Monday, June 21, 2010

New Insights into Being Itself

Summary of the view that emerges from Tillich’s Ontology

In looking back over the phrases Tillich uses we can piece together an idea of this concept of God as “being itself. We can group the phrases into two kinds, positive and negative. Positive of course in the sense of “power of being” and so forth, negative in terms of the things he says being itself is not. One might object how can we make affirmations when god is beyond our understanding? Well, hopefully Tillich is not beyond our understanding and this is about trying to understand Tillich. I don’t think that’s the same try to understand God. Is it? Most of these are found in Systematic Theology vol 1 unless noted.


Not a “thing”
Not exists
Not an abstraction
Not infinity
Not Platonic
Not form of forms
Not participate in nothingness
Not Universal essence
Not found in totality of beings
Not Pantheistic


Power of being
Power to resist nothingness
Infinite power of being
Power of the ground in all
Ground of being
The ground of the creative process of life
Creative ground of essence and existence
Depth of being
Unconditional power and meaning
Being as being

Start with what being itself is not

The first negative side affirmation is: God is “not a thing.” By this Tillich means God is not on the level of things in creation, not just another object, this coincides with all the positive side affirmations that say God is the basis of all that is. To make an analogy, if one is assigned to way all the objects in a room with a scale of some kind, one does not include the weight of the scale. God is “off scale” for anything we can try to pin down because God is not just another thing in the universe. Thus God is more than just “the most powerful being.” Moreover, belief in God fir this reason is not just adding a fact to the universe. Atheists are always speaking as though God is just adding a fact, there’s this one additional existing thing, “God.” That’s why they tend to think that empirical scientific evidence can rule out God, or that it’s so terribly crushing that we don’t have scientific evidence of God. That’s also why Tillich thought that was totally unimportant. One cannot measure the basis of measurement. The second negative side affirmation is like unto the first, “not exist.” This, as discussed earlier in the chapter, has led many of unwary observers to conclude that Tillich did not believe in God. God not existing and God not being are two very different things. Tilliched reserved “existence” for contingent things. God is not a “thing” and God is not contingent. We can’t measure God by the standards of any thing, because God si the basis of all things, but God is not a thing. God is above the level of mere existence, on the order of being itself.

Tillich specifically repudiates the idea that God is an abstraction. I am not convinced that abstractions don’t have any reality or that they don’t refer to realities, but God is not an abstraction in any case. In the sense that atheists try to tie God down to abstraction they mean a generalized summary of an average of some physical thing projected into a hypothetical amalgam. So they imagine God is just a mean average of all things or something of that nature. Tillich tells us this is not the case. God is a concrete reality and the reality that makes all reality possible. God is not “infinity.” God is not to be identified with an abstract concept that is more or less mathematical. God is infinite, but God is not infinity. There is but one God, yet God is not the number one. The point is God is not on a level with mathematics, lacking any concrete existence but existing in the mind as a good idea. “Not Platonic,”
“Not form of forms.” Plato envisioned the idea of the One, the “form” in which all the forms existed. This is not the Christian God. As Tillich says, the one is bound to the form inexorably. A God who is the form of forms has no choice but to be the form of forms, and thus becomes another “thing” although the superior thing. We take note St Augustine put the forms in the mind of God. Rather than convert the Christian God into the form of forms, he turned the Platonic forms into ideas in God’s mind. [see Augustine  ] It’s tempting to think of God in that way, the form of forms, because that would explain why God seems to be removed from concrete perceptions. But this is an unsatisfactory solution as it just brings up the same question again and turns God into a frozen sort of dead end that dominates God rather than explains the problem. Another negative side affirmation is that God does “not participate in nothingness.” This is in reference to the dialectical aspects of reality. Tillich saw a dialectical relationship between being and nothingness in which “the beings” participate. God does not participate in this dialectical relationship. Tillich does hint at a social construct of God as dialectic where the concrete being itself meets the human construct of gods and the notion of deity is used to describe the creator and numenal aspects of Being itself (see above where we discuss dialectic in being and nothingness). But that deals with human perception. In God’s actuality God is above the level of this dialectic and is pure being, does not participate in nothingness. We will discuss Tillich’s concept of a dialectical God further in the next chapter.

