The love from above

Man can love himself in terms of self-acceptance only if he is certain that he is accepted. Otherwise his self-acceptance is self-complacency and arbitrariness. Only in the light and in the power of the ‘love from above’ can he love himself. This implies the answer to the question of man’s justice towards himself. He can be just towards himself only in so far as ultimate justice is done to him, namely the condemning, forgiving, and giving judgement of ‘justification’. The condemning element in justification makes self-complacency impossible, the forgiving element saves from self-condemnation and despair, the giving element provides for a Spiritual centre which unites the elements of our personal self and makes power over oneself possible.

–Paul Tillich, Love, Power, and Justice

The evangelical liberalism of Georgia Harkness

A common story about 20th century American theology is that liberalism dominated in the early decades, but gradually vanished in the face of more conservative or orthodox alternatives. Theological modernism and the Social Gospel movement seemed to be the wave of the future, but they were swept away by the winds of Barthian neo-orthodoxy blowing in from Europe and by Reinhold Niebuhr’s devastating criticism of liberalism’s naive moralism and shallow optimism about human sin. As the story goes, liberalism has been in decline ever since, as evidenced by the dwindling numbers of mainline church-goers and the resurgence of a newly confident conservative evangelicalism.

Of course, as folks like Gary Dorrien have pointed out, this story oversimplifies things quite a bit. Liberalism has never completely died out, and some of the most creative theological minds of the last several decades have been those working in the liberal tradition. Moreover, Dorrien has shown how putative critics of liberalism like Niebuhr and Paul Tillich were actually working within the liberal tradition, even as they criticized the forms it took during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A less-known but still important figure who never abandoned the liberal tradition was pioneering Methodist theologian Georgia Harkness (1891-1974). She was the first woman to attain a full professorship at a theological seminary in the U.S. and was a life-long proponent of theological liberalism, albeit a “chastened” liberalism. Harkness began her career as a philosopher, studying at Boston University under the renowned personalist philosopher Edgar S. Brightman, did postdoctorate studies under Alfred North Whitehead, and refined her views through interactions with Niebuhr and Tillich as part of the “Younger Theologians Group” and during a sabbatical at Union Theological Seminary.

“I am still a liberal, unrepentant and unashamed.”

Harkness was also active in reform movements in church and society. She was an unflagging proponent of the Social Gospel and maintained her pacifist convictions even during World War II. She was also heavily involved in the Christian ecumenical movement, attending important conferences in Oxford; Madras, India; and Amsterdam. Notably, at one ecumenical church meeting she debated Karl Barth himself on the subject of women’s equality.

So what was the nature of Harkness’ theological liberalism? In her introduction to the excellent collection Georgia Harkness: The Remaking of a Liberal Theologian, Rebekah Miles explains Harkness’ theological outlook using an image developed by fellow liberal Henry Van Dusen. Theological liberalism has two “parents”: modernism–the critical, rationalist spirit derived from the Enlightenment–and evangelicalism–with its emphasis on experiential religion and spiritual transformation. Different liberal theologies share a “family resemblance” in that they contain varying mixtures of both tendencies.

According to Miles, during the critical years from 1929 to 1940, Harkness’s thought shifted from a modernist form of liberalism toward a more evangelical type. An evangelical liberal in this sense accepts the findings of science and critical history; she also sees a continuity, or at least consistency, between God’s general revelation in nature and special revelation in the Bible.  But at the same time, the clearest, most reliable revelation of God’s nature is found in the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as witnessed to in the New Testament. Evangelical liberalism is open to insights from a variety of sources but is grounded in the living Christ of the gospels.

Harkness adopted what she called a “synoptic” approach to theological truth, one that, fittingly, echoes the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral. All sources of knowledge–authority, experience, science, logic, and pragmatism–should inform our thinking about God. She rejected any exclusive reliance on churchly authority, bibilcal proof-texting, spiritual experience, or natual reason as the basis for theological truth. Instead, she argued that all of these sources have value, but only as sifted through what she called “the mind of Christ.” By this she meant both the image and teachings of Jesus as presented the gospels and the “indwelling spiritual Christ.” Harkness refused to separate the “Jesus of history” from the “Christ of faith.” With Christ as the lens, these other sources of truth receive their proper focus.

