In Part One of this survey of the theology of Tillich, the author examined what Tillich has to say about God in a section entitled “The God Who Is Known.” Now he turns to the topics of Christ and man.
The Christ Who Reveals
Tillich believes that revelation is necessary because “what is essentially hidden can only emerge from its concealment in an act of revelation, so that it is that for which there exists no way or device to break down its concealment. Everything that exists is on principle accessible to the cognitive consciousness; but when what is on principle inaccessible is manifested to the consciousness, this takes place in the act of revelation” (“Revelation and the Philosophy of Religion,” in Twentieth Century Theology in the Making, ed. J. Pelikan, Collins [Fontana], 1970, II, 49).
Further, according to Tillich, this revelation does not come about (as traditionally conceived) by God’s “breaking in” to mundane reality “from outside” in some miraculous way (especially an incarnation); rather, through and within the natural order we perceive the depth at the heart of all things.
Because revelation is “the manifestation of what concerns us ultimately”—that is, of the ground of our being—its apprehension can never be simply calmly rational. Tillich speaks, therefore, of “convulsion” and “reorientation” or, more simply, of “ecstasy”:
“Ecstasy” (“standing outside one’s self”) points to a state of mind which is extraordinary in the sense that the mind transcends its ordinary situation. Ecstasy is not a negation of reason; it is the state of mind in which reason is beyond itself, that is, beyond its subject-object structure. In being beyond itself reason does not deny itself. “Ecstatic reason” remains reason; it does not receive anything irrational or antirational—which it could not do without self-destruction—but it transcends the basic condition of finite rationality, the subject-object structure.… Ecstasy occurs only if the mind is grasped by the mystery, namely, by the ground of being and meaning. And, conversely, there is no revelation without ecstasy (Systematic Theology, I, 124).
Tillich’s ultimate test of revelatory value lies in seeing whether the concrete moment has become transparent to the unconditioned. He says, “A revelation is perfect in so far as it subjects every element of its concrete realization to the convulsion and reversal of orientation which is associated with true revelation. A revelation is perfect when there is nothing absolute in it except the absolutely hidden itself, which is revealed in it (the honor of God in the Calvinist sense)” (“Revelation and the Philosophy of Religion,” p. 52).
In line with these perspectives Tillich embraces the possibility of revelation from a wide variety of sources both secular and sacred. In Jesus Christ, however, the revelational possibilities in all human experience are at a maximum. Tillich takes it for granted that the lumber of supernaturalism must be swept from the New Testament witness. “We must not preserve or produce artificial stumbling-blocks, miracle stories, legends, myths, and other sophisticated paradoxical talk,” he says. “We must not impose the heavy burden of wrong stumbling-blocks upon those who ask us questions” (The Shaking of Foundations, Penguin, 1966, p. 132). In fact, the Christian faith would not suffer if Christ himself were to be shown never to have existed! What the New Testament presents us with is a picture of Jesus which is of proven revelational value. Such a picture capable of assuming such importance over such an expanse of time is immune to the activities of biblical criticism and free from the uncertainties attaching to historical judgments. “Historical research can neither give nor take away the foundation of the Christian faith,” says Tillich (Systematic Theology, II, 130).
Tillich is somewhat ambiguous about the necessity for an actual Jesus of History. At times he is most emphatic on the need for a firm historical basis to the New Testament message (Systematic Theology, II, 113–14), but then he qualifies this by saying (1) that no such basis can be provided by historical research, and (2) that faith does not need to go behind the New Testament “picture” of Jesus as the Christ. We may agree with G. H. Tavard that Tillich’s first qualification shows that “Paul Tillich remains a child of his generation, a victim of the historicism of the last century.” With regard to the second qualification we are forced to agree with Van A. Harvey when he says, “It is really indifferent to Tillich whether this picture corresponds in any way to a past historical event.”
