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

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Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

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Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,

The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)

It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.

Merton and the Dali Lama

During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.

Merton drives the point home powerfully:

Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)

In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.

This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.

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Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

Sebastian Moore: The Structure of Desire

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Before we can see how Moore conceives of the paradox of salvation in human desire, we must first more fully develop his concept of desire. The basic distinction we need to begin with is between desire for particular things and desire as such, or, as he often puts it, the “whole context of desire” that manifests as desire for “we know not what.” He reads basic distinction through the classic theological tradition, as most notably formulated by Augustine and Aquinas, and also through the psychoanalytic tradition.

In the classic theological tradition an “exit and return” pattern is adopted from Neo-Platonic spirituality in which creatures have their particular nature because they are fallen from their original home in the divine One. Salvation is then thought to be a power that enables creatures to return to God who is the unity beyond the many particular things of creation. Yet, though our desire—having its origin in the divine—finds its ultimate fulfillment only in the divine, it nevertheless seems endlessly misdirected toward the fleeting things of creation. The love of God revealed by Christ thus enables a certain detachment from the merely creaturely dimension of reality, thus liberating love to be properly directed to the divine dimension in which all created reality participates. [1] This reorientation of one’s love simultaneously allows one to love creation in a way proper to one’s own creaturely nature, namely as an unexpected gift rather than a possession. In this way desire is moved from the known and the particular to the mysterious and eternal in all being.

Luminous Forest

Moore sees in the psychoanalytic tradition a similar motion. A central Freudian insight, which he deems to be very important, is that the child grows out of an undifferentiated “sea of delight,” a sort of “oceanic dream of self….” [2] Compared to the theological imagery we have just discussed, this undifferentiated state is analogous to the divine One prior to the fall, or perhaps one might think of it as the pre-fall state of Adam and Eve in the Biblical narrative, before the separation from intimacy with God occurred. This delightful background precedes desire as it later becomes channeled more and more into particular objects. Much like the Platonic imagery that infuses classical theology, the loss of touch with this original context of all-embracing goodness leads to a terror of death and fetishization of particular objects of desire. The process of the differentiation of desire, as we shall see later, is traumatic and dramatic. This drama plays itself out in the relationships the child negotiates with its first caregivers. Psychotherapeutic method seeks in various ways to heal the trauma that attends the birth of self-consciousness. Moore sees this most fundamentally as an effort to to reconnect the patient to the long neglected sense of self as good/desirable that largely resides beneath the surface of everyday awareness.

Out of these two traditions Moore creates his distinction between particular desires and the preceding origin of desire as such. The former, if fixated upon in the absence of a solid connection to the later, constitutes the core problematic of his analysis.

With this in view we can now see another crucial element of Moore’s thought, namely the distinctive way he relates these two modes of desire. His concept of generic desire, or “desire for we know not what,” inverts a commonsense idea of desire, namely that desire flows from an inner emptiness, or a lack. Moore objects. Desire, he wants to say, flows from an original over-abundance of goodness. To see his point, it is worth quoting him at length.

Wanting this or that cannot possibly be the start of the wanting process. It too must be preceded by a continuous condition of myself in my environment, a continuous wanting-I-know-not-what, a ‘just wanting.’ Now what is this ‘just wanting’ state? If we don’t reflect carefully, at this point, on our experience, we will say, ‘It is a state of emptiness wanting to be filled.’ But if we reflect, we see that this is the opposite of the truth. ‘Just wanting’ is a feeling good that wants to go on feeling good and looks for things to feel good about. This is very clear in the child. The child—like the dolphin—is a bundle of pleasurableness. Freud describes our original condition, moving in the amniotic fluid, as the ‘oceanic’ condition. Thus as we move, in our inquiry, from the definite, specific wants, back to the undifferentiated ‘just wanting,’ we are moving towards not emptiness but fullness. In the life of desire, it is ‘everything’ that becomes ‘this thing;’ it is not ‘nothing’ that becomes ‘this thing.’ (Let this Mind Be in You, 5.)

The basic structure is now in view. The task now is to show how this structure operates in human life.

Two Awakenings to the Ultimate Cause of Desire

Moore describes two basic ways that individuals who are living under the normal circumstances of focusing only on particular desires can be awoken to God as the ultimate mystery of desire. These two ways he calls “indirect” and “direct” awakening. The first is an awakening mediated through particular things, especially through intimate relationships with other people, whereas the second is not so mediated. In both cases a successful awakening has the same result, the liberation of desire and a reconnection with an immeasurable sense of self as desirable, that is to say, as good. Let us now briefly consider each of these ways of awakening.

Indirect Awakening

Before all else, says Moore, we long to be desired. More precisely, we long to be desired by the one whom we desire. (The Fire and the Rose Are One, xiii.) This longing flows from a certainty of being desirable. This is a counter-intuitive statement, but it shows itself when we are spurned by one we love. We become angry and indignant which proves that, deep down, we really do have come concept of our desirability. (Let this Mind Be in You, 14) This makes no sense if consider this desirability as being based on a notion of self-awareness that looks at oneself as an object. Indeed, we often do not feel desirable when we reflect on ourselves in that way. This deeper concept of our own desirability flows from Moore’s idea of our unfathomable inner-goodness that we often cover up. Such desire flows from a concept of self-awareness that looks “with” the self, not “at” the self. Problems of self dis-esteem flow from looking at the self, which is a rationalization of one’s very being. (Let this Mind Be in You, 13-14.)

From this sort of psychological sleep, the experience of desire for another has a way of reconnecting one with their own sense of desirability. As Moore says, “…when you feel drawn to another person, that is your own sense of your goodness expanding. There is always, in the attraction to another, the feeling of a larger life opening up in myself.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 14.) Moore traces this movement through several steps. First one is attracted to another. In this attraction, their own sense of their desirability is awoken. But this is only the beginning, for one wants their desire to be fully exercised in having the other be also attracted them. This can only happen, however, if the other person comes under the power of the first person’s goodness and beauty. This awakening, in turn awakens the other person to their own desirability. It is at this moment that the relationship moves from a relation of dependence to interdependence. In the early stages of mutual arousal, interdependence happens with ease, but if the relationship is to grow, one’s own self-affirmation (which is the power that attracts the other) needs to persist in order to avoid sliding back into an unsustainable relation of dependence.

This new moment, of self-acceptance in a love relationship, is the crucial moment. It is the watershed in all human relations. It is what most of us most of the time stop short of. For this is the vital point at which our belief in our goodness is not strong enough to carry us forward. It is always some, often subtle, self-rejection that hinders us from believing in another’s finding us attractive and from seeing that the other does so when this happens. (Let this Mind Be in You, 27.)

When our belief in our goodness persists in interdependent relationship “…each is affirming, is accepting, is appropriating, his or her own goodness as working in the relationship.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 27.) Desire has now been transformed “…into an investment of myself in a developing shared life, a commitment of myself to the unpredictable in hope.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 28.)

It is here that we see the paradoxical nature of a stage transition. In moving from dependence to interdependence one is actually entering into a new dependence (though qualitatively different from the former dependence). As Moore says, “…it is a dependence on the total mystery that constitutes me, this unique good person, and supports my investment of my goodness in the risk-laden adventure of intimacy. The anchor of my new hope is goodness itself.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 28.) These words sound familiar as they contain elements of two different stage transitions that Scharlemann mentioned in the previous chapter.

Another thinker who has done a great deal of work on this particular transition, and who has made explicit use of Moore’s theology, is David Schnarch. As I have mentioned earlier in this thesis, Schnarch is a psychotherapist who specializes in merging the disciplines of marital and sexual therapy with a particular emphasis on the dynamics of desire. He makes use of the idea of “inherent paradox” to help his patients see that they have, in fact, become “too important to each other” because they have ceased to grow beyond a dependency relation to each other. He calls this state “emotional fusion,” and though this state has the merit of regulating the anxiety of those in the relationship, the negative result is that desire evaporates. (Intimacy and Desire, 44-46.) Because partners lack the confidence in their own fundamental goodness, they cannot stand the anxiety of upsetting their partner beyond a certain point. Difficult issues are thus left unaddressed, and the couple contents themselves with elements of the relationship that are not as problematic, but which (owing to their safety) also tend to be quite boring and lacking passion. Some spend their whole adult life in this lifeless anxiety management system, but for others, something within refuses to accept such a circumstance. These are the one’s who either leave their partner or end up in therapy. Schnarch’s tactic as a therapist is just what Moore has previously indicated: He attempts to help the couple feel their own desirability/goodness that exists prior to the validation of their partner, thus enabling the courage to face the difficult elements within themselves and their relationship. [3] Interestingly, Schnarch has found that in the process a spontaneous spirituality is birthed in such couples. (Passionate Marriage, 382.)

