Beyond Naturalism and Supranaturalism Paul Tillich's Existential Theology

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  • Beyond Naturalism and Supranaturalism: Paul Tillich's Existential Theology

    Are you of one mind about the manner in which you will carry out your occupation, or is your mind continually divided because you wish to be in harmony with the crowd? Do you stand firmly behind your offer, not obstinately, not sullenly, but eternally concerned...?

    --Sren Kierkegaard

    The classic arguments for the existence of God, such as the ontological version offered

    by Anselm of Canterbury, or the teleological type famously denounced by David Hume, tend to

    dominate much contemporary philosophical dialogue concerning the validity, and thus the

    relevance, of theism. Typically, both theists and atheists agree that the absence of an existent

    God has direct consequences for human life: many atheists would tout humanity's liberation

    from oppressive religious superstitions and the hope to be found in the natural sciences; while

    the theist would counter with the high cost of such freedom and mourn the loss of moral

    foundations in the wake of godlessness. It is thus striking for Paul Tillich, a theologian who

    considered himself a committed Lutheran, to claim that God does not exist, indeed, that to

    argue for the existence of God is to deny him (ST I 205). Tillich's so-called atheism has been

    varyingly praised and criticized by both philosophers and theologians, but several unanimous

    questions tend to appear in such discussions: If God does not exist, what does Tillich mean by

    using the word 'God' at all? Is it even possible to speak intelligibly about what does not exist?

    Any possible answers to these questions will necessarily penetrate to the heart of Tillich's

    theological method, his doctrine of God, and to the central theme underlying his life's work: the

    futility of the conflict between naturalism and supranaturalism. While I will remain mostly

    neutral to the varied interpretations and criticisms of these specific elements of Tillich's

    theology, I want to show that this latter motif, the critique of both naturalism and

    supranaturalism, underlies his general methodology and gives rise to his particular doctrine of

    God. Moreover, I hope to show that although, in the final analysis, his positive doctrine of God

  • may be somewhat unclear and confusing, his theological program provides a successful critique

    of two inadequate ways of understanding the God-world relationship.

    Tillich's earliest academic achievement was the completion and publication of two

    dissertations on the philosophy of F.W.J. Schelling, and his engagement with this German

    Idealist proved to be of lasting influence. Yet even as he took these initial steps into the world of

    philosophy and academic theology, he had already developed a distaste for both naturalism and

    supranaturalism; the first dissertation, for instance, advanced a critique of each using Schelling's

    philosophy of religion as a foil. Though Tillich wrote and lectured on a huge number of topics

    over his lifetime--including politics, art, science, religion, and philosophy--nearly everything he

    wrote could potentially be related to this theme. Almost fifty years after his initial dissertation,

    in the introduction to the second volume of his Systematic Theology, he recapitulates the main

    ideas expressed in volume one under the heading Beyond Naturalism and Supranaturalism. He

    notes that this theme is especially basic to the ideas to be developed in the second [volume]

    (ST II 5). The statement reveals that Tillich aimed squarely at overcoming this false dichotomy

    as he worked out not only his doctrine of God, but his entire theological method. As bookends

    on his prolific authorship, both his initial dissertation and culminating Systematic Theology

    represent the same lifelong battle. One commentator has described Tillich's thought as Midas-

    like, turning whatever it touched into the gold of his systematic vision (Thomas 26). It might

    be added that to be incorporated into Tillich's systematic vision was to be intimately involved in

    the radical critique of naturalism and supranaturalism. But what did Tillich believe he was

    criticizing? In other words, how did he understand these two theories?

    According to one brief characterization in his Systematic Theology the supranaturalist

  • separates God as a being, the highest being, from all other beings,

    alongside and above which he has existence. In this position he

    has brought the universe into being at a certain moment (five

    thousand or five billion years ago), governs it according to plan,

    directs it towards an end, interferes with its ordinary processes in

    order to overcome resistance and fulfill his purpose, and will bring

    it to consummation in a final catastrophe. (ST II 6)

    With this statement we see the significance of the prefix 'supra,' meaning 'above' or 'over,' in

    relation to this model of the monotheistic deity. A spatial metaphor is at work here, and it

    suggests that the relationship between God and other beings may be mapped on a vertical

    continuum, where God exclusively occupies the highest position, but nonetheless may be said to

    exist as we would claim that a person, an animal, or a piece of fruit exists. The mistake Tillich

    observes is that God, conceived as a being, occupies the same plane as other existent entities.

    Gods transcendence represents his quantitatively greater status, rather than what Tillich calls

    the ground of being, a qualitatively different sort of idea. He reformulates this in Theology of

    Culture: A God about whose existence or non-existence you can argue is a thing besides others

    within the universe of existing things (TC 5) This makes a big difference, for instance, in the

    way one conceives God's action in the world. As a being alongside others beings, God must

    interfere with the so-called natural course of events.

    Thus the naturalist position is largely a reaction to that of the supranaturalist, and to that

    extent is reliant and parasitic upon it. Rejecting the notion that there is an existent higher being

    who interferes with the course of events, the naturalist identifies God with the universe, with its

    essence or with special powers within it. In other words, God is the name for the power and

  • meaning of reality. Notice that Tillich's use of the word 'naturalism' deviates somewhat from

    our modern usage: he refers to a rationalistic pantheism associated with Spinoza, rather than the

    atheistic movement that claims reality is nothing more than material phenomena. The difficulty

    with this theory, theologically speaking, is that the word 'God' becomes semantically

    superfluous, and may simply be replaced by an impersonal term such as 'universe' or 'cosmos'.

    Further, it fails to address what Tillich considers the function of religion to be in the first place:

    answering those existential questions that address lifes meaning. Neither of these positions was

    satisfactory to Tillich, and so he posited his own doctrine of God which he called ecstatic or

    self-transcendent. But the critique goes deeper than simply offering another alternate doctrine

    of God. Instead, the very structure of his Systematic Theology presupposes a rejection of these

    two doctrines. We will first consider the salient aspects of his method, and then show its

    subsequent relevance for understanding Tillichs God beyond the God of theism. (ST II 6-10)

    Tillich considered everything that one could rightfully call theology systematic, though

    construed in a specific sense of the word. Anticipating suspicions that he was advocating an

    empirical-inductive or a metaphysical-deductive approach, Tillich distinguishes a more broad

    sense of the term: It designates a whole of propositions which are consistent, interdependent,

    and developed according to a definite method (PTM 23). The name he gives to his method is

    correlation, though he does not claim it to be his unique invention, but observes that classical

    theology, in varying degrees, has utilized it implicitly (ST I 61). Tillich distinguishes three

    senses of correlation in his theology (correspondence of data, logical interdependence of

    concepts, and real interdependence) which all play an integral role toward fulfilling the central

    purpose of theology: to demonstrate that the symbols of the Christian faith answer those

    existential questions of ultimate concern (60). In this way Tillich believes theology to be

  • apologetic. The phrase ultimate concern is a crucial one and provides a constant reminder

    that always in theology two structural elements are present and must be held together: 1) an

    absolute, final, ultimate form, independent of passion and circumstance, and 2) a concern that is

    the highest passion, which is existential in character and phenomenological in origin. Another

    way of stating this point is that theology should both articulate the eternal message as revealed

    by God, and interpret this message relative to the current existential situation.

    As Tillich describes his method of correlation, he reflects on three alternative ways that

    theologians past and present have sought to relate the contents of the Christian faith to those

    question that arise from human existence and the experience of being. The first two derive from

    giving pre