Paul Tillich used to tell his classes about a scientist at Harvard who approached him to say he would not be attending Tillich’s public lecture that evening because he knew it would be irrational. Tillich invited him to “please come, sit in the front row, and anytime I say something you think is irrational, raise your finger, so I will know.” “No,” said the scientist, “I would have my finger raised the whole time.”
And then Tillich would laugh. We thought he was probably laughing at the absurdity of what the scientist said. But it occurs to me now that perhaps he was laughing instead at a sort of cosmic joke. Perhaps what struck him funny is that the scientist had pinpointed the nature of the dialogue, or lack thereof, between people of faith and people outside the community of faith.
Tillich famously wrote that theology occurs only within the circle of faith, that it is by, and principally for, those who are already grasped by faith. Looked at from outside the circle of faith, theological statements are in a sense irrational. In Christian terms, if you are not grasped by the power of Jesus as the Christ, no amount of theologizing will convert you.
Karl Barth thought this meant that theology has little to say to those outside the circle, but Tillich was unwilling to go that far. He thought that clarifying the questions of human existence and showing how they correspond to assertions of faith can sometimes open up a space in which genuine dialogue between the church and the world becomes possible, a dialogue that can sometimes even remove a barrier to faith.
People Have Faith in God Because They Want To
We will take a look at an extreme instance, a statement that looks totally different from inside and outside the circle of faith and see if elucidation can create the possibility of dialogue:
“People have faith in God because they want to.”
Who was the author of this statement? Was it Freud, who thought religions are wish-fulfilling illusions? Or perhaps Marx, who called religion the opiate of the masses? Or was it Nietzsche, who thought Christianity springs from resentment of the strong by the weak? Or perhaps Richard Dawkins, the contemporary biologist, who called one of his books The God Delusion?
Actually, these words—“People have faith in God because they want to”—were spoken by Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
“People have faith in God because they want to?” What could she have meant? Was she capitulating to the taunts of the agnostics and atheists of her day? Was she unaware of the seeming irrationality of what she said? If we were “new atheists,” we would certainly pounce on her statement as evidence of the wish-fulfilling character of religious faith. What could make it clearer that religion is an irrational attempt to fashion a God from our own desires?
As it happens, we don’t know exactly what Dorothy Day had in mind, but the notion that people have faith in God because they want to just may contain the secret of religious faith. It is a secret that the faithful tacitly understand, although often through a glass darkly. It is also a secret that, even when revealed, has been unpersuasive to millions of people throughout history and perhaps to most people in the northern hemisphere in our day. Indeed, how one reacts to this secret may indicate whether one is inside or outside the circle of faith.
Much has been written recently about the difference between faith and belief; Harvey Cox, for example, has written an entire book about that difference (The Future of Faith, 2009). In both the Bible and much of Christian history, we find that faith is not synonymous with “belief,” at least not in the metaphysical sense that one believes or does not believe in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Rather, faith is synonymous with “trust.” Faith in God means trust in God.
In English, we do sometimes use the word “faith” to mean belief, but we also use the word in several other ways. If I say, “I have faith in myself,” I do not, of course, mean that I believe that I exist; I mean that I have a basic trust, or confidence, in myself. When, as a Red Sox fan, I tried to “keep the faith” during the eighty-six years without a World Series victory, I was not trying to believe that a team called the Red Sox exists—although there were years when one had to wonder. What I really meant was that I should not give up the trust that next year or the year after might be The Year.
We will leave aside temporarily the obvious issue of whether “trust in God” necessarily implies a metaphysical belief in the existence of an entity called “God”—that is to say, the Santa Claus question. It is, of course, a question on which religious thought has often foundered. Before we can examine that question, however, it is important to know exactly what we mean by faith or trust in God.
The way the synoptic gospels and Acts pose the issue of faith is: do you trust in the “good news”? Mark’s gospel, for example, has Jesus begin his ministry by announcing, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in [pisteuete, trust in] the good news” (Mark 1:15, NRSV). The early Christians went so far as to name some of their most important texts “good newses.” So what is this good news? Why is it news, and why is it good? And the most difficult question: what does it mean to trust in it?
The answers to these questions, of course, fill entire libraries, but the basic answer to what the good news is, is really rather simple. The good news is that we are accepted into the Kingdom of God. That’s it. We are accepted.
Why is this news? It is news because deep down people of faith know they are unacceptable.
We have now entered very dangerous waters. Sin has gotten a bad name, so to speak, in the last century, replaced by psychological “issues.” What do you mean, you’re unacceptable? Isn’t that neurotic? Morbid? A delusion of grandeur? As if your pathetic peccadilloes amount to anything as grand as unacceptability! Unacceptable to whom? To yourself? Then deal with it. To your parents? See a psychotherapist. Isn’t this feeling of being unacceptable just a manifestation of what Nietzsche saw as the self-loathing of the weak? Real men don’t feel unacceptable.
