Theses on Paul Tillich's "Systematic Theology" - Thesis 2

Thesis 2: Exercising great care in the selection of terminology, Tillich envisages (A) life as a (B) multidimensional (C) unity. (D) ‘Spirit’ is the penultimate dimension thus far actualized.

Explanation: (A) Tillich’s selection of the term ‘life’ is carried out in opposition to the term ‘process’. Although ‘life’ is a term with many meanings, it is superior to ‘process’ for two reasons. First, ‘life’ is inextricably linked with the concept of death. Thus, whereas ‘process’ applies equally to things living and dead, ‘life’ applies to the dynamic aspect of being that is engaged in overcoming its negation expressed in the concept of death. Second, given this notion of life as engaged in the overcoming of death, ‘life’ is open to ontologization in a way that ‘process’ is not. When ontologized, ‘life’ becomes ‘actuality of being’, the individual actualization in time and space of potentialities resident within beings. Language of ‘life’ as the ‘actuality of being’ achieves a level of generalization that ‘process’ is not capable of, thus freeing the notion of ‘life’ “from its bondage to the organic realm and elevating it to the level of a basic term that can be used within the theological system only if interpreted in existential terms” (12).

(B) Although life as the actuality of being must be understood in existential terms, this is not meant to imply that life lacks an essential aspect. Indeed, Tillich understands life as a “‘mixture’ of essential and existential elements” (ibid), a reasonable conclusion given that life is concerned not simply with potentialities resident within being(s) (essence), but with their actualization in space and time (existence). Given this twofold aspect of ‘life’, Tillich undertakes to provide two kinds of analysis: one preoccupied with the essential and one preoccupied with the ambiguities introduced by the existential.

Tillich’s analysis of life’s essential character is characterized by his conception of multidimensional unity. He takes the unity for granted (more will be said shortly), noting that the very fact of diversity compels us to look for unity. The language of ‘multidimensional’ is directly opposed to a notion that the diversity of life can be properly characterized by the notion of levels. Such a hierarchical conception confounds the relation between the organic and inorganic, and between the organic and spiritual. In each case, the temptation is to reduce one pole into the other. A ‘level’ conception also complicates the relation between religion and culture, tempting one to attempt the domination of the other. Finally, it is out of the question that the relationship between God and humanity be understood in terms of two levels of being. The use of such mythical imagery is acceptable, as long as it is not taken literally (Tillich wants to ‘demythologize’ – or, better, de-literalize – religious language).

Positively, language of ‘dimension’ – and its related notions of ‘realm’ and ‘grade’ – is aimed at providing a “changed vision of reality” (15). ‘Dimension’ is a spatial notion suggesting that varying aspects are able to converge without conflict, as with the relationship between depth and breadth. A ‘realm’ is a social term that designates the actualization of a dimension. ‘Grade’ is an evaluative term. Tillich’s rejection of ‘levels’ is not meant to imply that all dimensions of life are equal. Valuation of grades depends on quantity of potentialities actualized.

(C) At first glance, this notion that the dimensions of life can be graded or ranked, if you will, looks for all the world like a reintroduction of ‘levels’ into Tillich’s scheme, but he is right to distinguish between them. The conceptual underpinning for distinguishing between them is the way in which Tillich conceives of unity behind the multidimensionality of life, namely, as the interplay between the potential and the actual. Having introduced the notion of ‘dimension’, Tillich briefly returns to a discussion of his rejection of ‘levels’. The former captures the unity of life better than the latter because it can account for the fact that there are great tracts of life where certain ‘levels’ are entirely absent – think of a lava field; all that inorganic (although, admittedly dynamic) rock and no trace of the organic to be found. On the other hand, ‘dimension’ indicates that all dimensions of life are potentially real in any given instance, even if only a limited number are actually present. So, for instance, the lava field has all the potential of the highest dimension of life yet achieved – historical humanity – even if only the inorganic dimension is actualized. Those who see in such a conception an evolutionary understanding of the world are correct. Tillich understands each ascending dimension of the multidimensional unity of life as emerging from the former given the presence of a certain “constellation of conditions” (25). The presence or absence of the necessary constellation results from the dynamic interplay betwen freedom, destiny, and God’s directing creativity.

