Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Is Paul Tillich Too Hard to Teach?

After yesterday's session in my course on "Modern Christian Thought," I wondered if Paul Tillich's theology is too difficult to teach to undergraduates. Called the "apostle to the intellectuals," Tillich sought to postulate essential truths of Christianity in the modern world.

After earning a PhD at the University of Breslau in 1910 for his thesis on Schelling, he served as a chaplain during WWI. He returned from the battlefields to discover that his wife had an affair with his best friend that resulted in the birth of a child. Divorcing his first wife, he remarried and went on to teach at the Universities of Berlin, Marburg, and Frankfurt. His book, The Socialist Decision (1933), however, caused controversy within the Nazis regime, and so to escape persecution, he fled to America in the same year to teach at Union Theological Seminary.

During his twenty-three years at Union, Tillich established a name for himself through his sermons and publications such as his Systematic Theology (volume one was completed in 1951) and The Courage to Be (1952), which reflected on various aspects of contemporary culture. His fame led to an appointment at Harvard  as University Professor in 1955. He finished his career as Nuveen Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, beginning at 1962. His importance as a leading thinker can be seen in his appearance on the cover of Time on March 16, 1959, and the fact that he was showered with twelve honorary doctorates from major universities in America and Europe. Despite the acclaim that he received as a theologian, however, Tillich was plagued throughout his life with doubts about his own salvation, greatly fearing death. He was a man of paradoxes. While promoting socialism, he reportedly lived an extravagant and promiscuous lifestyle, and although teaching theology, he rarely attended church.

Trying to summarize Tillich's theology is incredibly difficult. He tediously worked towards making a bridge between contemporary culture and Christian doctrines. But in order to accomplish his goal, he offered an extraordinarily intricate theological system that was built on innovative concepts such as his "Method of Correlation" and God as "Ground of Being." Adding to the difficulty in grasping his terminology, he advocated a symbolic understanding of Christianity that focused on existential ontology. Tillich believed that ontology was useful to theology in the questions that could be raised about God from a philosophical standpoint. As individuals became curious about their status as human beings in relationship to God, they realize that they are finite. To find meaning in the world, one is pointed toward the supreme "ground of being,"  which holds all of life together.

According to Tillich, we can discover "the Word of God," or divine revelation, not by studying propositional truths, but in events and experiences that take place through different media, such  as nature, history, individuals, and speech. While some have claimed that Tillich was a pantheist, who claimed that God is in everything, it probably more accurate to describe him as a panentheist, who believed that everything is in God. The difference is that the latter emphasizes the prominence of God rather than material substances. Also, by advocating panentheism, Tillich could maintain his dual emphasis on God's transcendence (as infinitely transcending the world) and immanence (the world is a part of God).

Tillich taught that God should not be understood as an independent being that is separate from the universe. Instead, he postulated that God is the unconditional element that is experienced with the universe. He said that humans come to terms with this unconditional element when we witness beauty in art or music, for instance. It is "unconditional" in that while we can recognize the presence of God at times, we cannot know for certain the way that the mind interprets God independent of our experiences of ordinary events that take place in life. According to Tillich, when we experience this unconditional element, we often try to interpret this element by calling it "God." But when we do this, we are inadvertently placing limitations upon the element within our mind. In this way, we as finite human beings are limiting God to categories of our experience that are constrained by time and space. Tillich argues that God is both immanent and transcendent in that God is present in our mind, but cannot be entirely grasped. The importance of religion for Tillich then is in its value in helping us to find a deeper meaning in life.

Traditional stories in the Bible about the fall of Adam and Eve, and even Jesus, therefore should be interpreted symbolically. It is not necessary to believe in a literal Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Rather, this story in Genesis is about the predicament of humanity in not finding meaning in life. Humans long for a "new being" who can help us find purposeful existence instead of despairing of our current state. Tillich positions Christ as this "new being" who symbolically guides to authentic living. For Tillich, it doesn't matter if a literal Jesus Christ walked the earth, died on a cross, or rose again. Instead, the value of Jesus for believers is how he provides an example for us on how to come to terms with our own existential reality.

Going forward, I'll have to rethink how to bring in Tillich's theology in my course on "Modern Christian Thought." While he is incredibly important as a modern thinker, he is arguably the most difficult person to teach. 

No comments: