I’m not a big fan of Paul Tillich. As a philosopher, he was too muddleheaded; as a theologian, too modernist. But even muddleheaded modernists get a genuine insight now and again. Tillich arguably did when he spoke of “the God above God,” though he presented it poorly and with an admixture of serious error.
Let’s look first at the insight, then the error. Tillich presents the idea in question in his book The Courage to Be, where he contrasts his position with that of what he calls “theological theism.” And what is that? Tillich characterizes it as follows:
The God of theological theism is a being beside others and as such a part of the whole of reality. He certainly is considered its most important part, but as a part and therefore as subjected to the structure of the whole. He is supposed to be beyond the ontological elements and categories which constitute reality. But every statement subjects him to them. He is seen as a self which has a world, as an ego which is related to a thou, as a cause which is separated from its effect, as having a definite space and an endless time. He is a being, not being-itself… God appears as the invincible tyrant, the being in contrast with whom all other beings are without freedom and subjectivity. He is equated with the recent tyrants who with the help of terror try to transform everything into a mere object, a thing among things, a cog in the machine they control. He becomes the model of everything against which Existentialism revolted. This is the God Nietzsche said had to be killed because nobody can tolerate being made into a mere object of absolute knowledge and absolute control. This is the deepest root of atheism. (pp. 184-85)
Clearly what Tillich has in mind here is an anthropomorphic conception of God that sees Him as “a being” and “a person” alongside other beings and persons, one who, like us, “has” power, knowledge, goodness, and the like, only to a much higher degree. This is the conception of God which started to enter the mainstream of Western theology with the the work of William of Ockham, whose nominalism tended to make of God merely one individual among others (as Tillich notes in his A History of Christian Thought and as we discussed in an earlier post). It is a conception which was further cemented by writers like William Paley, whose conception of God as a kind of cosmic machinist reinforced the anthropomorphic tendency to see God as “one of us” (as Joan Osborne might put it), just smarter and stronger. (I’ve discussed Paley here, here, here, and here.) It is the conception taken for granted in the “one god further” objection to theism (which we’ve recently considered here and here).
What conception of God would Tillich advocate in place of this faulty one? The answer is implicit in this passage from Ultimate Concern: Tillich in Dialogue, in which Tillich responds to a student who had asked whether “existence” would be a better term than “being” for Tillich to use in expressing his position:
“Existence” is a most unrefined alternative to the word “being,” because it omits the potentialities of existence which we usually call the essences of things. And they have being, too; they are the power of being, which may become beings. For instance, even if suddenly a scourge should cause all trees to disappear, the tree, or the power of becoming a tree, would still be there; and given the right conditions, living trees might come into existence again. Here you have a clear differentiation between essence and existence, which are two types of being. And then there is of course that being which is beyond essence and existence, which, in the tradition of the classical theology of all centuries, we call God – or, if you prefer, “being itself” or “ground of being.” And this “being” does not merely exist and is not merely essential but transcends that differentiation, which otherwise belongs to everything finite. (p. 45)
Fans of Scholasticism will recognize in this response an allusion to the doctrine that while everything in the created order is a compound of an essence with an act of existing, God is not composite in any way but just is being itself – His essence is His existence – and the source (or “ground”) of the limited being of things which are composed of essence and existence (though I would want at least to qualify Tillich’s description of essence as a “power of being”). In other words, Tillich is here affirming the core of the Thomistic conception of God, and of the conception endorsed by many classical theists more generally – a conception which, when fully worked out, entails that God does not “have” power, knowledge, goodness, etc. but just is His power, knowledge, goodness, etc. (the doctrine of divine simplicity).