(D) Tillich seems rather uninterested in undertaking the taxonomical task of identifying and parsing the relations between all the various dimensions in life’s multidimensional unity, but this much can be gleaned (I’m extrapolating): the basic dimension is the inorganic, out of which the organic emerges; the organic dimension can be envisaged as a continuum of ascending complexity including, at the top end, the emergent psychological, spiritual, and historic dimensions – the highest we have yet encountered. These latter dimensions are found only in humanity, although less developed forms of the psychological aspect would likely be resident in non-human animal life that exhibits self-awareness (cf. 21, 27). The historic dimension is addressed in section five of Tillich’s Systematic Theology; his present concern is spirit.

Desirous of maintaining a clear typographical (although perhaps not conceptual {Paul W. Newman, "Humanity with Spirit," Scottish Journal of Theology 34 (1981): 415-6. For a developmental account of Tillich’s understanding of spirit prior to the Systematic Theology period, see Jean Richard, "Espirit, Sens Et Histoire D’après Paul Tillich," Laval théologique et philosophique 52, no. 2 (1996).}) distinction between spirit in its created forms and divine Spirit – that is, the capitalization is important – Tillich speaks favorably of concept of spirit found in the “Semitic…[and] Indo-Germanic languages” where it is understood as “the power of life” or “the power of animation itself” (21). This is not what Tillich means by the term, however. His conception is more specific, and limited to actualization by humanity. Although he resists a strict identification between ‘mind’ and ‘spirit’, the actualization of spirit certainly has a cognitive aspect – as well as a moral and (as will be seen later) a religious one. What this actualization involves is a certain sort of self-transcendence. Tillich has in mind the ‘personal center’ of a human individual making use of biological and other resources but without being bound to those resources in the process of self-actualization. Here again is the negotiation of freedom and destiny, which implies some discerning and deliberating process that introduces a certain distance between the self (‘personal center’) and the other. Speaking of this process of actualizing the dimension of spirit, Tillich notes in summary fashion that “the act, or more exactly the whole complex of acts, in which this happens has the character of freedom, not freedom in the bad sense of the indeterminacy of an act of the will, but freedom in the sense of a total reaction of a centered self which deliberates and decides” (28).

Extension: (A) Tillich’s discussion in the material covered by this thesis was called to mind during our last session together wherein we discussed Tillich’s christology. We discussed then how it could be that “essential being—i.e., the power of being conquering nonbeing—appears within and under the conditions of existence” {Previous presenter}. A related question immediately occurred to me: Is it the case that Tillich’s New Being can be (ought to be?) understood as the definitively emergent (in Jesus as the Christ) but still emerging apogeal dimension of human being? Is New Being a new dimension of human life beyond even the historical? In lieu of an extensive exploration of the matter, I would like simply to draw a few parallels between Tillich’s discussion of New Being’s emergence and his discussion of the evolution or emergence of life’s dimensions. Two such parallels will suffice: first, emergence in both cases is attributed to the interplay of divine directive creativity (providence), freedom, and destiny (ST2.130, 134; ST3.25); and second, the shared language of actualizing potential, albeit less clearly in Tillich’s discussion of New Being than in his discussion of the dimensions (ST2.119, which passage Will pointed out last week). These parallels are not sufficient to argue that Tillich worked consciously with the notion of New Being that I have suggested, but they do serve to suggest such a reading of Tillich’s systematic whole.

(B) The unity underlying the multidimensionality of life is the notion that all the potentials of essential being are always present, although they are actualized to varying degrees in each instance. Following Tillich’s penchant for ontologization, would it be fair to call the essence in which these potentialities are embedded, the ‘ground of being’? If so, the cosmos is simply actualization of divine being’s potential to varying degrees. Still, this potential is never fully actualized everywhere – except perhaps eschatologically (whatever this ‘symbol’ finally means for Tillich) – and so the divine remains transcendent. Granted, I am pushing Tillich here and drawing conclusions. But, if it is fair to push Tillich in this way and these conclusions are plausible, then it looks like Tillich might – by way of drawn consequence – be caught affirming precisely the pantheism he earlier rejected (ST1.236).


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