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Welcome and thank you for visiting "Thoughts of a 21st Century Tillichian", a place that I plan to use to explore not only the writings of Paul Tillich, but also others who may be considered "Radical" for one reason or another.
For those of you who are not aware of who Paul Tillich as, I would like to introduce you to him using the words of his second wife Hannah:

"Now I was seeing Paulus, the man with the golden mouth, who looked like a Riemenschneider carving in his earlier years. He had a body like a Gothic statue, lean from the hungry years of World War I. His face was finely carved, with a well-shaped mouth over animal like teeth. He was the desperate child of the century, who dared to give word to dreams of disaster and hope, carrying on to an ecstatic "yes," in spite of his philosophy of the demonic, of Kairos. He preached the agony of death in war, instead of heroism. He knew about compassion and dared to ask for social justice. He called on ecstasy as the tremulous instigator of sacred action. He dared open "the doors of the deep" to the monsters of his convulsed wishes and unfulfilled desires. By boldly naming them and showing their faces, he coined a new philosophical-theological language. Courageously, he pushed the image of God beyond the concept of heaven. By dematerializing and depersonalizing Him, he threw the weight of sin and grace back upon the human soul. He said "yes" to his own being."
-Hanna Tillich, From Time to Time

Here we have a rather amazing portrait of man who wore not only his heart on his sleeve, but also his mind, and his soul. If you have, or ever intend to read Tillich, you will find a man that is full of humility, full of a type of humility rarely found in todays popular level theologians or pastors. A person who told people that doubt is not the opposite of faith, but a part of faith.

 
Speaking of faith, what is faith?

 
For Tillich Faith was a matter of "Ultimate Concern".

"Faith is the state of being grasped by an Ultimate Concern. And, since only that which is the ground of our bring and meaning should concern us ultimately, we can also say: Faith is the concern about our existence in it's ultimate "whence" and "whither." It is a concern of the whole person; it is the most personal concern and that which is determines all others. It is not something that can be forced upon us; it is not something which we can produce by the will to believe, but that by which we are grasped. It is, in biblical terminology, the divine Spirit working in our spirit which creates faith."
-Paul Tillich, Biblical Religion and the search for Ultimate Reality

Faith for Tillich was not giving mental ascent to a set of cultural propositions, but something that we engaged with, using all of our being. It influenced everything we do, what our hobbies are, who we associate with, our political stances, the way we use our time and money.

 
Faith for Paul was Dynamic! It was an up and down rollercoaster ride, with amazing highs, and even the darkest of lows. It was something that was not contained only within the realm of Christianity, but could be expressed in a number of different Religious or Secular practices.

 
Tillich often said that he lived within the boundary line, between Philosophy and Theology, and that both were dependent upon one another.

 
I aim to explore his thoughts, as well as the thoughts of some of his contemporaries, and some modern day Philosophers who seem to represent a large part of what he stood for.

 
I will be going through and giving summaries of some of his work, to make it more available to an audience that might otherwise find it difficult to understand some of his work.

 
This blog is as much about my passion for a thinker, or group of thinkers, who gave me a safe space to exist after I left the church, as well as the name "Christian."

 
This blog is a part of my journey of me more closely examining my own thoughts, as well as the thoughts of some of my inspirations.

 
So if you have even a passing interest in either Paul Tillich, Existentialism, or Radical Theology, I hope that you continue to walk this journey with me.

 
Peace be with your spirit!

Ultimate Concern an Introduction

A lot of people throw around the word “Faith” as if it were easy for people to understand what they meant.  I would argue that the following definitions are the common understandings of the word.

 

Faith

Noun

 

  1. confidence or trust in a person or thing.
  2. belief that is not based on evidence.

 

I reject both of these as they seem like rather shallow definitions of a word that is often used in a way that carries a lot of weight. Instead I use the following definition from Paul Tillich.

“Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.”

 

To understand such a phrase it would be helpful to delve into the question of “What is Ultimate Concern?”

