living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

Paul Tillich: Doubt, Reason & Salvation

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In Tillich’s philosophy, epistemology is ultimately a religious matter. The achievement of knowledge and understanding are matters not of technique, but of “fall and salvation.” Systematic Theology V. I, 74. Two things must be stated in order to understand what is meant here.

The first deals with the contemporary tendency to view reason simply as a matter of technique. From this point of view, speaking of acts of knowing as having a religious dimension makes little sense. Tillich, however, sees this way of viewing reason as being far too narrow. He makes a distinction between what he calls “technical reason” and “classical reason.” Technical reason is what most people have in mind when they say that something is rational. Such rationality is thought of as being “clear-headed,” unobscured by emotion, and able to produce the means to some given end. This rationality is typical of the scientific method and philosophy as practiced in the analytic tradition. It is predominated by a posture of detachment.

Classical reason, on the other hand, includes technical reason, but it also includes rational elements that emphasize a posture of involvement. “According to the classical philosophical tradition,” says Tillich, “reason is the structure of the mind which enables the mind to grasp and to transform reality. It is effective in the cognitive, aesthetic, practical, and technical functions of the human mind.” Systematic Theology V. I, 72. For this reason the full scope of rational thought “is cognitive and aesthetic, theoretical and practical, detached and passionate, subjective and objective.” Systematic Theology V. I, 72 (emphasis mine). Thus, in Tillich’s philosophy, acts of knowing consist in much more than merely technical knowledge, and from this perspective it should be easier to see the religious potential of knowledge.

Secondly, for Tillich “the essence of [classical] reason…is identical with the content of revelation”. Systematic Theology V. I, 74. And revelation is the experience of salvation in the rational dimension of human life. Tillich, adopting the general lines of the Platonic tradition, articulates this idea by way of the metaphors “separation” and “reunion.” In the general strokes of Tillich’s thought, all creation is fallen, existing in a mode of separation from God, the creative ground of all being. The drive toward knowledge is, in this sense, a drive toward reunion with a fullness of life from which one is separated. Thus, every time one makes contact with truth, this state of separation is fragmentarily overcome. Knowing the truth is, in this sense, fulfilling. The essence of any successful rational act therefore has religious potential, for God as the logos of being is present in both the quest and content of all human reason.

The problem, however, is that not only are humans, as the subjects of knowledge, separated from the objects they wish to know, but the very operations of humanity’s rational structure are separated into polarities that often war against each other. Autonomous freedom is in polar tension with heteronomous authority, relativism is in tension with absolutism, and formalism is in tension with emotional irrationalism. All of these polarities are present in the classical conception of reason, but in humanity’s fallen state of separation they threaten the disintegration of one’s centered personality.


A vignette from Tillich’s life can help us see this more clearly. While he was a student at Halle Tillich was deeply influenced by his teacher Martin Kähler. Kähler impressed upon Tillich that the Pauline-Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith entailed that humanity was accepted “not only as a sinner but even as a doubter.” Paul Tillich: His Life and Thought, 19 (emphasis mine).  Kähler, like many of his time, struggled deeply with biblical criticism that had occurred since the Enlightenment. He felt that the doubts about Christian faith that this autonomously driven criticism had raised could not be passed over, but nor could faith simply be moved to the realm of mere subjectivity, as if one could make contact with the absolute simply by means of  the unconditionally experienced stirrings of one’s inner emotional life.

The key for Tillich was the way that Kähler placed this problem “in analogy to the Protestant message of justification by grace through faith, namely, the acceptance of [humanity] in spite of [its] disrupted inner life and estrangement, which can never be fully overcome.” A History of Christian Thought, 509-510. Under the guidance of this theological idea, Tillich was able to relate to his own doubts to the objective witness of the Christian faith in such a way that avoided the temptations towards dishonesty that always threatened those whose faith was tied to the uncertainty of past historical events. The young Tillich could have experienced his situation as a contradiction. He could have allowed his own center to be pulled apart in either accepting that the absolute truth for human kind must be accepted on the basis of questionable historical accounts, or, in fully embracing the element of uncertainty in all history, he could have denied that there is an absolute in human life and accepted pure relativism. However, with the help of Kähler, the contradictory was recognized as paradoxical and was met by the paradox of Christian salvation.

It is easy to be puzzled by this notion of salvation in which Tillich found such great relief. One might have expected that salvation in the realm of Tillich’s doubt would have been more obviously experienced as some kind of proof that transformed his doubt to certainty. Yet this was not at all what Tillich encountered, and this mismatch with an obvious expectation can be disorienting. In what follows I will be suggesting that a central reason for this misalignment of expectations is that Tillich was encountering the experience of salvation at a very high developmental level, a level that most of us, most of the time, have yet to achieve. In previous chapters we have already noticed that developmental stages have tremendous implications for the structure of knowledge. In the next section we will examine Robert Scharlemann’s account of the way the structure of knowledge has developed philosophically since Greek thought. In doing so we will be able to place the experience of the young Tillich within the context of his later thinking, which moves even one step further.

This post is a continuation of a series in which I make use of the blogosphere to motivate my dissertation free-writing. For context, read the short summary of my work here. There you will also find a table of contents with links to all the posts in this series.


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