Thursday, March 09, 2006

Was Paul Tillich an Atheist?

"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 ... Still, being the son of a clergyman and having a fondness for religious life, Tillich [will] have his cake and eat it too. He is going to remain with the Church for the purpose of undermining Christianity from within." --- Leonard F. Wheat

As I noted in my previous post, militant atheists like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have adopted an interesting "divide and conquer" strategy towards religion. As they see it, there are only two types of religious people: i) "true believers" (i.e., fundamentalists), and ii) "closet-atheists" who are simply lying to themselves. The brilliance of this strategy is that it allows them to dismiss "moderate" and reasonable" believers as insincere cowards, while applying the "religious" label only to easily-dismissed extremists and fanatics. Moreover, their scheme slams the door on any attempt to reconcile science and religion, since the slightest accommodation on the part of religion is viewed as an attempt to salvage what is already lost. Of course, Dennett and Harris have never been interested in accommodation or peaceful coexistence; they want to see religion annihilated. By suggesting that there are only two viable philosophical positions for intellectually honest people - primitive theism or scientific materialism - they hope to increase the chances that people will pick the latter.

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"

While these statements are provocative (perhaps deliberately so), a closer look at Tillich's position makes him appear less controversial. Let's start with his oft-repeated assertion that "God is not a being, but being-itself." For Tillich, "being-itself" (or "the power of being") is the only possible definition of God because all other options turn God into a "Supreme Being" that is something less than God. "If God is not being-itself, he is, in fact, in as much bondage as the old Greek gods were in bondage to fate - a King indeed but only a puppet-king." (taken from Tillich by J. Heywood Thomas). Thus, his motivation for defining God as "being-itself" is to protect the transcendence of God from idolatrous misconceptions, not to cover his atheism with silly word tricks.

Much the same goes for his talk of "symbols". Tillich's remark that "God is the symbol for God" lead many to conclude that he regarded God as merely symbolic (i.e., not real). However, Tillich was simply conveying the fact that human language can never fully grasp the ineffable glory of God, since our "superlatives become diminutives" when applied to God. However, Tillich argued that language is capable of pointing to the reality God in a symbolic fashion, although it is never identical with that reality. Thus, symbols are truly glorious things, because they allow us to describe the indescribable, opening up levels of reality that are closed to literal language. With this in mind, his talk of "the God above the God of theism" makes more sense. The "God of theism" is the symbolically-conceived God that is forever transcended by the True God. Far from being a nonsensical phrase designed to trick people into believing, this is Tillich's way of affirming both the validity of theological speech and the complete otherness of God.

Thus, while the form of Tillich's doctrine of God is certainly unconventional, I think its substance lies comfortably within the Christian tradition. So why all the confusion? Here, Tillich certainly deserves much of the blame, as his critics (both Christians and atheists) are correct in saying that he often obscures more than he reveals. In particular, I find his concept of "ultimate concern" to be poorly-defined and prone to misinterpretation. When used as a synonym for "faith", the term is unproblematic. But Tillich sometimes suggests that "ultimate concern" is God, leading many to think that he advocates a purely immanent God. Less abstraction and more clarity on this matter would have been helpful.

In my opinion, the proper question to ask regarding Tillich's theology is not "Is it atheistic?" but "Is it useful?". On this point, I'm not fully convinced, since it appears that by trying to bridge the gap between theology and philosophy, and between theism and atheism, he has not satisfied either side. Atheists are not convinced that he has done more than just play with words, and Christians are not likely to start praying to an impersonal "ground of being." Of course, it's valuable that someone of Tillich's ability has made the effort, and he leaves a tremendous legacy to build upon. But for the moment, I can't call myself a follower.

27 comments:

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for this excellent post. I think Tillich's theology is useful in many ways, although I too am far from being "a follower". And I think you're definitely right to defend him against the simplistic accusation of "atheism". If he is an "atheist", he is an atheist for the sake of the gospel -- which is a different thing entirely!

Lee said...

A great couple of posts. I'd add that by Dennett's definition not only fairly recent thinkers like Bultmann and Tillich are sellout faux-believers, but perhaps also the luminaries of the earlier theological tradition - the refining of the anthropormic concept of God goes back a long way it seems to me. Didn't Aquinas refer to God as Being itself?

Thomas Adams said...

Ben, I like your comment that Tillich was “an atheist for the sake of the gospel.” I think he often adopted an atheistic stance in his apologetic writings simply for the sake of rejecting it, since his arguments always demonstrate that atheism doesn’t really accomplish what it purports to (that is, atheism doesn’t really eliminate either the question of God or the reality of God).

