living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘Religion

Paul Tillich, Correlation & Paradox: Salvation in Human Reason

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

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

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

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

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

cold bones

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

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


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

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

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Written by Alex

March 5, 2015 at 2:38 pm

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

Losing Your Religion: Ernest Becker & the Questionable Idea of the Maturity of Secularity

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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.


Since it’s a central theme of my study is to explore the concepts of growth and maturity, it’s important to see how Becker’s work makes conventional notions of growth and maturity problematic as they pertain to religion and culture. It is commonly assumed that “outgrowing one’s religion” and entering into the maturity of a secular frame of mind constitutes growth. However, Becker places the issue in such a way that this assumption becomes highly questionable. From what we’ve explored so far, it should be obvious enough to see the ways that the terror of death and the reflexive urge towards heroism allows one to easily view society as communal enactments of the ways that people earn their sense of cosmic significance within the relative safety of a mutually agreed upon structure. Becker puts the matter bluntly: Society is and always has been, he says, “a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism.”

This raises the question of whether society facilitates or limits human growth. To begin addressing this question, I propose three different ways that the idea of growth can be understood in this context. First there is growth within a mutually agreed upon hero system. Here one follows the “roles that society provides for their heroics and tr[ies] to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms.” But all is not mere conformity. As Becker points out, heroism is achieved by “allowing [oneself] to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders.” Secondly, there is growth understood as moving from one hero system to another without recognizing the new system as yet another immortality program. Many conversion and deconversion experiences take on this character. Finally, there is the more radical form of growth that, for the first time, recognizes the nature of their own commitments and strivings as themselves elements of their own hero system. It should be noticed, however, that when this last step is taken, growth has moved beyond the threshold of what Becker calls “earthly heroism.” The matter is now religious in the deepest possible sense.

Loss of Focus

This reference to religion “in the deepest sense” requires unpacking. In a recent article by Jonathan Jong, it is helpfully shown that Becker has essentially three definitions of religion in play throughout his work. Jong uses the clever shorthand of “religion,” religion, and Religion (with a capital R) to denote the following: “The first is an analysis of culture and civilization as immortality projects, means by which to deny death. The second, which overlaps with the first, is a characterization of religion-as-practiced (e.g., by adherents of the world religions) as a particularly effective immortality project vis-a`-vis death anxiety. The third is less social scientific and more theological; Becker argues for a view of God that is in the tradition of Søren Kierkegaard and Paul Tillich (and, arguably, Pseudo-Dionysius, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas).” It is this latter sense I have in mind. In rough terms, the common thread that joins these thinkers that Jong mentions is the nature of their God as transcendent in the sense that God is considered to be beyond the frame of reference by which human reason operates. To mature to the point that all heroics, especially one’s own, are unmasked is to approach this threshold. This is to recognize one’s own creatureliness as it stands at the brink of an eternal void. To be off the map of earthly reason is to be exposed to the awesome terror of the Unconditioned, the highest possible heroism.

This, Becker thinks, is religion “not as practiced but as an ideal.” Save but for a few religious geniuses, the rest of us tend to earn our immortality within a system, or trading between them. This remains true here in the modern West where, in many ways, traditional religion has undergone a crisis of heroism. In our time we have witnessed the rise of Neo-Atheism and a general trend of increasing secularity. But secularity is no guarantee of a growing awareness of what one is doing to earn one’s self-esteem. In fact, secular heroics, while not subscribing to the second sense of religion that Jong identifies, seldom transcends the first. As Becker says:

It doesn’t matter if the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. . . . When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as ‘religious’ as any other, this is what he meant: ‘civilized society is a hopeful belief and protest that science money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic…

In view of this, movement between religion to “religion” is no guarantee of growth (though growth may be present). The only guaranteed measure of growth consists in the ever-increasing capacity to move from either of these two religiosities to the third. A person who merely moves from the religion to “religion” without making much progress at Religion risks (if they are reflective enough) becoming “the victim of [their] own disillusionment.” They become “disinherited by [their] own analytic strength.” By way of this strength they “put the accent on the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. [They] know the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, between symbols and bodies.” Such a person thus

has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion disappear forever not only in this world, but in all possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have even been born, and so on and so forth. He knows Truth and Reality, the motives of the entire universe.

In an highly refined and tortured way such an individual is heroically committed to to a rational framework in which everything has its place, even if they themselves do not. Their myopic god may have lost its name, but not its constricting hold on their soul. Is this growth? Potentially, for, in the willingness to accept a view of the world in which the self they had always known themselves to be has no real place, there begins to emerge a deeper unknown self from which the familiar self is looked at rather than through. This deeper self is not yet recognized, for it is now serving the role of being a window to the world, as the familiar self once did. From here it is not a long step from the “religious” to the Religious.

To sum up this section, we have seen how Becker’s framing of the idea (or ideas) of religion casts doubt on the generally accepted contemporary narrative that growing up somehow consists in casting off one’s childhood religion. Of course, for some, it may, but in such cases the reasons have more to do with individual contextual issues than any structural necessity. Becker helps us see that, whether explicitly religious or secular, growing into maturity has more to do with how honest we are about the ways we manage our death anxiety and seek after our self-esteem than it does with whether we frequent the synagogue or wherever it is that secular people go to ritualize their existence.

In my final post on Ernest Becker, we will play this same tune again, but in a different key. We will be exploring what Becker refers to as “the vital lie” of human character. Just as culture is a communal death denial structure, character is the personal manifestation of the same reality. In addressing this topic our goal will be to understand the tremendous costs involved in the process of growth. If the question is “in what sense must we die in order to attain new life?” Becker will be shown to provide a compelling answer.

Written by Alex

November 21, 2014 at 11:52 am