Paul Tillich died while I was still in high school. But the embers of his theological revolution–equivalent in theology to Bultmann’s in biblical studies–were still warm by the time I got to Harvard Divinity School, where he taught from 1955 to 1962. I read him assiduously, ran yellow highlighters dry illuminating “key” passages, and wrote the word “Yes!” in the margins more often than Molly Bloom gasps it in the last chapter of Ulysses.
It isn’t that I now regard Tillich as less profound than I did three decades ago. It’s that I now realize he was methadone for religion- recoverers. His key works–The Religious Situation, The Shaking of the Foundations, the multipart, unbearably dense Systematic Theology (especially disliked in Britain when it appeared), and Dynamics of Faith–reveal a soul committed to taking the sting out of what many theologians before Tillich called “the modern situation.”
The modern situation was basically scientific knowledge–the growing conviction that what we see is all we get, and that if we can’t see it we just need better techniques for seeing it. The glaring exception to this optimism, this faith in scientific know-how–a 1950’s word–was God, about whom it was widely supposed that no lens powerful enough, no jet-propulsion engine fast enough and no controlled experiment sophisticated enough was ever going to discover him. God was safe, in a weird kind of way, because he was, to use the catchphrase of the time, “Wholly Other.”
There were two ways of dealing with the vulnerability of God to the modern situation. One was to say that God is immune from scientific discovery because he is known only through faith. Bring on your historical criticism, your naturalistic assaults, your so-called “facts,” your rock and roll. The bigness of God just shows the puniness of your methods. To try this course, however, entailed a repudiation of the idea that God can be known rationally and that faith and reason were compatible rather than hostile modes of determining truth–a rejection, in other words, of the whole previous history of theology, especially Catholic theology.
The other way was to exploit post-positivism, or a theological construction of “Popperism.” This tactic relied on the philosophical premise that while God can be postulated on reasonable grounds (analogically, for example: shoes have makers so universes have creators) “he” cannot actually be falsified (we know where the shoemaker’s house is; we see him going to it at five o’clock; but we don’t know where God lives as he is thought to be invisible). We can’t quite be certain that he doesn’t exist, on the same grounds we can’t falsify the existence of anything we haven’t seen, and some propositions (or assertions) about God are tenable, even if implausible, when alternative explanations are considered.
Part of this “propositional” strategy hearkened back to ontology, the idea that God is not directly experienced or instantiated in creation and so in some sense must be greater than it, prior to it, or transcendent, in a way that beggars ordinary description. Theology had never succeeded in reconciling the claim of biblical revelation with the “classical” attributes of god’s aseity and impassibility (i.e., a supreme being cannot change or suffer–“he” is what he is, as Yahweh sniffs in Exodus 3.14), so uncertainty was a kind of safe epistemological cloud to wrap discussion in–in addition to which it had a certain (unrelated) currency in atomic physics which leant it a kind of dubious respectability. This approach preserved the bare notion of the rationality of religious belief, leaving theology room to exploit the doctrine that Christianity is all about faith and hope, the “certainty of things unseen” (Hebrews 11.1).
Both positions were so intellectually flimsy (and apologetic) that theologians had to go a long way to create a vocabulary that made them independently and mutually impressive. That goal, I write to say, was never achieved. Claims were made and games were played, but theology did not succeed in preserving the life of its divine protagonist–not even in the totally cynical and ephemeral God is dead theology of the ‘sixties.
Beginning before the publication of Karl Barth’s “neo-orthodox” tome, The Epistle to the Romans (1922), where the Swiss theologian reaffirms for protestants everywhere the primacy of faith, “serious” theology became enamoured of the idea that God as God is invulnerable to scientific thought, as the term was understood in the mid-twentieth century.
There were plenty of medieval (and later) parallels to this way of thinking, ranging from mysticism to the “apophatic” theology of some of the scholastics, which even included the acknowledgement that the statement “God exists,” if it means existence of a temporal, durable, knowable kind, is false.
In most areas of life, to say something doesn’t exist means you don’t need to be concerned about it: it can’t bite you or lend you money. In theology, however, this sublime non-existence evoked awe, mystery, dread, and reverence–the very things you don’t get in the morning with coffee and toast. It can even give your own pathetic existence meaning if you just embrace its awesomeness. Authentically.
Modern discussions of existence as a mere temporal condition of being, especially Heidegger’s, emboldened theologians to think outside the box, with Heidegger being to the thought of the day what Aristotle was to the thirteenth century Church. Thus Rudolph Bultmann could write this confrontational paragraph in his essay “The New Testament and Mythology” (1941):
The cosmology of the New Testament is essentially mythical in character. The world is viewed as a three storied structure, with the earth in the center, the heaven above, and the underworld beneath. Heaven is the abode of God and of celestial beings — the angels. The underworld is hell, the place of torment. Even the earth is more than the scene of natural, everyday events, of the trivial round and common task. It is the scene of the supernatural activity of God and his angels on the one hand, and of Satan and his demons on the other. These supernatural forces intervene in the course of nature and in all that men think and will and do. Miracles are by no means rare. Man is not in control of his own life. Evil spirits may take possession of him. Satan may inspire him with evil thoughts. Alternatively, God may inspire his thought and guide his purposes. He may grant him heavenly visions. He may allow him to hear his word of succor or demand. He may give him the supernatural power of his Spirit. History does not follow a smooth unbroken course; it is set in motion and controlled by these supernatural powers. This æon is held in bondage by Satan, sin, and death (for “powers” is precisely what they are), and hastens towards its end. That end will come very soon, and will take the form of a cosmic catastrophe. It will be inaugurated by the “woes” of the last time. Then the Judge will come from heaven, the dead will rise, the last judgment will take place, and men will enter into eternal salvation or damnation…”
None of this is literally true–indeed, has already proved not to be true, Bultmann said; none of these things will happen in the way they are described. Called “demythologization,” Bultmann’s program did not call for a simple recognition that (most) modern people find the biblical landscape fantastic and absurd, but an aggressive embrace of methods that would strip mythology away and leave in its place the bare “kerygma”–the message.