There are three negative side affirmations that pertain to pantheism: “Not Universal essence,” “Not found in totality of beings,” “Not Pantheistic.” There are two kinds of pantheism in general, the first kind I will discuss is daubed by Tillich as “not true pantheism” but I can tell you most message board opponents of Christianity calling themselves “pantheistic” will disagree. That is the version that says God is the essence of all things, the abstracted amalgam of everything that is. God the collection of he world as a whole. Wether true pantheism or not, this is not the concept Tillich has of God and he repudiates it specifically. This is what he means by “not universal essence” or “not found in the totality of beings.” When he says “not pantheistic” he means the other kind, because he’s already nixed the first kind, the “other kind” (what he calls “true pantheism”) is sort of a personification or deification of nature. There’s a power of nature, a collection of laws of nature and that collection is revered in the way a god is revered. Though Tillich describes God as “the power of being” he does not mean the power of nature alone. Tillich reject both forms of pantheism.

What being itself is

The picture we glean form Tillich’s work is that God is power, but not just any power. God is not a force like electricity; God is foundational to all things. The better analogy would be the laws of nature or the dialectic or the foundation of reality. Three of these positive side affirmations about God have the term power in them; of being, to resist nothingness. But these analogies of foundation, dialectic, laws of nature, are inadequate because they not basic enough and they are too finite and limited. The “basis of all reality” would be the most apt description. But what kind of “basis” is this, that we call “God?” It’s a creative power, but not to be thought of in the sense of a power such electricity that would be to make God out to be a “thing.” The first negative side affirmation is “not a thing.” Power of being implies the force of the enabling power in the process of being, that which enables all things to be; the idea of the power to resist nothingness is a way of saying this and reinforces he idea. But this is a power more like gravity than like electricity in that it’s mysterious, we can control it and its in everything, the basis of everything. Another phrase suggests this power of being is “infinite.” The third “power” phrase is “power of the ground in all…” This is what tells us its’ more than just a force like electricity but is much more foundational. The term “ground” here links to power and is found in several terms.

As already discussed, ground has several implications. It not only implies a foundation or a basis, but is used in depth psychology to indicate the overall collection of concepts and images from which the psyche draws it’s understanding. Ground implies depth, it implies a complex set of images beneath the surface. The ground of being is not to be confused with just the fact that things exist, but with the depths of ontology, the complex nature of what it means to be. Power of the ground in all refers to the universal complexity and depth that all beings share in force of the active nature of being. Being is “on” it’s constructive, it’s an act of taking part in reality, the power of the ground is the force of this act shared by all beings. Thus the image that emerges for me in relation to God is one of a foundational reality that brings into being created order and charges it with the force to be rather than to fade out, and gives it meaning and implication and fortifies the quality of it’s being. It is the source (source implies depths and reserves) out which emerges all that is. Creative Ground of essence and existence. This “force” this “ground” is not only the source out which comes not only the basic physical existence of things (the beings) but the basis of their natures, of all nature. In this sense the basic concept of “ground of being” seems like a short hand embodying all of these concepts. If this is true, and if the “itself” in being itself is synonymous with the ground in ground of being, then it seems being itself is an even shorter short hand for the same thing. It’s really more like these phrases are short hands for all these terms, and for the negative terms and the whole Systematic Theology volume one. “Being as Being” is too contextualized a phrase to include in this description. I think what’s being said there is that God is not the fact of things existing, not the surface factual account of “things” but the pure basis of the act of participation in reality.

