Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Reading Tillich 20: Deliteralisation

In our earlier treatment ..., the basic point was that Christological symbols are the way in which the historical fact, called Jesus of Nazareth, has been received by those who consider him to be the Christ. These symbols must be understood as symbols, as they lose their meaning if taken literally. In dealing with the Christological symbols, we were engaged not is a "demythologization" but in a "deliteralization". We tried to affirm and intercept them as symbols. "Demythologization" can mean two things...: It can mean the fight against a literalistic distortion of symbols and myths. This is a necessary task of Christian theology. It keeps Christianity from falling into a wave of superstitious "objectivations" of the holy. But demythologization can also mean the removal of myth as a vehicle of religious expression and the substitution of science and morals. In this sense demythologization must be strongly rejected. It would deprive religion of its language; it would silence the experience of the holy.
Systematic Theology II, 152
Tillich understood his own theology to be a search for a third way beyond liberal and conservative. We see this here: Tillich rejects the conservative tendency to take biblical and theological text literally, since they distort the message, they do not allow the symbols to speak; but he also rejects the liberal tendency to remove symbols and try to extract ethical teaching from them, because then religion ceases to be religion.

I've been reading St. Ephrem the Syrian lately, and I'm struck by how similar his theological attitude is to Tillich's. Ephrem speaks only in symbols, he makes no attempt to turn them in to legal or dogmatic propositions. He would whole-heartedly agree with Tillich's belief that the only way to speak about the holy is with symbols. As soon as we stop talking in symbols, we either fool ourselves or create idols.


John Meade said...


How does one only communicate in symbols? Has God only communicated to us in symbols? I think he has left some symbols such as the Lord's Supper, but this symbol to us clearly causes us to remember the cross and Christ's work on our behalf (This is the blood of the new covenant in my blood, poured for the forgiveness of sins). The symbol [or memorial is better term] has to be grounded in reality in order for there to be significance.

If we talk about God only in symbols, do these not simply become the new predications of the Holy? It seems one can never escape talking about God in propositional language because the symbols will become the new predications.

All in all, the idea seems Kantian. The Bible records several predications about God without fear of creating idols. God is knowable through propositions, though not exclusively through propositions. The OT redemption from Egypt shows that God is Redeemer, but clearly this was not only true on the propositional level because God actually redeemed the people as well.

Interesting thoughts though.

- John

Patrik said...

Well, the Cross is a symbol, too. As is "redemption" "the Covenant" and "the forgiveness of sins".

You say it yourself: A symbol must be connected to that which is symbolizes for it to function as a symbol.

Tillich's point is that is we loose this symbolic aspect in what we say about the divine we basically make God a captive of our language. While symbols open up that reality, propositions close it up.

The problem is the abundant talk of "mere" symbols, as is symbols were a weaker form of language. In reality the opposite is true, we should talk of mere propositions, symbols is a more dynamic form of language, because it does not objectify whar it talks about.

John Meade said...

Patrik -

Interesting thoughts. For Tillich, does symbol have to be connected to history or to an idea or both?

So although Paul talks about the cross as a symbol of Christ's suffering for our salvation (1 Cor 1:18), Paul assumes that his audience grasps the objective meaning of the symbol. In other words, Paul does not leave the truth of what he is communicating up to the mystical imaginations of his audience. He assumes that the symbol is grounded in history and therefore understandable and objective for his audience.

So the symbol of the "cross of Christ" became a symbol of not only Christ's suffering, but also a symbol of our salvation, which Christ accomplished through the cross.

One problem that you can maybe sort our for me is this: It seems that when we talk about symbols, we are using propositional language in order to accomplish it. It seems that without something propositional, the symbol remains exactly that, a symbol, with no meaning.

I may be way off here, but I am sure you will get me on the right path.

John M

Patrik said...

I think you're on the right track regarding the historical connection of symbols. Do you know the background to the word symbolon? I'm told that originally a symbol was piece of clay that was used as a kind of receipt in business transactions. The clay piece would be broken into two parts and and each party in the transaction would keep one piece as a proof of the transaction. If need would arise the validity of the transaction could be proven by showing that the two pieces fit together.

A symbol is like this. We have one piece that is concrete, like the cross, originally a piece of wood. then there is another piece of the symbol, that is its meaning the cross as a symbol for the suffering of Christ. But then this too, as you say, symbolizes something further, Christ's suffering for us, or as Tillich would say, the eternal God-man relation under the conditions of existence.

As for your question about propositional language and symbols, I think we have to separate between theology proper (God-talk) and theology as the study of God-talk. The former is only done in symbols. the latter is the discussion of these symbols, and the critical evaluation of the symbols.

In religious language, something is lost when a symbol is turned into a proposition, or especially if a symbol is interpreted as a proposition. One symbol can sometimes be modified or adapted, but if one tries to extract the "truth" out of the symbol, one ends up with a very small, and sometimes distorted truth.

John Meade said...

Patrik -

Thanks for the speedy response.

I think your distinction may be helpful, but is it trying to hedge our God-talk?

So for example, God predicates mercy and grace about himself in Ex 34:6. Are symbols involved here? Maybe the Exodus event as a whole? If God speaks, are the words simply words, or are they truth and reality indicating?

I think I have no problems with symbols as long as they are viewed as reality depicting.

I am simply trying to understand the purpose they play in Tilich and theology as a whole. Thanks for the discussion.


Patrik said...

Yes, mercy and grace are also symbols, taken from the area of human relationships and used to describe God symbolically. This is the classical analogia entis-doctrine that Tillich also refers to. The literalistic interpretation of the symbol of mercy would turn God into a human king that can offer mercy to a condemned criminal. This is the basis of the symbol, but to say that that is what God is, would be to reduce God. This is why the symbol-character of the statement or mercy must be remembered.