Tillich’s view is that the objections of atheists are primarily directed at the crude conception of God enshrined in what he calls “theological theism,” as well as in what he takes to be other deficient conceptions of God (such as those entailed by certain poetical or political uses of the concept of God). But they have nothing to do with the correct conception of God, with what he calls “the God above the God of theism.” The existential crisis of the modern world has arisen in part because we have, rightly in Tillich’s view, lost faith in the anthropomorphic God of “theological theism.” But the answer to that crisis – the source of a renewed “courage to be” (to use Tillich’s brand of existentialist jargon) and an answer to atheism – lay in a rediscovery of the correct understanding of God: “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” (The Courage to Be, p. 190)
In that much there is much truth (though I’d happily lose the Tillichian lingo in which it is embedded). The anthropomorphic “machinist” God of Newton and Paley was indeed a step on the way to deism, which was in turn a step on the way to the atheistic conception of the world as a “machine” which might be said always to have been running, without any machinist. Many skeptics do recoil at the idea of God precisely because they falsely suppose it to be the idea of an all-powerful egomaniac, Saddam Hussein or Kim Jong Il writ large – a supposition that only makes sense if one conceives of God as “a being” among other beings. Tillich is also right to see in the Scholastic doctrine of essence and existence the key to a sound understanding of God. And he is at least to some extent right when he suggests that when philosophers and theologians have debated the classical arguments for God’s existence, “the one group did not attack what the other group defended. They were not divided by a conflict over the same matter. They fought over different matters which they expressed in the same terms” (Systematic Theology, Volume 1, p. 204). As I have argued in The Last Superstition and Aquinas, the usual objections to the classical arguments for God’s existence rest on a number of misunderstandings, including misconceptions about the nature of the God of classical theism, whose existence the (main) arguments aim to establish. Atheist criticisms often presuppose an anthropomorphic conception of God that has nothing to do with the arguments of writers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Anselm, Maimonides, or Aquinas.
But don’t get too excited, because Tillich also says some very strange and wrong-headed things. The remark of his I just quoted was not made in the context of a defense of the traditional arguments for God’s existence; on the contrary, he disapproved of the very idea of presenting such arguments, holding that “the method of arguing through a conclusion… contradicts the idea of God” (Ibid., p. 205). Or consider this mixture of insight and oddity from the same work (Systematic Theology, Volume 1):
The ground of being cannot be found within the totality of beings, nor can the ground of essence and existence participate in the tensions and disruptions characteristic of the transition from essence to existence. The scholastics were right when they asserted that in God there is no difference between essence and existence. But they perverted their insight when in spite of this assertion they spoke of the existence of God and tried to argue in favor of it. Actually, they did not mean “existence.” They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist. Yet this is the way in which the idea of God is understood today in scholarly as well as in popular discussions about the “existence of God.” It would be a very great victory for Christian apologetics if the words “God” and “existence” were very definitely separated except in the paradox of God becoming manifest under the conditions of existence, that is, in the christological paradox. God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore, to argue that God exists is to deny him. (p. 205)
How could a theologian possibly object to speaking of God’s “existence” – even to the point of saying that “God does not exist”? Is Tillich really a kind of atheist? And what could it possibly mean to say that to argue for God’s existence is really to “deny” God and “contradicts the idea of God”?
The answer has to do, in part, with an eccentric use of language on Tillich’s part to express an entirely innocent point. (See Robert R. N. Ross’s 1975 article “The Non-Existence of God: Tillich, Aquinas, and the Pseudo-Dionysius,” from The Harvard Theological Review, for a useful discussion of these issues, though Ross doesn’t put things exactly the way I will.) I said above that on the doctrine of divine simplicity, God does not “have” power, knowledge, and goodness, but is His power, knowledge, and goodness. Part of the point of this doctrine is to emphasize that God does not “participate in” or instantiate such attributes, as if He shared them in common with other things, and merely had them to a higher degree. Rather, He is Himself the standard by reference to which other things have whatever power, knowledge, and goodness they have. In the same way, one might say that God does not “have” existence, as if He “participated in” existence or were merely one instance of an existing thing among others, as created things are. Rather, He just is Being Itself or Pure Actuality. When Tillich says that “God does not exist,” it seems evident that that is what he is getting at – that God does not “have” existence the way other things do, i.e. by virtue of their essences being conjoined to an act of existing. God’s reality is higher than that, since His essence and existence are identical. A Thomist would say that there is in God something analogous to what we call existence in us – that God’s existence is not the same as ours, not because God is less real than we are but precisely because He is more real than we are. And given the Thomistic doctrine of analogy, there is no difficulty at all in saying that God exists, any more than there is in saying that He has power, knowledge, or goodness. Tillich, it seems, prefers to reserve the term “existence” for created things – which leads to needless confusion (but also allows him to say familiar things in a provocative way, which seems to be common shtick with 20th century continental thinkers). Even so, Tillich allows that “if existence in God is thought of as united with his essence, I could apply this concept to the divine life” (Charles Kegley and Robert Bretall, eds., The Theology of Paul Tillich, p. 339).