In her own recounting of how her mind had changed over the years, Harkness emphasized her shift to a more Christ-centered religion, but at the same time reaffirmed her commitment to liberalism:

Ten years ago I was a liberal in theology. I am still a liberal, unrepentant and unashamed. This does not mean that I have seen nothing in liberalism that needed correction. We were in danger of selling out to science as the only approach to truth, of trusting to hopefully in man’s power to remake his world, of forgetting the profound fact of sin and the redeeming power of divine grace, of finding our chief evidence of God in cosmology, art or human personality, to the clouding of the clearer light of the incarnation. Liberalism needed to see in the Bible something more than a collection of moral adages and a compendium of great literature. It needed to see in Christ something more than a great figure living sacrificially and dying for his convictions. It needed to be recalled to the meaning of the cross and the power of the resurrection.

These correctives have come to us. I do not think liberalism ever had as many utopian illusions as it is now customary in retrospect to attribute to it, but its self-confidence has been challenged both by events and by theological trends. With many others in America I have profited from the currents coming out of continental Europe and too superficially called Barthian. These have come to me through books, but more though the forceful personalities of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich–men with whom I do not agree very far but by whom I am stirred to rethink my faith. They have come at Oxford and Madras through wrestling with continental theology for the liberalism which I believe to have the truth.

My liberalism is, I trust, a chastened and deepened liberalism. But I am more convinced than ever I was before that God reveals himself in many ways and that only through the spirit of free inquiry can Christian faith go forward. I believe in the essential greatness of man, in a social gospel which calls us to action as co-workers with God in the redemptive process, in a Kingdom which will come in this world by growth as Christians accept responsibility in the spirit of the cross. My Christian faith has its central focus, not in Paul’s theology or Luther’s or Calvin’s, but in the incarnation of God in the Jesus of the Gospels. (from “A Spiritual Pilgrimage: Ninth Article in the Series ‘How My Mind Has Changed in This Decade,'” Christian Century 56 (Mar. 15, 1939), excerpted in Miles, ed., Georgia Harkness, pp. 19-20.)

In my view, this combination of openness to critical thought, commitment to social reform, and an emphasis on a personal, life-changing encounter with the risen Christ still has much to contribute the church and the world.

Favorite books read in 2013

This is not based on any kind of rigorous methodology;  these are just the books I enjoyed and/or that “stuck with me” the most throughout the year. As should be obvious, these were not necessarily books published in 2013.


Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

I decided to start reading this late last year after seeing the film version starring Keira Knightley. I’m frankly in awe of it, and nothing I can say will do it justice. But the thing that probably struck me the most was Tolstoy’s ability to draw fully realized characters and make the reader truly view the world from their perspective (including, in one case, a dog!). I can see why some people have compared Tolstoy to God: he intimately knows and truly loves each of his characters (sometimes, one senses, in spite of himself). And I haven’t even mentioned the delicately intertwining stories, the astonishingly clear and beautiful scenes Tolstoy draws, the social commentary, and the philosophical and religious musings. Basically, this book deserves every bit of its reputation as one of the greatest novels ever written.

True Grit, Charles Portis

I’d seen both movie versions, but had never read the book. Portis’s unforgettable characters, deadpan dialogue, and tightly constructed plot made this a hugely enjoyable read.


The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics, James Oakes

Oakes’ recounting of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged around a particular brand of antislavery politics isn’t just a fascinating story about two important figures at a pivotal point in American history (it is that, though!). It also serves as a rebuttal of sorts to radicals of every stripe who think they’re too pure for the grubby business of electoral politics.

Systematic Theology, vols. 1 and 2, Paul Tillich

I disagree profoundly with some of Tillich’s basic theological positions, but his thought remains, nearly 20 years after I first read him, a source of stimulation and insight.

