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Living Options in Protestant Theology by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1972. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter10: Paul Tillich


Bultmannís theology may be seen as a synthesis of elements from Kierkegaard and from Heidegger. Hence, his classification as an existentialist is clear. Tillichís thought shows the influence of both these men, but they are much less determinative for him than for Bultmann. Therefore, his classification as an existentialist is much less clear. Nevertheless, there seem to be good reasons for placing him under this heading, especially since he sometimes classifies himself in this way. (Paul Tillich, "Metaphysics and Theology," Review of Metaphysics. Vol. 10, 1956, p. 63.) He has been a major channel through which existential categories have been introduced into this country; although his dependence on Kierkegaard and Heidegger is limited, he draws heavily from a movement of thought that is in the wider sense existential (Tillich describes this wider movement in "Existential Philosophy: Its Historical Meaning," Theology of Culture, pp. 76-111.) and like the modern existentialists makes extensive use of phenomenology; finally, he explicitly rejects both the natural theology of Part I and the kerygmatic theology of Part II of this book. (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I, pp. 8, 30.)

Against this classification of Tillichís thought is his extensive use of speculative ontology, (Note the polemic against Tillich at this point by Zuurdeeg [An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, pp. 150 ff., esp. p. 165.]) which seriously raises the question as to whether his use of philosophy differs significantly from that of those who avowedly employ natural theology. But we have seen that even Bultmann has not succeeded altogether in avoiding natural theology. Indeed the classification "existentialist" is used in this volume in such a way as to leave open the question as to whether existentialism really offers a methodological alternative to the use of philosophy as a natural theology on the one hand and the outright rejection of all use of philosophy on the other.

Tillich has provided us with a systematic account of his own theological method ("Introduction," Systematic Theology I, pp. 3-68; Tillich, "The Problem of Theological Method," The Journal of Religion, Vol. 27, 1947, pp. 16-26.) as well as with a systematic exposition of his theology as a whole. Hence, our task in presenting the structure of his thought in terms of its principles of justification is simplified. However, there is an important difference between his explicit account of his method and the kinds of questions with which we are primarily concerned here. Tillich is focusing on the method of organizing his material and the grounds of exclusion and inclusion of material, and lie can rightly describe his method as that of correlation. (Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, p. xlii; Systematic Theology I, pp.8, 59-66.) By this he means that he presents an analysis of the human situation as posing the existential questions and then presents the answers that are given in the Christian message.

By the "situation" Tillich does not refer to the given psychological and sociological conditions. He refers to the interpretation of those conditions or the expression of what human existence is understood to be in those conditions. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 3-4.) It is this interpretation which poses the existential question to which theology, if it is to be relevant, must give its answer. Thus an analysis of manís being as finite raises the question that the Christian answers by the affirmation of God; the question raised by an analysis of manís existence as estrangement from his essence is answered by Christ; the analysis of life as the dynamic unity of essence and existence raises questions that are answered in terms of the Spirit. The discussion of history and the Kingdom of God is separated from the last of these for purposes of convenience; the epistemological question of reason, as answered by revelation, since it is involved in all the others, is treated first. This rounds out the five parts of the system. (Ibid. I, pp. 66-68.)

This organization of the material, Tillich believes, expresses the profound differences between his approach and those of both the traditional apologete and the purely kerygmatic theologian. (These are roughly identical with the positions treated in Parts I and II of this book, but the reader will recognize that few contemporary theologians could be categorized so simply.) The theologian of the former type first presents a body of ideas that are supposed to be held in common by the Christian and the rational man generally. He then presents the additional teachings of Christian faith as supplementary to this common belief in such a way as to display the reasonableness of accepting these teachings as well. The purely kerygmatic approach in theory ignores the present situation and simply presents the unchanging truths given in and through Godís revelation. Thus, in terms of the structure of the systematic theology, Tillich correctly differentiates his theology from the apologetic and kerygmatic theologies as an "answering" theology employing the method of correlation.

The question that must be raised, however, is that of the sources of norms that determine the answers to the questions implied by the analysis of the situation. Tillich explicitly asserts that these answers are given by the Christian faith and are affirmed only from within the theological circle determined by that faith. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 8-11.) But the question remains as to how they are found therein. Obviously, Tillich does not employ a proof-text approach. Neither does he ask the Biblical theologians to provide him with an account of major principles running through the Bible or specifically with the teaching of Jesus or Paul. No more does he appeal to the historic creeds and confessions or to the consensus of contemporary theologians or believers.

The difference between the material in the question sections and in the answer sections is that in the former the depth dimension of existence or the ground of being does not come explicitly to attention. Rather, we are led to see how manís situation, in so far as he neglects this dimension, leads to insoluble problems and desperate conditions. In the answer sections, we are presented with an analysis of how, when this dimension of existence and its ground is taken into full consideration, the problems are resolved in principle. We are also shown how Christian faith embodies the ideal grasp of this depth dimension and its ground.

Nevertheless, it is clear to the reader of Systematic Theology that the actual norms guiding the presentation do not differ radically between the sections dealing with the situation and those presenting the answers. Phenomenological analysis and ontological analysis are employed extensively in both sections, and the results of analyses in the sections on the situation are employed normatively in the sections in which the answers are presented.

Without disputing the utility of the organization that Tillich has imposed on his theology, we must consider the whole body of thought as a unity and ask the general question as to how its affirmations are derived and justified. When we do so, we must recognize three distinct sources that are conjointly determinative for Tillichís thought. These we shall call the phenomenological, the ontological, and the specifically Christian.

In view of the importance that this threefold distinction has for this whole analysis of Tillichís thought, it demands some initial explanation. It may be hoped that the analysis itself will constitute by its functional value a justification of the distinction.

First, the distinction of phenomenology and ontology as parallel sources requires explanation since it is foreign both to Tillich and to the philosophers treated in Chapter 8. For Heidegger and Sartre, phenomenology is a method by which ontologies can be formulated. Hence, the ontology is the account of the most general characteristics of a given field of investigation as given to immediate experience. Nothing is affirmed on the basis of inference from experience. Nothing can be said within its compass, therefore, about the reality of God or about the ground or cause of being.

