Theses on Paul Tillich's "Systematic Theology" - Thesis 6

Thesis 6: Spiritual Presence is manifest not only in human spirit but in history, which has to do with people groups rather than simply with individual people. Here (A) it is expressed unambiguously although fragmentarily. Three modes of this manifestation in history can be distinguished: (B) anticipation (the religions), (C) criterion (Jesus as the Christ), and (D) consequence (the Spiritual Community).

Explanation: (A) Unambiguous life is New Being, or the reunification of the self with its divine ground of being both under and after the conditions of existential estrangement. As life unambiguous, New Being provides the remedy to the ambiguities of life under the conditions of existential estrangement. Spiritual Presence is the impetus for self-transcendence and is manifest in human spirit. Insofar as spirit is driven outside of itself and into the self-transcendent moment by Spirit, unambiguous life – New Being – is present. But, “The divine Spirit’s invasion of the human spirit does not occur in isolated individuals but social groups” (139). The reason for this is that every aspect of human life in the spirit-dimension is necessarily communal: morality, culture, and religion are inexplicably linked to the encounter between self and other and, in more specifically human terms, between the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’. Furthermore, the Spirit is present in all history, but history is not itself the Spirit’s manifestation. One discerns the Spirit’s presence in a particular social group by noting whether the group possesses symbols of its openness to the Spirit and to its fight against the profanization and demonization of such symbols. Tillich identifies the history of Israel as a particularly clear instance of this pattern.

Despite his talk about how to identify the Spiritual Presence in particular people-groups, Tillich affirms that there is no time or place bereft of this presence. “[M]ankind is never left alone…[I]t is continuously under the impact of the Spiritual Presence…[T]here is always New Being in history. There is always participation in the transcendent union of unambiguous life” (140). Lest his readers wonder precisely how life can be ambiguous while also participating in this un-ambiguity, Tillich presses on: “But this participation is fragmentary.” Tillich’s choice of the term ‘fragmentary’ is interesting in that it implies a quantitative notion rather than a qualitative one as implied in the language of ambiguity and un-ambiguity. This leads to the idea that the qualitative is manifest quantitatively. Manifestations, then, vary not in degree (either it is there or it is not - qualitative) but in scope (it is here and not there - quantitative). The corollary of this would seem to be that there are particulars within the spirit-dimension of human life – morality, culture, religion – that are unambiguous. I think I’m pushing Tillich a bit on this point (and would be happy to be corrected), but it seems consistent with his statements. In any case, this is Tillich’s way of getting at the already-but-not-yet character of New Being. Final fulfillment of the transcendent union that conquers existential estrangement is eschatological, but we are even now able to participate in life as healed in this union (unambiguous life) even if only fragmentarily and in the mode of anticipation.

(B) The anticipatory mode of the Spiritual Presence refers, however, to a different mode of anticipation, one which is more linear – whether conceptually or chronologically considered. This anticipatory mode of Spiritual Presence is found wherever the experience of that presence is not controlled by the criteria found in Jesus as the Christ (cf., 144). This leads Tillich to a brief discussion of the religions, which he accounts for in two basic types: the “original mana religion” and its substantial orientation, and “the great mythologies” (141-2). Mythic religion is an important precursor to Christianity insofar as its myths reveal the ecstatic nature of Spiritual Presence, and thus all religion is fundamentally mythic in character. The mythic elements of religion should never be removed since they are expressions of Spiritual Presence, but they ought not to be taken literally. In mythic religion, demonization of Spiritual Presence occurs with the introduction of dualism – Satan as a counterpoint to God, for instance – and it is to the credit of mysticism and ‘exclusive monotheism’ that they fight against this tendency.

(C) Tillich suggests by his discussion of ecstasy in mythic religion, as well as the fight against demonization of Spiritual Presence by mysticism and exclusive monotheism, that the manifestation of New Being in Jesus as the Christ is not unrelated to the manifestations of Spiritual Presence that preceded and followed him. For Tillich, “Jesus, the Christ, is the keystone in the arch of Spiritual manifestations in history. He is not an isolated event…[Instead, there obtains] an organic relation between the appearance of Jesus and the past and future” (147; this might be taken to support my argument by extension concerning the evolutionary character of New Being). Precisely what it means to be such a keystone involves being the criterion by which experience of Spiritual Presence is assessed. This is an epistemological point, but we know that for Tillich the epistemological and the ontological go together (ST1.19). The ontological basis for this epistemological move is found in Tillich’s Spirit christology.

