Tillich and the “Ends” of Human History

Things got away from me — AGAIN — this semester, and I was simply unable (and unwilling) to keep posting things here. Whether that matters to anyone or not I do not know. The academic semester is over at LSTC and I now have time to muse on things here.

At any rate, I am going to post several more theology papers. This is in reaction to a portion of Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology (Volume III) on the meaning and ends of human history. I don’t understand the attraction to Tillich, but maybe that’s just me.

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I am puzzled by Paul Tillich’s views on history. No, that’s not entirely accurate nor it is completely fair. I don’t understand and cannot make sense of Paul Tillich’s attempts to make sense and give meaning to human history.

It isn’t for lack of trying. I am intrigued by the philosophy of history, and really appreciated the first 20 pages or so of this reading. Tillich’s understanding of history is not quite a post-modernist one – the story an individual or group (in Tillich’s case, a community of some kind) tell about themselves so that they know who and what they are – but it’s more than a modernist understanding as well. “Historical consciousness expresses itself in a tradition, i.e., in a set of memories which are delivered from one generation to the other. … The significance which an occurrence has for the tradition conscious group determines whether it will be considered as a historical even.” (p. 300) What counts as history is as much in the editing, in what is left out, as it is what is included. And how the narrative is woven matters too. History is, as he says, dependent on historical consciousness.

And I truly appreciate his explanation of history bearing groups, particularly his inclusion of eros in the calculus of state power. Like Etienne de la Boiete, Tillich believes that state power functions largely because those ruled by a particular state give at least passive consent, if not active support and love, to the state that rules them. “This support is based on an experience of belonging, a form of communal eros which does not exclude struggles for power within the supporting group but which unites it against other groups.” (p.309) These things make state power, whether modern nation-states or earlier, non-nation-state forms of governance, possible, as no state can rule all of its subjects through violence all of the time. (Those that try don’t last long.) Without central organization of some kind, and Tillich grants it is political (and he is probably correct), a community of human beings cannot be a “history bearing group.” However, I will argue with Tillich’s assertion that “[t]he element of compulsion in every historical power structure is not its foundation but an unavoidable condition of its existence,” since there is plenty of work by libertarian (both left and right) historians and political thinkers that the nation-state is, in fact, a product of “domestic” conquest, the subjugation of once foreign folks and their conversion into “citizens.” Indeed, if one accepts that the lawful monopoly of violence in a particular geographical space is the major definition of the post-Westphalia nation-state (and I believe it is), then condition of existence cannot be detached from foundation. Tillich’s statement is philosophically meaningless. Or it is possibly wishful thinking.

[He has engaged in wishful thinking on state power before, in his book Theology of Culture, in which he rather stupidly wants to preserve the possibility of an “I-Thou” relationship (citing Martin Buber) with state power.]

But it is when Tillich speaks of the meaning of history — “History, in terms of the self-integration of life, drives toward a centeredness of all history-bearing groups and their individual members in an unambiguous harmony of power and justice.” (p.332) The brain hurts to think such thoughts, and this is an assertion both unsupported and unsubstantiated. What in the way of proof – scriptural, mathematical, historical – does he even provide for such a silly assertion, besides the aim of empire to assemble all things while at the same time sowing the seeds of its own destruction? We are all, then, to be mashed into one, and I would think that Tillich was prefiguring Francis Fukiyama’s “end of history” thesis of the early 1990s were it not for the fact that Tillich was earlier in this reading no fan of Nietzsche’s last man standing and a few lines later on page 332 writes:

“But history, like life in general, stands under the negatives of existence and therefore under the ambiguities of life. The drive toward universal and total centeredness, newness and fulfillment is a question and remains a question as long as there is history.”

Whew, I’m glad we got that straight. Cleared that right up, yep, he sure did. It’s moving together, really it is, but these things are parallel lines that just appear to converge in the distance. They really never do. Until, in fact, they do. At which point they stop being parallel lines. Yes, the brain does hurt to think such thoughts. I need a drink. I need some fresh air.

