The Ground of All Being – High Gravity Pt. 4 (Tillich)

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 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 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.




Living As If God Did Not Exist: High Gravity pt. 3.5 (Bonhoeffer)

We ended our last discussion of Bonhoeffer by noting that the end of religion or the death of the religious god understood as the deus ex machina is a prerequisite for the emergence of the radical essence of Christianity.

Thus, I want to ask the following question in this post: What might the Church look like without religion?

I want to highlight three things about Bonhoeffer’s vision of a religionless Church: the first one has to do with our theology (how we understand God) and the second two have to do with our praxis (how this theology or understanding of God is enacted in the world).

So theology first.  According to Bonhoeffer’s cultural analysis, society lives without any need for God. Another way to say this is that our society has become thoroughly secular (this claim definitely reveals Bonhoeffer’s cultural and temporal context, although to some extent it still applies to our own). A great deal of modern people live as if there were no God. The way the Church has traditionally responded to this secularization is by attempting to carve out sacred space in a world that’s proving to be utterly profane. The Church has continued trying to find some area of life that is ‘unknowable’ or ‘mysterious’ to us and place God in this ‘gap’ of human knowledge or experience. For Bonhoeffer, this approach is doomed to failure. Instead of attempting to defend the god of the gaps, the deus ex machina, Bonhoeffer argues that the Church should, along with society, begin to live as if there were no God. In his own words:

And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [as if God did not exist]. And this is just what we do recognize – before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15.34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.

It becomes clear at this point that Bonhoeffer’s theology is thoroughly Jesus-centered. Specifically, the suffering of Jesus as described in the four canonical gospels is very important for his understanding of God. For Bonhoeffer, the cross forces us to acknowledge that the God of Christianity is a God of weakness and powerlessness. Ours is a God who suffers with humanity rather than standing far above the earth in utter transcendence, immutability and omnipotence.

So, if God has let himself be pushed out of the world and exists in the world only by means of his suffering with us then how are  we to live in the world in light of this fact?

One of the ways forward that Bonhoeffer suggests is that we must begin to talk about God without religious language. He brings up the work of New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann at this point who’s project was to “dymythologize” the New Testament. In essence, Bultmann believed that the truth of the gospel was couched in mythological language (resurrection, ascension, miracles, etc.) and so the task of the modern theologian was to get behind the culturally-bound myth in order to unveil the irreducible and universal truth behind it all. For Bonhoeffer, Bultmann’s project did not go “too far” (something that many conservatives accused Bultmann of doing) but rather, did not go far enough. Bultmann attempted to chuck language of miracles, ascension, etc. out the window but he kept language of God. Bonhoeffer suggests that God, too, must be demythologized.

[Aside: Pete mentioned something interesting at this point in the lecture. He said that people love to demythologize hell but that we hesitate to do the same with heaven. In other words, it’s in vogue to talk about hell as a “this-worldly” reality, something that should be understood, not as a place that bad people go to after death, but as a way of life in the here and now that people choose to live in; a life of selfishness, suffering and pride (think Rob Bell in Love Wins). But heaven? Are we willing to demythologize heaven? Are we willing to give up heaven as a place that we go to after we die? The same could be true about Satan who, in many liberal circles, is not understood as a metaphysical being but rather as more of a force or a set of systems and structures that work to create division, rivalry and war between various people groups. But God? “Oh yeah,” say the demythologizers, “God is still a metaphysical being.” Could there be a double standard operating here?]

To demythologize God, I think, is to speak of God in a way that has everything to do with this world. We cannot relegate God to an other-worldly or heavenly realm. Bonhoeffer connects with Heidegger here as they both call us to move away from abstraction and metaphysical speculation.

This leads to the last thing I want to highlight from Bonhoeffer: the Church after religion is utterly “this-worldly” and must exist for the world. Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the incarnation is that God has, once and for all time, taken up residence here on the Earth in all its suffering, messiness and dirtiness. Additionally, the resurrection, rather than being an escape from this world, is God’s way of sending a renewed humanity back into the world. Again, Bonhoeffer in his own words:

The difference between the Christian hope of resurrection and the mythological hope [that saves humanity to an other-worldly paradise] is that the former sends a man back to his life on earth in a wholly new way which is even more sharply defined than it is in the Old Testament. The Christian, unlike the devotees of the redemption myths, has no last line of escape available from earthly tasks and difficulties into the eternal, but, like Christ himself (‘My God, why hast thou forsaken me?’), he must drink the earthly cup to the dregs, and only in his doing so is the crucified and risen Lord with him, and he crucified and risen with Christ. This world must not be prematurely written off; in this the Old and New Testaments are at one. Redemption myths arise from human boundary-experiences, but Christ takes hold of a man at the centre of his life.