Tillich also develops his ontological doctrines in close conjunction with his phenomenological descriptions. (There is a brief discussion of phenomenology in Systematic Theology I, pp. 106-107. A much more extended discussion of the method is found in "Religionsphilosophie," written in 1925 and published in Tillich, Frühe Haupt Werke, pp. 309- 313.) But in his case, ontology has a dimension that cannot be warranted by phenomenology alone. It deals with God as the ground of being of finite entities as well as with characteristics of the non-human world that are not directly open to phenomenological investigation. Although the whole of his thought is closely integrated, we must recognize a movement beyond the phenomenological data that requires inference or speculative generalization of a kind that would not be allowed by the other phenomenologists mentioned above.

Tillich himself includes both phenomenological and inferential elements within ontology. Hence, any distinction of phenomenology and ontology must be imposed upon his work rather than derived from it. Nevertheless, a clear distinction exists, and a terminological distinction will help to make it visible.

The distinction between that which is accessible for direct description and that which is accessible only by inference or speculative generalization is understood by Heidegger and Sartre as the distinction between the phenomenological, including the ontological, and the metaphysical. In their view metaphysics is inadmissible, and their objection to it does apply in part to Tillichís position. But Tillich also finds the connotations of "metaphysics" objectionable in so far as they suggest another world alongside this one. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 20, 163.) Hence, it seems less misleading to distinguish the phenomenological, as that which falls within the sphere of direct description, from the ontological, which can be warranted only by inference or speculative generalization. In this sense, manís awareness of his contingency is phenomenological, but the assertion that God as being-itself is the ground of being is ontological.

Phenomenology and ontology are not as such distinctively Christian activities; hence, we would not expect their results to constitute a Christian theology. No statement is theological except as it deals with its object as a matter of manís ultimate concern, that is, as a matter of manís being or notbeing. (Ibid. I, pp. 12, 14.) Furthermore, a Christian theology is such by having in addition to this formal criterion of any theology a material norm that binds it to Jesus Christ. Tillichís own formulation of this norm is the "New Being in Jesus as the Christ." (Ibid. I, p. 50.)

The reference to the specifically Christian determination of Tillichís system is the reference to this material norm. Presumably, general phenomenological and ontological considerations cannot explain those assertions warranted by the claim that Jesus as the Christ is the New Being. On the basis of his own statements we can say that Tillichís theology is Christian to that degree to which this third source, or at least concern for this third source, is decisive for its affirmations.

For the sake of completeness we might add as a fourth source of Tillichís thought our knowledge of contingent historical fact. Incidental reference will indeed be made to this, but it is not used as a principle or organization in this chapter.

The exposition of the structure of Tillichís theology now proceeds in terms of the three sources of his thought: the phenomenological, the ontological, and the specifically Christian principle that Jesus as the Christ is the New Being. Further discussion of the relationships among these sources is postponed to the critical section with which the chapter concludes.

Two main aspects of Tillichís phenomenology, each of which leads to a corresponding aspect of his ontology, require exposition. They are the phenomenological accounts of faith and estrangement. We will consider both before turning to the ontological development.

When Tillich takes the concept of faith as central for his theological development, he is not conceiving faith in the first place as Bultmann does. Bultmann holds that faith is a distinctively Christian condition that occurs only as Godís act in Christ is made effective in the believer. Tillich, by contrast, takes faith as a universal phenomenon central to manís personal life as such. (Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, p. 126.) It is exhibited in all seriousness whether it takes the form of belief or doubt, of theism or atheism, of Christianity or paganism. Hence, the analysis of faith is a suitable topic for a phenomenology that does not presuppose Christian existence.

Tillich uses the term "faith" in two senses. In both senses faith means ultimate concern, but in the strictest sense it may be directed only to that which is in actuality a matter of ultimate concern, whereas in the looser sense any entity whatever may be its object. (Cf. the discussion in Ibid. pp. 1-4, and the suggestion on p. 62 that faith be defined as "the state of being ultimately concerned about the ultimate." See also The Protestant Era, p. 239, where faith is described as "the state of mind in which we are grasped by something unconditional.") This distinction can be made at the phenomenological level.

Ultimate concern involves both total surrender of oneís self and all lesser claims to the object of the concern and the expectation of total fulfillment through that surrender. This concern may be directed to a nation or to success as well as to the God of the Bible. What the believer is concerned with makes an absolute difference to him, but it does not affect the dynamics of the faith as such. (Dynamics of Faith, p. 4.)

Nevertheless, the phenomenological analysis of faith points to the error of placing faith in any finite entity. The concern of ultimate concern may be directed toward objects or states of affairs in the spatiotemporal continuum of worldly events. But the ultimacy of ultimate concern points to a dimension of all existence that cannot be understood at that level. For example, the scientist who is driven by a concern for truth implicitly acknowledges an unconditional quality in truth itself that cannot be identified with any particular discovery or proposition. Rather, it remains the norm by which all approximations are measured. In a similar way, goodness itself stands outside the level of space and time as a norm that judges every approximation to goodness. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 206-207.)

Truth itself and goodness itself must not be thought of as entities that can be set over against other entities either in nature or in a supernature. They constitute a dimension of being revealed by the analysis of existence that points to the contrast between every existent entity and the unconditional element that gives it its meaning. This analysis points, therefore, to the falsity of every identification of personal success or of any entity, idea, or institution with that which really concerns us ultimately.

In terms of the dimension of the unconditional revealed by the phenomenological analysis of existence, we may judge as idolatrous every faith that is directed to particular entities. (Ibid. I, p. 13.) These entities may properly be viewed as hearers or mediators of the unconditional, but they must never be identified with the unconditional. The rejection of every claim of finite entities for ultimate concern, Tillich calls the Protestant principle or protest. (The Protestant Era, pp. 226, 233, 239-240. See also "Authorís Preface" and Chs. XII and XIII.)