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills

I’m not sure Wills persuaded me of his main thesis, namely, that Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg was, in effect, an ideological re-founding of the Republic. But his erudition is undeniable, and his analysis of the address in light of classical and contemporary examples of funeral oratory is extremely illuminating. He also writes like a dream.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, Francis Spufford

Spufford avoids nearly every cliche of contemporary religion writing and provides the freshest take on Christian faith I’ve read in ages. Sharp, funny, and heartfelt without being sappy. As I said in my “non-review,” I think Spufford captures how many of us in the “post-Christian” West experience our faith.

How Much Is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky

This father-and-son team (an economist and philosopher, respectively) ask why the richest societies in history have so much inequality and so little genuine leisure. They blame a combination of political and philosophical failures, and argue for recovering a broadly Aristotelian concept of the good life than can help us get off the production-and-consumption treadmill. Their skewering of trendy “happiness” research and its associated policy prescriptions alone is worth the price of admission. Also worth noting is their critique of liberal “neutrality” regarding the good life.

I’ve got a couple of books going now, and if any finish any before December 31st that blow me away, maybe I’ll update this. Also, looking this over, I realize that I really need to read more books not written by white men.

Paul Tillich for Reformation Day

On “justification by grace through faith”:

A word must be said about the expression “Justification by grace through faith.” It is often used in the abbreviated form of “Justification by faith.” But this is extremely misleading, for it gives the impression that faith is an act of man by which he merits Justification. This is a total and disastrous distortion of the doctrine of Justification. The cause is God alone (by grace), but the faith that one is accepted is the channel through which grace is mediated to man (through faith). (Systematic Theology, vol. 2, p. 179)

On the “Protestant principle”:

How can a faith which has doubt as an element within itself be united with creedal statements of the community of faith? The answer can only be that creedal expressions of the ultimate concern of the community must include their own criticism. It must become obvious in all of them–be they liturgical, doctrinal or ethical expressions of the faith of the community–that they are not ultimate. Rather, their function is to point to the ultimate which is beyond all of them. This is what I call the “Protestant principle,” the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith. Neither the doubt nor the critical element is always actual, but both must always be possible within the circle of faith. From the Christian point of view, one would say that the Church with all its doctrines and institutions and authorities stands under the prophetic judgment and not above it. Criticism and doubt show that the community of faith stands “under the Cross,” if the Cross is understood as the divine judgment over man’s religious life, and even over Christianity, though it has accepted the sign of the Cross. (Dynamics of Faith, p. 33)

Needless to say, contemporary Protestant churches frequently fall short both by treating faith as a “work” we perform to earn God’s favor and by absolutizing expressions of their faith–doctrinal, moral, institutional, or whatever. But the Reformation message of God’s free and unconditional grace is meant to free us from reliance on our works–including our religious works–and our tendency to turn them into idols.

Christianity is not inherently right-wing

To those of us of a more moderate or liberal disposition, the tendency of conservative Christians to identify right-wing politics with Christianity per se is a source of no small irritation. Today at Salon, Elizabeth Stoker and Matt Bruenig point out that the American Christian Right’s approach to wealth and poverty is an outlier when compared with Christian attitudes in other parts of the world:

The notable exclusion of poverty from the Christian agenda would doubtlessly puzzle European Christians, whose support of Christian ethical approaches to family life have always been paired with a deep and vigorous concern for the poor. And, unlike their American counterparts, European Christians haven’t been willing to leave poverty up to individual charity or the market to handle. Quite the contrary: Just as public morality is an arena fit for intervention by a Christian-informed government, so too is welfare.

The case is only bolstered if you take Catholic social teaching, Latin American liberation theology, or other non-American traditions into account. The identification of Christianity with laissez-faire economics appears to be a peculiarly American phenomenon.