 

Whether or not we know it, all of us have an ultimate concern. This ultimate concern isn’t something that we chose voluntarily over much deliberation, or something that we reflected upon and at that moment decided to take up as our ultimate concern. No, as a matter of fact in a matter of speaking our ultimate concern grabbed hold of us. We are grasped by it, out being responds to a sort of call, and manifests itself in all of our thoughts and actions, and is reflected in both or public and private matters.

 

By “Grasped” I mean that we did not produce it but that we found it already in ourselves.

 

There are two ways in which we are grasped by something.

 

One is that we are raised with it as part of our culture. That we are brought up and it has influenced us, and that it has meaning for us, that we would fight for it, and even die for it, because if something is truly ultimate, it takes precedence over anything and everything else.

 

The other is a little more sudden or dramatic. I hesitate to use the word conversion but I am not aware of a better word at the moment. As sometimes another form of ultimate concern comes to us from the outside our own. It could be the moment that you heard something in the lecture hall of a university, perhaps you read a poem, perhaps you heard a song or saw a picture. At any rate something happens as if something that never effected you suddenly clicks into place. This is more of an intellectual kind of conversion experience but it can have profound influence in the future of the person that it happened to.

 

The content of the ultimate concern can vary person to person, because the object of someone’s ultimate concern can vary person to person. I believe however that anyone’s ultimate concern is based on their ontological understanding, or their understanding of what it means to be and to be well. The ways in which we approach life are based on the core of what we believe it means to be. This can come in many forms both religious and secular.

 

Can anything be an Ultimate Concern?

 

You can believe anything to be of Ultimate Concern, but if it ever fails you, then it is not ultimate. For the nationalist for example, they will do whatever it takes to preserve the nation and demand that all other concerns be they economic, health, well being, justice, cognitive truth etc. be sacrificed. Nationalism shows us a good example of how an ultimate concern shapes all of our actions, everything is centered on the only god, the nation which shows clearly the character of ultimate concern.

 

However a valid ultimate concern doesn’t just facilitate an unconditional demand, but also promises ultimate fulfillment. We can see the idol of the nation fall to this as the nation can and will ultimately fail the nationalist. Either by harming them directly or being overrun by a competing nation.

 

I rarely am one to quote the bible, and even more rarely Deuteronomy, but the following sums up ultimate concern quite well.

 

“You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

Deuteronomy 6:5

 

We can look at all sorts of things that people may hold as ultimate concerns. Walk into a professional football stadium, and you will see one of the biggest temples that have ever existed. Everyone wearing their teams colors, faces painted, signs everywhere, and sometimes even causing people to be moved to violence over a rival fan, or the call of a referee. If you dare bad mouth a fans favorite team, they are often quick with what could be equated to sports apologetics, and they are the next William Lane Craig. The worship of their God doesn’t stop there. Their houses are filled with posters, pictures, magazine articles, books, and any other representation of their team they can get their hands on. I have met many people who can tell me the stats of different players over the past 3-4 seasons or in some cases an even greater amount of time. Just like other forms of ultimate concern, we have tv coverage, pod casts, radio shows, and commentary, on what such and such a win or loss means for a particular player or team. To me it doesn’t make much sense, but it is also not an ultimate concern for me, or a concern at all.

 

Like nationalism though, it seems that someone’s favorite team will also be a false ultimate concern. That is because it will not bring one ultimate fulfillment.

 

It seems to me that Ultimate Concern, as in a true expression of one that not only demands our “devotion” but also gives us constant fulfillment must be something transcendent.

 

For example a secular humanist has a valid ultimate concern when they live a life that is to uplift and support all of humanity. They will do what it takes to encourage the flourishing of humanity, as well as being stewards of the rest of the planet, because the well being of the planet contributes to the well being of humanity. Something in their life made them believe and act with their entire being, that all of humanity is valuable and we should do whatever we can to help out those who are suffering.

 

Secular humanism emphasizes personal responsibility and puts an emphasis on examining any ideology be it political or religious by each individual and not just be accepted or rejected without first looking at the evidence and arguments. It says let us look critically at ourselves and examine our motivating factors, and when we see a problem let us take ownership of it, address it, help to come up with a solution for it. It also examines any new evidence that may show an old way to not be the best way, and because of this it allows them to both collectively and individually expand their world view to adapt to any changes that occur.