Phenomenological analysis also reveals a quality of experience that we may call the holy. (Tillich cites Rudolph Ottoís analysis with approval. [ Systematic Theology, I, p.215; Dynamics of Faith, p. 13]) This quality has often been taken as marking off the distinctively religious realm of experience. In one sense this is correct, but it may also be misleading. It is misleading if it is supposed that holiness resides in certain entities or situations that thereby become objects of religious devotion. Holiness is revealed in the phenomenological analysis of human experience, not in a description of its objects. Here it presents itself as an aspect of manís experience of faith. Whatever concerns one ultimately is experienced by him as holy.

But the experience of the holy reinforces further the view that the true object of faith is never a finite, conditioned entity. The mystery and the fascination of the holy point to the dimension that transcends the sphere of spatiotemporal subjects and objects. They point to the holy as that which both sustains and threatens our existence. The holy appears through objects, but its very nature contradicts its identification with objects. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 215-216.)

Phenomenologically, then, Tillich shows us that there is a quality of ultimate concern that characterizes all those who are serious about life, regardless of the end to which they may give themselves. He also shows that implicit in all such concern is a relatedness to an unconditional dimension of existence that judges every final commitment to any conditioned or finite entity. Hence, we see that faith in the full and normative sense is ultimate concern about that which is really of ultimate concern to us. If we ask what is unconditional or what is really of ultimate concern to us, we cross the frontier into ontology. Before doing this we will consider a second area of phenomenological investigation -- that of existence as estrangement.

When I examine my own given existence, I discover that in my total being I am deeply divided. On the one hand, I am aware of an ideal or normative possibility for my being. On the other hand, I am aware of an actualized being that falls far short of the normative possibility. I perceive the former as my true being, my essence. The latter is my empirical actuality, my existence. I become aware of the gulf between my existence and my essence when I emerge out of the dreaming innocence of infancy into full consciousness. I do not experience this gulf as produced by this development; instead, I recognize it as having always been there. This separation of my existence from my essence is an alienation, an estrangement, a fall. (Ibid. II, pp. 32-36. For a clarification of the key terms "essence" and "existence" see ibid. I, pp.202-203; II, pp. 19-28.)

Still within the phenomenological approach I can go farther in analyzing the structures of existential and essential being. In each case these structures can best be seen as polarities." By a polarity we mean a pair of terms that face in opposite directions but that at the same time demand each other. (Ibid. I, pp. 198-199. Tillich treats polarities under the heading of ontological elements. However, I am presenting them in their human expression, where they are open to phenomenological analysis.) For example, I experience myself as a self in a world. Self and world are set over against each other. Yet if I lose the sense of a world over against me, I cannot maintain my awareness of my self, or if I lose my self-awareness, my world disintegrates. Thus each polar term demands the other.

In the same way we find that personality and community are polar terms. Only a centered, responsible self can participate richly in community life, and only in such participation can one become such a self. (Ibid. I, pp. 174-178.) Again, vitality and intentionality illustrate this relationship. The sheer life force within us can express itself only in meanings and ends, and these meanings and ends can be realized only through vitality. (Ibid. I, pp. 178-182.) Finally, freedom and destiny can be identified also as polar terms. Man can be free only on the basis of an existing selfhood formed by nature and history. But this existing selfhood can be destiny only in so far as it functions as the basis for freedom. (Ibid. I, pp. 182-186.)

Man can perceive the ideal balance of these polarities as characterizing his essential being, but in his actual existence he experiences tensions rather than harmony. He finds himself striving toward one of the polar terms rather than the other, and at this point a peculiar characteristic of polarities must be noted. A movement toward either of the polar terms does not actually strengthen that term and, hence, also the other polar term. On the contrary, it so transforms the character of the pole toward which it moves, that both terms of the polarity are weakened. This is hard to understand in abstraction, so let us consider concrete examples.

Take the case of personality and community. Each depends for its development on the other. But consider what happens if either becomes the object of special concern. A lonely and insecure man may strive hard to enter into community. To this end he accepts community patterns and values -- in other words, he conforms fully to whatever the community seems to demand of him. But in so doing he weakens his own centered-ness in himself. He becomes "other-directed" rather than "inner-directed." He becomes less of a person and more like a thing. Thus he sacrifices personhood for community. But in so far as his personhood declines he becomes in fact incapable of community, for community is such only as an intercourse, a sharing among persons. A low level of person-hood permits only a low level of community. Manís existence moves farther and farther from his essential being.

The situation is no better if an individual determines to cultivate his personality in isolation from community. Actually, such a decision can occur only when a fairly high level of community exists, for the very self-understanding that permits of such decision is a product of community. But even then the partial withdrawal from community that is possible weakens not only community but also personhood. One may develop in relation to his memories, which constitute still his sharing in community, but apart from fresh human interaction one dries up as a person.

Existential being consists in an alternation between these poles in such a way as to maintain always a destructive tension. This tension threatens the very humanity of our being. (Ibid. I, p. 109.) It constitutes our fallenness from our true or essential selfhood.

Our awareness of this situation, in which we are fallen from our essence and continuously threatened by loss of our human being, is anxiety. But this is not the only form of anxiety that phenomenological analysis can reveal to us. There is another anxiety, which is the awareness of our finitude as such. (Ibid. I, p. 191.) That is, we are aware of our radical contingency. We find ourselves in a network of causal relations and threatened by the ultimate certainty of death. We experience our being as having no necessity, as not having in itself the ground of its being. (Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, p.44.)

In the face of the threat both of relative loss of human being and of absolute loss of being itself, man can still affirm himself. That is, he can find "the courage to be." (Ibid. Chs. 4, 5, and 6.) In courage one accepts oneís finitude, oneís alienation, and the lack of objective meaning in life. But to do this one must try to transcend oneself toward the ground and power of being. (Ibid. p. 155.) Thus courage, too, points to a dimension of being that transcends the spatiotemporal sphere.

The phenomenological account of human existence, like the phenomenological account of faith, points to unconditioned reality which as phenomenological it cannot describe. Hence, it demands completion in an ontology to which we now turn. (Once again we must recognize that Tillich does not in fact separate ontology from phenomenology in this way but rather passes back and forth repeatedly between them, employing ontological categories in the phenomenological expositions. However, when we ask how particular aspects of his thought are justified, we must make this distinction.)

