living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Paul Tillich

It Is Finished!

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Yesterday, Monday, April 11th, between 9:30 and 11:30, I successfully defended my dissertation (I link to the full-text at the end of this post). It passed with no need for further edits and with a surprising amount of enthusiasm! It’s been nine years since I started my academic journey in theology. To be honest, the emotions are still trying to figure out what what they should be doing!

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The run up to my defense was chaotic. The person in charge of scheduling the defense was on maternity leave with no auto-response associated with their email address, so our request to schedule my defense (now already after the spring graduation deadline!) sat for an additional two weeks unanswered. When we finally got in touch with someone, things moved fast. Much faster than I was emotionally prepared for!

I was given essentially a week and a half to prepare. I’d never been to one of these before, so I was faced with the added difficulty of not really having a concept of what I was preparing for. At the very least, I knew there was to be a 10 to 20 minute introduction that I would have to give. Seeing that fairly objective, and also feeling the most anxiety about the presentation element of my defense, I got busy cranking out a stellar presentation.

I worked my brain to exhaustion repeatedly over the next ten days. Then, with two days left to practice and read through my draft one last time, I finished my presentation and gave it a test run…

It took me THIRTY EIGHT MINUTES to talk through about a THIRD of it!

The word “doomed” floated across my mind. I imagined myself walking into the defense hall, shrugging my shoulders and saying “Well, I tried to put together an intro, but I screwed it up. What say we just state the title nice and clearly and move on to the questions?”

Instead, I got up early the next morning, retreated to the detached garage in the back yard, stoked a nice fire and proceeded to craft a stripped-down version of both my talk and slides. I began practicing that night. More practicing the next day was combined with an afternoon of reading my dissertation again (while Megan sewed the button back onto the only pair of dress pants that fit me anymore!) Megan and I hit the road at 3:00pm to stay with her sister and our brother-in-law near St. Paul. To bed early, then awake, unable to sleep at 3:30 am. And finally, after some tense traffic, we were alone in an empty auditorium awaiting the arrival of my committee.

“The work is done” I kept telling myself. “All that’s left to do now is relax and be responsive to your readers.” My body seemed altogether unwilling to take my mind’s sage advice, so I fumbled around fretfully arranging the podium and occasionally walked to the window to get my mind off of the stark surroundings. There was a bronze sculpture called “Living Hope of the Resurrection” in the small garden just outside. Its presence was a gift.

The gift was to increase, for just then Megan returned to the conference room with a number of my friends and colleagues who had arrived. The room quickly filled with graduate students, recently graduated friends, and finally my committee, Dr Lois Malcolm (my adviser) and Drs Amy Marga and Mary Hess (my readers).

The actual defense was a blur. I recall feeling deeply relieved that things were finally underway, and pleasantly surprised at the general enthusiasm and encouragement of my committee. My only regret is that I once caused Dr Marga to forget her question when a certain topic she touched on led me to turn and wink at my good friend Derek Maris in the audience. Maybe regret is too strong of a word, but I did feel a little bad about it.

In the end, my committee helped me to reconnect with the possibility that there may well be something important going on in my work. After years of these ideas being couched within a process that we’ve just been trying to just get through, it’s been easy for me to lose sight of what led me to these ideas in the first place. They pushed me to really think about how the theological method I’ve begun to chart has validity for both religious communities as well as for a culture that has largely ceased to give a rip about religious communities. I’m looking forward to the challenge.

Megan and I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief as we walked to the car, only to discover that we had gotten, not one, but TWO parking tickets… which turned out to be letters of congratulations that my Aunt Debra had snuck over sometime during the defense. 🙂

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My Facebook feed has been a non-stop accumulation of well wishes and congratulations ever since the first word went out yesterday. What a tremendous feeling. Thank you all!

And now, for those who are curious, I present to you the final draft of my dissertation: Dying to Live: The Paradox of Christian Salvation, The Terror of Death, And Developmental Stages Theory. It is a mix of personal narrative and academic reflection. Many of you have been a part of the narrative it contains. It is my hope that the narrative will only continue and deepen. Thank you!