In a similar vein, in an interview with (somewhat ironically) the American Conservative, novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson stands up for the much-derided tradition of liberal Christianity:

Well, what is a Christian, after all? Can we say that most of us are defined by the belief that Jesus Christ made the most gracious gift of his life and death for our redemption? Then what does he deserve from us? He said we are to love our enemies, to turn the other cheek. Granted, these are difficult teachings. But does our most gracious Lord deserve to have his name associated with concealed weapons and stand-your-ground laws, things that fly in the face of his teaching and example? Does he say anywhere that we exist primarily to drive an economy and flourish in it? He says precisely the opposite. Surely we all know this. I suspect that the association of Christianity with positions that would not survive a glance at the Gospels or the Epistles is opportunistic, and that if the actual Christians raised these questions those whose real commitments are to money and hostility and potential violence would drop the pretense and walk away.

Liberal Christianity undoubtedly has its problems. But even some of the theological critics of liberalism–like the Niebuhr brothers and Paul Tillich–were not “conservatives” in contemporary political terms. They were decidedly men of the Left, even while they critiqued liberal theology’s tendency toward sentimentality and moralism. To Tillich, for example, love and justice were inseparable, and the political expression of the Kingdom of God would be some form of democratic socialism. In fact, I have a hard time thinking of a major modern or contemporary theologian who is a full-blown right-winger.

Tillich: Why the “historical Jesus” is not the foundation of faith

Paul Tillich’s discussion of historical Jesus research in volume 2 of his Systematic Theology is a minor tour de force and could still apply today without too much change. The problem of historical Jesus research, Tillich says, is that you can’t get “behind” the New Testament documents to the “real” historical Jesus of Nazareth because the records we have were shaped in very fundamental ways by the authors’ conviction that Jesus was the Christ. And any overall “portrait” of the historical Jesus is likely to be heavily dependent on which specific facts about or sayings of Jesus one takes to be historical. (For example, if one thinks that the historical Jesus applied the title “Son of Man” to himself, this will have a big effect on one’s overall picture of him.) Historical research can, at best, provide statements of greater or lesser probability. As Tillich notes bluntly, “The search for the historical Jesus was an attempt to discover a minimum of reliable facts about the man Jesus of Nazareth, in order to provide a safe foundation for the Christian faith. This attempt was a failure” (p. 105).

One attempt to get around this was to shift the focus away from the facts about Jesus and onto his words, or teachings. This was done in one of two ways. First, they can be regarded as general moral truths or insights into human nature. “As such, they belong to law, prophecy, or Wisdom literature such as is found in the Old Testament. They may transcend all three categories in terms of depth and power; but they do not transcend them in terms of character” (pp. 105-6). The second, “more profound” approach is to focus on Jesus’ announcement of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God. This is not a set of general rules, but a “concrete demand,” and the proper response is to decide for the Kingdom.

The problem with both approaches, Tillich says, is that neither one addresses the existential predicament of human beings–our estrangement from God. This isn’t something we can overcome through our own efforts. What we need is not a new law or a new set of teachings, but a new form of existence:

But neither method can answer the question of wherein lies the power to obey the teachings of Jesus or to make the decision for the Kingdom of God. This these methods cannot do because the answer must come from a new reality, which, according to the Christian message, is the New Being in Jesus as the Christ. The Cross is the symbol of a gift before it is the symbol of a demand. But, if this is accepted, it is impossible to retreat from the being of the Christ to his words. The last avenue of the search for the historical Jesus is barred, and the failure of the attempt to give a foundation to the Christian faith through historical research becomes obvious. (p. 106)

The only foundation for Christian faith, Tillich argues, is “the appearance of that reality which has created the faith” (p. 114).

This reality is the New Being, who conquers existential estrangement and thereby makes faith possible. This alone faith is able to guarantee–and that because its own existence is identical with the presence of the New Being. Faith itself is the immediate (not mediated by conclusions) evidence of the New Being within and under the conditions of existence. Precisely that is guaranteed by the very nature of the Christian faith. No historical criticism can question the immediate awareness of those who find themselves transformed into the state of faith. (p. 114)

In other words, the experience of the “New Being”–Tillich’s term for the state of overcoming the forces of sin and estrangement–is itself its own warrant. It requires no outside justification.

