The Dynamics of Faith

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith. And this is the first step we have to make in order to understand the dynamics of faith.

– Paul Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (1957)

Paul Johannes Tillich (August 20, 1886 – October 22, 1965) was a German-American Christian existentialist philosopher and Lutheran Protestant theologian who is widely regarded as one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century.

Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence … If [a situation or concern] claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim … it demands that all other concerns … be sacrificed.

Among the general public, he is best known for his works The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), which introduced issues of theology and modern culture to a general readership. In academic theology, he is best known for his major three-volume work Systematic Theology (1951–63) in which he developed his “method of correlation”, an approach of exploring the symbols of Christian revelation as answers to the problems of human existence raised by contemporary existential philosophical analysis.

Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is the most centered act of the human mind. It is not a movement of a special section or a special function of man’s total being. They all are united in the act of faith. But faith is not the sum total of their impacts. It transcends every special impact as well as the totality of them and it has itself a decisive impact on each of them.

Two of Tillich’s works, The Courage to Be (1952) and Dynamics of Faith (1957), were read widely, including by people who would not normally read religious books. In The Courage to Be, he lists three basic anxieties: anxiety about our biological finitude, i.e. that arising from the knowledge that we will eventually die; anxiety about our moral finitude, linked to guilt; and anxiety about our existential finitude, a sense of aimlessness in life. Tillich related these to three different historical eras: the early centuries of the Christian era; the Reformation; and the 20th century. Tillich’s popular works have influenced psychology as well as theology, having had an influence on Rollo May, whose “The Courage to Create” was inspired by “The Courage to Be”.

[The God of theological theism] 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 the recent tyrants who 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 implications.

Today, Tillich’s most observable legacy may well be that of a spiritually-oriented public intellectual and teacher with a broad and continuing range of influence. Tillich‘s chapel sermons (especially at Union) were enthusiastically received (Tillich was known as the only faculty member of his day at Union willing to attend the revivals of Billy Graham) Tillich’s students have commented on Tillich’s approachability as a lecturer and his need for interaction with his audience. When Tillich was University Professor at Harvard, he was chosen as keynote speaker from among an auspicious gathering of many who had appeared on the cover of Time Magazine during its first four decades. Tillich along with his student, psychologist Rollo May, was an early leader at the Esalen Institute. Contemporary New Age catchphrases describing God (spatially) as the “Ground of Being” and (temporally) as the “Eternal Now,” in tandem with the view that God is not an entity among entities but rather is “Being-Itself”—notions which Eckhart Tolle, for example, has invoked repeatedly throughout his career—were paradigmatically renovated by Tillich, although of course these ideas derive from Christian mystical sources as well as from ancient and medieval theologians such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The separation of faith and love is always a consequence of a deterioration of religion.

The introductory philosophy course taught by the person Tillich considered to be his best student, John Edwin Smith, “probably turned more undergraduates to the study of philosophy at Yale than all the other philosophy courses put together. His courses in philosophy of religion and American philosophy defined those fields for many years. Perhaps most important of all, he has educated a younger generation in the importance of the public life in philosophy and in how to practice philosophy publicly.” In the 1980s and 1990s the Boston University Institute for Philosophy and Religion, a leading forum dedicated to the revival of the American public tradition of philosophy and religion, flourished under the leadership of Tillich’s student and expositor Leroy S. Rouner.

[Faith] transcends both the drives of the nonrational unconsciousness and the structures of the rational conscious…the ecstatic character of faith does not exclude its rational character although it is not identical with it, and it includes nonrational strivings without being identical with them. ‘Ecstasy’ means ‘standing outside of oneself’ – without ceasing to be oneself – with all the elements which are united in the personal center.

Martin Buber criticized Tillich’s “transtheistic position” as a reduction of God to the impersonal “necessary being” of Thomas Aquinas.

Tillich has been criticized from the Barthian wing of Protestantism for what is alleged to be correlation theory’s tendency to reduce God and his relationship to man to anthropocentric terms. Tillich counters that Barth’s approach to theology denies the “possibility of understanding God’s relation to man in any other way than heteronomously or extrinsically”. Defenders of Tillich claim that critics misunderstand the distinction Tillich makes between God’s essence as the unconditional (“das unbedingte”) “Ground of Being” which is unknowable, and how God reveals himself to mankind in existence. Tillich establishes the distinction in the first chapter of his Systematic Theology Volume One: “But though God in his abysmal nature [footnote: ‘Calvin: in his essence’ ] is in no way dependent on man, God in his self manifestation to man is dependent on the way man receives his manifestation.”

Faith as the state of being ultimately concerned implies love, namely, the desire and urge toward the reunion of the separated.

Some conservative strains of Evangelical Christianity believe Tillich’s thought is too unorthodox to qualify as Christianity at all, but rather as a form of pantheism or atheism. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states, “At best Tillich was a pantheist, but his thought borders on atheism.”

In such a state the God of both religious and theological language disappears. But something remains, namely, the seriousness of that doubt in which meaning within meaninglessness is affirmed. The source of this affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness, of certitude within doubt, is not the God of traditional theism but the “God above God,” the power of being, which works through those who have no name for it, not even the name God.


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