Introduction

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A Brief Overview

It is often thought that Christianity keeps its adherents in a state of perpetual immaturity. As a sociological fact, this may be hard to argue against. Much that goes by the name Christianity looks quite near to what Ernest Becker described as a fearful “death denying ideology.” In theological terminology, such ways of being amount to self-salvation programs. The terror of death drives us to avoid all forms of death. Yet, at the heart of Christianity stands one who chose his own death and encouraged his followers to take up their own crosses and follow him. Such an act, apparently, has an important role to play in an understanding of Christian salvation. In this thesis, I make use of developmental stages theory to illuminate what that role is. I argue that Christian salvation is founded on a paradoxical death that is best made sense of in light of contemporary developmental stages theory, in particular, at the thresholds of developmental stage transition. To illuminate this claim I trace out the logic across the rational, desirous, and active dimensions of human being. These dimensions are explored, in order, by way of Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering prayer. Taken together, it is concluded that Christianity has tremendous resources for helping its adherents come to grips with their death denying strategies and therefore enlarge their capacity for psychological and spiritual maturity.

Introduction

We are familiar with the story. The young person raised in a religious home goes off to college, or perhaps seminary, and loses their faith. For them and for their family back home, it is a painful and bewildering experience. Their minds fill with questions about how they could have gone so wrong. The parents wonder if they should have paid for the private Christian college, or if they did, their guilt is even more intense, and explanations, even harder to come by. Never would it occur to any of them that the maturing young adult might be actually embodying the very death and resurrection of Christ. It might even be the case that the parents’ resistance to facing what has actually affected their child puts them more on the side of the Pharisees than faith. How could this be?

At the center of this study stands the paradox of Christian salvation. Christianity is founded on the image of one who faced, engaged, and befriended the negativities of human existence, even the most radical of them all: death. In doing so, Jesus came to be called Christ the Savior. To follow this Christ, Christians are called to likewise lose their life in order to find it, to take up their cross and follow him. These are a vague and puzzling set of instructions. Perhaps because of this, the enormity of this paradoxical insight, as it pertains to spiritual growth and the way we deal with existential doubt, has hardly begun to be realized.

My aim in this thesis is to shed new light on the way that the paradox of Christian salvation transforms what appears as death, doubt, and faithlessness into new life during the normal course of one’s maturing spiritual life. I claim that developmental stage theories, specifically the work of Robert Kegan, provide us with a powerful tool to analyze and understand the formal dynamics of this spiritual development. I augment Kegan’s theory with the work of Ernest Becker, who focuses on the content of what keeps people and cultures clinging to self-destructive patterns of thought and action. We might think of Becker as providing a sustained analysis of why we are so often in the company of “those who seek to save their lives.” Becker helps us see that the often terrifying experience of psychological and, therefore, spiritual growth stems from an underlying fear of death (especially the death of our “self-esteem”) which lies well beneath the surface of our stated concepts and commitments. After setting up my analytical apparatus, I move to apply it to the rational, passional, and practical dimensions of human being by examining Paul Tillich’s philosophy of religion, Sebastian Moore’s spiritual Christology, and the practice of Centering Prayer.

Liminal: Sunset over Rice Minnesota

My aim from this work is twofold. My first goal is to develop a constructive theological proposal that shows how Christian salvation, when understood in its full paradoxical nature, unites the theoretical work of these thinkers with the practice of Centering Prayer. And, secondly, I aim to show how, contrary to our intuitions, a certain kind of death in the realm of our rational, desirous, and practical life (doubt, disaffection, and inaction) can lead through disintegration into a deepening maturity. This thesis will thus be dynamic enough to accommodate all stages of human maturation, while maintaining a focus on the universality of our fear of death as it takes on new forms at different developmental thresholds. By doing this, I hope to illuminate how Christianity possesses the theological resources to transform what is so often thought of as a loss of faith into an actual advance in spiritual maturity.


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.

Sebastian Moore and the Paradox of Salvation in Human Desire: Introduction

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What is it that most animates human life? As children we play with friends and test our parents. As adolescents we begin looking for love and finding out “who we are.” As adults we raise families, engage in politics, build nations, make war, go on vacations, participate in religious communities, get a jobs, volunteer at charities, shop for insurance, buy McMansions or, perhaps, build tiny homes. Is there a unified drive that stands behind all of these activities? If Ernest Becker’s work is still top of mind, one might be tempted to answer that deep down it is all ultimately the fear of death that drives human activity. But if one looks closer it becomes apparent that before there can be a fear of death, there must be a desire for life. It is this limitless desire that makes our eventual perception of the actual limitations of life so unbearable. This is, once again, the existential paradox of human life, and it is this paradoxical relationship between conscious desire and the knowledge of death that drives the human animal.