Naturally, this objection to the word “existence” as applied to God is part of the reason Tillich objects to arguments for God’s existence. But even if one speaks instead of the reality or being of God, Tillich does not think arguments can get us to Him. Why not? The answer seems to be that, precisely because God is “being itself” and the “ground” of the being of other things, His reality is in Tillich’s view presupposed in everything we do, including the giving of arguments. Tillich says in an early article that:
It is meaningless to ask… whether the Unconditional “exists,”… For the question whether the Unconditional exists presupposes already… that which exists unconditionally. The certainty of the Unconditional is the grounding certainty from which all doubt can proceed, but it can never itself be the object of doubt. Therefore the object of religion is not only real, but is also the presupposition of every affirmation of reality. (“The Philosophy of Religion,” p. 71, quoted at p. 164 of Ross)
But if God is presupposed in the very asking of questions and in the giving of arguments in answer to them, then (Tillich, as I read him, seems to conclude) God cannot intelligibly be arrived at via argument. Thus, far from entailing atheism, Tillich’s view (if I understand him correctly – the view is not expressed very clearly) seems to be that God’s reality is not less certain than the sort of thing we can arrive at via argument, but more certain.
Still, this is, from a Thomistic point of view, a muddle. The Thomist will certainly agree that we could do nothing at all, including argue for (or against) God’s existence, unless God were sustaining us in being at every instant. But it simply doesn’t follow from this that we cannot or need not argue for God’s existence. On the contrary, that there is and must be such a thing as that which is “being itself” and the “ground of being” – something apart from which we could not persist in existence even for a moment – is something we do know and can know only as a result of the metaphysical analysis enshrined in arguments like the Five Ways. Even Tillich, insofar as he argues that God qua “being itself” and the “ground of being” is presupposed in the very act of raising the question of God’s reality, is really giving an argument for God’s existence (even if he does not see that this is what he is doing, and even though he does so in only the sketchiest way). We might compare the situation here with the Thomistic view of Anselm’s ontological argument: Aquinas agrees with Anselm that God’s essence is such that His existence necessary follows from it (naturally, given that His essence just is His existence). But that God exists – that there really is something whose essence is such that His existence follows from it – is still something we cannot know a priori, but have to reason to. Similarly, that there is a “ground of being” whose existence is presupposed in the very act of asking or arguing about Him – and Aquinas would agree with Tillich that there is – is nevertheless something which must itself be established by argument.
It also doesn’t help that Tillich in at least one place puts the point by saying that “the question of God is possible because an awareness of God is present in the question of God. This awareness precedes the question. It is not the result of the argument but its presupposition” (Systematic Theology, Volume 1, p. 206, emphasis added). On any straightforward reading, this is simply false: A sincere doubter would say that it is precisely because he is not “aware” of God that he is raising the question of whether God exists. But I suspect that Tillich does not in fact intend a straightforward reading. In speaking of an “awareness of God,” I suspect that Tillich either means an “awareness” of God as rightly understood (as opposed to understood in light of an erroneous conception of God, such as that enshrined in what Tillich calls “theological theism”), or intends the expression as a roundabout way of referring to the reality of God, of which we would be “aware” if only we reflected carefully. Or perhaps he intends to make a phenomenological claim of some sort – though in this case his position wouldn’t have the metaphysical significance it seemed at first glance to have.
As all of this indicates, Tillich is not the most lucid or rigorous of thinkers. He sometimes speaks in needlessly provocative ways, gives vague arguments, and makes sweeping claims. (For example, Tillich seems too ready to regard atheism as philosophically serious – which it sometimes is, but a glance at the work of the New Atheists reveals that atheists can also be pretty shallow and intellectually dishonest.) He also makes claims of dubious orthodoxy; for instance, he says in The Courage to Be that even aspects of “biblical religion and historical Christianity” must, like “theological theism,” be “transcended” – though he says that this is because they are “one-sided” whereas “theological theism” is “wrong.” (In fact, and as I have argued here before, there is no conflict between the classical theist conception of God and the biblical and Christian conception of God.) His views on other theological matters – such as Christ’s resurrection, or on Christian morality – are no less dubious.
As I said, too muddleheaded, too modernist. A broken watch is right twice a day, but you’re better off with one that works reliably.