Thursday, April 21, 2011

The God above God

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.


  1. This is an encouraging post for me, since it suggests I've actually learned a little about classical theism after all this time. A while back some other blogger was making a post about Tillich, and I remarked at how Tillich's view of God - at least in the portions I saw quoted, which involved God as the ground of being, etc - didn't seem all that "liberal" or "New Agey" as some people suggest, but rather close Aquinas' view as I understood it.

  2. Perhaps Aristotle's distinction between what is self-evident in itself vs. what is self-evident to us is valuable here. In truth, the reality of the finite beings that compose the universe presupposes the infinite being of God; therefore God is objectively more self-evident than the universe. Unfortunately for us, our limited minds first experience of being, and therefore of knowledge, is the finite beings of the universe, so to us their reality is more self-evident than God's. But we can reason from finite being to infinite being, and even to the objective self-evidence of God, and therefore see in retrospect the true order of self-evidence. In that sense, the reality of God is presupposed in even asking questions about God, but that does nothing to undermine the appropriateness of arguing from finite, empirical being to God.

  3. File under Quibbles: rather than saying that “God does not ‘have’ power, knowledge, goodness, etc. but just is His power, knowledge, goodness, etc. (the doctrine of divine simplicity),” shouldn’t you have said, adding the word, “only” and perhaps striking the quotation marks around the word “have,” “God does not only ‘have’ power, knowledge, goodness, etc. but just is His power, knowledge, goodness, etc. (the doctrine of divine simplicity).”

    It seems to me that you had to work very hard to extract the Thomist gold from the Tillichian ore.

  4. Great minds think alike I have been reading THE NON-EXISTENCE OF GOD by Robert R. N. Ross.


    It is fair to say Tillich is a Modernist Liberal philosophical theologian who has in effect rediscovered Classic Theism which he expresses using modernist philosophical language.

    He's a Modernist Liberal Classic Theist.

    Well if you have to be a modernist liberal that is at least a step up!

    IMHO “Theological Theism,” seems to me to be his equivalent term for "Theistic Personalism".

    I find I like Tillich better now & can chrew the meat while spitting the bones.

  5. Wes Morrison sometimes philosophical foe of William Lane Craig is a Tillichian I believe?

    Am I right?

  6. About Atheists secretly being closet theists because they want to argue about God (or, perhaps, do good works), I noticed that this comes up a lot in modernist and crypto-modernist theological writings. I believe Karl Rahner makes a similar point in his works.

  7. I love how the statement "God does not exist" rightly understood can be a perfect expression of Christian Orthodoxy! Probably best not to overuse it though...

  8. "started to enter the mainstream of Western theology with the the work of William of Ockham"

    Ed - do you deny that the Bible throughout portrays God as a god, and thus as a being with will and intellect? It seems plain to most readers that God / YHWH / the Father there is a self. One who speaks, is spoken to, loves, hates, knows, has plans, makes choices. A "being among others" - yes, in a trivial sense. But consistent with his being the greatest possible being, no?

  9. One more comment: if you can read more than a few pages of Tillich in a sitting, you're a bigger man than I am! ;-)

  10. Dr. Feser,

    If God is not a "person" nor is conscious I'm a bit puzzled by how it is that He can love anyone or even "know" things at all. I'm also extremely puzzled by how one could make sense of the Incarnation and the like.

    Does it seem to you that all of this Classical Theism stuff is so deeply embedded in a Greek understanding of the world that it would be utterly strange to the Jews who worshipped YHWH? This stuff is so obviously a mark of Aristotelian thinking that it becomes very difficult to see how any of these things have anything to do with the Jewish God.

  11. You make a good point Andres. My criticism of classical theism is Christological I suppose. Over the last few decades a number of works have focused on the idea that God suffers based primarily on His revelation of Himself in the cross of Christ (Moltmann, Fiddes etc…). I have found these works very compelling. As Christians we believe God’s ultimate revelation of Himself is through the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. I have always found the two natures doctrine a highly unsatisfactory answer to this problem…Christ suffers in his human nature and not his divine nature. This seems to split the person of Christ…and so to what extent can we call him fully human and fully divine? And to what extent can God love if he is unable to be changed, and to be shaped, to some extent, by those whom He loves?I do not want to do away with the God of classical theism by any means, because I do consider it a very thorough and intellectually robust philosophical understanding of God, but I have often struggled to reconcile it with God’s revelation of Himself in Christ.I think I want to say that it is God’s nature to love (after all God is Love) and therefore it is His nature, in some way, to enter into the life of His creation???! I think Barth, somewhere in his very substantial writings, was trying to say a similar thing.

    On another note: It seems to me that what you, Professor, call ‘theistic personalism’ (I think most helpfully) and what is called by Tillich ‘theological theism’, is what Marcus Borg somewhat confusingly calls ‘supernatural theism’, and what John Shelby Spong simply calls ‘theism’!!!...Hence his call for us to find new language about God because ‘the God of theism (ie. theistic personalism) is dead’.Now John Shelby Spong (a self-confessed admirer of Tillich) is, if you ask me, a very muddled thinker, whose writings can lead to an all manner of serious confusion and category error.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. Did I get it wrong that Spinoza expanded on this? "no attribute of a substance can be truly conceived from which it follows that the substance can be divided" and then likens G'd to the existence of rational, discoverable, immutable physical laws of the Universe. i.e., That the watchmaker IS the consistence of watches.
    Personally, I think this is derived from Mainstream Judaism which wants to say that the Covenant of G'd is above G'd. (perhaps you don't get into the hierarchical criterion problem with the Law?).

  14. Trying to define God may be futile. I suspect that God plays different roles, depending on the people who are making God up.

    For some, God is an idea or abstraction that we debate, talk about and puzzle over. So these people have a cognitive notion of God.

    Other people associate God with a feeling or feelings, emotions that are set in order by certain circumstances. They are responding to experience. To experience something, on requires no idea of its composition whatsoever. One may even draw incorrect assumptions about its composition, based upon experiences.

    For others, God is the glue that holds their tribe or society together. He/she is the cement of our lives.

    God is also understood by various methods, liturgies, or practices. To them, I think God is the flame that is behind the flame as they burn candles. By using physical symbols such as water, wind and earth and fire they induce a sense of what to them must be the Divine nature of God.

    None of this requires understanding. To understand God is beyond the capacity of most humans, including myself. That is not to say that there is no God.

    There is God so long as you believe there is God. When you stop believing, he either vanishes, or leaves you to struggle with the meaning of your existence, or perhaps ... kills you or simply lets you die a natural death.

    Cheers ...