In his ontology, Tillich places himself in the main stream of Western thought from the pre-Socratics through the great Christian philosopher-theologians down to the German idealists and especially Schelling. His intention is not to develop speculatively a particular form of ontology and defend it against all others. He seeks rather to lift out certain basic features indispensable to philosophical thought. If certain philosophers choose to limit themselves to a study of purely formal relationships or the meaning of language, they have that privilege, but they should not call in question the much wider scope of the historic philosophic task.

Tillich must, however, engage in philosophy on the basis of at least one further major decision. Greek and medieval philosophy assumed the reality of a world and asked what it was like and how we do in fact have knowledge of it. Descartes initiated the very different approach of doubting the reality of the world and asking how we can decide whether it is real. This latter approach has dominated modern philosophy and has led to a serious impasse.

Tillich believes that the task of philosophy emerges from the situation in which man finds himself and that this situation is most inescapably characterized by the self-world polarity. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 168-171.) This implies that the self as subject is in relationship to the world as object or to the many entities encountered in the world as objects. This subject-object relationship is the basis for all thought. In this sense, whatever is thought is, by being thought, an object, whether it is a stone, another person, oneself, or God. (Ibid. I, p. 172.) But the status of being object for thought does not imply a status of being merely an object, that is, of lacking subjectivity. (Ibid. I, pp. 171-173.)

Every finite being participates to some degree in the fundamental onto-logical structure of self and world. (Ibid. I, p. 173.) That means also that every being shares in selfhood and subjectivity. Hence, the polarities that at the phenomenological level could be found in human existence must also be understood as characterizing being as such. The anthropological forms examined above are only special cases of ontological polarities that are present in every being. Personality and community are the expression at the human level of the ontological polarity of individualization and participation. Vitality and intentionality are the human manifestation of dynamics and form. In the same way freedom and destiny are the human analogues of the universal polar elements of spontaneity and law. (Ibid. I, pp. 174-186.)

Ontology complements phenomenology in much the same way with respect to the investigations of the tension between essence and existence. Phenomenologically this tension appeared in the recognition of a separation between a normative state of being and an actual state of being. Ontologically, it constitutes a major theme of philosophy from the time of Plato. The ontological considerations arose out of prior existential experience, but they sought to set this experience in a wider context of being. Tillich surveys the history of this attempt (Ibid. I, pp. 202-204.) to point out the ambiguities in it and to seek the basic ontological structure expressed in it. Essence is the power by which an actuality is, but it contains potentiality for much greater actuality. Hence, it judges as well as empowers. Existence "stands out" of essence, thereby actualizing essence but only in a fragmentary way. Hence, existence always involves separation or a "fall." (Tillich regards this ontological account of the fall as more fundamental than the psychological account that provides an analogy for it. (Ibid. II, pp. 32-36.) The actual as existent is always less than, and in tension with, its own essence. What we grasped phenomenologically as our human situation is now seen as the universal characteristic of finite being as such, although only in man does it come to self -consciousness. (Ibid. I, p. 108.)

Just as the phenomenological analysis of experience reveals an unconditional vertical dimension that gives meaning to the horizontal but cannot be understood in terms of it, so the ontological analysis of subjects and objects points to that which transcends these categories. The togetherness of self and world can be rooted only in that which is neither subject nor object but the ground of both. The togetherness of essence and existence can be rooted only in that which is beyond both essence and existence.

Furthermore, the world of finite objects cannot explain itself. Every entity participates in the power of being, else it would not be at all, but no entity has the power of being as its possession. Being is always a gift received from beyond itself, and we cannot understand this beyond in terms of other entities in endless temporal succession.

There is a causal relationship between finite entities such that the structure of one affects the form taken by another. The study of these causal relationships is the proper domain of science. But philosophy must raise another question -- the question of the sheer being of each and all of these entities. Why does anything at all exist? Why, even if it exists now, does it perpetuate its existence into the next now? This is the supreme question, and it necessarily drives us beyond the categories of subject and object to that which is the power of the being of everything that is, the all-embracing ground of being, or being-itself.

It must be emphasized that being-itself is not an abstraction from the concrete, finite beings that exist. This nominalist error must be rejected, because such an abstraction could give no answer to the ultimate question of the ground of being. At the same time being-itself must not be understood as a being that exists, for no matter what superiority is attributed to such a being, it would remain one among many beings. As such it could not be the ground of the being of all beings. Being-itself is neither an abstraction nor a being. It is the ultimate reality that is the ground and power of being of everything that is.

This means that no language that receives its meaning by reference to finite entities can have literal application to being-itself. Even such terminology as "ground and power of being" is analogical in so far as ground and power receive their literal meaning in their application to relations between finite entities. These terms must appeal to the intuition of a radical dependence that lies in a dimension other than that of natural and historical causality. For the rest we can speak negatively of being-itself, denying to it every limitation that is determined by the dichotomy of subject and object, of essence and existence. (Ibid. I, pp. 235-236.)

When we now place our phenomenological analysis of the unconditional dimension of experience into the context of our ontological analysis, we see that the unconditional dimension of our experience is that in which we are related to being-itself rather than to particular beings, to the ground of our being rather than to particular influences upon it. This ground of our being is unconditional in its own nature and is unconditionally our concern. The unconditional character of being-itself is the source of the unconditional elements also in the true and the good. (Ibid. I, pp. 206-207.)

As the object of our unconditional concern, being-itself is God. Here not only phenomenology and ontology but also theology and ontology meet. Theology differs from phenomenology in that it presupposes the reality, indeed the supreme reality, of the correlate of the element of ultimacy in personal experience. In this it agrees with ontology. It differs from ontology in that it is concerned with the meaning of God for man, whereas ontology treats the structures of being generally in their relation to being-itself. Theology is possible only when one is consciously involved in the relationship that is to him a matter of ultimate concern. Ontology is possible only when one maintains a relative detachment from the objects treated. But every theologian presupposes and to some extent participates in ontology, and no ontologist can actually detach himself from his human concern with the ground of his being. Hence, ontology and theology interpenetrate each other. (Ibid., I, pp. 22-28, 132, 221.)

