Rev. John Farmer’s ‘Reflections’ column

by Rev. John H. Farmer
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Simple is Good Enough

In theological circles there is a 1940s story oft-told that a young New York seminarian, seeing German theologian Paul Tillich walking across campus at New York’s Union Seminary, rushed to impress the professor. He wanted to score points with the noted author, lecturer and Biblical scholar. “Dr. Tillich,” the lad hailed, “What is the single most important theological concept of which you are aware?”

Paul Johannes Tillich (b. Germany-now Poland, 1886; d. Chicago, 1965) was a theologian and Christian existentialist philosopher; one of the more influential Protestant theologians.

As a pastor’s son, he had a lonely childhood after the death of his mom. He took comfort in the Bible. Later a minister himself in the Lutheran Church, “He blended rolls as professor and chaplain in the German army during World War I. He taught at a number of universities throughout Germany for two decades.”

“His opposition to the Nazis cost him his job in 1933. Barred from German universities, Tillich accepted an invitation to teach at New York’s Union Theological Seminary.” He became a U.S. citizen in 1940.

At Union, “Tillich published a series of books with his particular synthesis of Protestant Christian theology and existentialist philosophy. Between 1952 and 1954 he lectured and wrote his comprehensive three-volume Systematic Theology. His 1952 The Courage to Be, proved popular even outside philosophical and religious circles.” This led to his prestigious Harvard appointment as Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Preacher to the University. In 1962, he moved to the University of Chicago, where he continued until his death in 1965.

Tillich was not popular with many evangelical theologians. His view of God too broad, too radical. Mind you few of his detractors, however, had weathered such a storm of political suffering. Few have ever had their faith so tested is such a variety of ways.

In the 1970s, my friend pastor Craig Smith and I had the good fortune to study with Presbyterian professor George Arthur Buttrick (b. 1892, d. 1980). Following a long New York pastorate, writing and teaching career, he taught at both Louisville’s Presbyterian and Baptist seminaries. An English immigrant himself, Buttrick had known Tillich in his German immigrant days in New York. Buttrick recounted that just to keep food on the table, Tillich, of all people, worked as a switchboard operator at Union Seminary. “His thick German accent was so gruff to the ears that many a caller simply hung up, rather than try and negotiate through and around him.”

Tillich taught, “Christ is the ‘New Being,’ who rectifies in himself the alienation between essence and existence. Essence fully shows itself within Christ, but Christ is also a finite man; a revolution in the very nature of being. The gap is healed and essence can now be found within existence. Christ is not God per se in himself, rather the revelation of God. Traditional Christianity regards Christ as wholly man and wholly God.” For him,”Christ was the emblem of the highest goal of humanity, what God wants us to become. To be a Christian is to make oneself progressively ‘Christ-like,’ a very possible goal in Tillich’s eyes. In other words, Christ is not God in the traditional sense, but reveals the essence inherent in all existence, including mine and your own.”

“God does not exist. He is being itself, beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.” This Tillich quotation summarized his concept of God. He did not think of “God as a being, which exists in time and space, because that constrains God and makes God finite. But all beings are finite and if God is the creator of all beings, God cannot logically be finite since a finite being cannot be the sustainer of an infinite variety of finite things. God is considered beyond being, above finitude and limitation.”

Tillich believed that “since things in existence are corrupt and therefore ambiguous, no finite thing can be (by itself) infinite. All that is possible is for the finite to be a vehicle for revealing the infinite, but the two should never be confused. Religion should not be taken too dogmatically, because of its conceptual and therefore finite and imperfect nature. True religion is that which correctly reveals the infinite, but no religion can ever do so in any way other than through metaphor and symbol.”

Today this idea is used by theologians as “an effective counterpoint to religious fundamentalism. Symbols are immensely important to faith because ‘faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.’ Faith without symbols is a form of idolatry. It is faith in something finite, something that can be expressed without symbols and something that is fundamentally less than the ultimate.”

Paul Tillich’s theology is way too complicated for most of us, yet he is still popular among Christian thinkers today—even some of whom disagree with his theories. No wonder the religious right holds him in great disdain.

Most of the above not withstanding, remember the question… “What is the single most important theological concept of which you are aware?”

Professor Tillich’s answer stunned the lad and blesses my life! He answered: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” Simple isn’t it? Can we be simple enough, to be understood?