In A History of Christian Thought he says some things that are very interesting even though they are just little phrases in passing as he discusses the great controversies in Christian doctrine. In discussing Sabellius, for example, he says “he (Saellius) is saying that they (3 persons of Godhead) are all Homuoosios. That is, they all have the same essence, the same divine power of being.”[History67-68] It seems, therefore, that the concept he’s working with is really quite akin to that of essence. Power of being is really some form of essence or other. In speaking of Monarchian and sabellian theologians he speaks of their doctrinal creeds and how they did double duty as mystical statements, “it was the mystical intuition of essences, of powers of being.” [History 68 ] Apparently power of being is the same as essence. Whatever this concept means, one thing we can say it surely means is that there’s more to a thing than just the fact that it exists. Being itself is not a short had for Tillih’s alleged “atheism.” If we take this as a clue this connection between being itself and essence, we might get more insight in to what he means by the term. If this seems like an unsupported claim, twice in his critique of the ontological argument he contrasts and opposes the phrase “the existence of God” with his counter phrase “the creative ground of essence and existence,” clearly in that context this phrase represents his view, “being itself.” Tillich was an expert in the thinking of the middle ages. For him the ideas of that time still lived, and the translated them into modern speech, reductionists of today are masked in the references to “nominalists.” (see Intro chapter). Tillich also read essence into his understanding of existentialism. In the history of philosophy being and subjestance (essence) are known to go together as terms describing the same thing. John of Damascus says: “Being is the common name for all things which are. It is divided into substance and accident. Substance is the principle of these two because it has existence in itself and not in another. Accident, on the other hand, is that which cannot exist in itself but is found in the substance.”[St. John of Damascus: Writings, 14.] Despite the quant ancient concepts of essence and accident, the essentialism now regarded as a disproved fairy tale, the identification between being and essence can be understood in modern terms.

Tillich says that existentialism can’t stand alone. It must have something to play off of. Existentialism is basically a revolt and so it must rebel against something.

Often I have been asked if I am an existentialist theologian. My answer is always short, I say “fity fifty” this means for me essentialism and existentialism belong together. It is impossible to be a pure essentialist if one is personally in the human situation and not sitting on the throne of God as Hegel implied he was doing when he constructed world history as coming to an end in principle in his philosophy this is the metaphysical arrogance of pure essentialism. For the world is still open to the future and we are not on the throne of God…on the other hand a pure existentialism is impossible because to describe existence one must use language. Language uses universals. In using universals language is by its very nature essentialist and cannot escape it. All attempts to reduce language to mere noises or utterances would bring man back to the animal level upon which universals do not exist. Animals cannot express universals. Man can and must express his encounter with the world in terms of universals. Therefore there is an essentialist framework in his mind. Existentialism is possible only as an element within that framework.[History, 541]

I think we can equate roughly being itself with what they were talking about as homosious
“Substance,” or “essence,” as it is known in the Trinitarian and Christological controversies. No doubt Tillich translates this into modern idioms thorough German philosophy. In a modern idiom essence becomes universals. The concept of essence or substance, homosious relates to the Platonic forms. We see the connection in the quotation above where it emerges in modern parlance as the essentialism that underlies existentialism (not to say that Tillich thought existentialism is Platonic). The Greek idea is that substance is that which makes something what it is. The substance of a horse is four hoved legs, a main, a tail a long narrow face a sturdy body. This quality is exemplified in all the particular horses because they all participate in the universal horse, which is the Platonic form. Tillich rejects Platonism as I have said. Christianity never included the forms, never turned God into a form, but it did barrow the concept of substance in explaining the nature of the divine and the Christological problem, the deity of Christ. I will say a lot more about that dispute in church history in the next chapter. But there is a connection between this idea of the essence of the divine such as was used in the Trinitarian doctrine and the modern expression of the essentialist underpinning of ideas in the modern world.