 

This type of Ultimate Concern is not able to fail, as it changes as the knowledge of how to better serve all of humanity grows and develops. Its not simply interested in the here and now, but in the future as well because our actions now effect the lives of those to come. It cannot fail because the concern is transcendent above the here and now, transcends simply the needs of the individual and looks at the needs of all individuals. This is different for example than sacrificing the needs of the one for the greater good of the whole. It says that every individual is valuable. It’s developing history is not constrained by set in stone dogmatics, but remains fluid and open to change.

 

We have looked at a different definition of faith, provided examples, and shown the short comings of a false ultimate concern. Now that we have the introduction covered, next time we will be asking critical questions that are often raised against what we have called Ultimate Concern.

 

I ask that if you have any questions or critiques of Faith as Ultimate concern, to email me at EpicTillich@gmail.com , Tweet them to me @EpicTillich using the hashtag #QOUC , or leaving them as a comment here on my blog.

 

As always,

 

Peace be with your spirit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Oh ye of Little Faith.” An informal train of thought on a popular phrase.

"Oh ye of little faith."

This is a popular phrase I have heard from, friends, family, television, movies, and even read within comic books.

This phrase is often used to symbolize a lack of hope, either in the positive outcome of a situation or in God.

I say both of those are rather short sighted when it comes to Theology, and so I wanted to take a few moments to talk about the matter.

When it comes to theology, my approach is more systematic, I take from a lot of different areas, and use all of them to shape my world view.

To paraphrase Paul Tillich, A systematic theology is only limited by what you allow into the system.

Even if you're not a systematic theologian or philosopher, you still have an idea of what you should pull your information from, and what is off limits.

For example, in a lot of fundamentalist theology, something called Biblical Apologetics, is often used to defend their beliefs about God, and the World. Anything that contradicts their specific interpretation of the Bible, is often, not of God, or worse "Demonic", and is off limits as far as useful for their theology.

To me, that is an example of "little faith."

The Omni Attributes are often used by these little faith practitioners, and I find it actually ironic. For those of you not familiar with them, they are often the following:

God is:

All Powerful

All Knowing

All Loving

Now I don't care if you subscribe to this type of description, what I care about it the limit that is often put on the all. Oftentimes I see them expressed like this:

God is:

All Powerful (but God wouldn't use that power outside of the standard Judaeo/Christian norm.)

God is all knowing (this is still the same)

God is all loving (God's love is unconditional unless you don't subscribe to the following conditions.)

Now to me, it would stand to reason, that if God, is all Powerful, all knowing, and all Loving, God certainly knows that the Christian Narrative doesn't engage everyone the same way, and that some people because of the way they were brought up, or the way their brain is wired, will never accept the Christian Narrative. And if God is all loving, God wouldn't decide that Hell or Separation from God, was a just outcome, for the beings that God created, who have finite limitations.

I like the more Mystical expression that God is greater than can be conceived.

This puts an emphasis on the understanding that anything we know about God is, God as subject, and not of Object.

That a finite being is not capable of having objective knowledge of the infinite.

There is always a distance between us and the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Unconditional, or God.

If we can realize the limit of our finite abilities, perhaps we can open up some space in our minds, as well as our hearts for the variety of religious expression and experience. Including Revelation!

Now here is the thing, I am not saying that your religious expression, or beliefs of what God has laid out for YOU, as acceptable for revelation, but I would argue that God sees you as an individual as well as part of a community, and if God approaches you as an individual, with all of your complexities, and all of your anxieties, and all of your doubts, why would God not do that to all of the other individuals in this world. Why would God ignore their past, all of their experiences, and say, I know you have all the reasons to not believe in me, or Jesus, or anything, but if you don't start soon, I will punish you for it?

Jesus, someone I look up to, even if I don't worship, seemed to understand this, that people needed to be approached as individuals.

Paul, (you may have heard of him) wrote a majority of the New Testament, and threw down in defense of the Gentiles saying no! You don't have to follow our cultural laws, you don't have to be circumcised, you're not Jewish, you're you!