The basic movement of the indirect awakening of God as the ultimate mystery of desire can now be seen. From desiring another, to the exercise of desire in a relationship of interdependence, to desire become hope in the total context of desire. The self is thus moved from an experience of isolation to a “partnership in the energy that unites persons in love.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 20.) This, argues Moore, is life in the Spirit. “Spirit [is] inter-life, the mysterious energy that flows between persons”. It is participation in this energy that “opens us to God, [and is] at once the opening of our desire to God and God’s point of entry into us; our way of opening, God’s way of entering.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 25.)

Direct Awakening

Though our desire has its source in our own basic goodness or desirability, we typically sense it indirectly through the “symptom” of desiring an other. (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) But there is another way for our desirability to be felt, and this is what Moore calls a direct awakening of desire. Here desire breaks the rules and reaches out towards “nothing in particular.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) It is not a matter of “I am wanting such and such a thing,” but rather, it is a matter of “I am.” This experience of desire is simultaneously the experience of one’s own desirability. No object has aroused it, rather “its very center has been stirred.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 43.) For this reason, a direct awakening of desire reverses the order of desire as normally experienced in indirect awakening. Rather than the self coming to experience its desirability in desiring another, here the self experiences its desirability first, then, like a river overflowing its banks, other objects of desire are caught up in the flood. (Let this Mind Be in You, 43.)

One might think to ask towards what this direct awakening of desire is aimed since, as we have noted, it has no object. Clearly language is strained at this point, but the only adequate answer is that “it is with ‘what makes me desirable’ that I seek intimacy,” (Let this Mind Be in You, 35.) the cause of my being and goodness. In line with classical theology, the only reality that makes desirable what it desires is God. It is God alone that “…directly arouses my self-awareness as desirable; that which, not as object desired but as subject making desirable, causes in us that desire for we know not what which is the foundational religious experience.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 36.) The intensity of this experience is certainly lost amidst this academic prose, but for a moment consider what it would be like to experience all the various forms of your erotic engagements with friends, lovers, and even the glory of nature, at its source. (Let this Mind Be in You, 38.) This, Moore encourages us to see, is the heart of religion, even while it turns conventional notions of religion on their heads. It fact it is often the case that when people first taste this experience they feel that conventional religion no longer speaks to them. Why? Because this awakening brings with it “a sense that I am in myself and not relatively to other people and to my culture and race.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 38.)

This breakthrough is what Moore calls the discovery of luminous selfhood. It is not necessarily a religious experience, he says, but it is spiritual. For it to become a religious matter one must answer “yes” to the call of longing that emerges. This latter choice, says Moore, is what constitutes religious faith. The result is a life lived in love, for “Love is desire decided for.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 40.)

From this distinction between an awareness that is dominated by knowing oneself always as measured against the responses of others and an awareness that is dominated by knowing oneself directly as good, somehow chosen, and beloved, Moore makes a distinction between two types of religiosity: Romantic and Mystical religiousness. Romantic religiousness takes its point of departure from the first mode of consciousness. Here religious truths are spoken of “by spinning a web of speculation and beautiful thoughts out and beyond this sure base. It’s up in the air, controlled only by the person’s fancy as he/she conjures up a God who is like Grandma but infinitely better. So it’s romantic. It’s building castles in Spain.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 39.) Mystical religiousness, on the other hand, renders ordinary consciousness questionable rather than taking it as its point of departure. “Its religious thinking is not up in the air, romantic, moralistic pious guesswork whose only anchor is ordinary social consciousness, but is deeper [and] more real.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 39.)