In his critique of the ontological argument Tillich says that the scholastics were right when they asserted that in God there is no difference between essence and existence. What this means is for existing objects (contingencies) in nature to be is to be a certain thing. What something is is a matter of its participation in being as the thing it is. They don’t have a reference to the forms, God replaced the forms (Augustine placed them in the mind of God) but they do have the essence, and the essence of a thing is the form it takes as it participates in the act of existing (which is an Aristotelian idea). But because God is eternal, because he is the source of all being, he is not on the level of existing things but is the basis of all that is, God’s act of being crosses paths with the essence or substance of what he is, his essence his is “being.” To be for us, contingent beings, is to be a certain things, to be for God is to be God. Or as my brother puts this “being has to be.” Tillich’s view about how the scholastics abandoned their view and contradicted themselves by making God arguments will be dealt with in the chapter on the traditional arguments. This concept of God’s essence is his being is very important because it gives us a clue as to what “being itself” is really about. It’s a way of saying the opposite of “a being.” It’s a way of saying God is the primary aspect of what is, of being, and in that sense embodies and defines the very nature of what being is.
John Macquarrie, though normally a Tillich ally, opposes being as either substance or universals.

It must be denied that being can be equated with substance. Oupkoeimenon, [Greeke term] or substratum times supposed to underline the phenomena characteristics of beings….it cannot be equated with being because it is above all a static idea, having thinghood as its model. We have approached the idea of being through existence, rather than thinghood. This does not mean, however, that we are opposing a purely dynamic idea to the static notion of substance. Just as existence and selfhood imply both stability and dynamism so the word being (we call it , significantly, a verbal noun) has a double meaning, suggesting the act or energy of existing and also the existent entity in which the act expresses and manifests itself. The essence of being is precisely the dynamic “letting be”…of the beings.[109]

This notion of “being lets be” is one of Macquarrier’s unique contributions to the understanding of existential ontology. His denial of being as substance is seemingly contradicted, or at least tempered by his admission that there are two sides to the coin. He was probably just trying to prevent a too extreme identification of being with substance that might leave the concept tainted with the stigma of being ‘static.” In modern theology, colored as it is by process thought, that would be the theological kiss of death for the idea. As we see above, however, being is made up of two aspects, according to John of Damascus: essence (substance) and accidents. These are he two dimensions that Macquarrie speaks to, a dynamic relation of the thing itself in its state of being what it is, and the act of existing in which it participates, that would be the “accident” of it in scholastic terms. This same dynamism is discussed by Tillich who points out above that existentialism must be aware of the two aspects. The accidental side, the side that goes at it from existence as Macquarrie says, and in saying that very phrase he admits to the flaw in his argument, is not limited only to “the beings” (contingencies—the creatures on the level of existence) but is the case for being itself as well. God is engaging in an act, not to use the term “existing” since god is nto one “the beings” but being itself is a dynamic and thus contains both aspects. Those aspects must be all the way down, they can’t be limited just to the aspect of being in which the creatures are “let be” but in the never nature of being itself. What he means by “letting be” or his phrase “being let’s be” is the same thing Gilson is saying when he speaks “to be is to be a certain thing,” or the act of existing because it is this particular act is of the substance that it is. There are these two sides to a dynamic and you can’t separate one form the other. Being “let’s be” is the same thing Tillich is saying when he speaks of “the power of being.” The power of being to “resist nothingness” as he says is the letting be, that is being allows the beings to come into and go out of existence. The going out involves after life, not to say that either Tillich or Macquarrie deny after life, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Depth of being, the quotes at the first of the chapter form the Shaking of the Foundations really gives an adequate picture of this phrase. The most important thing to understand about it is that it tells us that God is not merely about the fact of things existing. The mere fact that things exist is only surface, there is much more too the story of reality than that; we will transcend things and facts and move into the realm of meaning, what things mean, and the realm of relationships, the relationship of one thing to another and the relationship of these relationships to the whole and of the whole to the basis of reality. The picture that emerges of the totalizing nature of God is indicated by the phrase: “unconditional power and meaning.” It is the unconditional refers to the transcendence of God above all things such that God is totally beyond our understanding, to be experienced but not pinned down, not images ore references or described. All we can describe, and that poorly is what we experience of God. Unconditional means it cannot be described or imaged except metaphorically. All religious language is metaphorical. We can only speak in that way, beyond the metaphor there is a never ending stream of more metaphors that relate back to a truth and a power that underlies all reality. The meaning is derived from this fact, that this unconditional foundation of reality is the basis of not only all that is, but all that could be of all potentiality. This is what Paul means by saying God is “all in all.” From this basis derives the nature of meaning, what meaning is, the meaning of things and the meaning of each individual life as it is lived in relation to this power of being. The soul is a metaphor for the relationship of the overall life of the believer and the direction it takes in relation to its creator. Thus we are either “lost souls,” or “saved souls,” but we ARE souls, we do not have souls we are souls! To the extent that our souls are saved souls we have meaning because meaning is derived from the relationship we have with or to the ground of being. But on this last point about souls and meaning I’m moving beyond the Tillichanity to my own theology.