But surely this has something to do with Jesus? Otherwise, what makes this specifically Christian? Tillich says that the “power which has created and preserved the community of the New Being is not an abstract statement about its appearance; it is the picture of him in whom it has appeared (p. 114). Specifically he means the picture of Jesus in the New Testament. This isn’t an “empirically factual” portrait like the one a historian might attempt. It is the record of the impact Jesus had on those who first encountered and were transformed by him. Tillich says there is an “analogy between the picture and the actual personal life from which it has arisen”:

It was this reality, when encountered by the disciples, which created the picture. And it was, and still is, this picture which mediates the transforming power of the New Being. One can compare the analogia imaginis suggested here with the analogia entis–not as a method of knowing God but as a way (actually the only way) of speaking of God. In both cases it is impossible to push behind the analogy and to state directly what can be stated only indirectly, that is, symbolically in the knowledge of God and mediated through faith in the knowledge of Jesus. But this indirect, symbolic, and mediated character of our knowledge does not diminish its truth-value. For in both cases what is given to us as material for our indirect knowledge is dependent on the object of our knowledge. The symbolic material through which we speak about God is an expression of the divine self-manifestation, and the mediated material which is given to us in the biblical picture of the Christ is the result of the reception of the New Being and its transforming power on the part of the first witnesses. The concrete biblical material is not guaranteed by faith in respect to empirical factuality; but it is guaranteed as an adequate expression of the transforming power of the New Being in Jesus as the Christ. (p. 115)

Just as the symbols we use about God can mediate God’s self-manifestation, the picture of Christ in the New Testament can mediate the “New Being” of which he is the bearer. The only possible validation of this is the experience of being transformed. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as it were.

The positions Tillich criticized live on in contemporary Christianity. More conservative Christians sometimes use historical research as a basis of apologetics, on the assumption that establishing certain historical facts about Jesus can prove, or at least provide warrant for, theological claims. On the other side of the spectrum, more liberal or progressive Christians sometimes try to identify a core set of “teachings of Jesus” that can be detached from the claims the New Testament makes about his status as the Christ. Tillich would argue that both of these approaches are doomed to failure because they try to build faith on varying degrees of historical probability.

Tillich: beyond naturalism and supranaturalism

At the beginning of the second volume of his Systematic Theology, Paul Tillich provides a recap of the major themes of the first volume, in part to address criticisms he had received since its publication. In particular, Tillich discusses his doctrine of God. He characterizes the “basic intention” of his position as an attempt to go “beyond naturalism and supranaturalism.”

Tillich identifies three ways of interpreting the meaning of “God.” The first treats God as “the highest being” who “brought the universe into being at a certain moment (five thousand or five billion years ago), governs it according to a plan, directs it toward an end, interferes with its ordinary processes in order to overcome resistance and fulfil his purpose, and will bring it to consummation in a final catastrophe” (p. 6). The problem with this view, according to Tillich, is that it “transforms the infinity of God into a finiteness which is merely an extension of the categories of finitude” (p. 6). In other words, it treats God as a being alongside other beings, one cause among many, etc. He says this view fails to adequately respect “the infinity of the infinite, and the inviolability of created structures of the finite” (p. 6). There is a qualitative difference between God and the created order.

The second position is “naturalism,” which “identifies God with the universe, with its essence or with special powers within it” (p. 6). This is not the same as simply identifying God with the “totality of things,” which would be absurd. But its God is the “dynamic and creative center of reality”–the deus sive natura of pantheistic thinkers like Baruch Spinoza. For Tillich, however, naturalism also “denies the infinite distance between the whole of finite things and their infinite ground, with the consequence that the term ‘God’ becomes interchangeable with the term ‘universe’ and therefore is semantically superfluous” (p. 7). An essential element in human religious experience, Tillich maintains, is that the holy can be encountered as a numinous presence set over against us.


