Tillich and the Church

More reflections on Paul Tillich’s theology. This on his understanding of what it means to be church.

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There’s a lot to these 80 or so pages, too much actually, so I will focus largely on two matters Tillich brings up – the hidden, or spiritual, church and the social function of the church.

Tillich writes: “The churches, in paradoxical unity with their Spiritual essence, are sociological realities, showing all the ambiguities of the social self-creation of life,” (p.212) thus expressing what he believes is a clear truth about churches, religious communities and confessional groups, that they are products of time and place and subject to the same problems and “ambiguities” that all human groups, systems and institutions are. However, churches also “participate, on the one hand, in the ambiguities of life in general and of the religious life in particular, and on the other hand, in the unambiguous life of the Spiritual Community,” (p.165) a life grounded in the New Being of Jesus Christ. This means that churches must carefully (and usually not very successfully) negotiate being finite institutions populated by finite people who also express, articulate and embody the infinite. It is my experience that often times this articulation is unconscious or unintentional, the result of our acting in and through faith rather than reason and purpose. God’s work is done by human beings whether they want to or not, or intend to or not, or even believe they are doing God’s work.

Tillich deals briefly with the notion of the hidden church and the distinction – if there is one – between that church which is seen institutionally and corporeally and the very real body of Christ incarnate in the world. We take for granted that this hidden church is present in the visible church, that it is “the Spiritual essence of the visible church; like everything Spiritual, it is hidden, but it determines the nature of the visible church.” (p.163) Tillich warns us that this spiritual church is neither a spiritual ideal nor a community of ethereal spiritual beings, but he also says this spiritual community is not bounded by the visible church (such as “the Roman church”). However, he doesn’t really say what the spiritual community is, and he doesn’t seem to want consider how the body of Christ might transcend the visible church. My experience of this is the hidden church is woven through the world, made up of millions of “Christians” who do not even know that they are, in fact, Christians, full members of the body of Christ. Some of the best Christians I have ever met, in terms of their acting in love for God and neighbor, were Muslims. This experience of the love of Christ in those who do not confess Christ has allowed me to experience this “hidden church.”

He also deals briefly with the unity of the church, something that some Christians strangely see as a scandal given our apparent lack of unity. “Unity is the second predicate of the churches which express the paradox of their nature. The churches are united because of the unity of their foundation, the New Being which is effective in them. But the churches unity cannot be derived from their actual unity, nor can the predicate of unity be denied because of their present disunity.” (p.168) A statement I could have written myself, and an understanding that our unity as Christians and as the Church (to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer) is a divine reality, not a human ideal. However, while I would go on to use such a sentiment to discredit grand-high ecumenism – the kind of ecumenical nonsense perpetrated by pampered and idiotic churchmen and women within the distant, comfortable and well-manicured confines of, say, Geneva, Switzerland – Tillich appears to use this line of thinking to actually justify such foolishness, even as he acknowledges that “new divisions would appear” if a “United Churches of the World” were formed. If that is the case, and Christ is our real unity, why bother with conferences and studies and position papers anyway, aside from ensuring that some people access to lake-front homes in Switzerland they otherwise could never have? (Tillich is, of course, a product of his time, and no reputable intellectual in the West during the period of the 1950s and 1960s would have disowned grand high internationalism of any kind, whether at the United Nations in New York or the WCC in Geneva. Which is too bad, since grand high internationalism of all kinds desperately needed, in fact still needs, to be repudiated and disowned and, if possible, blown up, burnt down and its charred remains melted into giant glass bricks and dumped in the deepest, darkest ocean trench.)

As for the function of the church, Tillich outlines what he calls the aesthetic, cognitive, communal and personal functions of the church. The aesthetic and cognitive do not interest me that much (and he says he dealt with the cognitive function – theology – in the first part of the book). However, I find the communal and the personal of great interest. Ever the reducer, Tillich boils the communal function to four “ambiguities” — inclusiveness, equality, leadership and legal form – the operate in the tension between holiness (personal and collective) and justice (personal and collective). Tillich understands that hierarchy and the defense of institution lead to injustice, and that will always be present in the Church because it is always present in human society.

