Monday, January 07, 2013

What Have the Atheists Been Doing With Paul Tillich?

Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

......The other day I was answering the atheist attack on CARM that said I don't know anything about Tillich. In looking for online docs about him I found a remarkable thing: atheists are making use of Tillich in one way or another. They either try to reduce him to being a sort of cowardly atheist who couldn't actually admit he didn't believe in God, or they try to just assault his views of God straight out much as the CARM atheists have done for years against my arguments; that's not the image of God in the bible so it's unchristian. I really kind of feel that it's a mark of Tillich's growing popularity among theists and I like to kid myself into thinking I had a lot to do with it becuase of this blog. On the other there's enough of it going around that it's probably time to answer the assertions.
.......First of all another blogger Thomas Adams on  "Without Authority" writes "Was Paul Tillich An Atheist?" Of cousre that article was up in (March 9) 2009 before I ever talked about Tillich on this blog. O well. In any case he quotes some character named Lenard F. Wheat who says that "Tillich's chief claim to fame will be that he fooled a lot of people... Tillich is a complete atheist who lost his belief while completing his higher education. Intellectually he despises Christianity ..." He goes on to deal with Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, atheist gurus, who write that the world of believers can be reduced to fundamentalists are closet atheists who dont have the guts to own up. Thus all the intelligent well educated believers are int he latter category so any true belief is stupidity and atheists don't have to listen to the more rational kind of theist. Having reduced all rational theism to atheism then of cousre Tillich falls in.
......Adams goes on:

As the quote at the top of this post shows, such atheists frequently take aim at Paul Tillich, who represents, for them, the epitome of the "atheist theologian." They've referred to Tillich's theology as "semantic hocus-pocus", "strictly bogus", a "bold masquerade", and "nonsensical hokum and claptrap". But do the charges stick? Was Paul Tillich really an atheist? The following quotes of his would seem to say yes:
"God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him."
"God is the symbol for God"
"The God of theism is dead"
 Apparently he saw atheists taking aim at Tillich back then, thus another cherished illusion is shattered. Still, I've seen a lot of them doing it recently this may a mark of Tillich's rising popularity, regardless of what produced it. Of course in the phrase that God does not exist Tillich is not saying there's no God. To think that he is saying that (in the recent may-lay on CARM some did try to argue this) is a classic mistake and shows immediately that one has not read Tillich. He uses the phrase "exist" in relation to contingent things only.So for Tillich existence is a lesser state than being and denotes dependence upon being. God is not contingent but is being itself. God demarcates the higher state upon which existing thins (which are contingent) depend.
.......An example of an Atheist taking on Tillich straight out is one I've covered on Atheistwatch before, the "Camels with Hammers" blog by  On December 21, 2011 he posted an article "The Impossible God of Paul Tillich."  The one thing that marked this blog when I reviewed it on AW was his ignorance. We see it in action:

