Last week we discussed Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity–a Christianity that rejects pat answers and easy solutions to life’s complex problems and opts to, instead, embrace life’s messiness, affirming the inherent meaning of life without having to baptize it in religious language and concepts that often serve as an attempt to escape the world. Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity is, at it’s most basic, life lived for the other.
This week we look at the German existentialist theologian Paul Tillich. The notion that I want to explore a bit is Tillich’s “Ground of all Being.”
To begin this exploration it would help us to understand Tillich’s framework. For Tillich there are ultimately two forms of reality: conditional and unconditional. Conditional reality is what we all live in and know intimately without even having to consciously recognize it. To live in conditioned reality is to live in a particular place within a particular tradition (religious or otherwise). This living, of course, takes place at a particular time in history with other particular people with whom you communicate with by means of a particular language.
Conditioned reality is, you may have noticed, all about particulars.
Unconditioned reality is, on the other hand, what is brooding beneath conditioned reality. What is unconditional is not bound by the particulars that constitute conditioned reality and is thus universal.
God, for Tillich, is unconditional. In other words, God transcends the particulars of conditional reality. This means that whatever characteristics we attribute to God will ultimately fall short of describing the reality of God because all language is conditioned and finite.
How then are we to understand God?
It was his belief that God is unconditional that led Tillich to famously declare that God does not actually exist as a being among other beings (like you and I) but rather that God is the Ground of all Being. Tillich says the following:
If we say ‘God is a person’, we say something which is profoundly wrong. If God were a person, he would be one being alongside other beings, and not He in whom every being has his existence and his life, and who is nearer to each of us than we are to ourselves. A person is separated from an other person; nobody can penetrate into the innermost centre of another. Therefore we should never say that God is a person.
So for Tillich God is ground of our own existence or that which allows us to be in the first place. We could say that it is in God that we “live and move and have our being.”
God as the ground of all being is, then, universally experienced and intuited by everyone below the level of consciousness.
Thus, we could say that it is not the form that our discourse about God takes (whether it’s Christian in form or Islamic in form or atheistic in form) that matters. Indeed, all our discourse about God is, at the end of the day, conditioned discourse–it’s all made up of language that is finite and concepts that cannot ultimately grasp the ineffable, unconditional Ground of all Being. Rather, what matters is our posture from which we engage the question of God. It is in our wrestling with matters of ultimate concern that God is testified to as the Ground of our Being. Therefore Tillich can say that the honest atheist actually testifies to God in her very rejection of God (which is nothing more than a conditioned manifestation of God from a particular human tradition). In his own words:
In such concern the God who is absent as an object of faith [in the honest atheist] is present as the source of a restlessness which asks the ultimate question, the question of the meaning of our existence. This God is not seen in a particular image by him who is in doubt about any possible image of God. The absent God, the source of the question and the doubt about himself, is neither the God of theism or pantheism; he is neither the God of the Christians nor of the Hindus; he is neither the God of the naturalists nor of the idealists. All these forms of the divine image have been swallowed by the waves of radical doubt. What is left is only the inner necessity of a man to ask the ultimate question with complete seriousness. He himself may not call the source of this inner necessity God. He probably will not. But those who have had a glimpse of the working of the divine Presence, know that one could not even ask the ultimate question without the Presence, even if it makes itself felt only as the absence of God. The God above God is a name for God who appears in the radicalism and the seriousness of the ultimate question, even without an answer.
There are a ton of implications of thinking about God in this way. I’ll highlight two that Tillich draws out.
First, this means that the sacred/secular divide disappears. Tillich argues that religion exists because we feel threatened by the finitude and transitory nature of our own existence. We create a sphere of life called “the sacred” which is characterized by infinity and eternality and we attempt to ascend to this sphere by means of religion in order to give our lives meaning. But, Tillich says, if we became united with the Ground of our Being then we would have no need for religion–all of life would be recognized for what it is: sacred.
Second, we must transcend the symbols of our own religious tradition. To hold too tightly to our own traditional way of talking about God is to mistake the conditional for the unconditional. This does not mean that we ought to be embarrassed of our inherited tradition, whatever it may be. It means, rather, that when we talk about God using the symbols that our particular tradition hands us we understand our language for what it is: conditioned. It means that we hold our understanding of God with open hands, acknowledging that there are other ways of talking about the divine. It means that we are generous towards those who do talk about God using different symbols or those who reject the notion of God all together. It means we recognize that the plurality of perspectives of the divine testify to something brooding below all the varying symbols and traditions, something unconditional, namely, the Ground of all Being.