Where I think Tillich fails to properly understand the problem of human power, however, is in his restriction of church voices to two – prophetic and priestly (though he has a third “function” in their, royal) – and his assertion that in Protestantism’s rejection of asceticism “has paved the way for the telos of humanity.” (p.210)

To deal with the first, Tillich labels as priestly the “silent penetration of a society by the Spiritual Presence” and prophetic “the open attack on this society in the name of the Spiritual Presence.” (p.213) However, there is a third function he doesn’t name – the church function of chaplain, that institution which blesses society as God-sent or God-given. While Tillich wants to see the church as something opposed to (and yet within) the society it is a part of, he fails to properly appreciate just how subsidiary churches have become to nation-states. (Indeed, “society” is that human community bounded and defined by the nation-state, and thus, like a good Lutheran Protestant, he takes the nation-state not merely as a given, an accident of history but as a God-given good, one intended by God.) While he accepts that churches have surrendered far too much to nation-states, he also believes that the prophetic voice exists outside the church and in the 19th and 20th centuries has had a positive effect on church concepts of justice and humanity. Oh really? The desire to order and impose uniformity and coerce conformity are “prophetic?” The desire to treat human beings as problems to be managed and improved (with all that implies) is “prophetic?” Mass politics is “prophetic?” Dehumanizing science is “prophetic?” Industrial war and mass murder are “prophetic?” Jacobins and Bolsheviks and Social Democrats with their managerial plans and ideals of moral and material progress and human perfectibility, their love of state, war and empire, have been a prophetic voice? Is he serious?

This speaks to the inescapable political responsibility Tillich sees churches as having, of wielding Christ’s “royal” power, a power I am hard-pressed to see the Church having. Mere critique of the wealthy, or of the government, is not “prophetic” if it continues to be bundled with a defense of the state, the nation, the society and all they allegedly stand for. Indeed, to believe in the political responsibility of the church is to grab for the church a portion of the violence that is an absolutely necessary component of political life and political action. Whether the church claims absolute social privilege or merely asserts an identity as one more interest group in a liberal democratic state, the church is claiming for itself the right to compel or impose its notion of “humanity” and “justice” on those who do not share its vision. It is to claim for the church the unjust and inhumane power of the state, power Jesus himself rejected, as part of our alleged Gospel calling. Jesus utterly and completely rejected state power, even as part of what Tillich wants to call his “royal power.” Thus, we as the church have no stake in the power of the state, its survival or success. That Liberal Protestantism is far too wedded to the nation-state – and the murderous international order born of murderous nation-states – is its great sin.

Which leads me to my final point. Tillich speaks of the “telos of humanity” but, at least within the confines of this chapter, he does not say what it is. He does say that human beings, no matter how close they get to that purpose, are still “infinitely removed” from it. This is supposed to replace the attitude of control between (in his example) educator and student by letting them both know that they are both in the same predicament – neither is subject or object. This is, I suspect, Tillich’s understanding of the I/Thou relationship described by Martin Buber, the relationship Tillich says he wants to preserve with the state in his book Theology of Culture. But the fact is there can be no I/Thou relationship with power, for everything power confronts is or becomes an object, an object to be manipulated, managed, disposed of or destroyed, because (tautologically, I know) power is the ability to reduce things (in this case, human beings) to objects or management problems. The problem with the very notion of a “telos of mankind” is who gets to say what this telos is? And who gets to do something about it? Many human beings throughout history, but especially in the last 250 years – Jacobins, Social Democrats, Bolsheviks, National-Socialists, Neoconservatives – have become convinced they know exactly what that the ultimate end of human life and purpose of existence are. British conservative moral philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote of the “teleological state,” the state that assumes it can both discern and then impose purpose upon the society – and the individuals who live within that society – and influenced a generation of conservatives (but not as many as one would like, given the conservative attachment to the state and the neoconservative faith in the state to remake human beings and conditions of human existence) that the state is not and should not be the source and engine of meaning in human life.

Again, does Tillich have a vision of the church which makes it more than an interest group or a “social club?” He seems to, but then he discards it completely by insisting on a political function which makes the church partner to violence and murder. He fails to understand that to be church is to reject the power of the world, that the Kingdom of God is not a kingdom based on force, coercion or compulsion, but on love, kindness, compassion and mercy. Such a kingdom cannot rule the world or even have a say in how the world is ruled if we are to remain true to it, to remain in it, to live it and make it evident in the world.

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