Paul Tillich: A Metaphysical Footnote

I picked up a copy of Paul Tillich’s book The Courage to Be from the library. Let me note as an aside that the text of the Yale edition (like all of their Note Bene volumes) is beautifully typeset.

I’d heard the German theologian mentioned many times over the years, though not always positively. I got a few dozen pages into the work. Tillich’s treatment of philosophical history is interesting and easy to read. But as soon as he attempts to theorize on his own he comes up with concepts that seem unnecessarily contrived. I refer to his idea of “God beyond God” and “transtheism.” Some critics have accused him of being a pantheist. I do not know if that is fair or accurate, but I am wary of avowedly Christian thinkers who make God increasingly abstracted—like calling him the “ground of our being” (another famous Tillich concept). It is a definition which, strictly speaking, is true yet lacks moral impact. No one was ever converted or martyred on behalf of such a colorless phrase.

A Christian is by no means obliged to ponder metaphysics in purely devotional terms. Logical discussions, in the manner of Aristotle and Aquinas, on the nature of God are not only intellectually necessary but can be worthy meditations in their own right. Yet I always sense that the more vague or removed the divinity becomes in our minds the easier it is to forget Him. Even the Stoic Epictetus spoke of “God the father.” The fact that Tillich was distancing himself from all “theism” seems contrarian and rather precocious. If he was trying to revivify faith in light of modern challenges through linguistic novelty, I am not sure he succeeded.

It seems to me that what was really needed in this book was not new ontological arguments but more of the basic courage that Tillich tries to delineate. Ultimately what impresses others are our lived convictions, not our theories.

Related post: The Existential Approach to God

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