, as we could say, "theonomous." This, of course, is not an event in nature, although—as always in spiritual matters— words and pictures have to be used which are taken from the spatial sphere. But it is the whole of the personality, including its conscious center, its freedom and responsibility, which is grasped by the ultimate power that is the ground also of every personal being. We are grasped, in the experience of faith, by the unapproachably holy which is the ground of our being and breaks into our existence and which judges us and heals us. This is "crisis" and "grace" at the same time. Crisis in the theological sense is as much a matter of faith as grace is. To describe the crisis as something immanent, open for everybody at any time, and grace as something transcendent, closed to everybody and to be accepted only by a personal decision, is bad theology. Neither crisis nor grace is in our reach, neither grace nor crisis is beyond a possible experience. The present situation is always full of "critical" elements, of forces of disintegration and self-destruction. But it becomes crisis in the religious sense, i.e., judgment, only in unity with the experience of grace. In this way historical realism becomes self-transcendent; historical and self-transcending realism are united.
V. Self-Transcendent Realism and Theology
Every religious word is an interpretation of the tension between the conditionally and the unconditionally real, between "realism" and "self-transcendence." Religious terms are the more adequate, the more they express this paradox in its depth and power. The same is true of theological terms. In the phrase "unconditioned power," for instance, the word "power," which, in connection with being ("power of being"), points to the most general characteristic of everything that "is," is used for that which transcends everything that is. A quite different power of being is meant if we speak of "unconditioned power" in the sense of ‘‘almightiness" or ‘‘omnipotence.’’ Religious and theological words lose their genuine meaning if they are used as terms to designate finite objects under the control of the categories which constitute the world of objects. If this happens, the religious words express too much and too little at the same time: too much in so far as they elevate one object (called "God") above all the others; too little in so far as they do not attribute to God the unconditioned power which makes him God (and not a highest being only). The criterion of all theology is its ability to preserve the absolute tension between the conditional and the unconditional.
Religion tries to surpass the given reality in order to approach the unconditional. The means for achieving this is rapture and ecstasy. Wherever we transcend the limits of our own being, moving toward union with another one, something like ecstasy ("standing outside one’s self") occurs. Ecstasy is the act of breaking through the fixed form of our own being. In this sense of the term we must say: Only through ecstasy can the ultimate power of being be experienced in ourselves, in things and persons, and in historical situations. Plato in the Phaedrus fights against the soberness and the lack of eros in the immanent realism of the Sophists. Even in the feeling of unlimited power over nature in technological realism an enthusiastic element is noticeable. There is ecstasy in love and communion, in the penetration of one’s own depths, in the experience of freedom and of the sublime greatness of the categorical imperative. This gives a key to the use of intoxicating foods and drinks in primitive cults, and it makes understandable the ecstasy of asceticism and the "rapture" of mysticism. It cannot be said that all this is the opposite of the attitude of faith as expressed in the Bible. It is hard not to hear the ecstatic element in the words and the attitude of the great prophets; in the radicalism of the words of Jesus and the description of his visionary experiences; in the mystery sermons of the Fourth Gospel; in the "holy legend" as conceived by the Synoptic Gospels; in Paul’s witness to the effects of the Spirit (especially in its main effect, love); in the triumphant words of Luther about the victory over law, death, and the devil. And even in some utterances of the "theology of crisis" (which wants to be a theology of faith exclusively) the ecstasy of the paradox and the ascetic self-sacrifice of reason and autonomy are unmistakably present.
He who refuses to see all this and fights against the ecstatic element in religion is motivated by a justified fear. He is afraid of the confusion between genuine ecstasy and artificial self-intoxication, for not every kind of enthusiasm is a participation in the unconditioned power, not everything that calls itself ecstasy is an experience of being grasped by the really real. An ecstasy that drives us away from the reality and the demands of the present is destructive, and, if it pretends to be holy, it is demonic. In true ecstasy we receive ultimate power by the presence of the ultimate; in a false ecstasy one section of our being overwhelms the whole of our personality, emptying it and leaving it in a state of disintegration. Any attempt to force the unconditioned power upon us necessarily creates a false ecstasy, for there is no way to reach the ultimate that we can manipulate. It grasps us when and where it will, for it is always also darkness, judgment, and death for us. Cults, sacramental power, pure doctrines, mystical or moralistic theologies that give us a way by which we seem to grasp what is beyond grasp lead us away from the real power of reality, from the depth of the here and now. They betray us in trying to elevate us. True ecstasy is united with faith, and faith transcends what seems to be real, because it is the presence of the really, the ultimately, real.