Romantic religiousness has the great risk of painting a picture of God that “evokes an experience of being loved first by another person in whom we are not interested—which is one of the most negative experiences we have.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 45.) Mystical religiousness is not about “loving others,” but about “turning them on.” What we desire most is to be desired by one who excites us, and in a religious context this boils down to being Christ for people. Jesus did not “love people,” rather, “he allowed God to show him to people as his beloved, desirable because desired from all eternity. As each of us is.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 46.)

Those who experience direct awakening become means of grace for others. And what “we call grace, or the new creation, is that movement within people whereby the infinite desire which constitutes them in being (the ‘first creation’) happens for them, happens in their consciousness, happens as a new empowering of the heart.”[34] Thus, whether first mediated through human relationships, as is most common, or awoken directly, the goal is the same: the liberation of desire by making contact with desire’s ultimate cause, the love that courses through the entire universe.


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] Augustine stressed that this is a process that is never completed in this life. As he says in the City of God, “For to be quite free from pain while we are in this place of misery is only purchased, as one of the world’s literati perceived and remarked, at the price of blunted sensibilities both of mind and body. And therefore that which the Greeks called ἀπάθεια, and what the Latins would call, if their language would allow them, ‘impassibilitas,’ if it be taken to mean an impassibility of spirit and not of body, or, in other words, a freedom from those emotions which are contrary to reason and disturb the mind, then it is obviously a good and most desirable quality, but it is not one which is attainable in this life.” (The City of God, 410.)

[2] Moore will later be critical of Freud because Freud called this desire that precedes the desire for particular things “the unconscious.” Moore sees Freud as having “made the common mistake of thinking of self-awareness as having oneself as object of awareness”, thus, “he had to call the fundamental condition that precedes all our [desirous] activity the ‘unconscious’.” (Let this Mind Be in You, 6.) For Moore this fundamental sense of desire is not unconscious, but instead, is a mode of consciousness that, though seldom present to us, can be reconnected with though meditation. (Let this Mind Be in You, 10.) Indeed it is this fundamental desire that is the deeper stability that all therapy directs itself toward. (Let this Mind Be in You, 14.)

[3] For Schnarch this basic idea is interpreted through the idea of “differentiation” as first developed by Murray Bowen, but expanded upon in Schnarch’s own work.

Beyond “Rational” False Alternatives: “Who do you say that I am?”

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The problem this chapter (a list of all posts in this project is here) has aimed to address is the phenomena of faith loss among Christians whose critical ability has attained the capacity to undercut its own historical and philosophical foundations. These are those for whom historical arguments regarding the Bible and the historical Jesus have become important, but also have failed. Such people tend to also have a similar relationship to philosophical arguments for God’s existence. The heart of this chapter has been an attempt to describe in a rational mode how what is often termed a loss of faith is, in reality, a necessary element of rational development. We have shown how Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich paints a broader philosophical landscape in which to make sense of the problem and also avoids the nihilism that threatens any systematic thought that is unable to anchor itself in reality. The basic problem was shown to be a truncated conception of reason combined with the lack of recognition that reason (reflection and response) proceeds through a series of stages whereby the objectival is “lost” at each transition due to the activities of criticism and doubt. The solution was shown to be Tillich’s correlation of reflection and response and the anchoring of both these moments in a paradoxical reality and presence.

How do these ideas relate to the work of Becker and Kegan that we examined in the previous chapter? To begin, we should recall Becker’s description of humanity’s existential paradox as a creature capable of tasting the eternal, but nevertheless being bound to the limits of finitude, and most notably, being subject to death. In reality, the vast majority of human-kind experiences this paradox as an unbearable contradiction. And it was here that Becker then vigorously rubbed our noses in all the various individual and communal ways we set about denying of our existential condition. When these ideas are extended into the realm of human reason it is easy to see how criticism and doubt can be used in exactly this way to protect ourselves from potentially threatening realities and powers. In this way, critical reflection and doubting response can give up the task of truth-seeking and become merely self-protective, thus stifling growth and maturity.