It’s worth noting that the way he tells it the term g-o-d is applied to the basis of reality by relational situation, by that I mean because the mythological concept of a god (big man on mountain throwing thunder bolts, coincides in the human psyche with the basis of reality, being itself, the concept of “God” marks the way we speak about the basis of reality. God is not God because he’s a big man with powers, or because he’s the king of the universe, or because he is the most powerful being, but he’s God due to the relation that “he” has to us as creator; power of being to resist nothingness and basis of reality. God is God because God is the basis of all things and of all potential things. In discussing consciousness and God we will see that the only way we can really think about God as father without either literalizing the metaphor or clinging to the realization that it is a metaphor and underrating the sense of God’s own will, is to understand qualities of personality as relational to our awareness. In other words we don’t need to know or explain that is God like our father, we know that God related to us as a father in many respects. All analogical langue has both like and not like aspects. Thus God is like a father in some ways and also in other ways not like a father. There have to be spaces between God and the world or God becomes part of the horror and evil of the nature of life in the world. So far this picture we are painting of Tillich’s view of God, does not tell us much. It is not ever going to tell us the kinds of things the Atheist straw God makers want to know: what is God made of, how can he be non spatial when everything we observe is spatial? How can God be conscious if he doesn’t have a physical brain? These are the kinds of questions one asks when one lacks mind, O, pardon me, I mean when one lacks a belief in the mind in one’s belief system. Nevertheless this picture is not adequate without the benefit of the negative side affirmations.

So all we can do to summarize is to paint more pictures of what we think Tillich is saying. It profoundly disturbs scientifically minded people to think of belief is something that can’t be measured or charted or demonstrated in a laboratory. To many these are the forms of knowledge the only way to “prove” anything. Belief in God is not about words on paper, it’s not about charts and graphs. It’s about the actual experience of something of which we cannot say. It is about experience of love, power, and spirit. The view we glean from Tillich is still going to be a metaphor, but we can sharpen it to a clear picture. I am looking for the clearest and most concise expression I can find. When someone asks “what do you mean being itself?” I can’t hand them a copy of Tillich’s Systematic Theology Volume One.
Being itself is the foundational power that makes the difference between something or nothing. It is the basis upon which all things cohere, or exist, or have their being. In Being itself the beings live, move, and have their being. This basic power of being, this “on” switch that makes to be, is in all things, but not limited to all things. It does not create a divine nature within the physical, but it does mean that the presence of God is all encompassing. God is “all in all,” the basis of all things, the basis of potential. This power of being is complex, it cannot be understood just by looking at the surface fact of things existing, it is the basis upon which things exist. It’s not blindly impersonal but is transcendent of our understanding. It is the unconditioned which cannot be described, understood, dissected, pinned down or recreated by guys in white lab coats. Where it coincides with our cultural constructs of deity it is “God.” Where it transcends our understanding it is the “God beyond God.” Being itself is a short hand phrase for the depth of being and the role the power of being plays as the basis of all things. As the unconditioned it can only be spoken of in metaphor and analogy. It can be experienced it can be known on a personal basis. Being itself is a short hand phrase that stands for the basis of all reality and the power that makes it be, and the way it coincides with cultural constructs of the divine to from the basic religious understanding.