The theologian must use language when he speaks of God as the object of his ultimate concern, but since God as the power (Ibid. I, pp. 22-28, 132, 221.) of being or being-itself transcends the sphere in which language can be used literally, he must employ symbols. (Ibid. I, p. 239.) To understand what this means, we must distinguish symbols from signs.

A sign points to and stands for another entity without any necessary inner unity with its referent. A symbol, on the contrary, participates in the power of that to which it calls our attention. (Ibid. I, p. 239. See also Paul Tillich, "Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God," The Christian Scholar, Vol. 38, 1955, pp. 185-197. Tillich also discusses symbols in "The Religious Symbol," The Journal of Liberal Religion, Vol. 2, 1940, pp. 13-33; "Existential Analyses and Religious Symbols," Contemporary Problems in Religion, Basilius, ed. pp. 35-55, "Theology and Symbolism," Religious Symbolism, Johnson, ed. pp. 107-116.) To speak of God symbolically is to speak of being-itself as it manifests itself to us as our ultimate concern through finite entities.

Symbols are in constant danger of being taken literally. When this happens they become false and lead us away from God. But when symbols are taken as symbols they are true in so far as they mediate to us the object of our ultimate concern. At this point a brief statement of the relation of Tillichís position to that of Bultmann is appropriate. Bultmann has proposed that we should demythologize the Bible by translating its myths into literal accounts of their existential meaning. He retains the kerygmatic idea of the act of God as a non-mythological but analogical expression. Tillich opposes demythologizing in that he denies that the language of religion can be given literal statement. He proposes instead that we deliteralize, by which he means that we should reject every interpretation of religious language that treats it as if it were speaking of events or entities at the finite level. We should understand mythical language as symbolic, and so long as the symbols maintain their power, we should retain them. (Systematic Theology II, p. 152. Bultmann acknowledges that symbols may be needed, but he insists that we should be prepared to explain their meaning nonmythologically. (Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, pp. 67-78.)

The difference between Bultmann and Tillich is partly verbal and partly real. Both equally oppose any understanding of sacred language that would cause us to regard divine reality or activity as objectively given in the finite sphere. But Bultmann takes myth to be an expression of manís existential self-understanding and therefore translatable into philosophical existential language. Tillich takes myth to be a symbolic way of speaking of God and therefore not translatable into any literal language. Bultmann recognizes that Scripture speaks of the acts of God and that this language is analogical rather than literal. Tillich is not concerned about the acts of God in this sense, but rather with the universal activity of God and his manifestation to man as the object of ultimate concern. Hence, he understands the myths as expressions of manís awareness of God rather than of his understanding of his own existence.

However, when Bultmann speaks of manís self-understanding he includes manís understanding of himself as he is in relation to God. And when Tillich thinks of manís awareness of God, it is always an awareness of God as that which is of ultimate significance for him. Hence, in practice the difference is minimized. Tillich actually gives explanations of myths that differ but little from Bultmannís demythologizing, and where the myth no longer functions effectively as a symbol, he recognizes the need to abandon it. However, he insists that one symbol can be replaced only by another, not by literal language. This is because, regardless of all similarities with Bultmannís Christian existentialism, Tillichís theology is centrally concerned with God rather than with the Christianís understanding of his own existence.

Thus far in this presentation of Tillichís theology nothing has been said that necessarily appeals to a specifically Christian starting point or perspective or, in Tillichís terms, to the material principle of theology. But theology as such cannot maintain this apparent neutrality. To ask the question of the meaning of God for me, the nature of the divine demand upon me, or how God is manifest to me always presupposes a particular encounter with God. This encounter occurs in a community and is part of the history of that community. Every theology is the theology of some religion, no matter how open it may be to the insights of other traditions. As a Christian theologian Tillich takes his stand within the circle of Christian faith. In this sense he joins the theologians of "the leap."

However, this by no means makes of theology an irrational discipline. Nor does it imply any lack of interest on the part of the theologian in justifying his taking the position within this circle. It excludes only the possibility that Christian theology can follow deductively from ontological principles or inductively from detached observation. The same could be said of almost every position that understands itself as a theology, no matter how extensively it makes use of natural theology.

Tillich, however, makes a further point that does separate him from some liberal theologies. He asserts that Christian theology includes the claim to its own finality. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 15, 16, 132.) One cannot speak of what God means for Christian faith except as one speaks of his final revelation in Jesus as the Christ. To speak of Jesus as one figure in the history of religions, however great, who has been or might be superseded by later developments is to speak from outside the circle of Christian faith -- to speak in some other capacity than that of Christian theologian.

The claim to the finality of Jesus as the Christ seems to place Tillich close to the tradition of Kierkegaard and to the thought of Bultmann. But in fact it functions quite differently in his theology. For Kierkegaard and Bultmann this finality is a matter of faith, and faith is a belief to which factual considerations are irrelevant. Ultimately, faith is itself understandable only as an act of God. Tillich by contrast develops an elaborate explanation of what is meant by the claim to finality and an extensive apologetic justification for it. Before classifying Tillich with the Kierkegaardian tradition, therefore, Tillichís own interpretation of his position must be carefully examined.

First, it must be understood that the claim of the finality of Jesus as the Christ involves no assertion of a supranatural character about the man Jesus. Indeed Tillichís ontological views preclude any supernaturalism at any point in his theology. What is asserted has nothing to do with a preexistent entity, whether God or angelic creature, taking on human form. All such thinking is radically excluded. Furthermore, Tillich recognizes, as Bultmann does not, that in the context of his thought it would be meaningless to talk about a unique act of God in Christ.

What is affirmed is rather that the principle of Godís self-revelation became manifest in this human person, Jesus. (Ibid. II, pp. 97-118, esp. 114-115.) The point is that whereas innumerable other media have functioned in revelatory ways, all of them have been fragmentary and distorting. They have all lacked both concreteness and universality. When particular objects serve as revelatory media, they lack, not only universality because of their conditioned particularity, but also concreteness, for by this latter term Tillich envisages a power to include the other without losing its own identity. This power, hence concreteness, can be possessed only by a person. When abstractions serve as revelatory media, they lack not only particularity because of their abstractness, but also universality, for they are by their nature abstracted from some range of phenomena and applicable only to them. Only a person can be absolutely universal by his power to grasp all abstractions. Thus only a personal life can be both concrete and universal. (Ibid. I, pp. 16-17.)

