Contemporary European Views of God (2): Paul Tillich and the Problem of Language


In my previous post, i dealt with one of Tillich’s most controversial statements, and how his methodology (which i dealt with in my first post regarding Tillich) led him to (in my estimation) greatly over-emphasize the transcendence of God.  In this post, based on this book, to explore the effects of Tillich’s radically transcendent picture of God.

Since, as Tillich so greatly stressed, God cannot in any way be part of finite existence, then what can be said of Tillich’s “God?”  Not surprisingly, Tillich struggled with the problem of how to speak meaningfully of God.  Tillich decided to view all language of God as symbolic rather than literal.  Even the term “god” is a symbol for God (132).  It is hard to know much about who this God is in Tillich’s view other than He is.

A similar problem arises when trying to understand Tillich’s view of transcendence and immanence.  It seems fairly certain that Tillich was a panentheist.  This view makes understanding his view of immanence fairly simple, in that everything that is “finite participates in ‘being itself (God)’, which is the structure of being in which everything is grounded (133).”  So for Tillich everything literally depends on the ground of being for its current, continued, and eternal existence.  So in a sense for Tillich, the world and God are intimately connected, united even.

That being the case, Tillich still struggled with how to understand how this panentheist view could be squared with the complete and unqualified difference between God and humanity.  Since according to Tillich being itself could not ever participate with non-being (death), then it therefore “infinitely transcends everything finite (133).”  This severely limited how he could speak meaningfully of God’s immanence, even in a panentheistic framework.  I would argue that it led into contradictions.

It seems to me that although Tillich makes a valiant effort, he is unable to clearly demonstrate how his panentheism relates to God’s transcendence.  The reason for this goes back to the fundamental problem that as i see it plagued his work from the outset, that being the problem of allowing man’s central concerns (as Tillich viewed) them set the agenda for his theology.  If in fact man’s central issue is the fear of death, then it is true that being a part of being-itself would calm that fear.  However, at what cost? 

This is an ever-present danger in doing theology.  We want to be culturally relevant, but the threat of distortion looms large when we do.  While we may dismiss the idea that we could fall into some of the problems that Tillich did, integration cannot help but be dangerous.  That does not mean that we should not attempt it necessarily, but that we must do so in a way different than Tillich did.  For some of my thoughts on how to do theology, click here, here, and here.

Any thoughts from anyone else?


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