Tillich proposes a “third way”–which he insists is not new, but a position found, albeit not always clearly, in the great theologians of the tradition. It emphasizes both God’s immanence and God’s transcendence. Against supranaturalism, God is not one being among others, even if the highest, but “the creative ground of everything that has being” or “the infinite and unconditional power of being.” God is “neither alongside things nor even ‘above’ them; he is nearer to them than they are to themselves” (p. 7). At the same time, parting ways with naturalism, Tillich insists that God “infinitely transcends that of which he is the ground” (p. 7). There is a certain mutual freedom between God and creation such that creatures can encounter God as something “outside” of themselves.

Moreover, this freedom creates the possibility of creaturely alienation from God. If “God” simply named the power at the heart of the natural processes of the world, then it wouldn’t make sense to talk about human estrangement from God. Spatial imagery of God being “in” us, or “above” us can be misleading; but the concept of “finite freedom” allows us to say more precisely that created being is both “substantially independent of the divine ground” and yet “remains in substantial unity with it” (p. 8).

Tillich’s theology has sometimes been characterized (caricatured?) as atheism dressed up in religious symbolism. But I think it’s clear here (as elsewhere) that his intention, at least, was to affirm the reality of a transcendent God, even if he was dissatisfied with certain popular formulations of theism.

Slavery, divine judgment, and atonement

During my vacation I read James Oakes’ The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics. Oakes tells the story of how the radical abolitionist Douglass and the temperamental conservative Lincoln converged on a brand of antislavery politics that eventually resulted in the emancipation of America’s millions of slaves (via a bloody civil war, of course).

One thing that struck me was Oakes’ description of Douglass’ response to Lincoln’s second inaugural address. Douglass adhered to what Oakes describes as “a messianic Christianity in which a vengeful God commanded the bloody overthrow of the slave system.” In Lincoln’s speech, particularly its references to the war being a form of divine judgment on the nation, Douglass saw a vindication of his view.

Oakes points out, however, that there were differences between Douglass’ and Lincoln’s views of divine judgment. Douglass saw things in more black and white terms–slaveholders and those who enabled them were sinners, and God would judge them accordingly. Lincoln, meanwhile, saw the sin of slavery as something that both North and South bore responsibility for, and he held that neither side’s cause could be simply identified with the divine will. “The Almighty has His own purposes.”

(Of course, Lincoln, as a free white man, had the privilege of taking this “broader” view, while Douglass–a former slave–had first-hand knowledge of slavery’s evils. So you could see why Douglass was less inclined to magnanimity.)

But what really interested me about this was that divine judgment played an important role in both men’s thinking, even though they represented what would be considered the “progressive” position of their time, politically speaking. They were invoking God’s judgment–even wrath–in the service of social justice and equality. This contrasts with a lot of contemporary progressive theology, which seems uncomfortable at best with the notion of divine judgment. Instead, God is often portrayed in terms of unconditional acceptance or “hospitality.”

But can unconditional acceptance of oppressors–slaveholders, victimizers, or abusers–be at the same time hospitality for their victims? If God loves his creation, wouldn’t he be wrathful at seeing his creatures abused? (It was Elizabeth Johnson’s defense of divine wrath in her feminist theology She Who Is that first made me realize this was not necessarily a “conservative” position.)

Maybe this is why, despite the many critiques that have been leveled at it, I still find something worth holding on to in traditional “satisfaction” accounts of the atonement. As Paul Tillich has written, we relate to God both as Father and Lord–that is, as a loving Father with whom we can have an “I-thou” relationship, but also as the universal governor of the universe and upholder of the moral order. Tillich thought that the emphasis on God’s fatherhood to the exclusion of his lordship accounted in part for liberal theology’s neglect of what he calls the Pauline doctrine of the atonement.

Lincoln and Douglass both believed there was a moral order in the universe, upheld by divine governance and that this would ultimately doom slavery. But it’s less clear to me whether Lincoln, with his God of inscrutable judgment, or Douglass, with his God of vengeance, could make room for divine mercy. (At least in Oakes’ account, Christ didn’t seem to play much of a role in either one’s theology.)

For all the distortions, that’s what the Anselmian doctrine of atonement–and its many offshoots–tries to do: hold together mercy and justice. God wants to save his creatures but does it in a way that preserves the moral integrity of the creation. There is a price to be paid for sin, though the Christian message is that God, in the person of his Son, has paid it himself. I’m not sure the doctrine is entirely successful, but it at least points to a genuine problem.