For Paul it was about the transformed life you lived in Christ, not the way you expressed it in your religious rituals, but in the way you lived, ever single moment of every single day.

For me, it is the transformed life you find yourself living when you're more in tune with the Divine Logos. But it is still a transformed life, you're still reborn as a new creature or new creation.

It's not about what you say you believe, it's about how you believe. How you live your life, as your ultimate Concern influences everything you do. Every choice, every moment, is grasped by whatever your Ultimate Concern happens to be.

If you live something existentially, it is the center of your very being. It drives you, motivates you, influences you. You cannot possibly choose to act against your Ultimate Concern, because if you can, it's not truly Ultimate.

I have had both Catholics and Protestants, tell me that I live outside of what they believe God would want, mostly because I don't believe the Bible to be holy, or the word of God, but the word of men, inspired by what they happen to call God. Keep in mind Obie's Metamorphosis, a book also filled with a lot of truth and page after page of parable, is God inspired, but it's also not cannon.

For the Stoics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both happened to hold a lot of transcendent truth. But that has a lot to do with the power of myth. When Myth is involved, it's not just true, often times people say it's greater than true, it transcends truth, or as we talked about in the last entry, it unlocks levels of reality or depth inside us, that we might not be able to access otherwise.

Any expression you have of God isn't God, it's how you see God.

Just like any belief you have of another person, isn't the totality or perhaps even an aspect of that person, because the person is full of their own past experiences, anxieties, joys, etc.

Two people can look at a piece of art and walk away with a different impression.

Millions of people look out into the world, and we have millions of different thoughts about the same world.

Theology, in essence isn't about God, it's what we personally believe and feel about God, because it is based on how God, grasps us as individuals.

Can you imagine, if Paul had that mystical experience where he left Saul behind, and went up to the Pharisees, and said, "Look, I just had this amazing experience, and I think we got it all wrong."

Then the head Pharisee steps up, and says, "You know Saul, this whole Jesus thing, you're mad, it goes against everything we believe, that man was not our messiah."

So not Paul hangs his head. It's all their in the subjective leaders interpretation, he is shamed, and made to feel the lesser, he doesn't go on to preach the Gospel, because it didn't fit with the Jewish Scholars ideas of what was holy.

Or you can look at the Old Testament, and see how many different names for God there are, or how many different types of God, the singular mind you, there are.

The authors of the Old Testament used poetic expression to give life to the ideas they were wrestling with. And each writer had a different view.

This is also apparent in the Mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome.

All of these writers, thinkers, believers, non-believers, men, women, emperors, kings, priests, prophets, oracles, etc, they all were fighting to give language to that which language can only describe symbolically.

So yes, if you're a Christian, chances are you are going to feel more comfortable with Christian language, symbolism, scripture, but yes would be of little faith, if you think God would stop there. God doesn't stop there, you stop there, God doesn't stop revealing God's Self out side the realms of my theology, I stop choosing to see God outside of my theology.

Oh ye of little faith, you don't have all the answers for everyone, you have all the answers that fit within your framework. Just as I do.

Peace be with your spirit.

Fr. McInnis and The Symbolic

Today I was planning on writing more about Faith as Ultimate Concern, and today I found out that one of the most influential people in my life passed away.

Fr Gary McInnis, a Catholic Priest, who embraced with his being the validity of the variety of religious expression. Someone who taught me, that there are many ways of expressing how we relate and see the divine.

So in his memory instead of writing about Ultimate Concern, I am going to take a look at Paul Tillich’s thoughts on The Symbolic and Religious Symbols.

 

Before we can really talk about that though I have to explain a simple yet often times criticized idea. Ok take a deep breath.

 

Are you ready?

 

What you say about God is simply that, what you say. Any description that we have of God is subjective. Any belief about God we have is subjective. That is not to say that it is not a valid way of expressing the way we think of God, but that it is something that we use to describe the great mystery of what we call God.

 

Or as Tillich says; As soon as the we attempt to grasp God the object God becomes God the subject, or a finite being does not have the ability to confidently describe with certainty the Infinite, using finite language, or means.

 

This comes to another very Tillichian idea, that we can only describe God using symbolic language.

