Monday, March 03, 2014

Are Atheists Trying to Steal Paul Tilich?

  photo tillich_c1935_zps85f5a40a.jpg

I've been aware for some time that atheists began trying to sell Tillich as an atheist. I have commented on it before on the blog. This time I got into a protracted discussion with atheists on a message board (not CARM--but not different from it atheist wise) they are trying to argue that Tillich was an atheist or that he was at least not a christian and trying to cut Christian belief out. They quote an article by from his blog Camels with Hamers,* see note on authorship below (I have done something on that blogger on Atheist Watch a long time ago) entitled "The Impossible God of Paul Tillich." (Dec 21, 2011).

His writing is highly abstract, so you’ll have to forgive me for using abstract language here.  He is perhaps best known for his idea that God is the ground of being; that is, God is being-itself.  For atheists, Tillich says some interesting things.  Like this: “God does not exist.  He is being-itself beyond essence and existence.  Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him.” (1951: 205)  And this: “It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it.  God is being-itself, not a being.” (1951: 237)
Tillich says he’s a Christian.  But here it’s worth pointing out that Tillich’s “God” is so far from the God of the Bible (and traditional Christian theology) that it’s hard to take his claim of being Christian very seriously.  And Tillich has widely been criticized by Christians as offering a strange new theory of the divine.  Some might say that Tillich was a Christian atheist.  Anyway, here are some relevant points from Tillich:

 That really sounds to me like they are trying to separate out and cut off Tillich and all sophisticated views of God from Christian theology. It's a wrong-headed thing. Tillich said clearly that one cannot understand the God is the depth of being and be an atheist.
The name of infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of our being is God. That depth is what the word God means....For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life itself is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not."--Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations.
 Fincke is saying more than just that Tillich is not a Christian. As we might gather from the title he's saying that his idea of God is self contradictory. To do that he's going to play off of not understanding the deep hard to get issues of Tillich's scholarship. He starts by listing off the things Tillich says that differ from what ordinary Christians say:

 (1) Being itself: not merely the highest thing (which of course they take to be what Christianity is saying).

(2) God is the power of being: That sounds pantheistic to them because they don't really understand pantheism anyway.

(3) Transcendent: how he thinks that the God is not transcendent is beyond me.

He argues that Tillich leads to paganism and asserts (with no support) taht "Tillich is constantly pulling himself back from the brink of paganism." "If God is understood as universal essence, as the form of all forms, he is identified with the unity and totality of finite potentialities, and therefore he has ceased to transcend them.  He has poured all his creative power into a system of forms, and he is bound to these forms.  This is what pantheism means.” (1951: 236)." What we have here is just the ignorance of an atheist who has not studied theology to understand what Christian theology is about. The notion of God as being itself is endorsed by Vatican II. It's even part of the Catechism and that quotes Aquinas to prove it."The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality 'that everyone calls God'."[1]

 it's been endorsed by the Greek Orthodox chruch  and forms the basis of Orthodox Theology since the early centuries of the chruch.

Atheists tend to think that Christianity is just the Bible. But the Christian tradition is living and active. It is not confined to just following Bible verses by wrote like robots following programming, but formulating ideas and explaining and re-explaining as each new generation finds is own seminal problems that confront human experience in their own era. Showing how contemporary problems and their solutions relate to the ancient tradition is the task of the theologian. Theologians relate the timeless metaphors of scripture and ancient tradition to the constructs of their own age and in so doing their theology becomes part of the tradition. The Christian tradition is living and active, it is still growing and God as being itself has became as much a part of Christian theology as some  of the ancient concepts. Theologians throughout history have discussed being itself and they forms a continuity between the ancient Biblical tradition and the growing theological tradition stretching into the contemporary scene.

Eastern Orthodox Church. Timothy Ware wrote a fine book, The Orthodox Church that does a good job of introducing Western Christians to the Eastern Church.[2]
            Ware explains the great schism and how the gulf between east and west continued to grow. He wants to explain the ways in which the east contributed to the gulf. He says that nothing was so radical as the scholastic “revolution” but he lists as the eastern counterpart the Hesychast controversy (pg2). 14th century Byzantium. This involved God’s nature and the method of prayer. To explain the controversy he goes back to history of eastern mystical theology, back to Clement of Alexandria (early third century) and Origen (mid 3d). The Cappadocians, especially Gregory of Nyssa and also Evagrius, a monk in the Egyptian desert (d399) developed the ideas of Clement and Origen. This entire tradition depended upon an apophatic approach, especially as developed by Clement and Gregory. God is beyond our understanding. We cannot speak accurately about God because we can’t understand God and we don’t know if our experiences of God are so very encompassing or just fragmentary. Therefore, the mystics of the Eastern Church use negative language of God rather than positive. That is to say they concern themselves with what God is not, rather than what God is.[3] (63)
“The true knowledge and vision of God consists in this—in seeing that he is invisible, because what we seek lies beyond all knowledge, being wholly separated by the darkness of incomprehensibility.” –Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 11, 163 (377A).