We have this huge amalgam of philosophical sounding crap and that’s we have. We do not have a clear, concise, or meaningful concept of what “being itself” means. Actually we have three clear and concise ideas, which tend to make for a muddle rather than one clear concise idea. Those are three are:

(1) The unconditioned

Primary use of the phrase is to guard the mystery, to speak of God in such a way as to remove the literalized metaphor of the father, the kind, the big guy in the sky. Tillich is careful to point out that phare is a metaphorical way of speaking; otherwise he would be literlaizing “being itself.” That would not be unconditioned, that would condition it.

(2) The basis of reality, power of being (Macquarrie’ phrase “primordial being.” )

Multiple concepts under this:
a. the basic thing that being is, perhaps “the first being” except that this contradicts Tillch’s view that God is not “a being.”
b. The “principle” upon which all that is comes to be and coheres.
c. Eternal being
d. Ontologically necessary being.
e. Essence of the divine

(3) Depth or reality, or meaning.

Being itself is the reality of being beneath the surface of the mere fact of existing things.

What we are left with what might be coherent but it lacks the initial sense of some special existential quality to being that if only we knew the concept we would know God has to exist. It removes the sense of the easy formulation:

God is being itself
We know that being must be
Therefore, God must be.

Yet Tillich replaces that with the claim that if we understand that being has depth we understand that God is real. What does he mean by “depth of being?” To answer that question above I stuck in a summary of Tillich’s entire ontology form Systematic 1. To distill that to a quick phrase, at the risk of over simplifying the depth of being is something like inherent meaning in the nature of reality. This inherent meaning is something we can intuit in the nature of being when we consider the death of loved one or look back over our lives or ask ourselves if faith was worth the struggle. It’s not a quantitative analysis that could be demonstrated and proved. But it can be grasped intuitively and I would like to think by anyone.

The problem is that in order to provide a clear concise meaning to the phrase we have to open up and understand the mystery the phrase is designed to hide. Since the phrase functions primarily to set up a barricade to protect the unconditioned aspect of the God concept then we really can’t open up the phrase to a one liner without over simplification. But this is the function of the phrase, not its meaning. The phrase is mean tto convey the unconditioned nature of God not to explicate it, so that aspect is not really getting at the meaning of “being itself.” The only way to understand the phrase without either reducing it to some “thing” in creation and conditionalizing it, or turning it into a short hand code for a whole theology that can barely be continued in a whole book, is to go back to the concept of essence. Being is essence, being itself is essence of what? Essence itself? It’s the crossing paths of being and essence in God’s eternal nature. God’s essence is his being, or to say it another way, since modern people are loath to use terms like “essence,” since God is “primordial being” (Macquarie) the basis of all that is or could be, the foundation, at the same the time the first of act of being something rather than nothing, the basis of all that could possibly come after it, God is the thing itself that being is, God captures the nature of what it means to be in an eternal and primordial way; all else that is or could be is only tangential to that primordial aspect of being, a further development in the story of being, one that depends upon the primordial aspect completely for its own existence. We can ask “what does it mean to be?” For us humans it means to be a creature of God. God is the first and eternal expression of what it means to be.


St. John of Damascus: Writings, New York: Fathers of the Church Ink, Frederic H. Chase Jr. Trans. Roy Joseph Deferrari editorial director, 1958, 14.

John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 1965

Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology volume I, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, 10-11.

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