God Above God
Throughout most of his works Paul Tillich provides an apologetic and alternative ontological view of God. Traditional medieval philosophical theology in the work of figures such as St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham tended to understand God as the highest existing Being, to which predicates such as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, goodness, righteousness, holiness, etc. may be ascribed. Arguments for and against the existence of God presuppose such an understanding of God. Tillich is critical of this mode of discourse which he refers to as "theological theism," and argues that if God is a Being, even if the highest Being, God cannot be properly called the source of all being, and the question can of course then be posed as to why God exists, who created God, when God's beginning is, and so on. To put the issue in traditional language: if God is a being, then God is a creature, even if the highest one, and thus cannot be the Creator. Rather, God must be understood as the "ground of Being-Itself". The problem persists in the same way when attempting to determine whether God is an eternal essence, or an existing being, neither of which are adequate, as traditional theology was well aware. When God is understood in this way, it becomes clear that not only is it impossible to argue for the "existence" of God, since God is beyond the distinction between essence and existence, but it is also foolish: one cannot deny that there is being, and thus there is a Power of Being. The question then becomes whether and in what way personal language about God and humanity's relationship to God is appropriate. In distinction to "theological theism", Tillich refers to another kind of theism as that of the "divine-human encounter". Such is the theism of the encounter with the "Holy Other", as in the work of Karl Barth and Rudolf Otto, and implies a personalism with regard to God's self-revelation. Tillich is quite clear that this is both appropriate and necessary, as it is the basis of the personalism of Biblical Religion altogether and the concept of the "Word of God", but can become falsified if the theologian tries to turn such encounters with God as the Holy Other into an understanding of God as a being. In other words, God is both personal and transpersonal.
Tillich's ontological view of God is not without precedent in the history of Christian theology. Many theologians, especially in the period denoted by scholars as the Hellenistic or Patristic period of Christian theology, that of the Church Fathers, understood God as the "unoriginate source" (agennetos) of all being. This was the view, in particular, of the theologian Origen, one among the crowd of thinkers by whom Tillich was deeply influenced, and who themselves had shown notable influences from middle Platonism.
Tillich further argues that theological theism is not only logically problematic, but is unable to speak into the situation of radical doubt and despair about meaning in life, which is the primary problem typical of the modern age, as opposed to a fundamental anxiety about fate and death or guilt and condemnation. This is because the state of finitude entails by necessity anxiety, and that it is our finitude as human beings, our being a mixture of being and nonbeing, that is at the ultimate basis of anxiety. If God is not the ground of being itself, then God cannot provide an answer to the question of finitude; God would also be finite in some sense. The term "God Above God," then, means to indicate the God who appears, who is the ground of being itself, when the "God" of theological theism has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt. While on the one hand this God goes beyond the God of theological theism, it is nevertheless rooted in the religious symbols of Christian faith, particularly that of the crucified Christ, and is, according to Tillich, the possibility of the recovery of religious symbols which may otherwise have become ineffective in contemporary society.
Tillich argues that the God of theological theism is at the root of much revolt against theism and religious faith in the modern period. Tillich states, sympathetically, that the God of theological theism
deprives me of my subjectivity because he is all-powerful and all-knowing. I revolt and make him into an object, but the revolt fails and becomes desperate. God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in a machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. It is an atheism which is justified as the reaction against theological theism and its disturbing implications.
Another reason Tillich criticized theological theism was because it placed God into the subject-object dichotomy. This is the basic distinction made in Epistemology, that branch of Philosophy which deals with human knowledge, how it is possible, what it is, and its limits. Epistemologically, God cannot be made into an object, that is, an object of the knowing subject. Tillich deals with this question under the rubric of the relationality of God. The question is "whether there are external relations between God and the creature". Traditionally Christian theology has always understood the doctrine of creation to mean precisely this external relationality between God, the Creator, and the creature as separate and not identical realities. Tillich reminds us of the point, which can be found in Luther, that "there is no place to which man can withdraw from the divine thou, because it includes the ego and is nearer to the ego than the ego to itself". Tillich goes further to say that the desire to draw God into the subject-object dichotomy is an "insult" to the divine holiness. Similarly, if God were made into the subject rather than the object of knowledge (The Ultimate Subject), then the rest of existing entities then become subjected to the absolute knowledge and scrutiny of God, and the human being is "reified," or made into a mere object. It would deprive the person of his or her own subjectivity and creativity. According to Tillich, theological theism has provoked the rebellions found in atheism and Existentialism, although other social factors such as the industrial revolution have also contributed to the "reification" of the human being. The modern man could no longer tolerate the idea of being an "object" completely subjected to the absolute knowledge of God. Tillich argued, as mentioned, that theological theism is "bad theology".
The God of the theological theism is a being besides others and as such a part of the whole reality. He is certainly considered its most important part, but as a part and therefore as subjected to the structure of the whole. He is supposed to be beyond the ontological elements and categories which constitute reality. But every statement subjects him to them. He is seen as a self which has a world, as an ego which relates to a thought, as a cause which is separated from its effect, as having a definite space and endless time. He is a being, not being-itself"
Alternatively, Tillich presents the above mentioned ontological view of God as Being-Itself, Ground of Being, Power of Being, and occasionally as Abyss or God's "Abysmal Being". What makes Tillich's ontological view of God different from theological theism is that it transcends it by being the foundation or ultimate reality that "precedes" all beings. Just as Being for Heidegger is ontologically prior to conception, Tillich views God to be beyond Being-Itself, manifested in the structure of beings. God is not a supernatural entity among other entities. Instead, God is the ground upon which all beings exist. We cannot perceive God as an object which is related to a subject because God precedes the subject-object dichotomy.
Thus Tillich dismisses a literalistic Biblicism. Instead of rejecting the notion of personal God, however, Tillich sees it as a symbol that points directly to the Ground of Being. Since the Ground of Being ontologically precedes reason, it cannot be comprehended since comprehension presupposes the subject-object dichotomy. Tillich disagreed with any literal philosophical and religious statements that can be made about God. Such literal statements attempt to define God and lead not only to anthropomorphism but also to a philosophical mistake that Immanuel Kant warned against, that setting limits against the transcendent inevitably leads to contradictions. Any statements about God are simply symbolic, but these symbols are sacred in the sense that they function to participate or point to the Ground of Being. Tillich insists that anyone who participates in these symbols is empowered by the Power of Being, which overcomes and conquers nonbeing and meaninglessness.
Tillich also further elaborated the thesis of the God above the God of theism in his Systematic Theology.
… (the God above the God of theism) This has been misunderstood as a dogmatic statement of a pantheistic or mystical character. First of all, it is not a dogmatic, but an apologetic, statement. It takes seriously the radical doubt experienced by many people. It gives one the courage of self-affirmation even in the extreme state of radical doubt.
— Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, p.12
… In such a state the God of both religious and theological language disappears. But something remains, namely, the seriousness of that doubt in which meaning within meaninglessness is affirmed. The source of this affirmation of meaning within meaninglessness, of certitude within doubt, is not the God of traditional theism but the "God above God," the power of being, which works through those who have no name for it, not even the name God.
— Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, p.12
…This is the answer to those who ask for a message in the nothingness of their situation and at the end of their courage to be. But such an extreme point is not a space with which one can live. The dialectics of an extreme situation are a criterion of truth but not the basis on which a whole structure of truth can be built.
— Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, p.12
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“There are various, nay, incredible faiths; why should we be alarmed at any of them? What man believes, God believes.”
—Henry David Thoreau (18171862)