But what of those who begin to experience the edges of their own ways of knowing as not mere contradiction, but as paradox? These are the ones who begin the great risk pushing the edges of their rational world. Kegan provided us with a rich framework to make sense of this moment by way of a series of mental paradigm shifts where what was previously held as subject became capable of being reflected upon as an object of thought. Likewise, Scharlemann traced for us a cultural history of this very same movement. In addition to this Kegan is also well known for moving developmental stage theory beyond an exclusively cognitive focus to include the emotional dimension of human life, and to that extent Scharlemann’s appropriation of Tillich again resonates strongly with Kegan’s work. This is seen clearly in Scharlemann’s classification of reason into its reflective and responsive modes. Thus, Scharlemann was able to give us a historical road map of the reflective and responsive aspects of human reason that further reinforces the analytic power of Kegan’s model.

Shattered Ice

In an effort to lessen the abstraction of this chapter we have periodically considered the doubts that the young Paul Tillich faced about the historical foundations of his faith. We will now conclude this chapter by returning once again to this problem which continues to this day in both scholarly and popular forms. It seems that scarcely a year goes by without a new slew of articles and television programs that ask us to consider “who was Jesus, really?” The implication tends always to be that the Jesus you think you know, the Jesus you pray to, and the Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next is not at all the real Jesus. Some even evidence a certain glee in this “gotcha” moment. However the question that we are here urged to consider is not unlike the one that Jesus himself asked his own followers, and we would do well to attend once again to that narrative.

Who do you say that I am?

In the introduction to this chapter we reflected on Peter’s answer to this question: declaring Jesus to be the messiah. This became a problem for Peter because, the messiah that he had in mind was roughly the functional equivalent of the “Jesus that you trust to keep you and your loved ones safe in this life and the next.” Upon exposing Peter’s self-protective and self-aggrandizing hopes, Jesus’ reaction was intense and immediate: “Get behind me Satan!” Now, let this sink in. What does this mean for the believer and for the cultural debunkers? For the believer Jesus refuses to be a temporal security. And for this reason he embodies the criticism of the debunkers before they even have a chance to speak. To participate in salvation is, therefore, not to have one’s temporal securities vindicated (for example, by embarrassing the cultural debunkers by producing a world-renowned scholar to expose their arguments as foolishness). Instead, to participate in salvation—as Tillich eventually learned—is to mirror the paradoxical motions of Christ.

This concludes our exploration of the paradox of salvation in the dimension of human reason. In the next chapter we will view it from the perspective of spirituality and theology in the Christology of Sebastian Moore.


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.

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.)

Written by Alex

March 5, 2015 at 2:38 pm

Doubt and the Rational Dimension of Religion: Stages of Response

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As we stated earlier, the self stands in a dual relationship to the other. The self grasps the objectivity of an other by way of reflection, and it responds to the subjectivity of the other by way of response. We have just explored the stages that reason passes through as it seeks to establish an objective certainty. We will now address the parallel journey that response undergoes as it seeks to establish the character of the religious power (the reality of the subjectivity of the objectival) that acts upon it.

A few more words must be said with respect to this idea of a “religious power.” As was argued earlier, most contemporary people tend to so identify the whole scope of reason with technical/reflective rationality that the responsive dimension of rationality is left off their conceptual map entirely. This way of thinking will immediately confuse Scharlemann’s category of “religious power” as an objective reality that is to be assessed by reflective rational means.We see this, for example, in the work of analytic theologians and their efforts to do theology with an explicit allegiance to exclusively reflective methods. Such theologians are puzzled by the cool reception that many other theologians have given their young movement. Yet this situation is understandable when one realizes that the religious dimension of reality is by nature a matter not of reflection, but of response. Here “religious power” is not an objective reality to be grasped, but rather it is the subjectivity of the objectival impacting the knower. It cannot be grasped at all by means of critical reflection. To be known, it must be allowed to grasp us.

This last point should register a note of alarm in the reader, for what is to stop false forms of otherness from disintegrating the self in its reception of them? For example, there have always been charismatic leaders with a special knack for disarming their audience so as to be invited in, and, of course, history is littered with the remains of lives torn to pieces as a result.