In view of this, what theology of salvation could possibly be adequate to address this existential paradox? To be clear, I don’t mean by this question the much weaker problem of how to live a relatively decent life that measures up to our desires as we have limited them. What I am pointing at here is the crushing desire that leaves a lump in your throat and that makes all of life seem but a monotone facade once it has been experienced. C.S. Lewis points to this form of desire in his description of his first encounter with what he later came to call “joy.” His recounting is worth quoting at length.

As I stood beside a flowering currant bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of that earlier morning at the Old House when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ of Eden (giving the full, ancient meaning to ‘enormous’) comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation of course, of desire; but desire for what? not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past.…[A]nd before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, that whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. it had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison. (Surprised by Joy, 16.)

Leaf on Frozen Lake Reno Near Glenwood MN It is possible that my reader will have no idea of what I am now referring to. This is to be expected since the great majority of our lives tends to be a focus on much more attainable and less puzzling objects of desire. Yet it is my claim that behind these particular desires there stands an unlimited desire in which all particular desires find their home and are given their meaning. Much more will be said about this in the coming sections, but for now, get in your mind the desire that drives adventurers and makes you long to be adventurous. Think also of the desire that moves all lovers and makes you want to be in love.

Such a form of desire is a problem because nothing in this world can satisfy it. And because its relationship to all other particular desires, as their ground and end, all particular desires are likewise caught up in the problem. We are left with a dilemma: Either we can avoid having the sweetness of this deep desire awoken in us and thereby attempt to avoid the ache of its lack of fulfillment in this life (like Tolkien’s Hobbits [with the exception, perhaps, of those of Tookish descent] we can steadfastly refuse to go on adventures!), or, on the other hand, we can open ourselves to this desire, knowing that in this life heartache will be our constant companion. I ask again, what theology of salvation could address such a situation?

This chapter will be an attempt to articulate an attempt to respond to this question. In chapter two we developed an anthropology by way of the psychological insights of Ernest Becker and Robert Kegan. There we learned that growth amounts to a repeating pattern of self-protective self-limitation and transcendence of these same limitations leading to greater freedom to explore new potential in thought and action. In chapter three we dealt with the question of truth from the dual perspective of reflection and response. There we learned that both he reflective and responsive activities of reason progress through a series of stages whereby the activities of criticism and doubt force reason into a paradox that cannot be met according to the resources of its current stage of reflection or response, but can only be transcended. The criticism and doubt from the previous stage are in this way answered, but not on the same plane upon which they had operated. In both cases a form of death preceded new life. Previous forms of knowing, desiring and relating were sublated into a more complex and embracing way of being.

To this I now introduce the work of Sebastian Moore. Over the course of several books Moore has worked out a Christology that aims to answer the existential paradox that we have been articulating.[1] He stands firmly in the Augustinian tradition and is well known as a theologian of desire. Moore makes explicit use of Becker’s work, seeing in it a scientific anthropology that harmonizes with his own theological intuitions. What Moore adds to our picture is an explicitly theological focus on the dynamics of growth and salvation. Where Scharlemann and Tillich presented the dynamics of salvation in human reason, Moore provides us with a soteriology of desire.[2]

The basic shape of Moore’s theology is contained in his conception of Jesus as the liberator of desire. Moore characterizes human desire as having its origin in our original sense of experiencing ourselves as good. We will be addressing this aspect of Moore’s thought in the next section. This original experience of early childhood is progressively diminished along one’s developmental journey, and, as a result, so is the intensity and scope of our own desires. This is Moore’s theory of original sin. This idea will be explored in the section following our discussion of original desire. The first step in the process of salvation is then to reawaken our original sense of ourselves as good. But this reopens the problem we raised above, namely that unlimited desire seems to be a cruel joke within the limits of creaturely life. This leads to the final step. Having awoken unlimited desire, Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and the cross, teaching us to detach our desire from the merely creaturely dimension of life and lose it within the divine movement that courses through all life in freedom and grace. Before moving on to the first section on desire, I will close this introduction with Moore’s own tremendous summary of what he calls his “big discovery.”