I agree with your point, Lee. In defending his doctrine of God, Tillich insisted that it wasn't really new, and he listed several theologians (including Aquinas) who took similar approaches. I'm also convinced that the writers of the Bible knew that God is not a mythological creature and that they understood their language to be fundamentally symbolic and poetic. Of course, Dennett probably realizes this fact as well, but he would never admit it. He’s just angry that the only god he can disprove is a god that nobody worships.

Andy said...

I like your question, "Is it useful?" I tend to think that I disagree with Tillich on many very fundamental issues, but I find myself using his concepts, including "ultimate concern", all the time. I find his way of thinking very useful.

And, of course, I'm never sure if I really disagree with him or simply don't understand what he's talking about.

I read a book recently by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner where he was talking about the God of Israel as a God without mythology, apparently putting all Jews in the group Dennett wants to call atheists. Though he didn't come out and say it, I got the impression from his language that Kushner was making this point against Christianity and its concept of the Incarnation.

But this is what I really love about Christianity. We do recognize God as the transcendent ground-of-all being (Acts 17:28), God without mythology. And yet we proclaim that precisely this God became man.

Thomas Adams said...

Melancthon, I like that your comment makes reference to Acts 17, where Paul addresses the philosophers of Athens (it's one of my favorite episodes in the whole Bible). Tillich was often accused of putting philosophy above theology, and of valuing the opinion of intellectuals above those of everyday Christians. But, in Tillich’s defense, the first Paul used very philosophical terminology when appealing to the men of Athens, and apparently it convinced a few Greeks to convert to Christianity. Paul, unlike many Christians today, did not treat these intellectuals with utter disdain. He reached out to them – on their terms. Intellectuals deserve apostles just like everyone else, and Act 17 shows that philosophical apologetics has been part of the Church from the very beginning.

And I agree fully with your last point. The most thrilling element of Christian thought is its profound tension between “the universal” and “the concrete” as manifested in Jesus the Christ.

John said...

I think you should check out REAL GOD IS THE INDIVISIBLE ONENESS OF UNBROKEN LIGHT via:

1. www.adidam.org

2. www.realgod.org

3. www.aboutadidam.org

John

Anonymous said...

In college, one of my professors (a major theologian in Lutheran circles) said that he became "hooked" on Tillich in his student days. According to this professor, he has spent the past 25 years trying to get away from Tillich. Lest we admit there is something intoxicating with Tillich's method? Perhaps his outcome is less than expected, but I believe there is much to be had from his method.

Chris T. said...

Great post.

I have been reading the first volume of Tillich's system off and on since the beginning of the year, and I find it quite intoxicating. :-)

Luthsem said...

Thomas,

I found a site by a seminary student on Tillich that I think you would find interesting

http://dynamicsoffaith.blogspot.com/

Luthsem said...
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Luthsem said...
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Abdul-Halim V. said...

It is possible that Tillich's idea of God as ones "ultimate concern" (basically a psychological concept) implies or suggests a kind of atheism. But I still think it is possible to articulate non-anthropomorphic notions of God which are different from "primitive theism" and are sophisticated enough for "modern mankind".

Abdul-Halim V. said...

It is possible that Tillich's idea of God as ones "ultimate concern" (basically a psychological concept) implies or suggests a kind of atheism. But I still think it is possible to articulate non-anthropomorphic notions of God which are different from "primitive theism" and are sophisticated enough for "modern mankind".

CanDid said...

A fine understanding of Tillich's theology. Tillich in espousing a "God beyond God" pointed not the inadequacy of the concept of God but to the grander version and vision of God.

P.M. said...

Can't we worship the God of theism while realizing that we will never truly grasp the G-d beyond God in our languages and symbols?

I find this idea helpful when it comes to accepting other religious traditions. Other traditions, while they differ in details, have languages and symbols that point to the same ground of being.

Huston Smith's The Soul of Christianity says a lot about this.

baz said...

As Hitchens would say, you give the awful impression of not having read the case against the position you hold...

"As I noted in my previous post, militant atheists like Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris have adopted an interesting "divide and conquer" strategy towards religion."

You fall into the trap of assuming that all the "New Atheist" authours (not a label I agree with, by the way) have the same agenda. If you were to actually read or listen to Dennet, Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, you would find they each adopt completely different positions.

"As they see it, there are only two types of religious people: i) "true believers" (i.e., fundamentalists), and ii) "closet-atheists" who are simply lying to themselves."

This is your simplification, not theirs.

"The brilliance of this strategy is that it allows them to dismiss "moderate" and reasonable" believers as insincere cowards, while applying the "religious" label only to easily-dismissed extremists and fanatics."