It is due to this concern that we can now introduce the negative counterpart to critical reflection, namely, doubting response. Doubt places distance between the self and the power that is acting upon it. The question, then, is whether or not there is any true religious power that does not fade when exposed to critical doubt. In fact, this is what Scharlemann picks out as the very criterion of religious power. “The character of religious power,” he says, “is that it engages the free response of the self by answering the doubt or bridging the distance set by the self.” (Scharlemann, 16.) “[I]t establishes its presence by the fact that my doubt does not remove it. If it cannot bridge the distance or reestablish its own presence, it cannot elicit a free response.” (Scharlemann, 16.) This failure precludes the possibility that the power acting upon the self is a truly religious power because in its failure to reestablish itself and elicit a free response, it reveals itself as being finite limited, and unworthy of worship. Thus, doubt is introduced by the self to establish the real subjective power of the other, the religious dimension of which is its capacity to bridge this critical distance and thereby elicit a free response.

June

Just as with reflection, responsive rationality is sensitive to the kind of presence towards which it is directed, and this again can be viewed in a series of stages. Among the most salient of these stages is the second stage of reflection. Where at this point reflection distinguished between particular beings and being-itself, response here distinguishes between the gods and God. “At the monotheistic stage response is made not to any one objectival subject but to the quality of subjectivity as such in the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 16.) At this stage the self “no longer needs to ask whether currently ruling Gods are true since it knows that, critically viewed, they are false. At the same time it also knows that the untruth of the Gods is precisely the essence of the true God, the one who is truth itself.” (Scharlemann, 80.)

The crisis that responsive thinking eventually finds itself in is parallel to the one that reflective thought ended up in. This crisis is reached when responsive thinking “turns upon its own act and discovers that its temporality always eludes its grasp.” (Scharlemann, 16.) Scharlemann shows how this occurred for Christianity at the beginning of the nineteenth century with the dissolution of the sacral presences of medieval and classical Protestant theology. His concept of a sacral presence is important to grasp, for seeing it helps us understand the bind we saw the young Tillich struggling with. A sacral presence, notes Scharlemann, is

some reality—an institution, a person, and idea, or whatever else—which is present in the world in such a way…that when I view it I do not view it in its relation to things around it. I do not ask from what other thing it comes (since it is directly of God) or to what other things it leads or is related. It is ‘just there,’ underivable from anything around it, encompassing and sustaining all else. (Scharlemann, 17.)

So long as such a presence exists in the world, reflective thinking is prevented from turning upon its own act, because response is stopped by something tangible in the world. The medieval church possessed such a presence in the penitential and sacramental reality of the church, and classical Protestantism possessed such a presence in the Sacred Scriptures. Again, Scharlemann is worth quoting at length.

Both sacral presences were dissolved by the beginning of the nineteenth century. Protestantism had destroyed the sacral character of the medieval church, and historical criticism had destroyed the sacral character of the Scriptures. Henceforth they were both subject to criticism and doubt. Of course, they were and are still sacral for many people, but not for theological thinking that is historically conscious. And they were not available for theological construction in the new era since their sacral character could not be restored. Anyone who either directly or by recapitulation participated in the historical development leading into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could no longer revert to the medieval and Protestant theological stances without a loss of integrity. The disappearance of sacral realities is never a reversible process. (Scharlemann, 18.)

Once all sacral realities are removed by criticism and doubt there is nothing in the world to stop the self from trying to catch the here-and-now act of response. This can be seen, for example, when one is able to ask for the very first time, “what do I love when I love God?” With all sacral realities removed, the self faces a dilemma. Either one can arbitrarily “call a halt” to their doubting response, or they can continue their doubting response. In the first case, one opens oneself up to being grasped by the demonic as well as holy powers, whereas in the second place the religious presence will continue to vanish due to the nature of its temporality. As Scharlemann, following Tillich, notes, “Faith turned on itself is confronted with the choice between fanaticism or fatuousness, demonization or profanation.” (Scharlemann, 19.)

This leads us now finally to Schleiermacher. Scharlemann sees Schleiermacher’s solution to this problem as paralleling Hegel’s solution to the problem of absolute reflection. Schleiermacher “identified the act of religious response with the content of a whole system of responsive thinking. What the self responds to and its act of responding were identical in the whole, just as for Hegel the act and the object of critical reflection were the same in the absolute system.” (Scharlemann, 19.) Scharlemann sees this is a problem for the same reason that Hegel’s absolute system was deemed a problem. It is of little use for temporally conditioned human life, for even if the act of response and objectival presence that is responded to are identical, “the response never finds an objectival presence, because the act it catches is already past by the time it is caught.” (Scharlemann, 18.) Either that, or the whole system of response must be deemed “post-historical,” in the same sense as Hegel’s system and therefore preclude the possibility of any new response. (Scharlemann, 18.)