False ecstasy can be found in many places, even in a religion that is based on the principle of "faith alone" and that often produces an anti-ecstatic morality, as in Protestantism. This refers to the Protestant cultus, or to what is left of it, and even to what purports to reform and enrich it. Protestant liturgy contains very few elements in which the ecstasy of being grasped unconditionally is expressed. But those elements that it does contain are far removed from the depth of the present. They do not really concern us, and, consequently, they are strange and unreal to most of our contemporaries; it is of no use to introduce the "treasures of the past" into our liturgies if they are not able to express the depth of our present situation.
This is true also of the spoken word, which is abundant in Protestantism, in and outside the cultus. "Word of God" is an ambiguous term. It is often used in the sense of the written word of the Bible. But no biblical word is the word of God for us so long as we have to give up our historical reality in order to understand it. Not even the biblical word can reach us religiously if it does not become contemporaneous. The ‘‘Word of God’’ is every reality through which the ultimate power breaks into our present reality, a person (e.g., the Christ), a thing (e.g., a sacramental object), a written text (e.g., the Bible), a spoken word (e.g., a sermon). It is the greatest emergency of the Protestant churches of today that they have not yet found a way of preaching in which contemporaneity and self-transcending power are united. The ecclesiastical, and to a great extent the biblical, terminology is removed from the reality of our historical situation. If it is used, nevertheless, with that attitude of priestly arrogance which repeats the biblical word and leaves it to the listeners to be grasped by it or not, it certainly ceases to be the "Word of God" and is rightly ignored by Protestant people. And the minister who feels himself to be a martyr of "divine" frustration—and even becomes ecstatic about this frustration—is guilty of a lack of contemporaneity.
The noncontemporary interpretation of the Bible is based on a noncontemporary understanding of revelation. Revelation is revelation to me in my concrete situation, in my historical reality. If I am asked to make a leap from my situation into a situation of past history in order to receive revelation, what I receive is no longer revelation for me, but a report about revelations received by others, for instance, in A.D. 30-33, by people in Palestine. Either I must become a real contemporary of those people, which is impossible, or something must be in the revelation which they received that can become contemporary with me and with every historical situation. At the same time, the denial of contemporaneity endangers the transcendent element in revelation. The leap from my present to a past situation is the "work" I have to do and am able to do in order to receive revelation. In this way revelation is dependent on me in so far as I have to move out of my concrete historical situation into the situation in which I can meet the "historical Jesus." Historical criticism, however, has shown that this is impossible, even if it were theologically admissible. There is no way of meeting the "historical Jesus" (i.e., the product of historical criticism) because the Jesus of whom we have reports was from the very beginning the "Christ of faith." This result of scientific honesty, religious courage, and an indomitable desire for historical truth agrees entirely with the demands of self-transcendent realism. It prevents theology from confusing the venerating intuition of a character of the past with the manifestation of the unconditional in the present. He who is the Christ is contemporaneous, or he is not the Christ.
Self-transcending realism requires the criticism of all forms of supra-naturalism—supra-naturalism in the sense of a theology that imagines a supra-natural world beside or above the natural one, a world in which the unconditional finds a local habitation, thus making God a transcendent object, the creation an act at the beginning of time, the consummation a future state of things. To criticize such a conditioning of the unconditional, even if it leads to atheistic consequences, is more religious, because it is more aware of the unconditional character of the divine, than a theism that bans God into the supra-natural realm. The man of today, who feels separated by a gulf from the theistic believer, often knows more about the "ultimate" than the self-assured Christian who thinks that through his faith he has God in his possession, at least intellectually. A Christian who unites his supra-naturalistic belief with the continuous denial of his historical situation (and the historical situation of many others for whom he is responsible) is rejected by the principles of a self-transcendent realism that is always also historical realism. This is the Protestant solution of the problem: faith and reality.
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