Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Reading Tillich 1

It is not an exaggeration to say that today man experiences his present situation in terms of disruption, conflict, self-destruction, meaninglessness, and despair in all realms of life. This experience is expressed in the arts and in literature, conceptualized in existential philosophy, actualized in political cleavages of all kinds, and analyzed in the psychology of the unconscious. It has given theology a new understanding of the demonic-tragic structures of individual and social life. The question arising out of this experience is not, as in the Reformation, the question of a merciful God and the forgiveness of sins; nor is it, as in the early Greek church, the question of finitude, of death and error; nor is it the question of personal religious life or of the Christianization of culture and society. It is the question of a reality in which the self-estrangement of our existence is overcome, a reality of reconciliation and reunion, of creativity, meaning and hope.
Systematic Theology 1, 49.
Tillich was even back in the fifties criticized because of this description of the experience of modern man. Many Americans asked were he got this gloomy outlook from, and it was suggested that he was describing the experience of living in Germany in the 20's rather than living in America in the 50's. Maybe it was an exaggeration to claim that this was what "man" experience, rather than just artists, philosophers and psychologists, as Tillich actually says.

55 years on, in what way do we need to modify this description? First of all, unlike in the fifties I think it is completely impossible to suggest that there is one experience that could be claimed to be even to a small degree universal. Our world has become much more fragmentized. We do not experience together any more, rather we experience as individuals.

Secondly, a major change compared to the world Tillich was addressing is that today the vast majority of people, in the western world anyway, actually very seldom encounters "reality" in the way Tillich seems to suggest. We are entertained into oblivion, and generally prefer to be fooled into believing that everything is OK.

What kind of question arises out of this situation? Well, I think Tillich's suggestion still holds up pretty well, there is still a deep self-estrangement at the core of our lives, but most of the time we do not experience it - we have found an antidote: television. Today theology needs to start with the question of responsibility, I think. The lack of responsibility over one's own life, the fear of taking charge of one's identity.


Steve Petermann said...

Hi Patrik,

Paul Tillich has been very important to me as well. When I was in Lutheran seminary many years ago it was both Tillich's systematic rigor and this theology of God in particular that influenced me the most.

I agree that times have changed since Tillich's day and theology must adapt to the new context. As you know Tillich would fully agree with this since his entire theology was based on the method of correlation. Wouldn't it be interesting to hear what he would have to say about the theological situation today? In a way I think that is possible. I recently learned that many of his lectures are available on CD here. A few months back I ordered a few of his most recent talks and what I found was that while there are definite differences in our culture today than that 40 years ago many of the existential questions that Tillich raises are still present. I particularly liked his lecture on "Rediscovery of the Dimensions of Depths". Man's search for meaning. The feelings of estrangement from oneself, God, and society are always with us. The dehumanization of society and its view of humans as means to ends may be more prevalent today but perhaps only in the way culture is shaped to that end.

One of the main things that bothers me about the world today is the lack of interest in deep questions about life. I think you are right that television has had a deletorious effect. With tv, computer games, and plenty of money to provide a constant diversion there seems to be fewer and fewer people interested in a deep study and experience of religion.

As with most things I think this is cyclic. We live in a world driven by sensuality. Sensuality in and of itself is not wrong but when it becomes the focal point of existence, it becomes an idol (in Tillich's definition) Eventually the sensuousness of society will reveal its meaninglessness and perhaps there will be another resurgence of seeking. When that happens theology needs to be ready to offer answers that are relevant. While much of what Tillich describes as the human condition will still be relevant, I think he would be the first to grapple with the new context and formulate religious answers for the day.

byron said...

Patrik, I like your take on the fragmentation of our experience. Do you think that this has been a double movement of (a) more actual fragmentation and (b) a greater awareness of global diversity and that western humanity is not the only kind?

Patrik said...

Hi, Steve. Thanks for your comments, I agree it would be wonderful to hear Tillich's thoughts on our time. I'll write some thoughts on his idea of theonomy tonight, with some speculation in this direction. I enjoy your blog, too.

Byron, I think you're right it is a double movement. The west has lost its cultural unity at the same time it has discovered that there is more out there. I was referring mostly to the first aspect, but it is probably inseparable from the latter.