living through death

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

Paul Tillich, Correlation & Paradox: Salvation in Human Reason

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Now that the previous three sections have set up the problem we can turn finally to the solution that Tillich crafted. We have seen how human reason operates according to the dual relation of reflection and response, and we have noticed how in both cases an element of the negative is introduced in order to establish the reality of the objectival in both its objectivity and in its subjective power. Several stages of critical reflection and doubting response were set forth with each ending at the seemingly insoluble problem of absolute reflection and absolute response.

Robert Scharlemann describes Tillich’s solution to the problem in three steps. Tillich himself never set forth his solution in the form that Scharlemann presents, but for anyone who has grappled with Tillich’s thought, Scharlemann’s presentation has the effect of throwing open a bright window on a once only dimly lit room.

The first step centers on Tillich’s recognition of a point of identity between the parallel movements of response and reflection. In the terminology that Scharlemann has set up, “[t]he action in which I doubt the religious presence and the action in which I critically reflect the ontological object are the same action when they are in their ‘absolute’ form.” (Scharlemann, 20.) This is so for the simple reason both reflection and response seek to make contact with the absolute, and in Tillich’s own words, two absolutes “cannot exist alongside each other. If they did, the one or the other or both would not really be ultimate.” (Tillich, 1955, 58-59.) For this reason, at the level of the absolute, “the one comprises the other.” [1] This has enormous implications, for it establishes a point of unity between the often conflicted relationship between philosophy (in all its modern forms, including that of science) and religion. Both philosophy and theology drive towards the same act, though they reach it from different sides. As Scharelmann says, “the point at which philosophical thinking turns upon itself is the point at which it is opened to religious power, and the point at which religious response turns upon itself is the point at which it is opened to philosophical objectivity.” (Scharlemann, 20.)

The second step follows from this point of identity. This is the real heart of Tillich’s method of correlation. Unlike Hegel and Schleiermacher, who Scharlemann sees as having defined reality from only one side of humanity’s relation to the objectival, Tillich defines it from two directions, “neither of which is reduced to the other.” (Scharlemann, xv.) The problem with the Hegelian and Schleiermacherian solutions were that they both subordinated one side of the relation to the other and thus all control over the truth of their systematic wholes were lost. In such a case “there is not way of evaluating the whole system apart from the vigor or the seriousness of the one who asserts it…” (Scharlemann, xv.), because by their very nature there is no further possible reflection or response once the absolute form has been reached. Tillich, on the other hand, introduced a way to correct the totalitarian character of these systems of thought. He correlated the results of system of reflection with the results of the system of response. The problem of absolute reflection and response can be answered if “the content established by reflection can solve the problem raised by absolute doubt, and if the power which elicits faith-response can solve the problem raised by absolute critical reflection.” (Scharlemann, 20-21.)

This leads to the third and final step. Tillich saw that there was in fact an objectival content that could not be canceled by way of criticism or doubt. Scharlemann calls this content a paradoxical reality and presence. Tillich recognized this content in the biblical picture of Jesus as the Christ. This content cannot be canceled by criticism or doubt because “it embodies the temporality of responsive and reflective thinking.” We may recall that the problem of both responsive and reflective thinking was that the temporal nature of its act prohibited it from ever being able to establish its content. What Tillich discovered was that in the symbol of the cross there is an “objective content [that] can be grasped only in its self-cancellation and whose power is exercised by its self-negation.” (Scharlemann, 21.) Thus, rather than equating “the unconditional with the whole content of a system of thought or of religious response [or] with a sacral presence or an absolute object,” Tillich anchors the unconditional in a paradox. (Scharlemann, 21.)

cold bones

What happens when one attempts to grasp this paradoxical reality and presence by way of an exclusive reliance on either the reflective or responsive relation? This, Tillich refers to as a rationalization if done in the reflective mode and, may I suggest, mythologization since he does not offer a term for this act when done in the responsive mode. In both cases the effect is the same, the paradoxical nature of the objectival content is resolved into either static rational content or static personal desires and hopes. Rationalizations in the absence of response become profane, and unreflected myths give way to the demonic. Depending on where one stands, these rationalizations and myths can be defended or attacked with criticism and doubt, but the deepest possible critique flows from the paradoxical reality and presence itself. From this image the self is invited into the power that emerges in self-negation and the reality that is established in self-cancellation. It is the tremendous virtue of this insight that it intensifies the reflective and responsive dynamics of human reason rather than leaving them at war with each other, and that it does so by driving straight through the heart of criticism and doubt. It is this dynamic, I claim, that constitutes that paradox of salvation in the dimension of human reason.

In the conclusion of this chapter I will attempt to briefly relate these philosophical themes to the psychological themes that we explored in chapter 2.


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.

[1] Tillich goes on to explain that “[t]he ultimate concern of the believer is concern about that which is really ultimate and therefore the ground of his being and meaning. He implicitly asks the question of ultimate reality; he must assume…that in the symbols of his ultimate concern the answer to the question of ultimate reality is implied. As a believer, he is not concerned with ontological research; but he is concerned with truth, and this means with ultimate reality.” In like manner the philosopher, who seeks to answer the question of being by way of critical reflection cannot escape participation in a deeper reality and knowledge that makes possible their doubt. As Tillich puts it, “[h]e doubts what he knows, but he does so on the basis of something else he knows; for there is no ‘No’ without a preceding ‘Yes.’” (Tillich, 1955, 59-62.)

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Written by Alex

March 5, 2015 at 2:38 pm

One Response

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  1. It would be interesting to see your thoughts on how this correlates with a reflection/response to the cross by 1st Century Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity.

    Tracy Witham

    March 8, 2015 at 6:05 pm


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