The Height of Negative theology is reached in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite. (unknown writer lived in Syria toward the end of the fifth century). Saint Maximus the Confessor (662) compassed a commentary on these writings and assured their place in the Eastern Church. [4]

He is also an influence on the west, as Ware points out, as Aquinas quotes him heavily in Summa Theologica.  The concept of God as Being itself is ratified by Vatican II and is a major premise of modern Catholic doctrine.[5]

A long list of great theologians from the early centuries of sub apostolic fathers, the period just after the controversies, right up in to modern times, demonstrate a continuity of usage between the Christian tradition as a whole, and the concept of God as being itself. Here's a list of great theologians from Clement of Alexandria to Paul Tillich who embrace God as being itself. All of these guys are bread and butter of Christian theology. This is the heart of the suburbs.

                         Great Theologians

Clement of Alexandria (150-215)
Origen (185-253)
Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)
St.Augustine (13 November 354-28 August 430)
Dionysus The Areopogite ( w/500)
John of Scythopolis (536-550)
Maximus The Confessor (580?-662?)
John of Damascus (676-749)
St.Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)
Martin Luther (1483-1546)
Paul Tillich
Hans Kung
Wolfhart Panennberg
Hans Urs Von Balthasar
John Macquarie (1919-2007)

Two key paragraphs here that must be understood becuase they contain the burnt of Fincke's error. The first one:

Tillich has to pull himself back from this pantheism, and he does it by appealing to God’s transcendence: “It is as wrong to speak of God as the universal essence as it is to speak of him as existing.  If God is understood as universal essence, as the form of all forms, he is identified with the unity and totality of finite potentialities, and therefore he has ceased to transcend them.  He has poured all his creative power into a system of forms, and he is bound to these forms.  This is what pantheism means.” (1951: 236)

the second, the final paragraph of the article:

For Tillich, God is both “the power of being in everything and above everything”.  I’d say that’s absurd – for Tillich, God is both immanent and transcendent.  But it’s impossible to be both immanent and transcendent.   To be sure, if Tillich wants to claim to remain within Christianity, then he’s got to affirm the transcendence of being-itself.  But it makes very little sense to do so.  Much of Tillich’s first volume of Systematic Theology looks like a pantheistic or pagan theology onto which a superficial layer of exhausted Christian ideology is painted.  That paint peels off easily.

In the first paragraph he quotes  Tillich saying God is not universal essence that would mean he's not transcendent, he would just be part of the world and that's it. That would be pantheism. In fact that's one definition of Pantheism. The fact that Tillich doesn't go in for that doesn't mean anything to this guy, he asserts that he's just tearing himself away from the edge but in fact he's telling us why Tillich is not a pantheist. He dubs System 1 pantheism, but what does he have to compere it to? Has he studied Pantheism? Has he ever studied theology. Would he know a Christan theologian if he saw one? Seems pretty clear he doesn't know one when he sees one. So It's the transcendent aspect of God that prevents him from being pantheistic. Then our atheist guide asserts (with no basis in logic or precedent) that it's impossible to be both. How does he know this? Apparently he doesn't know that it's standard classic doctrine of the chruch that God is both.[6]

In the second paragraph, the actual argument of the whole article turns upon the unfounded supposition that something can't be both immanent and transcendent (both in creation and beyond it). That's not a matter of Tillich's theology being un Christain, that's just a matter of nothing having faith to think deeply about the nature of God. So in the final analysis his overall argument is nto about the Christian nature of Tillich's ideas but his lack of acceptance of Christian ideas. Moreover, he says, "To be sure, if Tillich wants to claim to remain within Christianity, then he’s got to affirm the transcendence of being-itself." Not exactly. It's not that being is transcending being but that being transcends just our dimension or contingent temporal aspect of being. What's so hard to believe about that? That would have to be case for the big bang theory to be true. That would have to be the case for the multiverse to be true. These are stock in trade for atheism. God is not transcending being, being (ie God) is transcending (going beyond not contradicting) our area of being (the temporal the contingent). God must do that anyway just to be the creator.

