Thursday, 23 October 2014

Ultimate Concerns

A Taxonomies for Religions Post

Paul Tillich was a Christian existentialist and philosopher popular in the 50s and 60s and one of the most influential theologians of the twentieth century. He was known for his book on popular theology The Courage to Be and The Dynamics of Faith and his multi-volume treatise of more academic theology, Systematic Theology. He worked by correlating human experience and alienation with Christian revelation. Many people, both academic and not, Christian and not, were attracted by his work, though his influence over contemporary theology has largely waned. (But hopefully it is making a resurgence! While it is imperfect, what I’ve read of it is good stuff!)

For Paul Tillich, faith—or religion—is the state of being ultimately concerned. In The Dynamics of Faith he argues that people are ultimately concerned with something; they are concerned with something they take to be ultimate. The Ultimate (that is, God) is a final arbiter of value: in particular, the Ultimate makes promises and threats. When the Ultimate promises inclusion and threatens exclusion, it can do so successfully because the Ultimate is not contingent on anything else and its activities cannot be thwarted by anything else. When people are ultimately concerned with something that is not the Ultimate—success, or humanity, or a flawed vision of God—they are bound for misery and failure, since the thing with which they are ultimately concerned cannot deliver on its promises. (His argument gets confusing at this point: he writes that people are always ultimately concerned with one thing, and as such all people are religious, but then he writes that atheists are concerned with competing interests. He seems to contradict himself.)

Tillich’s opening in Dynamics offers a possible question, then: About what is a practitioner ultimately concerned? What does it mean for this idea of the Ultimate to promise inclusion, or to threaten exclusion?

Because the Ultimate is not contingent on anything else, it cannot be captured by any description or formulation humans—inherently limited beings that we are—might make about it. Thus there can be no perfect dogma about God. Rather, religious creeds are symbols (signs that participate in that which they signify) and they only signify according to the community’s language. As the community changes, and its language changes, the symbol’s ability to signify God diminishes. Thus any religion that seeks to approach God—the Ultimate—and avoid a false vision of God must be able to change its symbols (that is, its creeds and dogmas). A religion, Tillich argues, which honestly acknowledges the ultimacy of God, must contain a tradition or mechanism of criticism against its own terms. According to Tillich, Protestantism is the only religion which is capable of this criticism—that is what he identifies as the Protestant Principle and the Reformation’s very raison d’ĂȘtre—and this is why Protestantism is the best and truest religion. (Of course, according to Tillich Protestantism has largely failed in this regard due the rise of biblical literalism and inerrantism.) While I disagree with his claim that Protestantism is uniquely self-critical—Buddhism and Daoism leap to mind as religions which contain self-criticism in response to the ultimacy of the Ultimate—I feel like this might make another good question: Does the religious tradition contain an internal mechanism for self-criticism? Does this religion insist that the Ultimate, as Ultimate, cannot be timelessly described in creeds and other symbols, or does it take those creeds and symbols to be timelessly true?

In the second half of Dynamics, Tillich addresses different types of faith. There are two major groupings, each of which contains a few subgroups:

·         Ontological types of faith
o   Sacramental types of faith
o   Mystical types of faith
·         Moral types of faith
o   Juristic types of faith
o   Conventional types of faith
o   Ethical types of faith

After cautioning that all religions participate in all types of faith to some extent, but human limitation means that religions favour one or two types and only imperfectly assimilate the others, Tillich launches into a description.

Ontological types of faith experience the holy in the here and now. Moral types of faith experience the holy as judgement over the here and now. Ontological faith is the holiness of what is; moral faith is the holiness of what ought to be.

Among the ontological types of faith, sacramental faith experiences the holy in an object while mystical faith experiences the holy beyond objects and within the self. Sacramental faith experiences holiness as present within an object, or sacramental bearer; it describes “the state of being grasped” by the holy through that specific medium. Sacramental faith runs the risk of forgetting that the object is merely a bearer of the holy and that it cannot itself be holy, since it is a materially contingent object through which the Ultimate reaches humans in their limitation. Mystical faith, then, seeks to avoid that risk by seeking holiness beyond objects. Mystical faith does not reject the concrete or material, but rather reaches toward the ineffable, the ground of all being, the Ultimate. Often mystics achieve this by going inward through meditation, contemplation, or ecstasy, identifying the human soul as the point of contact between the Ultimate and humans in their limitation.

Among the moral types of faith, juristic faith involves obedience to a law, one that permeates all life; the law is felt as both a gift and a command, since life is satisfying within the strictures of the law. Tillich characterizes Islam and the Judaism of the Second Temple as juristic. Conventional faith remains poorly defined in Dynamics of Faith; he gives Confucianism as an example but explains no further. Presumably it involves the maintenance not of divine commands but of social expectations and thereby maintains societal order? Ethical faith demands obedience to justice as a way of reaching God; justice, I think, can be understand as something beyond adherence to rules but instead a commitment to principles which are not easily codified. The Hebrew Testament prophets are an example of this.*

But bear in mind that these forms are usually somewhat interconnected. Sacraments are generally marked out as separate not just in space but in behaviour: in order to approach the bearer of holiness, practitioners must observe ritual purity which resembles, or is, a juristic type of faith. The prophetic wisdom of ethical faith can often derive from mystical faith. And so on.

This schema offers an obvious set of questions to ask of a religion: Is this religion more ontological or moral, and how much more? Insofar as it is ontological, is it more sacramental or mystical, and how much more? Insofar as it is moral, is it more juristic, conventional, or moral, and how much more?

An issue that will keep coming up in this project is what I’m going to call investments. Tillich is invested in not just Protestant Christianity, but existentialist Protestant Christianity, and this comes through in his starting point (the ultimacy of the Ultimate) and his approach to faith (the human experience of the holy). It’s not just that, for Tillich, only Protestantism can put “Yes” in the column about self-criticism. Rather, Tillich’s desire to ask what a person’s ultimate concern is supposes that, indeed, a person might have only one concern, a view determined in advance by his monotheism, or his particular monotheism (“No one can serve two masters”). And Tillich’s sense of the sacramental bearer kept separate by ritual purity does not seem to make sense in religions which recognize all things as bearers of holiness (and I mean this in the sacramental sense, not just the sense of the goodness of Creation). His idea of what religion looks like comes from the anthropology that preceded him, and that anthropology was … well, it was the 30s, 40s, and 50s.

Nonetheless, these might be questions we could ask, so long as we watch for when they stop making sense for a particular religious tradition or a particular religious person. I’ll write more on these questions of application later.


*Tillich argues that the Roman Catholic Church has been unusually good at unifying all of these types, but failed—has continually failed—to recognize that the Holy Spirit demands answers again and again, and has instead rested with its old answers. The groups of Christians that would become Protestant recognized that the Roman Catholic Church lost and excluded prophetic self-criticism in its authoritarian hierarchy, and that the growth of sacramental elements of faith overwhelmed the moral ones. The first of the two problems preventing a correction of the second, making the break with Rome inevitable. However, in response to Roman Catholicism’s overemphasis on the sacramental type of faith, Protestants have historically emphasized the moral dimension, losing both ontological types of faith. However, Tillich sees a possibility of reclaiming the unity of all types of faith in Paul’s description of the Holy Spirit. Make of all this what you will.

**In this chart I’m trying to replicate Tillich’s representations, not supply my own. Feel free to quarrel with his interpretations.



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