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:
1. God is being-itself.  Tillich wrote: “The being of God is being-itself.  The being of God cannot be understood as the existence of a being alongside others or above others. . . . Whenever infinite or unconditional power  and meaning are attributed to the highest being, it has ceased to be a being and has become being-itself.” (1951: 235).  And he affirms again that “God is being itself, not a being” (1951: 237).   Since God is not a being, Tillich famously affirms that God does not exist (1951: 205, 237).
2. God is the power of being.  Tillich says “the concept of being as being, or being-itself, points to the power inherent in everything, the power of resisting nonbeing.  Therefore, instead of saying that God is first of all being-itself, it is possible to say that he is the power of being in everything and above everything, the infinite power of being” (1951: 236)
3. God is transcendent.  Tillich affirms the transcendence of God when talks about God as being above all things.  He writes that God is “the power of being in everything and above everything”(1951: 236).  And he says that “As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings – the world” (1951: 237).
 These are good quotes but he doesn't try to learn what they mean. These are all things I've said here on this blog. They are not hard to grasp if one does of background research, he doesn't. He assumes that these are just high tone words designed to hide his unbelief, the reason being this is not the Christian stuff Fincke learned when he was Christian.
.......Of course if he really doesn't know that much about it he would probably still be one. So all he's really telling us is that that doesn't know anything about the real Christian view of God held by the great theologians of the past because all he ever learned about was the usual fundamentalist Biblical literalism. He accuses Tillich of having to "pull himself back from the brink of paganism." That's becuase for Fincke the real Christian view expounded by the great theologians of the Orthodox church seems like paganism becuase he knows nothing about it. For example he makes the specific charge that Tillich is a pantheist. He attirbutes his escape from pantheism to belief in God's transcendence. As though some passage in the Bible say " thou shalt not be a pantheist" and any understanding of God as present in nature is pantheism and any theological point of view that separates Christianity from pantheism is some sort of trick. Fist of all what is he calling Pantheism? Pantheism is either the belief that God is the sum total of all things, or (old school) a personification of nature; nature as a force is worshiped as deity. Neither one of these options is implied in anything Tillich says.
 .......Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines Pantheism thus:"At its most general, pantheism may be understood positively as the view that God is identical with the cosmos, the view that there exists nothing which is outside of God, or else negatively as the rejection of any view that considers God as distinct from the universe." [1] The article goes on to say that philosophical opinion on the subject is too divided to be more specific. Yet if that is a valid interpretation than the transcendence issue would divide a pantheist form a non pantheist since the definition would say there's nothing outside of God, and saying that God is transcendent of all things would be the contrary.It is from Webster that I get my view that patheism sees God as nature, or the sum total of all things:
: a doctrine that equates God with the forces and laws of the universe
: the worship of all gods of different creeds, cults, or peoples indifferently; also : toleration of worship of all gods (as at certain periods of the Roman empire)
pan·the·ist noun[2]
 Certainly the second definition is not used anymore. The first one would not apply to Tilllich. Forces and laws of nature are seen as products of God's mind but not synonymous with God.
.......Another great jewel form Fincke that Tillich's God is impossible becuase it's impossible for God to be both immanent and transcendent:
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.
This first phrase "the power of being in everything and above everything" is one of Tillcih's most profound and powerful concepts. Fincke tosses it aside as though it means nothing because he doesn't understand it. He does see that it implies transcendence but does he see that it really disproves his earlier notion? His comment about Tillich's Systematic vol 1 looking like a pantheism handbook truly reveals his ignorance because nothing could be less so. Tillich even has a section on why he's not pantheistic and he shows that Pantheism violates his basic canon and would reduce God to a thing in creation. In fact Tillich makes this same argument. It's the transcendent nature of God (which contradicts pantheism) that makes Tillich a panENtheist. God in and beyond creation.
.......Fricke merely demonstrates his ignorance of historical Christianity, as do all who try to argue that Tillich's notion is "not the Christian God." The basis of Christianity really formed up in the seven ecumenical coucils of the Orthodox chruch. Tillich's mission in life was to bring that era of theology into the modern world. His notions of God as being itself are not only echoed by the Orthodox church but in History of Christian Thought He grounds them in the Trinitarian doctrine of homoucisos.[3] Thus the great expositor of the Orthodox chruch to the west, Timothy Ware writes that the Orthodox understand God as being "on the order of being itself."[4]

 [1] Mander, William, "Pantheism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =
[2] Merriam Webster's online Dictionary. URL:
[3] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought. Touchstone Books 1972.
[4] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin books, 1963, 65


Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

For any of us who came from an Evangelical Christian background of any sort, Tillich does more than border on the Pagan, but I doubt the early church would even recognize what we know of as church today.

Then again, I've never read Tillich, beyond quotes on your blog and when I originally read Dan's piece.

Dan is a friend of mine, who I met online about the same time I met you.

I didn't have any real problem with his piece, but, like I said, I haven't read Tillich, and as I've said before, I know very few Christians who view God the way Tillich and you do.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

why does everyone take it to the early chruch instead of the seven councils. It wasn't even Christianity in the early days. The folks that Paul wrote two would flunck the Nicene creed.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

Tillich being abhorred by American fundamentalists just says it all about the nature of atheism. Atheism in America is not atheism it's fundamentlism gone anti-Christian.

Tillich is pretty central for European Christian of the early 20th century.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

Ok, the seven councils wouldn't recognize the modern church, whatever. My point was that what most people think of as Christianity today would look very different to Christians of the past.

I know plenty of nun-fundamentalist Christians who would be just as baffled by Tillich as any fundamentalist.

Joseph Hinman (Metacrock) said...

yes my point is it doesn't matter.