But, of course, not every life is such. On the contrary, persons are also both particular and abstract in Tillichís sense. One could in principle reveal God universally only by sacrificing everything contingent in oneself to him, by becoming transparent to him. At the same time one could reveal God concretely only if that which is made transparent to him is itself a perfectly centered self. (Ibid. I, pp. 133-136.) The prophetic pointing to God lacks universality because of the contingent historical factors that are retained. The mysticís pointing to God lacks concreteness in so far as selfhood is abandoned. But in Jesus as the Christ, centered selfhood surrenders itself to God as such without ceasing to be centered selfhood. Hence, perfect concreteness and perfect universality are combined in him.

If one raises the question of how we can know this to be true, we must acknowledge that we cannot, in the strict sense, know any such facts of history. We can only know that the picture of Jesus recorded for us in the New Testament points us to such a personal life and that whether or not it is correct as to details -- even as to the name of the person who inspired it -- it points to the historical existence of a personal life capable of inspiring this picture. (Ibid. II, pp. 97-118, esp. 114-115.) In any case, that the ultimate, normative, or final revelation occurred in history and is witnessed to in the New Testament is the essence of the distinctive Christian belief. This claim is in no way irrational or arbitrary, although it is neither inductive nor deductive in its origin.

Christian theology in every age is the exposition of the significance of this essential affirmation in the context of the self-understanding of that age. If men perceive their problem as Godís wrath upon them for their sins, Jesus as the Christ is preached as the forgiveness of sins. If men perceive their problem as the need of guidance and aid in the achievement of a nearer approximation to ideal life, Jesus as the Christ is preached as the ideal person. Today man perceives his problem in terms of alienation, despair, and meaninglessness. Jesus as the Christ must be proclaimed as the bearer of the New Being in which man is healed and enters a new level of life (Ibid. I, p. 49.)

Just as the message that Jesus as the Christ is the New Being is the answer to the question implicit in the situation of modern man, so what is meant by the New Being can be grasped only in terms of the analysis of modern manís experience of estrangement. This analysis, as it is phenomenologically and ontologically developed by Tillich, was sketched above. Man finds that in his existence he is separated from his essence, and that the polar elements in terms of which he exists are in endless tension with each other. He experiences this tension as a threat to his very humanity.

In such a situation the only message that can afford hope is the message that under the conditions of finite existence the estrangement of existence and essence can be overcome. This means also that the destructive tension between the polar elements in existence can be overcome. This new existence which remains finite, but which overcomes the destructive consequences of finitude, is the New Being. (Ibid. II, pp. 118-120.) The Christian proclamation is that this New Being was actualized in Jesus as the Christ and that it is in principle accessible to us for our participation.

That the New Being is accessible in principle does not mean that Christians fully participate in it now. Such full participation is the eschatological hope. Furthermore, the Christian conviction that Jesus as the Christ is the bearer of the New Being does not mean that the power of the New Being has been present only in him. Except as there has been some overcoming of the estrangement of existence from essence there could have been no humanity at all. Wherever there has been any wholeness in human life, it has been by the power of the New Being. But everywhere this health has been fragmentary and open to demonic distortion. In Jesus as the Christ we find the norm in terms of which every degree of healing is seen and judged. (Ibid. II, pp. 165-168.)

Tillichís distinctively Christian theological affirmation is that Jesus as the Christ is the final revelation and the bearer of the New Being. Beyond this Tillich does not bind himself by the specific teachings of Scripture or tradition. These are, of course, important and suggestive, and Tillich has shown himself a brilliant interpreter of their meaning. But neither in terminology nor in content do they limit the freedom of the theologian. His task is, therefore, not the defending of the tradition nor the exegesis of Scripture, but rather the answering of manís basic contemporary questions in terms of all that can be known historically, phenomenologically, and ontologically, guided by the conviction that ultimate reality is decisively manifest to us in Jesus as the Christ.

The question we must now ask is whether Tillichís answers to the questions implicit in manís situation are in fact determined by the belief in Jesus as the Christ. This is not to ask whether Tillichís doctrine of God is that found in she Bible or in Christian orthodoxy. It is rather to ask the methodological question as so how this doctrine of God is presented and justified. Does it arise within the circle of Christian faith, as Tillich seems to affirm, or does it in fact derive from philosophical considerations that stand outside this circle? In this latter case it would seem to constitute a natural theology. This interpretation is suggested by the fact that in the foregoing exposition the doctrine of God was placed before the specifically Christian aspect of Tillichís teaching. This implies that it stands outside the circle of Christian faith. Is this an accurate implication?

To answer this question we must note first that the term "God" is not an ontological, but a theological, term. Therefore, to describe Tillichís doctrine of God as an aspect of his ontology would be erroneous. Ontology deals with being-itself. Theology deals with that which is of ultimate concern. When theology recognizes in being-itself that which is of ultimate concern, it properly designates it as God. This means that the doctrine of God is a theological doctrine, but it does not mean that it is specifically Christian. Furthermore, when one calls being-itself "God," one does not thereby cease to recognize it as having all the properties that ontology recognizes in being-itself. Thus the theologian can say nothing about God that the ontologist has not said. He may add only his witness to what God means for man, or how God has manifested himself to man as his ultimate concern.

With respect to what is said about God, it is ontology and not a specific appeal to revelation in Jesus Christ that is decisive. Therefore, if we are not to consider Tillichís doctrine of God controlled in its essentials by a philosophy that stands outside the circle of Christian faith, we must argue that Tillichís ontology is itself within the circle of faith. Tillich suggests this when he points out how all of Western thought has been decisively influenced by Christianity. (Ibid. I, pp. 27-28.) In this sense his ontology also is a product of a Vision that has become an actual historical possibility because of Christianity. If we press this point, we may be able to answer that the use of ontology in formulating the answer to manís question is still a way of answering the question from within the circle of faith.