Tillich’s recognition of the supremacy of Christ in revelational experience turns on the way in which Jesus as the Christ “possesses two outstanding characteristics: his maintenance of unity with God and his sacrifice of everything he could have gained for himself from this unity” (Systematic Theology, I, 150). This pattern for Tillich reaches its climax in Calvary when Jesus negates himself so that Christ alone may be seen. “The acceptance of the cross, both during his life and at the end of it, is the decisive test of his unity with God, of his complete transparency to the ground of being” (p. 151).
Because, as we have seen, being and the knowledge of being are not finally separate, so the act of recognizing Jesus as the Christ is part of the revelational moment itself.
Jesus as the Christ, the miracle of the final revelation, and the church, receiving him as the Christ or the final revelation, belong to each other. The Christ is not the Christ without the church, and the church is not the church without the Christ. The final revelation, like every revelation, is correlative [p. 152].
But Tillich is most anxious to point out to those who experience this revelational moment two real dangers. The first is that of failing to see that the uniqueness of the Christ-Kairos does not separate this moment from lesser moments in human history.
The event “Jesus as the Christ” is unique but not isolated; it is dependent on past and future, as they are dependent on it. It is the qualitative centre in a process which proceeds from an indefinite future which we call, symbolically, the beginning and the end of history [Systematic Theology, III, 156].
The second danger is that of making Jesus the object of our faith. Tillich says,
It is not the spirit of the man Jesus of Nazareth that makes him the Christ, but it is the Spiritual Presence, God in him, that possesses and drives his individual spirit. This insight stands guard against a Jesus-theology which makes the man Jesus the object of Christian faith [p. 156].
We must, Tillich insists, avoid at all costs “a heteronomous subjection to an individual.”
Once again Tillich’s connections with biblical Christianity are tenuous at best. The unabashed supernaturalism of the Bible necessitates speaking about revelation in the very terms that Tillich, because of his philosophical presuppositions, feels obliged to reject. Tillich’s philosophical idealism always inclines toward a monism, however qualified and denied. Thus, for instance, to adopt the terminology of F. H. Bradley (the British idealist at the turn of the century), revelation could be described as the point at which we gain insight into or make contact with the “Absolute” behind and within the world of “Appearances.”
While this has the advantage of giving a unity to all human experiences and enables Tillich to indicate the revelational potential in all moments of ultimate concern, it reduces the Christ-event of the New Testament to an event within a series (profoundly different from the series spoken of in Hebrews 1:1 ff.) and makes nonsense of the implications of the incarnation which find their soteriological climax in the New Testament confession: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 2:5).
Furthermore, by insisting that we grasp Jesus’ significance as the vehicle of the New Being only as we look past the historical Jesus to the Christ-disclosure that he embodies and exhibits as he negates himself on Calvary, Tillich has combined docetic and adoptionist Christologies in such a way as to leave the Christological data of the New Testament in ruins and, in the process, has made impossible joining with the apostolic church in that most fundamental of all confessions: “Jesus is Lord” (1 Cor. 12:3).
The Man Who Is Saved
When Tillich turns his attention to the human predicament he writes with considerable relevance and power. Taking Genesis 1–3 as a timeless myth of man’s condition, he interprets this in existential terms and exposes man’s fundamental problem as a gulf between his essence and his existence—a division for which man feels himself responsible.
As he experiences this tortuous division between his essence and his existence, man’s behavior exhibits “unbelief” (“the act or state in which man in the totality of his being turns away from God”), “hubris” (“the self-elevation of man into the sphere of the divine”), and “concupiscence” (“the unlimited desire to draw the whole of reality into one’s self”). His normal state of existential anxiety (inseparable from finitude) becomes complicated through guilt and is transformed into despair. With culpable foolishness man consistently refuses to recognize the root of his problems and is endlessly trying to flee from the only source of his recovery and renewal. Needless to say, such flight is impossible. “We always remain in the power of that from which we are estranged” says Tillich. He continues:
That fact brings us to the ultimate depth of sin: separated and yet bound, estranged and yet belonging, destroyed and yet preserved, the state which is called despair. Despair means that there is no escape. Despair is “the sickness unto death.” But the terrible thing about the sickness of despair is that we cannot be released, not even through open or hidden suicide. For we all know that we are bound eternally and inescapably to the Ground of our being [The Shaking of Foundations, p. 161].