Paul Tillich’s proto-“new perspective” on (the other) Paul

Luther believed that his was a restatement of the New Testament, especially of Paul. But although his message contains the truth of Paul, it is by no means the whole of what Paul said. The situation determined what he took from Paul, that is, the doctrine of justification by faith which was Paul’s defense against legalism. But Luther did not take in Paul’s doctrine of the Spirit. Of course, he did not deny it; there is even a lot of it in Luther, but that is not decisive. The decisive thing is that a doctrine of the Spirit, of being “in Christ”, of the new being, is the weak spot in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith. In Paul the situation is different. Paul has three main centers in his thought, which make it a triangle, not a circle. The one is his eschatological consciousness, the certainty that in Christ eschatology is fulfilled and a new reality has started. The second is his doctrine of the Spirit, which means for him that the kingdom of God has appeared, that the new being in Christ is given to us here and now. The third point in Paul is his critical defense against legalism, justification by faith. (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, pp. 230-1)

Like proponents of the “new perspective” on Paul, Tillich, Lutheran theologian though he was, saw the limitations of the traditional “Lutheran” interpretation of Paul’s theology. Tillich doesn’t deny that justification by faith is present in Paul’s thought–indeed it remains very important for Tillich’s own theology. But also important is the idea that Christ inaugurates a new age and that Christians “participate,” through the Spirit, in the life of the risen Christ (or the “new being,” to use Tillich’s preferred term).

Models of God and the Christian life

I’ve been thinking a lot lately–partly inspired by my recent reading of Schleiermacher and my re-reading of Paul Tillich–about how the way we “model” God affects our understanding of the Christian life.

As is well known, Tillich defined God as “the Ground of Being” or “being-itself.” These, he said, were the only non-literal terms applicable to God. Everything else, including personal categories, were symbols that do not apply literally to God.

Along similar lines, philosopher of religion Wesley Wildman has in several essays distinguished between what he calls “determinate entity” theism and “ground-of-being” theism. The former pictures God as an entity–usually personal in nature–with a definite character. The latter tends to portray God in more impersonal, mystical terms–as the non-anthropomorphic ontological “ground” or “abyss” that gives rise to the empirical world. Each way of thinking about God has its problems, but Wildman opts for ground-of-being theism.

The Christian tradition has always included both approaches. Wildman argues that the high medieval synthesis of Thomas Aquinas was in fact an attempt to articulate a personalistic theism within a mystical, neo-Platonic ground-of-being conceptual scheme. (He is skeptical that Thomas actually succeeded, calling this synthesis “paradoxical.”)

This isn’t just a theoretical issue; it has profound effects on how we understand the religious life. To paint with a somewhat broad brush, personalistic “determinate entity” theism tends to characterize the religious life in relational and moral terms. Salvation is being brought into a correct or restored relationship with God (for Christians this happens through the mediation of Christ), and expresses itself in concrete, public actions to serve the well-being of the neighbor. By contrast, “ground-of-being” theism sees the relationship to the divine in more impersonal, mystical terms–and emphasizes a more inward, contemplative approach to the religious life. (To oversimplify greatly, these can be understood as broadly “protestant” and “catholic” approaches.)

As I’ve said before, my general religious orientation is toward the personalistic, relational approach. This is in part because it seems more consistent with religious practice as I understand it. It’s very difficult for me to understand how one is supposed to pray to or receive a moral demand from “the ground of being,” for example. I’ve also been influenced here by John Wesley’s insistence that Christian holiness is social holiness–a journey outward into the world of the neighbor’s need, not an inward journey to the depths of the self.

But as Wildman notes, ground-of-being theism avoids certain problems that plague more personal understandings–such as the problem of evil. And “ground-of-being” metaphors help highlight the need to avoid excessive anthropomorphism in our thinking about God–which can exacerbate our tendency to create god in our own image. So are these necessarily exclusive ways of understanding God, or can they complement one another?