On Ultimate Reality and Historical Factuality
The following is a (slightly edited) excerpt from a letter I recently wrote in which I attempted to explain why I’ve found Paul Tillich to be so helpful in my own life of faith. [begin]
His [Tillich’s] significance in my own life has been great. Perhaps his greatest impact has been with regard to my perennial anxiety born of a conflict between my faith and my rationality. For all of my life I have lived in a place of deep faith. I would often put it to others as, “I can’t not believe.” At the same time, however, I’m a natural skeptic. I find it easy to entertain the notion that many of the historical underpinnings of my faith are not nearly so historical as I’ve been raised to believe. I’m sure you can see how this might raise some issues for me. Especially since I’ve since gone on to do some fairly rigorous—and not terribly affirming—study in this area.
So here is the problem that continued to develop: The meaning of my life, something unconditionally held (my faith), was apparently attached, in some sense, to conditionally held historical arguments. In light of this I was in a state of constant and near crippling anxiety. I was forced into a place where the meaning of my life could very well come completely unglued if the weight of various arguments shifted. It was terrible. I would lie awake many nights groping for some way to shore up arguments that were not as strong as I wanted them to be. And my skeptical self hated my faithful self for this. There was a split in my person. My rational faculties were being opposed to my passion. I was disintegrated. I can recall numerous nights that ended with me lifting my sleeping son from his crib, holding his warm body close to my chest and repeating, “this is real, this is real, this is real.” This love… real.
Tillich saved me from this place. His approach is essentially Augustinian in the sense that God is encountered at our personal intersection as a finite beings with infinity. In other words, it is in our very depths that we meet God. In this way we simply cannot meet God by opposing our various faculties (e.g. faith and reason, as it is usually framed). No, a dynamic and vibrant faith is an integrated faith. Faith is not a separate faculty that can be opposed to others, but instead it is the “depth dimension” possessed by each (e.g. rational [desire to know ultimate reality], aesthetic [desire for ultimate meaning], moral [unconditional seriousness of the moral demand], etc.).
On this account faith is not “believing stuff on limited evidence,” but rather it is one’s being apprehended by the divine. It is unconditionally felt. And here’s the important bit, no discovery about external reality possesses the power to destroy one’s faith (which gives a more helpful meaning to the “I can’t not believe” remark above).
To take an extreme example, one could conclude that the historical evidence provides very little grounds for supposing that Jesus physically rose from the dead, yet because one’s ultimate concern is encountered in the gospel of Jesus, Jesus would not lose an ounce of significance in one’s life of faith because of it. I have not concluded this, but it doesn’t frighten me to entertain the notion, and that’s not really the point. The point is, Jesus could have been “just” fully human (whatever that means), or a total fabrication and remain a perfectly adequate vehicle for my faith. It is not the factual veracity of a historical nature that is essential to faith, but the degree to which the symbol (in this case Jesus) maps Reality (big “R”). That is the point. And, oddly enough, it affords a higher place to Jesus as expressing Ultimate Reality than a mere assent to the factuality of some historical event. Because of this, the meaning of my life is no longer tied to tentative historical arguments as it once was (though I remain interested in them). I am now free to get on with the business of stumbling after the vision of the Good I see in Christ. To put it simply, I am free to follow Jesus because I love him, not because I am historically certain.
The beauty of this understanding of faith is the way it frees the faithful not only from the fear of biblical studies (a problem common in contemporary evangelicalism), but also the way it frees them from the fear of modern science. And those are but two particular instances of a general possibility, the possibility of encountering the world from our best stance at all levels of our person. As I see it, Tillich’s understanding of faith has the power to render useless the whole fear-driven anti-intellectual apparatus that presently exists within much of contemporary Christianity. What might our communities look like if we were no longer driven by fear, but instead drawn forward in Christ’s love?