 Moreover, The Greek Orthodox notion of God's energies and essence might also help shed light on the problem. For them God's immanence in the world is God's energies, in other words his power, his actions. So God is acting in the world but the essence of God, the thing that God truly is, is beyond the world. God is not cliamed to be immanent wholly and of himself. He is immanent in the extension of his power.

Typical of atheists to take their own straw God as the true acid test of being a Christian. They forget their understanding of the Christan God is just a dummies made up to look the Christian God so they can attack it. Any time the run into a Christian with a sophisticated concept (they can't answer because it's off script) the first thing they have to do is insist that it's not Christian. That's the only way they can deal with. They can't answer it logically because it doesn't fit their stereotype.

End Notes

*I've been told in private email by a mutual friend that it was actually a guest editorial by Eric Steinhart, but the credits didn't transfer when it was moved to Pathos.

[1] "ways of coming to know God," 34, "part one the Profession of faith," "section one I bleieve, we believe," "chapter one Man's capacity for God,"Catechsim of the Catholic Church, on line (from official Vatican archives).
on this point the catechism quotes Aqinas: 10 St. Thomas Aquinas, STh I,2,3.

[2] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, New York: Penguin books, 1963 (1993 edition).
[3]  Ibid. 63
[4]  Ibid. quotes John of Damascus from On the Orthodox Faith 1,4 (P.G. Xciv, 800b
[6] Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, Thomas A. Carlson Trans. 1991 (original language publication 1982). xxii.
[6]Eugene R. Fairweather, “Christianity and the Supernatural,” in New Theology no.1.  New York: Macmillian, Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman ed. 1964. 235-256. Also published in New Theology No one, edited Martian E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman, NY: Macmillan 1964.,235-256


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Well, in Dan's defense, I know few Christians who would consider Tillich's views to be Christian. Tillich doesn't exactly fit well into a Sola Scriptura view.

Of course, all I know of Tillich is what you've shared, and Dan's post.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Christian doctrine is not decided by majority rule. Most Christians would flunk a test on trinity.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

why are so few reading the blog now? It's only 73 and most of the day is gone. why? It got 200 last Wednesday and over 150 on friday.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

It's Monday, people are busy. ;)

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

too busy to read about Paul Tillich? O come now! what is this nation coming to?

Miles said...

Maybe you should start mentioning panentheism as well in your blog. I know it shows an attachment to labels, but it is good to show the distinction between that and pantheism or classical theism.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Miles I've talked about it before. But probalby a couple of years ago. I guess I will do a piece on it again.

tinythinker said...

Many people who are involved in Christianity draw from the shallow end of the well, where all of the crud, detritus from the surface, and scum tends to collect and float. Some luck out and fixate on a portion that happens to be healthier, but there's still a lot of ignorance of self and of the larger tradition. It takes much more effort to plumb the depths of the soul and of the tradition, whatever ones faith tradition, but especially one like Christianity. That is the real value of saints and theologians, as they point to the existence and the of value of the depths of the soul and of tradition respectively.

Which is why I think of many people as nominally Christian. I don't judge them or their spiritual journey, but they seem to be more interested in the label "Christian" as part of a social identity and cultural ideology (which in and of themselves aren't inherently bad elements of religious life when they are not the focal point), stuck at the surface level of names and distinctions, wherein there is their separate private and sterile (un)holy world and the nasty, messy real world. Totally anti-incarnational and even blasphemous, kind of a banal straight jacket sewn from bits of the spirit/the elect=good, material/the sinners=bad dualistic heresies that have plagued Christianity from its inception and re-emerged throughout the centuries.

Sola Scriptura? It is a oxymoron, wrapped in a contradiction, inside a negation.

As for Christian doctrine and majority rule, there is the concept of the Sensus Fidelium, or sense of the faithful, which can also simple be ascribed to the influence of changing views of people in the pews on a socio-cultural level. Witness the change of attitude toward non-cis gendered and non-heterosexual people at the popular level. Whether driven by the Spirit or cultural shifts, what is commonly and widely believed often becomes (a new spin on) doctrine. Which, given shifts in the demographics of religious belief, doesn't bode well for the evangelical/fundamentalist forms of Protestantism that promote foolishness like Sola Scriptura.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Dave, I really agree with everything you say. I have noting to argue with on that. except that sensus fidelium is a sort of precenident test not a majority rule idea.

Eric Steinhart said...

It was a guest editorial by Eric Steinhart.
I'm Eric Steinhart.