In this act of denying his essence, man sees God as his foe and aptly describes God’s attitude towards him in terms of “wrath” and “condemnation.” Even “the theoretical knowledge that his experience of God as the God of wrath is not the final experience of God does not remove the reality of God as a threat to his being and nothing but a threat” (Systematic Theology, II, 89).
It is to man in this predicament that the revelation of God in Christ speaks. This revelation offers him—and summons him to—the possibility of participation in the New Being. In the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ, man discovers his own acceptance despite his sinfulness, and within this discovery he learns of the possibility of his total renewal. This is the miracle of grace.
Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes when, year after year, the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace [The Shaking of Foundations, p. 163].
Tillich sees Christ crucified as the central or climactic point at which we witness the abolition of the separation of existence from essence. Jesus’ final act of self-negation exhibits the harmony of all being, providing us with the means par excellence of our own salvation. Jesus consistently refuses to slide into a condition of existential estrangement; he consciously and deliberately turns aside from unbelief, hubris, and concupiscence; and in his final surrender of himself on Calvary he transcends even the general negatives of human existence, finitude, and anxiety. It is the recognition of the New Being in this dramatic narrative that is symbolically captured for us in the story of the resurrection.
What was actualized in Jesus may be experienced by those who participate by faith in the power of this New Being. As Bernard Martin describes it:
By participating, through faith, in the power of this New Being man finds his life transformed. The marks of his estrangement begin to give way to their opposites, and its consequences begin to lose their character as unredeemed evils. Man now accepts his finitude and the negatives inherent in it without rebellion. As a result, hope, instead of despair, becomes his final attitude [Paul Tillich’s Doctrine of Man, Nisbet, 1966, p. 173].
No one can doubt that Tillich writes about these themes with a great earnestness and desire for relevance. At the same time, however, we must admit that his analysis of man’s need and his interpretation of biblical soteriology carry him a long way from any position that could seriously claim to rest on the teaching of the Bible. When the biblical category of sin is translated into the tension between essence and existence, the traditional doctrines of the Creation and the Fall become confused and we are drawn into the Greek metaphysicians’ fatal identification of finite existence and evil. Although Tillich does identify these ontologically, he distinguishes them logically. But this only exposes the inevitable Parmenidean drift toward an impersonal monism implicit in his ontology. When Tillich describes salvation in the same ontological categories (as a unification of essence and existence in the New Being), he gives further evidence that the biblical preference for discussing sin and salvation in terms of personal relationships has been sacrificed on the altar of a philosophical idealism that is incurably impersonal and monistic.
It is not at all surprising that within this system personal categories are in constant danger of eclipse; where they are used one wonders what real justification can be found for them. Their source is clear enough—they are biblical; but their compatibility with Tillich’s philosophical assumptions defies demonstration. It cannot, therefore, be a source of amazement that in his theological expositions Tillich neglects the spiritual exercise of prayer, so prominent in biblical religion. As Ferré observes,
God for him is no seer who created the whole, who foresaw the needs of the world, and who works purposefully with each person and event. There is a nisus, yes; a lure, yes; but no purposing providence and no history as well as no total goal towards which history moves. He thus came closer to Aristotle with his entelechies than to the Christian faith with its decisive stress on eschatology. This lack of the ultimate of history as well as the intimacy of religious relations … undermines the meaning and reality of worship. The Christian view and practice of prayer in the proper sense has to be abandoned. His theology, if pursued in consistent honesty, would revolutionize the whole religious atmosphere as well as all its practices. Tillich simply cannot be put within the framework of Christian theology and life. His thought belongs within a different Gestalt [Paul Tillich, Retrospect and Future, p. 15].
The vast gulf that divides the theology of Paul Tillich from the thought of the Bible cannot, we believe, be described in terms of essence and existence; it is rather the gap between error and truth! Nels Ferré, writing in the volume mentioned above, deserves the last word: “In intellectual honesty a person is Christian or Tillichian but he cannot be both.”
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