 

So now that we have that sorted out lets look at some of the things he had to say in some of his work. We will be looking at one of my favorite Tillich books, Dynamics of Faith, which contains a small but rather  dense amount of information.

 

We will be looking at  Chapter three, Symbols of Faith.

 

Tillich was very specific when he used the word “symbol.”

 

 

“Symbols have one characteristic in common with signs; they point beyond themselves to something else. The red sign on the street corner points to the order to stop the movement of cars at certain intervals. A red light and the stopping of cars have essentially no relation to each other but conventionally they are united as long as the convention lasts.”

 

So the first characteristic of a Symbol is that it points beyond itself to something else.

 

So what is the distinction between a Sign and a Symbol?

 

“Decisive, is that signs to not participate in the reality of that to which they point, while symbols do. Therefore, signs can be replaced for reasons of expediency or convention, while symbols cannot.”

 

So the second characteristic of a Symbol, is that it participates in that which it points toward.

 

Tillich gives an example of the flag of a nation represents a nation for which it stands, and cannot be simply replaced by another flag, unless something dramatic happens that changes the reality of the nation which it represents.

 

“The third characteristic of a symbol is that it opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed for us.”

 

Any form of art for example, be it a painting, a poem, a book, a movie, a picture, they all reveal elements of reality, that relate to something inside of us as human beings, that are not approachable scientifically.

 

This can be felt by me when I read the words of Mother Teresa, Saint of Calcutta, when I read the words she expresses of the extreme darkness that she walked with for so long, feeling abandoned by God, feeling like the life she was living was a sort of a lie, because everyone around her looked at her as if she had the strongest faith, even when she was wrestling with herself to have any faith at all as she experienced what is often called the “dark night of the soul”.

 

Her personal thoughts can cause me to have empathetic tears run down my face, as I think about my own cosmic loneliness, often wondering where the God they told me about as a child is. Even the feature picture of my blog, a picture of Tillich looking so unsure, so depressed, so at odds with himself, for me is an Icon, a symbol that I participate with, expressing the reality that I struggle with, and even though he spent most of his adult life teach systematic theology, I am sure he struggled with to.

 

This leads to the fourth characteristic of the Symbol, that it not only opens up dimensions of reality that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise, but that it also unlocks dimensions and elements of our soul, which are related to the dimensions and elements of reality.

 

“Symbols cannot be produced intentionally- this is the fifth characteristic. They grow out of the individual or collective unconscious and cannot function without being accepted by the unconscious dimension of our being.”

 

There are two things that I would like to point out that not enough people really take stock in. That the individual, you or I, will not always have the same symbols, even within a belief system, and further more, no amount of evangelism, can make someone just accept your preferred symbols. They have to be experienced and internalized by our being. You cannot simply walk up to someone tell them to take your symbols and accept them as part of their personal practice. However this happens on a daily basis around the world by multiple types of religious expressions, and an added threat is involved. “Accept our symbols as part of your own, or face eternal damnation.”

 

Even if someone gives verbal ascent to the symbols of a religious system, it doesn’t mean they believe or give mental ascent to those symbols or propositions themselves. It just means they would like to live a life absent harassment, or even more terrifying in some cases, they would rather say they believe something than be killed for not believing it.

 

“The sixth and last characteristic of the symbol is a consequence of the fact that symbols cannot be invented. Like living beings, they grow and they die They grow when the situation is ripe for them, and they die when the situation changes.”

 

“Symbols do not grow because people are longing for them, and they do not die because of scientific or practical criticism. They die because they can no longer produce response in the group (or the individual-JMO) where they originally found expression.”

 

So if you’re keeping track here are the six main characteristics of every symbol:

 

  1. A symbol points beyond itself to something else.
  2. A symbol participates in that to which it points.
  3. A symbol opens up levels of reality which otherwise are closed to us.
  4. A symbol unlocks dimension and elements of our soul that correspond with the dimensions and elements of our reality.
  5. A symbol cannot be produced intentionally.
  6. Symbols like living beings, grow and die. They don’t grow in response to a longing, but because they produce a response when we encounter them. They die when they no long produce such a response.