The discovery is that Jesus awoke desire in his followers; that the desire he liberated is that infinite desire whose infinity we seldom sense directly; that this desire for life in its fullness chafes at life’s limits and so moves in a mysterious harmony with death…that this desire was altogether beyond the power to own, and so found its place-to-be in Jesus: the awakener of desire becomes its containing symbol. Thus the destruction, the dismantling, of the symbolic place of desire brought desire itself to the crisis that death will be for each of us. Living they died, were carried beyond this world, knew what the dead know. And the focus of this spiritual enlargement, its agency, was the crucifixion of Jesus. (The Inner Loneliness, 120.)


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] The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger; The Fire and the Rose Are One; The Inner Loneliness; Let This Mind Be in You: The Quest for Identity Through Oedipus to Christ [2] However, this matter is made complex since the conception of reason we dealt with in our time with Scharlemann and Tillich includes the activity of desire in the both the reflective and responsive modes of reason, but perhaps especially in the responsive mode. Moore will speak often about the “awakening” of desire, which is essentially reason’s response to an objectival presence.

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.)

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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 and Stages of Rational Reflection

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How did Christianity come to a place where the activity of honest rational inquiry became so threatening to its own foundation? To see how this came to pass we will be helped along by Robert Scharlemann’s analysis of the stages human reason as it has occurred since classical Greek thought.

Scharlemann sketches this history through the lens of Tillich’s philosophy which begins with the statement that “the human self (the subjectival) is constituted by a double relation to the objectival.”[1] This is to say that one’s subjectivity relates to an other in two ways. First, “it grasps the objectivity of the objectival,” and secondly “it responds to the subjectivity of the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 3.) The first activity Scharlemann calls reflection, the second, he calls response. This fundamental statement sets that stage for Tillich’s entire philosophy of religion. Out of these two activities flow philosophy and theology as systems of thought. In seeking to grasp the objectivity of being, one is engaging in the activity of philosophy. In responding to the subjectivity of being, the result is theology. (Scharlemann, 4.)

The next element that must be seen is the presence of a critical element in human reason. At the appropriate level of development, the mind develops the capacity for some measure of critical awareness.[2] Critical awareness introduces an element of the negative into both reflection and response in order to establish the reality of the objectivity and subjectivity of the objectival. This negative element turns reflection into critical reflection, and response into doubting response. (Scharlemann, 4-5.) In each case the subjectival removes the immediate experience of either an object or of the subjective power that is acting upon it. It does this in an attempt to establish what is really there. The salutary nature of this effort should be obvious, but as the history of this dynamic will show, it eventually lands both philosophy and theology in a bind that Scharlemann characterizes as the “absolute” systems of Hegel (reflection, philosophy) and Schleiermacher (response, theology). Let us now have a brief look at these stages of progression.

Bartlemas Chapel, Oxford

We will begin with the stages of critical reflection and return later to the stages of doubting response. Scharlemann sets the scene for us.

Critical reflection establishes objectivity by introducing a form of the negative. It can lay hold upon objectivity when it can distinguish an object from everything that contrasts with it. Thus the form of objectivity and the related form of negativity which are achieved depend upon the sort of object to which critical reflection is directed and this determines its several stages. (Scharlemann, 5.)

The first stage is characterized by reflection’s attempt to grasp the objectivity of any thing or group of things within the entire objectival sphere. The form of the negative suitable to establish objectivity in this realm is the contrast between what a thing is and everything that a thing is not. This, Scharlemann suggests, characterizes Greek thought, and is encapsulated in the philosophical axiom formulated by Aristotle as the rule of noncontradiction.[3] What is not reflected upon at this stage is the whole itself. The whole is a given and thought is directed only at the contrast between “the different beings and kinds of beings.” (Scharlemann, 6.)

The second stage of reflection takes up this contrast that was not yet in view in the first stage. Here the object of reflection is not an object in the first sense at all, but rather the whole realm of being that comprises the world of objects. Scharlemann points out that the law of noncontradiction, which was formerly used in thinking, is now itself reflected upon. The nature of this object of thought cannot be contrasted with other beings, as in the first stage of reflection. Since the object of thought is being-as-such, its objectivity can only be grasped by contrasting it with sheer non-being. This philosophical realization was formulated most famously by Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas in the distinction between esse (being-itself) and entia or essentiae (beings or essences). (Scharlemann, 7.)

