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Dynamics of Faith

In the act of faith every nerve of man's body, every striving of man's soul, every function of man's spirit participates.  But body, soul, spirit, are not three parts of man.  They are dimensions of man's being, always within each other; for man is a unity and not composed of parts.  Faith, therefore, is not a matter of the mind in isolation, or of the soul in contrast to mind and body, or of the body (in the sense of animal faith), but is the centered movement of the whole personality toward something of ultimate meaning and significance.  Ultimate concern is passionate concern; it is a matter of infinite passion.

                                                                                                                           – Paul Tillich

It seems like cheating for a student of theology to read more popular works on the subject, works that hold an inevitable appeal to the common reader – until, of course, that student realizes that no book in world history has held more appeal than the Christian Bible.  The pundits of contemporary nihilism or relativism or oneupmanship have proclaimed with no small smugness that theology, as a critical field of inquiry, is on its way out.  Why would anyone bother with this type of stuff anymore, they scoff, and we are reminded that medical science often attributes religious visions to phenomena "only found now in very primitive cultures."  Religion was the shroud that kept the world in darkness; science is the light that has made everything clear as day – so clear, in fact, that sending an unmanned spacecraft to a neighboring planet in a universe of billions of planets is considered a technological breakthrough.  If something about such complacency perturbs you, you may enjoy the pithy brilliance of this famous book.

Since Tillich is not a mystery writer, we can come straight to the point: Faith is the meaning of life.  Or, at least, it is what we perceive the meaning of our particular life to be.  Restricted by his desire to be epigrammatic, Tillich concerns us with what we have to come to call our ultimate concern, that is to say, the conclusion we make actively or passively about why we keep ourselves alive in the first place.  An alcoholic may declare – and openly demonstrate – that the bottom of the next bottle is his only aim; yet his true goal may be far more profound, even when attended by the usual psychological poppycock.  Despite his addiction or weakness, the alcoholic has faith in the machinery that fills his body and mind with intoxicants.  These intoxicants may make him forget or make him remember; they may ease physical or emotional pain; they may render him more palatable to others or others to himself.  Whatever the case, he is convinced every morning that he rises without taking his own life, that his actions and motivations correspond to a system that runs the entirety of his existence.  His faith is embodied in that system the same way that the entirety of a Christian is embodied in his faith in the Cross.  That both remain abiding symbols for what they represent does not diminish the impact of faith in either of those two lives.  The only question we need to ask is what on earth or beyond the faith of an alcoholic might entail.  As it were, the answer is as simple as the idolatry that has pervaded the majority of our culture: Faith in things not of ultimate concern.   

Critics may stop after a few short pages with the retort: How is everything we believe in construed as faith?  But again, they will not have understood the crux of the argument.  Belief is not faith because belief can be expressed by an act of the will and, as it were, expressed in detail in language that need not be symbolic.  Faith for Tillich is what moves us to move; in a way the dynamics of faith is a pleonasm.  You may have faith in money because you perceive money to be the means by which you can acquire what you really want; you may also have faith in money because it, unlike faith or language, appears to enjoy universal acceptance.  You may also construct a world in which you could never be disappointed with anything except the world itself, since you take no risks so as to endure no potential for suffering or regret.  Tillich suggests, however, that it is impossible to separate man from faith if man is seen as having any direction or willpower at all.  Whatever activities a man may pursue, he is bound by intractable faith.  The difference again between one man and another resides in the difference between their ultimate concerns.  For a Protestant like Tillich, the subject of his concern is the subject of all concern:

Religiously speaking, God transcends his own name.  That is why the use of his name easily becomes an abuse or a blasphemy.  Whatever we say about that which concerns us ultimately, whether or not we call it God, has a symbolic meaning.  It points beyond itself while participating in that to which it points.  In no other way can faith express itself adequately.  The language of faith is the language of symbols.  If faith were what we have shown that it is not, such an assertion could not be made.  But faith, understood as the state of being ultimately concerned, has no language other than symbols.

There are other approaches: that of skepticism, broadly rooted in scientific advancement or simply in doubt that anything could be greater than a human mind; and that of Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism, all of which at least promote an ultimate concern that is not irreconcilable with the ultimate concern that gnaws at Tillich.  True enough, Islam and Judaism will organize their efforts to provide guidance and sacrament, while Catholicism builds an impregnable and infallible city of God.  Their sense of the beyond, of man's ultimate meaning nevertheless cannot possibly be as shallow or "demonically self-destructive" as that of materialists, atheists, so-called secular humanists (secretly unbrave agnostics) or those who choose the concrete world as their realm of faith – but I think that much we already know.   

Nineteen years have passed since I first read Tillich, but he should be absorbed again and again for the same reason that a painting can be admired at numerous shades of day from numerous angles over the course of a life.  It may seem amazing that I can enjoy this masterpiece, whose basic tenet Tillich implicitly refutes, at the same time that Tillich's cogent bricklaying builds something more than a house and something less than a palace.  This is, of course, a tribute to the genius of both men.  The courage that is promoted at length in another work will surface as the lesser of the two attributes of man, and as well it should.  We are alive and happily so, but the shroud looms.  And as we grow older, we become less capable of staving off the doubts that afflict the skeptic, the heretic, the indifferent layabout.  Not that, mind you, any of this is really a sustained or ultimate concern.   

Reader Comments (3)

I stumbled on this amazing blog as I was searching for an English translation of a poem by Sergey Yesenin (Да! Теперь решено. Без возврата). If I decide to include this poem in a post may I use your translation?

In reading this review on Tillich, and also much of the biographical material on Yesenin, I am left pondering the chasm that can sometimes yawn between a man's public and private persona, especially when the public persona is constructed on a much admired intellectual, or poetic, or artistic basis. The work of Yesenin certainly, and of Tillich questionably, is worthy of admiration, but their private lives, and their treatment of women was utterly despicable.

September 9, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertheinkbrain

Thanks for your comments, Ink Brain! You can use my translation with a reference (a link is fine).

September 9, 2012 | Registered Commenterdeeblog

Thank you. I will keep you posted.

September 11, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertheinkbrain

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