 

Now this isn’t exclusive to religion. This is pertaining to any type of Faith (Ultimate Concern).

 

The symbols of success for example are often Money and Power. The symbols of a nation are often it’s Flag, Government, and Military. The Symbols of the Christian faith exist in things like The Cross, The Bible, and The Church.

 

Anything that we elevate to the level of Ultimate Concern, is a matter of faith, and any matter of faith has it’s own symbols, be it a Secular or Religious form of faith.

 

The Fundamental Symbol:

 

“The Fundamental symbol of our Ultimate Concern is God. It is always present in any act of faith, even if the act of faith includes the denial of God. Where there is ultimate concern, God can only be denied in the name of God. One God can deny the other one. Ultimate Concern cannot deny it’s own character as ultimate.”

 

If we are going to look at the word “God as a symbol, there are two distinguishable elements.

 

  1. The Element of Ultimacy: This is a matter of immediate experience and not symbolic in and of itself.
  2. The Element of Concreteness: This is taken from our ordinary experience and symbolically applied to God.

 

Here are some examples from Tillich himself,

“The man whose ultimate concern is a sacred tree has both the ultimacy of concern and the concreteness of the tree which symbolizes his relation to the Ultimate. The man who adores Apollo is ultimately concerned but not in an abstract way. His ultimate concern is symbolized by the divine figure of Apollo. The man who glorifies Jahweh, the God of the Old Testament, has both an ultimate concern and a concrete image of what concerns him ultimately. This is the meaning of the seemingly cryptic statement that God is the symbol of God.”

 

A myth is another type of symbol.

 

Myths are combined into stories or naratives to express symbolically the human/divine interaction. We can certainly see this in the Bible, as well as both the Greek and Roman stories that my have captivated some of your childhood.  Myths are always a part of our faith, because anytime we talk about the content of our faith we use a language that is symbolic.

 

This is of course easy to talk about, or type about, but in practice in common conversation, with a person who chooses to live in the safety of their certainty, you will face opposition. This is because while some of us wrestle with our anxieties that occur by simply being a human being, some people feel safe in having all of the answers. These people claim to not speak subjectively about God, but Objectively and with authority. They will often defend tooth and nail to protect their safety net. This is often supported by the church or organization that they are a part of. Where it makes anyone who disagrees with them part of the “out group”. Because to be a part of the “in group” or the tribe means that you need to believe in a set of propositions, and if you do this, you will live a happier life, or so they say.

 

For me, as well as for perhaps other Tillichians, this is a form of Idolatry, and Tillichians in general have a rather low bar for Idolatry. As soon as you start speaking with certainty, about who or what God is, what or isn’t the right way to live according to God, and essentially claiming objective knowledge of the infinite, you are committing idolatry.

 

This is why I say that the Church isn’t holy, it only points towards the holy, that the Bible isn’t holy, it points towards the holy. The Saints, the Sacraments, Icons, etc. All of them are a symbolic expression that participates with how we relate to the divine. This goes for any religion, not just Christianity.

 

So what does all of this have to do with Fr. Gary McInnis?

 

Fr. Gary in the middle of a Catholic Church, during his homily would use phrases like, Praise be to Allah, or mention parts of the Hindu Pantheon, mention The Great Spirit, talk about Buddhism, and a multitude of belief systems. Even before I met him I had a love for the variety of religious and philosophical expressions of God. Fr. Gary seems to agree with Lao Tzu, that the Way we talk about is not the Way.  Fr Gary, like Seneca (the Stoic) seemed to agree that a valuable piece of wisdom didn’t belong to a school of thought, or a religious tradition, but to the world, and not only did he look for those pieces of wisdom, but he shared them with his friends and his congregation.

 

So thank you Fr. Gary McInnis, you had a lasting impact on my life. If there is a heaven, I hope you are looking down upon us now, and smiling, as we attempt to carry on what you taught us.

 

To Fr Gary, and to all of you, Peace be with your spirit.

 

If you are interested in reading more from Dynamics of Faith, you can click the link below and order a copy. It talks about a lot more than just the religious symbols of our lives, and is one of the most influential books when it comes to my personal journey of Faith.