Okay, I’m back now. I tried to appreciate Tillich’s discussion of progress, focused as it was not on the “things are getting better all the time” by noting that each new moment or event in history is new and unique and thus is “progress” from the previous moment. The only problem with the word progress is it is loaded with a moral meaning that is almost impossible to shed, implying as it does that something subsequent is better than something previous. Tillich does struggle with this, and I think he answers it regarding political and social systems when he writes: “The situation with regard to justice is no different. This, of course, is a bold statement in a culture which considers as not only the adequate expression of its own idea of justice but the ideal of justice to which all previous forms are but insufficient approaches.” (p.335-336) While giving the mid-20th century two cheers for democracy (the divine right of the 19th and 20th and at least the first damn decade of the 21st centuries), Tillich goes on to say that every “system” includes some element of justice (and this, to my understanding, is the real import of Luther’s “two kingdoms” theology). But by preserving the notion of “progress,” no matter how much he tries to qualify it (and Tillich does note one can only speak of “better and better” in terms of technology), Tillich is leaving open room for moral progress and all the evil that entails. And that is a problem.

(As an aside, what does Tillich mean when he says “[t]he individual receives his life as a person from the history-bearing group to which he belongs”? (p.346) Statements like this make me suspicious – what is he preparing to justify? In the sense that historical personhood requires contact with other human beings, as Tillich asserts earlier in this part of the book, yes, I agree. But this sounds enough like the community willing the individual into being (and thus has an enforceable monopoly claim on the individual’s life, liberty, property and loyalty), and my anarchist/libertarian soul cannot stand such a notion. Indeed, such a claim is made by statists all the time. In fact, I believe quite a different proposition – that individual human beings will the collective into being, that the history-bearing community is created by individual human beings, and thus can be, or at least it ought to be possible, to be “uncreated” by those individuals.)

Finally, I do not understand what Tillich means by “Kingdom of God.” I’m not sure Tillich did either. On the one hand, he dismisses utopianism (a good thing, too; utopians, including anarchists and libertarians, should be locked in strong cages and poked with sharp sticks) by noting that it attempts to arrive at the end of history within history, for ignoring the ambiguities of life and for giving the “quality of ultimacy to something preliminary.” (p.355) And yet, he wants to hold out for the ultimate utopian fantasy, “the transformation of the historical group and the universe.” (I can buy that God has done this through Christ, but that means it is already done, and was done from the beginning, without a single human finger lifted or single ridiculous human idea concocted.) He tries to make this work by drawing from “religious socialists” (a statement that simply makes me breathless with confidence) and notes four very weasely points he leaves undefined: the Kingdom of God is political (he does not say how), it is social (he does not say how), it is personal (natch) and it is universal (ditto). If this is dialectic tension, then it ends up utterly unresolved, and leaves his scheme open to tremendous abuse by liberals and liberationists of various flavours (because I still see no discernible difference) who want to privilege certain kinds of human action, particularly violent and murderous state action, aimed at achieving an alleged “common” or “social” good. Whatever divine reality Tillich may be expressing in this view of history, God is lost in his language, and he leaves his scheme far too open for hijacking by those whose human ideals outweigh their understanding of the divine.

To say that history culminates in unity and justice is to then allow those who allegedly want unity and justice to say they embody the meaning of history. Tillich’s ideas become an “equivalent” idea, one that does not need God if human action suffices toward the ends. Because God is nowhere to be found in his theory of history, even as he tries to hold the forces of Progressivism at bay, there is far too much room for alternate understandings to move in and cuckhold Tillich’s ideas. (In fact, I suspect the religious socialists Tillich borrowed this stuff from had a much better idea of what it all meant than Tillich in his muddle did.)

Yes, I am a great deal more sympathetic with those two versions of history Tillich doesn’t like: the tragic and the transcendent. I am utterly uninterested in transforming the group or changing the universe. As Stanley Hauerwas said, it is not the job of the church to make the world a better place. I’m not entirely sure history will be “fulfilled” in any sense, and certainly not any way that Tillich alludes to in this mess. Besides, the idea that history has meaning and a point is far too open for abuse to be a useful human idea. (As an idea, it needs to be locked in a heavy vault and buried on the dark side of the moon.) Aside from Christ, I’m not entirely sure that historical existence has a meaning; it certainly does not have one that can be objectively arrived at, either through observation or reason. I’m not sure the justice of the Kingdom of God and the justice of power structures can be reconciled in any meaningful way. (Again, outside of Christ, who has already done the reconciling.) Certainly humans have proven – proven repeatedly, proven time and time again – that we are utterly incapable and completely incompetent of doing any of these things. Which is why the continued hope that these things can be done, that we can do them, is so dangerous and so potentially lethal. And that is why I don’t truly understand anything Tillich is saying here. He is holding out hope, and I had hoped that he knew better.

One thought on “Tillich and the “Ends” of Human History

  1. When you imply that you believe that except for Christ history has no meaning Tillich would agree. Read his discussion of kairos in the second volume. Christ is the center of history, a center that prefigures the end.

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