Tillich and God in Atlanta
A Report on the Fall 2015 Meeting
The Fourth R 29-2
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At Westar’s fall meeting in Atlanta, the Seminar on God and the Human Future focused on the thought of one of the twentieth-century’s most prominent theologians, Paul Tillich (1886–1965). The year 2015 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Paul Tillich, and it was right to focus both on his legacy and the radical edges of his thinking for today. Questions revolved around the radical aspects of Tillich’s theology and their meaning when it comes to thinking about God.
Russell Re Manning
Professor Russell Re Manning, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy and Ethics at Bath Spa University in England and editor of Retrieving the Radical Tillich (Palgrave 2015), was invited to join the Seminar in Atlanta. He presented two introductory talks on Tillich, which were followed by stimulating comments from Joe Bessler of Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa and Karmen MacKendrick of Le Moyne College in New York.
In the first presentation, Re Manning highlighted Tillich’s theology of culture. Indeed, he emphasized how, for Tillich, theology is inherently embedded in, and not an enterprise set apart from, the conditions of human life and history. Unlike his influential contemporary Karl Barth (1886–1968), Tillich never severed the tie between theology and culture. As Re Manning emphasized, he overcame the gap between theology and culture by insisting that theology is always involved in the conditions of the culture.
There are three areas, Re Manning indicated, where Tillich’s theology of culture stands out. One is evident in his early work, The Socialist Decision, set during the rise of Nazi Germany. In this book Tillich draws on the distinction between the “whence” (origin) and the “whither” (destination) of culture and holds that theology should be focused on the latter. He thus links theology to its cultural setting and describes it as that which challenges or calls culture beyond its present condition. Tillich set a call to authentic socialism against the threat of a false socialism. His distinction between true and false socialism was a warning about the ideology of the German National Socialists (otherwise known as “Nazis”). The call of theology to challenge culture makes the theology of culture a critical foundation for reflecting on God and the human future.
A second radical edge to Tillich’s thought is located, Re Manning suggested, in the question of faith. To Tillich faith involves dwelling in doubt. This form of dwelling invokes the “courage” that Tillich would analyze in his popular book, The Courage To Be (1952). If faith is the act of dwelling in doubt, then for Tillich faith is a strategic form of atheism. It is the iconoclastic element of theology. Faith as strategic atheism—or radical doubt—establishes theology as the founding science of critical thinking. The cultural role of theology is to question the destination of culture, and this involves behaving as a type of cultural troublemaker. Theology seeks out the icons of culture and practices iconoclasm. This radical edge called strategic atheism (see below)—that is, dwelling in doubt of the cultural gods—secures the relevancy of theology in any cultural setting.
Toward the end of Tillich’s life, according to Re Manning, Tillich’s third edge of radicality emerged in relation to world religions. Tillich realized that a new context for theology involved awareness of world religions. This new context was part of what we now call the global culture. Tillich realized that the encounter with world religions widens the understanding of one’s own religious tradition. A new and wider understanding of religion means that a theology of culture cannot be reduced to a single (Christian) culture. Theology must address the global scene where cultures clash. A single religion, whether Christianity or another, can no longer limit its vision of truth to its own, singular tradition. The new setting of world religion challenges every religious tradition to develop deeper and more inclusive elements within their tradition through dialogue with other traditions as authentic as their own.
The new setting of world religion challenges every religious tradition to develop deeper and more inclusive elements within their tradition through dialogue with other traditions as authentic as their own.
In addition to these radical elements in Tillich there are two terms central to his theology that require examination: the “unconditional” and the “conditional.” The first, the unconditional, identifies that which is never historically present but is always the presupposition of history and the present. It is the foundation or principle of life. Today we might describe it as the energy that makes life possible, that must be in place for particular forms of life to be. For Tillich it is impossible to raise a question about God or any other subject without there first being a foundation or principle or energy out of which the question arises. This necessary foundation can never be reduced to a “thing” but is always the principle (the ground) of things. This is why Tillich calls the principle of life the unconditional.
The conditional, on the other hand, is that which exists in history and in time. It consists of things that we experience and that form our circumstances in life. The conditional includes our genetic codes and the foibles of our personalities. It includes the social elements of our lives and the political makeup of our cultures, the things out of which we understand the world and from which we reach for tomorrow. Conditional elements always change and always move; they are always that in which we are caught up. Because these elements are conditional they are not and cannot be unconditional. But the unconditional is always presupposed in the conditional.
In responding to Re Manning, Joe Bessler commented on the responsibility of theology to name those conditional matters that are treated as if they were unconditional. Bessler argued that this task makes theology a political activity. That is to say, theology should critically engage what society holds to be unconditional or sacred or untouchable. In many cases this untouchable element is “God.” In other cases the untouchable is a specific political ideology merged with a favorite religion. To Bessler, theology plays a disruptive role in the midst of the cultural temptation to pose conditional elements as unconditional. Tillich’s ability to raise such criticism continues to define him as both a relevant and radical theologian.