Thus, to be Christian is not to rise above this world but to be fully human in the world. The Christian recognizes the divine in the here and now, in mundane, every day tasks and in encounters with our neighbor. The Christian suffers with the world to the very end rather than retreating to a paradise in an attempt to escape from  the world. The Christian lives without using religious language to describe God because God, rather than being a metaphysical capital ‘B’ Being of omnipotence up in the sky, is to be found in the depth of human experience right here, right now–in suffering and table fellowship and folding laundry.

The way Bonhoeffer puts it, “God would have us know that we must live as [people] who manage our lives without him.” Once we accept this, we are freed up to fully embrace life with all its imperfections and as we do so we find God in the midst of our daily living.

Religion, as it is defined by Bonhoeffer, has us looking for God in a blissful heaven that’s out of this world. The radical  Christian affirmation, however, is that God forsook this heavenly bliss to come and dwell among us. God isn’t to be found anywhere but right here in our midst. The transcendence of God is immanently present.

Dasein, The Second Coming and The Nature of God: High Gravity Pt. 2 (Heidegger)

Week two of High Gravity is complete and so it’s time to digest a bit of what was discussed. We looked at the German continental philosopher Martin Heidegger in his work entitled “The Phenomenology of Religious Life.” In this work Heidegger begins to outline his philosophy of phenomenology which he later expands in his magnum opus Being and Time. He does so by examining Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians through his own philosophical lens.

Heidegger is not easy to understand. In fact, if it weren’t for Pete and Tripp’s conversation about this work I would have been left in the dark concerning what he was trying to accomplish. The reason why Heidegger is so difficult to understand is because he creates new language in an attempt to get us thinking in ways that we’re not used to thinking.

Much of Heidegger could be understood as a critique of the scientific worldview of the post-Enlightenment era. What science had us do was examine the relationship between objects. The scientist (subject) examined natural phenomena (objects) in order to come to an understanding of the way the world works. Heidegger saw this way of looking at the world as fundamentally flawed. For Heidegger, before we even begin to experience the world through the subject-object lens we find ourselves fully immersed in the world.

A few examples that Pete used to illustrate this point:

When a carpenter uses a hammer it is almost as if the hammer doesn’t exist for the carpenter; it simply becomes an extension of his own self. It’s not until the hammer breaks that the hammer is then examined as an object by the carpenter.

In the same way, when you’re video chatting with a friend over the internet you can almost forget that you are separated by a distance. It’s not until your internet cuts out that you remember that you are talking at a screen.

So this sense of being fully immersed in the world, what Heidegger called dasein (a German word literally meaning “being there”)is fundamental for Heidegger.

In order to play out what Heidegger means by dasein he turns to Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. In looking at this letter Heidegger is not concerned with what Paul believed about God but rather, how Paul experienced the world and how Paul was experienced by his community.

In this part of our lecture there were a number of things that struck a chord for me. I’ll share two.

For Paul, the past and the future collapse into and are embodied in the present moment. Thus, the notion of conversion for Paul, rather than being something that happened in the past, lives on as a living memory in the present.

In the same way, the second coming of Christ is not discussed as an objective future event in Paul.  In fact, in 1 Thessalonians Paul does not speculate about when the second coming will take place. Doing so would be a mistake because when something is relegated to the future you can distance yourself from it and remain unaffected. For example, if I’m my homework is due in two weeks then I can put it off until the night before. This is precisely what Paul is trying to avoid. So rather than speculating about the time of the second coming, Paul simply assumes that his audience experiences its immanence in their own lives and then calls them to be affected by this experience. The second coming for Paul is something that lays claim on the present moment; it’s embodied in the life of the believer in the here and now.

Another way of putting all of this is that Heidegger sees in Paul a move away from abstraction (the second coming will happen at some point in the distant future) to temporal enactment (how are you living the second coming right now?).

This comes out in the way Heidegger conceives of God as well. Rather than speculating about the metaphysical nature of God, Heidegger is more interested in the way God is experienced by the Christian in everyday life and the way in which God is embodied in the life of the believer. The word “Being” is not a word that Heidegger would have us use to describe God because in doing so we would fall back into the subject-object distinction that Heidegger wants to avoid (I, the subject, examine and attempt to understand God the capital ‘B’ Being [object] ). This radical rejection of God as Being lays the foundation for later thinkers like Caputo to imagine God in other terms (like God as “Event” – cf. Caputo’s The Weakness of God).

Ultimately, this all comes back to dasein, our full immersion in our own existence.

Anywho, Heidegger was fun. Next week we look at Bonhoeffer’s Religionless Christianity.