Schleiermacher’s system, like Hegel’s was deemed by most to be a failure, but nobody else was able to do any better. It is the great virtue of Paul Tillich, thinks Scharlemann, that he solves this great riddle in a system of thought that is both complete, yet open. Tillich’s system does not fall into the totalitarianism of either Hegel or Schleiermacher. He accomplishes this by way of his concepts of correlation and paradox. We will turn to these in the final section of this chapter.


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.

Written by Alex

March 3, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Paul Tillich, Correlation & Paradox: Salvation in Human Reason (Introduction)

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Although this marks the beginning of chapter three in terms of my dissertation, it’s really here that my academic journey began. Having been raised in the relatively passive and mystically oriented environment of Catholicism, I later became involved with Protestant evangelicalism which stressed one’s individual decision in the process of salvation. I lost my faith among the evangelicals; or rather, it was here that my capacity to think about faith was awakened, then frustrated in a way that I could not understand at the time.[1] Looking back, the trouble for me was that the individualistic element in evangelicalism was stressed so much that the element of mystical participation that I had received from Catholicism was lost. What I was left with was a rationalized form of religiosity. It moved on the surface of life but had difficulty making contact with the depths.

What I mean by this can be seen in the shape of the existential crisis which occurred in me during that time. The form of this crisis was the impasse created by my unconditional drive to affirm the meaning of my life as revealed in the love of Christ, colliding with my likewise unconditional drive to arrive at the truth concerning the historical ground of that fundamental affirmation. Did what was said to have happened, really happen? If, as my evangelical friends believed, the truth of the former rested on an affirmative answer to the latter, then the honest doubt would always be a corrosive force on the meaning of my life. Under these conditions there was no way out, for the truths of history are impossible to be known without the criticism of doubt.[2]

Apologetic Books

It was here that the work of Paul Tillich was introduced to me. His writings did something to me that no other religious writers I had read to that point were able to accomplish. He united the mystical, participatory dimensions of Catholicism with the individualistic, prophetic dimensions of Protestantism in the form of a paradox. Bringing this movement to light will be the goal of this chapter.

In terms of my own story, this can be seen in Tillich’s statement that “Jesus could not have been the Christ without sacrificing himself as Jesus to himself as the Christ.” This was a revolutionary way of encapsulating something I had sensed but could not find the words for. Pace my evangelical friends, Jesus as the Christ is not a stable historical ground on which one might try to anchor one’s faith. Instead, the image of Jesus we get from the gospels is of one who deflects all attempts to make him an object of temporal security. In the terms of first century Palestine, that object of temporal security was thought to be the emergence of a sort of spiritualized king capable of throwing off the Roman occupation and ushering in a utopian reign of God. This figure was to be the “anointed one,” meshiah in Hebrew, or in Greek, christos, the Christ.[3]

Tillich helps us see how radically Jesus transformed these titles. His kingdom was “not of this world” in the sense that he served the eternal Father whose compassion extended to all, even the Romans. As such, his kingdom could not established according to the divisions of this world. In fact, any mindset that sought security in this-worldly terms would either be deflected by Jesus or be forced to kill him. For this reason both attempts to accept Jesus or to reject Jesus in this-worldly terms amounts only to seating oneself with the opposing side. The life of Jesus is an embodied paradox. Because of that, as Tillich continued, “any acceptance of Jesus as the Christ which is not the acceptance of Jesus the crucified is a form of idolatry.” (The Dynamics of Faith, 122.) And likewise, any denial of Jesus as the Christ with the affirmation of Jesus as the crucified is a form of faith. This is a puzzling way of speaking. For now, simply allow these words to be suggestive hints at what will soon be explained with more precision.

