Theses on Paul Tillich's "Systematic Theology" - Thesis 3

Thesis 3: The actualization of life as found under the conditions of existence is never without ambiguity. This is true for each dimension in life’s multidimensional unity, but it is especially true for the aspects of human life under the dimension of spirit where it leads to a search for unambiguous life. The three basic functions of life are (A) self-integration, (B) self-creativity, and (C) self-transcendence.

Explanation: (A) Self-integration is the life process that seeks to maintain an individuated being’s centeredness. Such maintenance is carried out in the face of the possibility of ‘disintegration’, which can occur either through the ossification or the dissolution of centeredness. Disintegration is a threat and maintenance is necessary because centeredness is not a static reality but a dynamic life process “of outgoing and returning” (33). The individual encounters manifoldness in the course of its life, and this manifoldness must be integrated into the individuated being’s centeredness. Thus, self-integration has as its goal concentration and fusion (integration), but these impulses are countered by opposing movements of expansion and division (disintegration). Tillich maps these concepts onto the organic realm generally in terms of health and disease, but the dynamic achieves a higher level in human being due to the fully developed presence of self-awareness – emerging from less sentient animal life and giving way in turn to the dimension of spirit – which allows for human being to have not simply an environment but a world. This is facilitated by the capacity for remembrance and anticipation.

Considered at the level of the dimension of spirit, self-integration is characterized by the moral act, wherein the essentially given potential centeredness of human being is actually given as one “actualizes it in freedom and through destiny” (38). It is through this actualization that the dimension of the spirit comes into existence by means of a human life achieving the level of personality within community, that is, centeredness amidst manifoldness. Because humanity has a world and not an environment, we can question and be questioned by this word. Morality consists in responding to valid commands that come to us from our world. These commands arise from “the essential structures of encountered reality, in man himself and in his world” (40), and thus constitute a sort of natural law (although Tillich is critical of traditional accounts of natural law, cf. 47). The most fundamental command-encounter occurs between two people, where one is forced to acknowledge the other’s personhood. In order for such an encounter to take place, one must participate in the world, more particularly in one’s community, and even more particularly in the other’s self. Such participation of one’s self in another “is the core of love in the sense of agape” (45). Agape is the norm of morality, and is beyond the distinction between formal and material norms. It is the path beyond the ambiguities that haunt self-integration under the condition of existential estrangement in the moral sphere because it includes the principle of justice and applies it to changing situations. Such application is always ambiguous and risky because ventured under the conditions of existential estrangement – one can never be entirely sure that one is correctly applying the “law of love” (47) – and so humanity embarks on the quest for agape as new being rather than law (50).

This ambiguity is ultimately tied to the necessity of self-sacrifice engendered by the process of self-integration. In this process of the self’s outgoing and returning, certain potentialities are actualized and others are not. As Tillich puts it, we must sacrifice “the possible for the real, or…the real for the possible” (43). The actualization of certain realities rules out other potentialities – when we chose to attend Princeton Theological Seminary, we ruled out the possibility of spending these years in, say, Cleveland Ohio, and all the possibilities for the actualization of our lives that we might find there. Clearly, we made the right choice. But each choice is always a risk, and this is the ambiguity of the self-integration process.

(B) Self-creativity is the process of life that seeks to maintain the proper balance between dynamics or growth and form. Tillich explains, “growth is the process by which a formed reality goes beyond itself to another form which both preserves and transforms the original reality. This process is the way in which life creates itself” (50). Such a notion seems right at home in Tillich’s evolutionary account of life’s multidimensional unity and could even be taken as a summary statement. The counterpoint to this dynamic process of growth is the notion of decay or destruction. Whereas growth takes a step forward, destruction takes a step backwards; whereas growth is the epitome of life, death is the epitome of destruction. In this process of self-creativity, the self moves outside of itself in two ways: by ‘labor’ and by ‘propagation’ (54). Both modes of movement are ambiguous, however, for they presuppose the finite individual and – for humanity at any rate – “existential awareness of one’s finitude…poses the question of whether the continuation of finite existence is worth the continuation of it” (57). This ‘death instinct’ is balanced by the ‘life instinct’ inherent in the process of self-creativity, and it in this balance that the ambiguity of this process is rooted.

Considered under the dimension of spirit, self-creativity is expressed in culture. Culture, at its most basic level, is the transference of humanity’s process of self-creativity to the object. Rather than growth of the self, culture is concerned with growth of the other. But, in so interacting with the other, humanity does not leave it unchanged, and herein lies the root of culture’s ambiguity. The first aspects of culture that Tillich considers are language and tool-making, and while these two are termed ‘basic’, language is the most basic. Humanity only has a world insofar as it has language (and vice versa, cf. 58), and our encounter with reality is mediated by language such that different languages facilitate different encounters with reality (cf., 60). The basic point here is that there is a gap between subject and object, and this gap haunts humanity’s cultural endeavors even in attempts to bridge this gap, and even in the relative success of these attempts (aesthetic undertakings, for instance). With reference to tool-making, the gap seems to lie between means (tools) and the ends they are made to achieve. If the production of means itself becomes the end, distortion has been introduced. On top of the language / tool-making layer Tillich adds the corresponding layers of ‘theoria’ and ‘praxis’ which, in their own ways, reproduce the gaps and distortions present in the first layers – the distance between subject and object, whether in epistemological or ethical terms (cf., 68).

(C) If the centeredness of self-integration is a circular movement and the growth of self-creativity is a horizontal movement, self-transcendence is a vertical movement executed by the actualization of freedom in relation to destiny (cf., 86). Life’s self-transcendent actualization is seen only in the mirror of humanity’s self-transcendence where the dialectic of holiness and profanity takes the form of greatness and tragedy. Greatness is human life reaching beyond its finitude – this is its dignity - and tragedy is the fear or failure to do so, or the structures of life forcing one back within proscribed limits (cf., 93). Religion is this movement of self-transcendence under the dimension of spirit.

There is a complicated relationship between the spiritual dimension of the three life-processes considered (morality, culture, religion). Considered essentially, “morality, culture, and religion interpenetrate one another. They constitute the unity of the spirit, wherein the elements are distinguishable but not separable” (95). In the movement from potential to actual – the movement from essence to existence – these three elements separate and are thereby distorted in ways which Tillich lays out (cf., 95-8). If this existential estrangement had not occurred, there would be no need for the religions: the religious aspect of life under the dimension of the spirit would be operative in morality and culture. They necessarily arise, however, under the conditions of existential estrangement and are plagued by ambiguity insofar as they labor under the dialectic of the holy and the profane, and face the dangers of profanization (treating the holy as a finite object among others) and demonization (elevation of the conditional to unconditional status) (cf., 98).

The religions arise as responses to revelation, and are thus founded “on the manifestation of the holy itself, the divine ground of being” (99). Insofar as a religion is grounded on revelation and this revelation is expressed in the resulting religion, that religion is unambiguous; but, insofar as religion is the receiving answer to revelation, it is ambiguous. “This is true of all religions, even those which their followers call revealed religion. But no religion is revealed; religion is…the distortion of revelation” (104). Here again is the dialectic between the holy and the profane, as well as the danger of the demonic. It is precisely because of this dialectic and the resultant ambiguities of the religions that those religions cannot serve as an answer to humanity’s quest for unambiguous life, even though the answer to this quest must be mediated by them as the existential manifestation of humanity’s self-transcending life-process.


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