But Tillich himself does not allow us to rest in such an answer. Although ontologies are historically conditioned and therefore in the West are conditioned by Christianity, the philosopher does not stand within the Christian circle. To do so would be to construct a Christian philosophy in the sense that Tillich explicitly opposes. (Ibid. I, p. 28. Cf. Thomas, "The Method and Structure of Tillichís Theology," The Theology of Paul Tillich, Charles W. Kegley and Robert W. Bretall, eds. p. 101.) Hence, we must regard the work of the philosopher in so far as it conditions the work of the theologian as a kind of natural theology.

It may properly be objected that Tillichís explicit rejection of Christian philosophy is not sufficient reason to deny that his ontology is ultimately based upon revelation. This whole presentation and criticism of his thought is based upon his actual performance rather than upon his assertions about his methodology. It remains open to us to affirm that Tillich in fact constructs a Christian philosophy and that hence the philosophic determination of his doctrine of God is not an intrusion from outside the circle of faith. To follow this line of thought would involve an extensive restructuring of Tillichís theology, but the proponents of this procedure may counter that no more violence is done to Tillichís position by this interpretation than by that adopted in this chapter.

The weakness of this line of argument is that it leaves Tillich highly vulnerable to the objection that in fact his philosophy does not do justice to the specifically Christian vision of reality as embodied in Scripture or Christian tradition. It forces us at point after point to abandon Biblical and traditional beliefs. This tension of Tillichís thought with historic Christianity is a point that will be made below, but there it must be recognized as indecisive. If we have autonomous philosophical grounds for believing certain things to be true about God and man, then as theologians we must come to terms with these truths, whatever the cost. But if the philosophy is claimed to be warranted by Christian revelation, then its disharmony with that historic faith becomes a decisive objection against it.

We will be both fairer and more accurate in our exposition of Tillich if we understand his ontological doctrines as claiming warrant in autonomous philosophical thinking outside the circle of faith. We must then recognize both that no specifically Christian act is involved in recognizing being-itself as God and that this means that Tillichís idea of God is largely determined by independent philosophical considerations. We must now ask whether there are not specifically Christian modifications or additions to the doctrine of God. For example, is Tillichís affirmation of monotheism, and specifically of its Trinitarian form, derived from Christian revelation?

According to Tillich two norms operate in the investigation of alternative doctrines of God -- ultimacy and concreteness. God is necessarily the ultimate else he cannot be the object of ultimate concern. Hence, every image of God that presents him as less than ultimate must give way. At the same time God can only be apprehended concretely. Hence, every image of God that conceives him abstractly must give way. Therefore, we are driven to an exclusive monotheism that, on the one hand, places God radically beyond all categories of finitude and, on the other hand, sees him as manifesting himself in everything finite. When the living unity of these two aspects of God is added to them as a third aspect we have a Trinity. (Systematic Theology I, pp. 228-229. Cf. Also pp. 250-251.)

Tillich goes on to say that the Christian affirmation of Jesus as she Christ as the manifestation of God makes the problem of Trinitarianism a radically important one for the Christian. Further, he declares that the Trinitarian dogma of the church is not identical with the Trinitarian principles sketched above. (Ibid. I, p. 229.) Nevertheless, it is clear that Trinitarianism as such is systematically derivable apart from any specific appeal to the revelation in Jesus as the Christ. Tillichís ontological doctrines combined with his phenomenology of religion are sufficient to demand a Trinitarian consummation.

The foregoing argument is not to be taken as disparaging Tillichís doctrine of God or as arguing that it is unfaithful to Christianity. Historically, most theological doctrines of God have been based upon philosophical analysis. Furthermore, historians have suggested that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity has been profoundly influenced if not determined by considerations of the sort which Tillich introduces. Tillich is to be criticized only in so far as he has sought to deny the derivation of his theological answers from sources outside the circle of faith. The relation of his doctrine of God to his specifically Christian affirmations seems to be much the same as that found in theologians who avowedly make use of natural theology.

We must turn now to consider the specifically Christian affirmations. One of the criticisms of the use of natural theology has been that it provides in effect norms by which Christian revelation is judged. Does Tillich avoid this situation by deriving his norms for revelation within the circle of faith?

Tillich explicitly affirms that this is what he does. (Ibid. I, pp. 106-107, 132,135.) He takes the Christian revelation as the basis of determining the norms of revelation in general. He then presents the phenomenology of the history of revelation in terms of these norms. Thereby the demonstration that Jesus is the final revelation is predetermined by the selection of Jesus as the source of norms for revelation. Surely one might say, "If this is to be criticized, it is in terms of the circularity and not in terms of the failure to take the circle seriously!

Yet we must ask whether in fact the norms in terms of which Tillich judges revelations are systematically derivable from his ontology and his general phenomenology independently of the appeal to Jesus as the Christ as final revelation.

We have already considered the argument that the final revelation must be both concrete and universal. This argument seems to be dependent upon the phenomenology of religion as developed within an ontological context and not upon the Biblical picture of Jesus. Tillich went on to judge that the Biblical picture measured up to these norms. Or consider the related demand that final revelation must be transparent to its ground. This seems to follow from the general analysis of the relation of being-itself to any finite being. Any finite being that mediates the unconditional to us also distorts it to the degree that it identifies its finite characteristics with the ultimate. Hence, the complete sacrifice of all finite characteristics to the ultimate alone makes possible final revelation.

Indeed it seems quite clear that whatever the origins of Tillichís judgments may have been in his own life history, they are systematically derivable from his philosophy. Hence, the meaning of the claim that Jesus is the final revelation is understood philosophically. Only the claim itself as a historical assertion is nonphilosophical.

Even this claim is not based upon a leap of faith in any ordinary sense. Given the criteria by which revelation is to be judged, and given the Biblical records, the factual judgment follows that Jesus as pictured in the witness of these records meets the specifications for final revelation. The entry into the circle of faith seems to follow from a philosophical and historical argument as an indicated next step. However, this would falsify the real existential element in Tillichís understanding of faith.

To enter the Christian circle is not simply to accept certain judgments about Jesus as historically probable. It is to risk living in terms of the new existence that he embodied. Hence, it is at the point of the New Being that Tillichís theology breaks away from its foundations in ontology, phenomenology, and historical judgment and points to the character of Christian existence in its particularity and its risk.