Tillich attributes both faith and love to Jesus as the Christ, but it is how he accounts for Jesus as the Christ’s faith that moves his discussion forward. “The faith of Christ is the state of being grasped unambiguously by the Spiritual Presence” (146). This is not grasping in the usual sense that we have encountered, however. It is the same process, but it occurred to a greater degree. Jesus’ “spirit was ‘possessed’ by the divine Spirit” (144). This possession is what made Jesus into the Christ, and this “implies that the Spirit…became his Spirit” (147). Insofar as Jesus was the Christ, ‘possession’ language is revered: the Spirit possesses Jesus’ spirit, but the Christ possesses the Spirit. This latter possession is so complete that there is an identification made between – in traditional Trinitarian language – the divine Son and the Spirit: “the Son is the Spirit” (148; Tillich’s italics). This identity makes perfect sense in Tillich’s system where the Christ is the definitive manifestation of New Being, New Being is unambiguous Spiritual Presence, and Spiritual Presence is characterized by the divine Spirit ‘grasping’ or ‘driving’ human spirit into an ecstatic state that transcends the subject / object, essential / existential split. Thus, the ontological basis for Tillich’s epistemological move – identifying Jesus as the Christ as the criterion of Spiritual experience – is, ultimately, the self-identity of the divine Spirit. Jesus as the Christ is the criterion of Spiritual experience because he is the manifestation of the divine Spirit. For Spiritual Presence to differ from the criterion of Jesus as the Christ would be to suggest that Tillich’s account of the human plight and its solution is erroneous. Or, at the conceptual level, and perhaps more convincingly, it would mean that the Spirit is not self-consistent. Interestingly enough, this is the same argument that Calvin uses to maintain the close relation between Scripture and the Holy Spirit: the Spirit spoke in Scripture, why would the Spirit contradict itself by speaking otherwise elsewhere?

(D) We have already encountered Tillich’s notion that Jesus would not be the Christ if he had not been received as such. This is not only a counter-factual conditional statement, and thus of limited conceptual value, but it also runs against the grain of Tillich’s account of ecstasy. If the Spiritual Presence was truly manifested in Jesus as the Christ, then there can be no question as to his reception as such. In any case, Tillich seeks to maintain a relationship of mutual dependence between Jesus as the Christ and the Spiritual Community: “As the Christ is not the Christ without those who receive him as the Christ, so the Spiritual Community is not Spiritual unless it is founded on the New Being as it has appeared in Christ” (150). That the Spiritual Community is founded upon the New Being manifest in Jesus as the Christ means that this community is a creation of the Spirit. It is as such New Being unambiguously – though fragmentarily – manifest.

Tillich describes the Spiritual Community’s character through a conceptual analysis of Pentecost, and this analysis recalls a number of concepts that we have already encountered. The Spiritual Community has an ecstatic character and is defined by the presence of faith (certainty that overcomes doubt), love (mutual service), unity (reunion of humanity’s estranged members), and the drive toward universality (mission) (cf., 151). The Spiritual Community does not exist only in a fully manifest manner, however. It also has a latent form. The Spiritual Community’s latency is the form it takes before encountering the central manifestation of New Being in Jesus as the Christ. This ‘before’ functions both definitively and derivatively – before ~30 C.E. (‘basic kairos’) and before the continuously recurring encounter with that central event (‘derivative kairoi’). However, it is important for Tillich that this latency is not simply the potential for New Being and Spiritual Community resident within the ambiguities of human life. If this were the case, the category would have little meaning. Rather, the latent form of the Spiritual Community contains some actuality, and Tillich discusses this in terms of faith and love. Those among whom the Spiritual Community is latent have some measure of faith and love, but they are not fulfilled by their ultimate criterion found in Jesus as the Christ (cf., 153). It is on this basis that Tillich applies the latent category to groups such as (but not limited to) ancient and contemporary Judaism, Islam, the eastern religions, and communism.

Thus, in both its latent and manifest forms, the Spiritual Community is characterized by faith and love. These are its primary marks, and through them the Spiritual Community participates in the holy. Unity and universality are derivative marks. Universality corresponds to love in that it expresses the notion that the many forms of love are united within the Spiritual Community under the principle of agape without eradicating their diversity. This principle likewise applies to the individuals found within the community. Unity corresponds to faith in that it expresses the notion that the great diversity in conditions that lie behind the diversity of individual faith within the community does not rupture the collective faith of the community. Tensions abound in this unity because of its fragmentary character, but this unity is also unambiguous – a manifestation of the New Being – and therefore assured (cf., 155-7).

It was noted previously that morality, culture, and religion – the forms of Tillich’s three life-processes (self-integration, self-creativity, and self-transcendence) under the spirit-dimension – are essentially indivisible although distinguishable. Under the existential ambiguities of life, however, they separate from each other and thus remain truncated. These three functions are reunited within the Spiritual Community and freed from their ambiguity, and Tillich provides an account of their proper integrated relations. Morality is the most basic function insofar as it is here that the ‘I’ encounters a ‘Thou’ and is thus constituted as a self, all of which was previously discussed. The religious aspect, dependent as it is upon human spirit being grasped by divine Spirit, “presupposes self-establishment of the person in the moral act” (158-9). In return for supplying this presupposition, as it were, religion gives to morality its imperatival force, which it does in the mode of grace rather than law. This is love (agape) as new being rather than as law, to recall a previous discussion (cf., thesis 3.A). Though morality now has its imperatival form, it still lacks content. This is provided by the constructions of culture, in return for which morality supplies culture with seriousness. From the standpoint of the Spiritual Community, culture is not viewed with aesthetic detachment but with a desire to interact with being and meaning in their cultural forms. The content that culture supplies to morality shares in the relativities of that culture, but is ultimately governed by the organizing structure implied in the ‘I’ / ‘Thou’ encounter, namely, love.


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