What they object to is the "True Scotsman" fallacy, whereby as soon as one points out the fallacy in another Christian's argument, the Christian present claims these others are "not true Christians", i.e. extremists and fanatics.

"Moreover, their scheme slams the door on any attempt to reconcile science and religion, since the slightest accommodation on the part of religion is viewed as an attempt to salvage what is already lost."

Science shows us that we don't need supernatural explanations for what we see in nature. Christians attempting to "accommodate" science are simply admitting that their religion doesn't have the answers. So you are right, it is simply an attempt to salvage an outdated and useless world view - and in the case of "Intelligent Design", a laughable attempt to boot.

"Of course, Dennett and Harris have never been interested in accommodation or peaceful coexistence; they want to see religion annihilated."

Do you have references for this claim on their motives? Having listened to a lot of their talks (I have their books but haven't yet read them) I can safely say I've never heard either of these two writers claim any such thing. Harris in fact is extremely interested in understanding numinous experience, and would like to apply scientific methods to studying what mystics claim about these experiences.

"By suggesting that there are only two viable philosophical positions for intellectually honest people - primitive theism or scientific materialism - they hope to increase the chances that people will pick the latter."

Again, you attempt to polarise their claims and give them a unified agenda, which they would both refute.

Anonymous said...

Baz has presented a sound rebuttal, and has accurately corrected the poster's biased and untrue summary of Dawkin's, Hitchen's, Harris', and Dennets' intentions in writing their texts. Conversely, the summary of Tillich was one of the more insightful I've ever read, and it seems to me a tad funny (once understood) how weak Tillich's argument ultimately is. "Ultimate concern" & "God from God..." What Tillich never does is provide any tangible evidence for belief in a creator. And if the counter argument is that atheists can't either, than so be it, but there is no legitimate reason to suppose "God" as a prime-mover, lest one should follow such a statment with "Because I said so!"

Anonymous said...

Who said anything here about a prime-mover? It seems that most of the critics and atheists that surf through these sorts of blogs, leaving a wake of tiring comments as they go, are completely reliant on pre-packaged arguments that they have basically "practiced in front of the mirror." Rather than actually reading the post with an open mind and hoping to glean something from it, these critics simply regurgitate the same sliver of a larger argument that's not necessarily relevant in any way to the post itself.

Metacrock said...

Tilich explicitly denied being an atheist. He did not use the term "exist" in the same way we do. the quotes you use are all taken out of context.

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Chris Rothbauer said...

I know this is an old post but I felt compelled to respond to Baz's assertion that the True Scotsman fallacy was being employed by the author here. Imagine you are eating strawberry ice cream. I hate strawberry ice cream and believe it is an inferior form of ice cream and am, instead, eating chocolate. What we are both doing is eating ice cream, just in different ways.

Just so, one need not reject that fundamentalists are Christians to reject their theology. I believe that fundamentalist theology is prejudiced, short sighted, and harmful to society. This does not mean they are not Christians, nor that I must assume their theology applies to all Christians. It is equally a fallacy to assume that because some Christians act a particular way, all Christians act a particular way, which is what Dawkins seems to do in The God Delusion. He does not even consider more liberal forms of Christianity but, instead, argues against the worst possible form, which is fine if that's what you believe. Quite a few of us have chosen not to accept this form of Christianity, however.

DITTOM said...

"The Vision of Paul Tillich" by Carl Armbruster SJ might be helpful to those who may find Tillich not very practical. I think he unpackages it quite well.

Alexander Duncan said...

I think Tillich's value as a theologian is in moving the discussion beyond Christianity as religion to Christianity as spirituality and potentially universal, whereas religion must always be sectarian and limited. That Tillich's views move him beyond religious Christianity is therefore a step forward for Christianity. Whether Christians themselves can take that step remains to be seen (my guess is not).

Danny Wheeler said...

Everybody seems to miss a big part of what Tillich says repeatedly in his books,essays & lectures.Quote:"Courage is the self-affirmation of being in spite of non-being."Priests,ministers and Theologians don't talk about non-being because they don't believe in it.They believe in transition to eternal life.Tillich is definitely an athiest.

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Jeffrey Kesselman said...

Those who call Tillich an atheist simply don't know enough about theology to understand that there is more in the world then their own pet view and atheism.

It would be like calling Deists atheists, which is far from the truth.

Paul Tillich is the father of panentheism, a perfectly legitimate from of theism.

John Orford said...

I"m old enough to remember Professor Cyril Joad on BBC, who would quite properly argue that with most questions, especially crude "yea or nay" questions, "it all depends on what you mean by . . .". How often do we hear people arguing the point about "God" when we have no idea whether they mean an old man in the sky or the One-ness that we cannot define or comprehend.