In the third stage of reflection “the connection is recognized between the negative, which is introduced in order to objectify an object, and the self who does the introducing.” (Scharlemann, 8.) Thus, the negative becomes identified with subjectivity. The contrast is then no longer between forms of what is and what is not, but rather between subjectivity and objectivity. This way of phrasing the matter should sound the most familiar to most readers since it lies at the heart of modernity, and therefore at the heart of most contemporary thought. Here “[t]he difference between objective and non-objective is not just a difference between ways of being but a difference in how the self is related to the objectival.” (Scharlemann, 9.) Descartes is the thinker associated with this stage of reflection because of his discovery of the “split” between subjects and objects. (Scharlemann, 9.) Scharlemann notes that the supernatural realm as it had been conceived by Medieval theology was dislodged by this Cartesian split. Here the supernatural and God become for the first time, merely ways that the subjectival reflects the objectival.

The fourth stage occurs when reflection “is directed at what is presupposed in the fact that subjectivity reflects objectivity, or toward what Kant called the ‘conditions’ of knowing at all.” (Scharlemann, 10.) The contrast at this stage is between objects as thought by subjects, and “the presuppositions, or conditions, implied in the fact that objects can be thought by subjects at all.” (Scharlemann, 10.) Here objectivity is established at two levels, first, at the level of objects as thought by subjects (which is Kant’s Verstand) and secondly as the objectification of the conditions for thinking at all (which is related to Kant’s Vernunft). (Scharlemann, 10.)

The fifth and final stage of reflection now introduces the decisive problem of the modern age. At this stage critical reflection is directed at the distinction between thinking the conditions of thinking, and the “here and now” act of thinking even those conditions. At this point I can do no better than quote Scharlemann at length.

If the subjectival engages only in trying to reflect its own act, it loses objectival content because it can never catch the here-and-now act. If on the other hand it does introduce content, the content is ultimately arbitrary and unfounded; it is posited but not confirmed as objective content, because the act which posits it had not in turn been reflected. How can any objectivity finally be established if critical reflection cannot reflect the act by which objectivity is established? Yet how can reflection establish itself since there is nothing with which it can be contrasted in the act of reflection? The choice seems to be this. Either I halt reflection at the point where it tries to grasp its own act and simply assume that it does establish objectivity, and then I defeat the purpose of reengaging in it in the first place and fail to achieve what it had promised; or I continue trying to reflect that act of reflecting and lose all content because of the interminable character of self-reflection. (Scharlemann, 11.)

Here we have the final stage that reflection reaches in its quest to arrive at an objective certainty. By all appearances this quest has finally found itself frustrated by the temporal character of all acts of reflection. This is the point, says Scharlemann, that thought becomes historical in the deepest possible sense. The young Tillich we met earlier did not yet have this horizon in view. His doubts at that time likely had more to do with the limitations picked out in the third and forth stages of reflection (the problem of subjectivity and the limited conditions of knowing). However this stage was later to become decisive for him since it was his attempt to correct what he saw to be Hegel’s failed solution to this problem that became the apex of his thinking.

According to Scharlemann, Hegel’s solution amounted to the construction of a system of thought that traversed all possible content and all possible kinds of reflection. In doing so, an absolute whole could be arrived at “whose content could not be, and need not be, further reflected because it already included the here-and-now act of reflecting.” (Scharlemann, 11.) As a consequence, Scharlemann points out, Hegel concluded that in his system thought was fully reconciled with being. History was thought to have ended in the sense that nothing new could emerge that the absolute system had not already contained. It was against this implication that Hegel’s critics reacted, and it was on this point that Tillich would attempt to make his most radical revision.

In the next post we will again be tracing the stages of reason, but this time with respect to response. Where reflection left us at the doorstep of Hegel, response will have us arrive at the stoop of Schleiermacher.


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] The terms subjectival and objectival are technical terms that Scharlemann introduces to avoid a confusion that results from using only the words “subject” and “object.” For there are such things as “objectival subjects” and “subjectival objects.” He intends these technical terms to indicate “poles or elements of thought.” The “subjectival” is “anything that is on the ‘I’ side of the relation implied when I think of something.” Whereas the “objectival” “is anything on the other side of the relation.” (Scharlemann, x-xi.)
[2] Scharlemann does not deal with developmental stages of individuals, but rather is concerned with the stages reason has gone through at a historical and cultural level.
[3] Which in one of its version reads, “It is impossible for the same thing both to be present and not to be present in the same subject and in the same respect.” (Scharlemann, 6.)

Written by Alex

February 24, 2015 at 1:13 pm