Faith Beyond the Masters of Suspicion: High Gravity Pt. 1 (Ricoeur)

One of the ways in which I’m nerding out this summer is by participating in an online course on the Radical Theology tradition. It’s put on by Tripp Fuller over at Homebrewed Christianity as well as author and post-modern philosopher Pete Rollins. Each week we read a passage from someone who’s contributed to the Radical Theology tradition before posting our questions and areas of clarification on a discussion board. Tripp and Pete then take up the questions in a lecture that introduces the thinker and his contributions to the tradition. It’s been a fantastic experience of alternative education thus far and I’m really looking forward to the rest of it.

I want to take some time to blog through some of the insights I pick up from the readings as well as the lectures so that I can both better internalize the content and broaden the conversation to include those who read the posts on my blog. Much of the content is pretty dense and difficult to wade through especially if you’re not versed in philosophical concepts and jargon. The two pieces we’ve read thus far, one from Paul Ricoeur and another from Martin Heidegger, were not easy for me to grasp (although the lecture definitely helped!) given my lack of experience in the realm of the primary sources of philosophy. For these reasons, what I want to do here is not provide an exhaustive introduction to the thinker and the piece that I read for the course (I don’t feel qualified to do so) but rather just highlight a few insights and offer some commentary when necessary.

We began the course by reading two essays by the French thinker Paul Ricoeur entitled “The Critique of Religion” in which he discusses who he calls the masters of suspicion (MoS), namely, Marx, Nietzsche and Freud and the implications of their critiques of religion for the Christian and, the second essay, “The Language of Faith” in which he attempts to formulate a way for us to use religious language in a world that has internalized the critique of the MoS.

Ricoeur begins by touching on the critiques of each of the MoS.

(What follows is obviously a gross oversimplification of the critiques of the three MoS. Feel free to add to and/or nuance each of the critiques I summarize in the comments)

For Marx, religion is used as a mechanism of oppression. Those who are submissive in this life are said to be rewarded with a paradise in the next and those who are in power in this life are given an ideological foundation for their spot at the top of the hierarchy of classes. Thus, religion rewards the passivity of those in the working class who, rather than submitting to the oppressive ruling class in the name of obedience to God, ought to be engaging in a revolution aimed at overthrowing them.

Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity comes out in a quote that Tripp read for us in the lecture:

“Belief in what? In love with what? In hope for what?—There’s no doubt that these weak people—at some time or another they also want to be the strong people, some day their “kingdom” is to arrive—they call it simply “the kingdom of God” as I mentioned. People are indeed so humble about everything! Only to experience that, one has to live a long time, beyond death—in fact, people must have an eternal life, so they can also win eternal recompense in the “kingdom of God” for that earthly life “in faith, in love, in hope.” Recompense for what? Recompense through what? In my view, Dante was grossly in error when, with an ingenuity inspiring terror, he set that inscription over the gateway into his hell: “Eternal love also created me.” Over the gateway into the Christian paradise and its “eternal blessedness” it would, in any event, be more fitting to let the inscription stand “Eternal hate also created me”—provided it’s all right to set a truth over the gateway to a lie! For what is the bliss of that paradise? Perhaps we might have guessed that already, but it is better for it to be expressly described for us by an authority we cannot underestimate in such matters, Thomas Aquinas, the great teacher and saint: “In the kingdom of heaven” he says as gently as a lamb, “the blessed will see the punishment of the damned, so that they will derive all the more pleasure from their heavenly bliss.”

Thus, for Nietzsche when Christians claim that they love those whom they say will be damned they are merely perpetuating a delusion. Underneath, our talk of love is really a deep-seated hatred of the other. Nietzshe called this the “will behind the will.”

Freud’s critique is that religion is really a means of satisfying humanity’s hidden desires. In other words, religion is nothing more than a coping mechanism in the face of our worst fears (like fear of death) or a way for us to superficially satisfy our deepest longings.

It’s been my experience that many well-meaning Christians respond to these potent critiques of Christianity in one of two ways:

  1. They ignore them. By plugging your ears to the most cogent critiques of Christianity you never have to face the holes in your own belief system.
  2. They dismiss them as atheists who don’t have anything true to offer us.

For Ricoeur both of these responses are unacceptable. If one is to have a genuine faith in the modern world one must pass through the brutal critique of the MoS and somehow come out on the other side. If this is not done then we’re left with nothing more than a shallow faith that holds no water in a world that has thoroughly internalized and accepted as true the critiques of the MoS. In other words, we as Christians must face the facts: our faith is often a mask that is covering something unhealthy at best or, at worst, sinister that’s going on beneath the surface.

In order for us to move forward we must begin to dream of what faith looks like beyond the critiques of the MoS. We must acknowledge the ways in which our own faith has indeed been a means of oppression or of masking our secret hatred or of coping with our deep-seated fears.

In what ways have you seen these critiques operating in the lives of Christians?

What might faith look like on the other side of the MoS?