While Bultmann could be cagey about the implications of this message, especially in correspondence with critics like Barth (who refused to accept Bultmann’s defintion of myth) he essentially embraced the axiom of Rudolph Otto (overlaid with Heidegger’s phenomenology) that “God is wholly Other” than the categories we associate with existence. It was the theological equivalent of hitting the target in front of you and hearing your opponent say, “That isn’t the target you needed to hit.”
Theologians spent the next forty years coming to terms with the contours (and dead-ends) of Bultmann’s thought. His contribution to biblical studies was to persuade timid seminarians, accustomed to treating the biblical text with reverence rather than historical skepticism, that in taking a knife to scripture they were not making it bleed away its life. They were saving it from the cancer of obsolete thoughts and ideas–freeing the message of authentic existence to be itself, making faith a “choice” rather than blind obedience to discredited ideas and dogmas. Like all closed systems, it made sense from the inside.
While there was much to admire here there was almost no one to admire it: a program for liberal biblical scholars to consider, conservatives to eschew, and almost everyone else to ignore. Looking back on his legacy from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, it looks strangely like a plant bred only for the hothouse of academic theology and not suited for life in real weather.
The term “demythologization” acquired a voltage among under-read–especially Catholic and evangelical scholars–that was only rivaled by the word “atheism.” Not an elegant prose stylist (most German academic theology of the period was pure fustian) Bultmann was at least considered dangerous in the establishment he was trying to save from intellectual disgrace.
In systematic theology the task was roughly the same, though the tracks did not always run parallel and (perhaps surprisingly) the historical track was often more radical than the theological one as “demythologization” merged with the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a boutique of approaches that put the biblical text at the mercy of historical criticism.
Tillich in 1957, while still at Harvard, addressed the question of God and the modern situation directly in a Garvin Lecture called “The Idea of God as Affected by Modern Knowledge.” His key theological slogans are all present in this lecture: God is not a “being,” but the ground of all being–being itself. All language about God is symbolic rather than realistic, including the meaning of the concept of God–which is not the same as the symbol. It is impossible to describe God or to say anything “non-symbolic” about him.
Like other existentialists Tillich was confronted not just by the problems entailed for theology by God’s non-existence but by the implications of that recognition for human existence itself. Sartre, among others, had described the sense of emptiness brought on by the end of God’s moral reign as despair, nausea, freedom without purpose. Tillich thought that Christianity’s emphasis on faith was both an acknowledgement that the concept of a literal God was done for (that is, something implicit in faith itself) but also an opening to being. In a vocabulary that sometimes rivals Heidegger’s for pure self-indulgence, this is variously described as the “God above god,” “Being itself,” and “ultimate concern.” It is whatever humans regard as sacred, numinous, holy (in traditional language), but so overwhelming that it requires total surrender. The God of theological theism is no longer the cure but the source of doubt and despair. He
…deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with recent tyrants with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implication. (The Courage to Be, 135)
Tillich’s theism was pure humanism in a different and slightly dishonest wrapper. He confesses as much in his Garvin Lecture when he says that far from science creating the modern situation of universal doubt, it is “the wisdom of twentieth century art, literature, drama and poetry…which reveals man’s predicament: his having to die, his being estranged, his being threatened with the loss of meaning, his becoming an object among other objects” (Idea of God, 108). God for Tillich is non-objectifiable, thus crumbles when he is made into what the French theologian Gabriel Vahanian called a “cultural artifact,” an idol. Tillich’s theology was at bottom a religious answer to the question Sartre said it was cowardly to answer religiously.
We are already writing the history of post-modernism, and the histories of existentialism are legion. It’s a history of malaise and post-War exhaustion conceived as a general theory of the “human predicament,” the “modern situation.” Tillich believed that by admitting to the collapse of the literal god-concept, the God of religious authority (an admission that by no means all Christians would have joined him in making!) an epistemological substitute could arise to save us from the mess we have made of our world, our society, our disoriented and alienated selves. But the distance between a God who could disappear into the vortex (a favourite image of the period) of despair and anxiety and be purified and strengthened by it (Tillich) and God as “absence, the solitude of man” (Sartre) defined the distance between a reupholstered illusion and the reality that had made atheism an option forced by twentieth century realities. Both thinkers agreed on the non-existence of God. Yet for Tillich, that was no reason to sacrifice a symbol.
The invulnerators were obviously infected with the spirit of their own formative fantasy, the resurrection, which saw the death of the human Jesus as the prelude to his immortal reign. Christians as Christians clung to a highly material view of that belief, and the associated belief that as it was for Jesus, so it would be for them–a little less royal but every bit as everlasting.
Tillich’s attempt to recast Christianity in the vulgate of the 1950’s is stale, but not merely stale because it is dated: stale because it is pedantic and wrong–atheism dressed as a bishop, when it was perfectly possible to dress in shirt and trousers and say what you really think and mean: The God of Christian theism is a story. He does not exist. All theological projects to prove his existence have failed. The historical and critical work of the last two centuries have made his existence absurd to increasing numbers of people, making religious beliefs harder to maintain and defend. This has turned millions of people into seekers, and created a situation which humankind has not encountered before. Its outcome is still unknown.
That is what Tillich should have confessed because it is what he thought. Yet his solution was to offer sedatives and linguistic figments to people whose imagination, courage and intellect he didn’t trust. Methadone, as I said, for religion-recovery.