Even in the doctrine of the New Being, Tillichís general phenomenological analysis of the situation has a profound influence upon the form and content of the Christian doctrine. This was pointed out above where the doctrine was presented. This phonomenological analysis, Tillich recognizes, like his ontology, is already informed by the perspective of Christian faith, and in some respects he wishes to regard it as falling within the circle of faith. (Ibid. II, pp. 14, 15.) Nevertheless, we must recognize its essential independence from faith. Furthermore, the affirmation that the New Being is pictured in the New Testament seems to be a historical judgment that is essentially independent of faith.

However, Christian faith affirms also that there has been a personal life in which the New Being was actually manifest. This affirmation arises decisively, Tillich asserts, only through Christian existence, that is, from experienced participation in the power of the New Being. Thus Christian faith is itself the ground of the affirmation that the New Being became effective in history through a personal life. (Ibid. II, p. 114.) This means that at least at this one point a major theological affirmation can be made only from within the circle of Christian faith. Presumably also there may be other assertions about the character of the life of faith that can be warranted only by Christian existence itself.

The analysis thus far has indicated that the affirmations that comprise Tillichís theology rest upon three kinds of primitive assertions. The first is universal and objective in character, comprising the basic ontological and phenomenological assertions from which follow most of what is said about God and the formal character of revelation. The second is particular and objective in character, operating within the categories derived from the objective and universal assertions but making in this context specific historical judgments, including many of those about the finality of Jesus as the Christ. The third is particular and existential in character, comprising a limited but significant part of the whole. This includes some account of the distinctive character of Christian existence as participation in the New Being and the implications of this for Christology.

In and of itself this analysis is no criticism of Tillichís work, but it does point up the striking difference between what seems to be implied by some of his statements about method and his actual performance. The most natural interpretation of Tillichís account of theological method is as follows. Christianity consists in the commitment to the finality of Jesus as the Christ. From this perspective the questions of ultimate importance to man are asked and answered in the form that seems most relevant to our present situation. In this process ontological concepts and phenomenological descriptions are used for clarification and precision.

The most natural interpretation of Tillichís performance is as follows. Phenomenological and ontological analyses taken conjointly provide us with an understanding of God and man in terms of which the history of religions can be understood and judged. The criteria of judgment derived from these disciplines indicate that the Biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ fulfills the universal quest for revelation and the New Being. The self-experience of those who have committed themselves to this judgment in faith includes a participation in the New Being that confirms the essential validity of the New Testament picture.

Granting the oversimplificaton of this summary, it remains that we should ask why the program and the performance differ so drastically. The answer seems to lie in the recalcitrant character of Tillichís ontology. His doctrine of being cannot be simply an instrument employed by the theologian or a part of the question that theology answers. (Although apparently Tillich explicitly places it here. [Ibid. I, p. 30.]) By its very nature it is an affirmation about ultimate reality that is normative for all thought. Since Tillich treats his ontology as the necessary ontology, (Ibid. I, p. 230. At least, being-itself is a necessary principle of any ontology, in Tillichís view.) since it is an ontology that has very definite consequences as to the possibilities of interaction between God and the world, the distinctively Christian source of understanding this relationship is inevitably subordinated.

We can ask now whether this methodological subordination of distinctively Christian elements to philosophical ones affects the content of Tillichís thought in such a way as to prevent it from embodying the historic Christian faith. Clearly, it does not do so in every respect. Tillichís doctrine of God has many affinities with those of Augustine and the Scholastics. The doctrine that Jesus as the Christ is both the final revelation of God and the bearer of the New Being surely belongs in the main stream of historic Christianity.

However, it must also be recognized that profound tensions are introduced. Tillich himself acknowledges with commendable frankness that many Biblical categories of thought cannot be taken at face value in his system. (Ibid. II, pp. 10-12. See also Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Utimate Reality.) Biblical personalistic theism must be transcended in the God above God. (The Courage to Be, pp. 186-190.) Reinhold Niebuhr has pointed out that Tillichís conception of the Fall and its accompanying guilt as ontological in character robs them of their moral significance. (Reinhold Niebuhr, "Biblical Thought and Ontological Speculation in Tillichís Theology," The Theology of Paul Tillich, Kegley and Bretall, eds. pp. 216-227.) The centrality of the Biblical concept of sin is replaced by the categories of alienation and estrangement.

Tillichís actual methodology differs markedly from his own account of what is appropriate; and the content of his religious thought differs markedly from that of the Bible. However, neither of these statements taken in itself indicates that Tillich fails to offer a clear and adequate alternative for contemporary theology. The method that he in fact follows is ably and consistently employed. The doctrines that he affirms follow with remarkable unity and intelligibility from his fundamental vision of the relations of God and the world. His affirmations are profoundly meaningful and moving to modern man. Only if we have decided in advance upon a particular kind of faithfulness to the Scriptural records, will Tillichís departure from them be a reason for rejecting his position.

However, it must be said that formally speaking, Tillich is vulnerable to some of the basic objections that were leveled at theologians in Part I. The whole system depends upon basic philosophical judgments which obviously are not shared by most philosophers today. Hence, we can follow Tillichís theology only if we first believe that he has made his case as a philosopher. This question is likely to remain permanently in doubt. We cannot reasonably solve it by the risk of faith, for faith is not the basis for judging among philosophical positions.

If speculative philosophy is an inescapable precursor to theological thought, must we not give more explicit consideration to the way in which one should choose a philosophy? Of course, if one is convinced like Tillich of the truth of one philosophic position, there is really no choice. But for readers of Tillich it may not be apparent that his philosophy is necessarily superior to that of Thomas Aquinas, of Kant, of Heidegger, or of Whitehead. It is not the case, as he sometimes seems to imply, that his ontological judgments and their religious implications are really found in all great philosophies. Hence, if we are to accept his theology, we must accept his philosophy and thereby reject these others. To structure virtually the whole of theology in such a way that its acceptance depends upon an independent philosophic decision of this sort may be to create obstacles to faith that are not ingredient in the demands of faith itself.

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