In this chapter, by way of Robert Scharlemann’s analysis of Paul Tillich’s theology, I will be seeking to show how the paradox of salvation appears in the dimension of reason. The themes of the terror of death and stage transition will once again be in play. In the dimension of reason the terror of death emerges in the form of doubt. Though doubt can be used as a form of self-protection, I will here be focusing on doubt as it pertains to our deepest commitments and hopes. Self-protective doubt is truth-avoiding, whereas the form of doubt I will be addressing is truth-seeking. The difficulty is that, from a temporal perspective, to encounter truth is simultaneously to encounter death. Thus truth-seeking doubt is often something we avoid. The argument that will be presented is that, like psychological development, reason proceeds through stages where the reflecting subject is progressively “lost” as the structure of reason deepens and the scope of doubt increases.


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] It seems to me that I must have been somewhere between Kegan’s “traditionalism” and “modernism” at this time. I was developing the capacity to by my own person in a way distinct from my earlier culture of embeddedness (Catholicism and my familial norms), but I was not yet able to hold my new developing ideology (evangelical Protestantism) as an object of reflection. It’s categories simply were “the” categories for me.

[2] Without knowing it, I had wandered into Lessing’s Ditch which states essentially that eternal truths cannot be proved by historical truths. “That, then, is the ugly great ditch which I cannot cross, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make that leap.” (Lessing, Philosophical and Theological Writings, 87)

[3] This matter is complex. See E.M.B. Green for a summary of pre-Hasmonean “this-worldly” factors leading to the development of these terms (The Meaning of Salvation, 38-39) James Kugel gives further insight into the development of more “other-worldly” expectations and the development of “apocalyptic” literature (How to Read the Bible, 655-657) Finally, E.P. Sanders gives a good overview of what can be made of first century usages of the titles messiah and christ. (The Historical Figure of Jesus, 240-243)

Written by Alex

February 6, 2015 at 11:55 am

Faith and Final Truth

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The pretensions of final truth are always partly an effort to obscure a darkly felt consciousness of the limits of human knowledge. Man [sic] is afraid to face the problem of his limited knowledge lest he fall into the abyss of meaninglessness. –Reinhold Niebuhr

I’ve been reading Niebuhr’s “Nature and Destiny of Man” recently. I share this particular quote more as a confession than a challenge, and I’ll explain what I mean by that in a moment. But first, a bit on the context.

Niebuhr pegs the predicament of humanity as the tension between freedom (the potential to transcend all limits) and finitude (actuality of our creaturely limitations). From this tension is born anxiety. Anxiety the experience of the human dilemma. On the one hand it is the concern that by actualizing our freedom we might transgress our creaturely limits and therefore be destroyed. On the other hand, it is the concern that in seeking to avoid the risk of our freedom we renounce something essential to our humanity and therefore undergo self-loss through inaction.

This, for Niebuhr, is the fundamental insecurity of the human condition. Anxiety (following Kierkegaard) is the precondition of sin as either pride or sensuality. I wont be dealing with sensuality in this post, but pride is defined as the attempt to escape our human insecurity by making ultimate our own finite and provisional “programs”/convictions/agendas.

In my own history, I’ve had a number of good friends who identify as atheists. They posed the threat of ultimate meaninglessness to me. Looking back, I can see how my desire to find a historical or theological argument that could be used as a final demonstration of truth was really the temptation of pride. Such striving never did solve my situation of anxiety; it only made it worse, for I never lost sight of my own limitations.

It’s an unfortunate thing that the culture of our day (including much Christian culture) identifies faith with the pride I’ve just described (believing things ultimately on the basis of provisional evidence). This is unfortunate especially since faith in its true meaning is the real solution to anxiety. Faith is the concern that grips us from beyond the point of view of a threatened finite self staring out into a world. Faith both comes to us and through us. It is the courage to accept our ultimate acceptance. Without such faith love is not possible, for when we live out of our anxiety, the encounter with another is a potential threat, rather than an opportunity for reunion.

This is why I post Niebuhr’s quote as a confession. What I had once called faith can be better understood as the sin of pride. Since then faith has become for me not the possession of a “final truth,” but the state of being gripped by something unconditional both within myself and within the world I inhabit. It is being embraced by a reality which includes but transcends both. And when the contents of this faith are centered on the crucified God, the fruit is not anxiety or fear, but faith, hope, and love.

Written by Alex

December 1, 2011 at 8:52 am

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