These are all legitimate questions and criticisms, and, unfortunately, they often point to a sad truth. Millions of people do harbor neurotic, morbid, self-loathing experiences of unworthiness, and hundreds of thousands of psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health workers have emerged to try to help these people sort out the unconscious or interpersonal sources of these feelings.
People of faith, however, feel that there is also a non-neurotic sense in which they are unacceptable. It stems from our human ability to see ourselves and our lives, as Spinoza put it, sub specie aeternitatis: that is, “from the point of view of eternity.” Whenever we ask, “What does my life add up to anyway?” we are speaking sub specie aeternitatis. (How else could a life “add up” to anything except when seen as a whole and, metaphorically speaking, “from above”?) When we ask ourselves whether we are living up to our ideals, we are speaking sub specie aeternitatis. (Ideals reside, after all, in “Plato’s heaven,” beyond space and time.) When we feel guilty, we may be exhibiting neurosis, but we may also be speaking sub specie aeternitatis. We may be feeling that we are not the persons we were somehow “meant to be” (Aristotle) or that we are not our ideal selves (Plato) or that we are “fallen” (Judaism and Christianity).
Tillich’s scientist might object that stating our feeling of unacceptability in this way—as stemming from seeing ourselves from the standpoint of eternity—is to already be speaking the language of faith, and that is correct. To someone who professes not to know what “the standpoint of eternity” could possibly mean or who thinks that it is an illusion, or to someone who thinks the question, “What does my life add up to?” is meaningless or a result of linguistic confusion, or to someone who simply doesn’t care, there is no answer. Answers of faith can only be given to questions of faith. In other words, this is one juncture at which some people will opt out of the circle of faith. As we will see, there are many other such junctures. But our question is: Is it less rational to think that looking at one’s life sub specie aeternitatis is legitimate than to think that it is not? It is the question of the scientist’s finger, and it is a question that each person must answer for himself.
What can be said about people who do experience the question of their own worth as a legitimate question? In particular, what can be said about the subset of those people who, upon examining themselves, find themselves unacceptable? First of all, what do they mean? And why do they not consider their experience of unworthiness a neurotic symptom?
Some people feel unworthy because they have deviated from some societal norm, but the more interesting case for our purpose is people who may or may not have deviated from social norms but who know they are, in some way, untrustworthy. They may have actually broken a trust. They may have betrayed a person who placed her trust in them. They may have placed their own interest before that of their own children and witnessed a sad or even tragic outcome as their children developed or didn’t. They may feel they are in someone else’s debt, perhaps even that they owe another person a debt that can never be repaid, because the harm has been done and can never be undone. No matter how much remorse they have, they know the toothpaste can never be put back in the tube. They may have fallen into a cycle of addiction that makes them a stranger to themselves and those who loved and trusted them. They may have been tested and responded in a cowardly way. If they have not actually violated a trust, they may know nonetheless that under the right circumstances they would. This is the experience that Kierkegaard called being pursued by the hound of heaven. It is to take what Alcoholics Anonymous calls “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves” and to face the fact that we are not worthy of our own trust. We have not kept faith with our own potential. We are not the god we hoped to be—or perhaps assumed we were.
Therapy will not help such people. They do not want their self-insight to be medicated or, indeed, to be “cured” of it. In fact, they despise the fact that they often allow themselves to fall asleep to the ways in which they fall short of their own ego ideal. They feel compelled to affirm, with Kierkegaard, that “this is required of everyone, that before God [that is, sub specie aeternitatis], he shall candidly humble himself in view of the requirements of ideality” (Kierkegaard 1972: 71).
This is a juncture at which many more people opt out of the circle of faith. They may be people who do not take self-inventories for whatever reason, perhaps because they consider such assessments neurotic. They may be people who can honestly say that they never suffered from the delusion that they are a god. They may be people who can honestly say they find no cowardice in themselves. They may be people who make occasional or frequent self-assessments, but find themselves basically acceptable: “no worse than anyone else” or “on balance, good and decent people” or “understandably inconsistent, given human nature.” People of faith should not be quick to judge these people. It may be tempting to think the non-guilty have simply not heard the bad news yet, but the safer course is to simply say, as Jesus did, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear,” and “Those who are well have no need of a physician.” Again, Alcoholics Anonymous is helpful: don’t take someone else’s inventory.
It is enough that the person of faith take his or her own inventory. And when he does, he is troubled. To use the ancient metaphor, he feels that he is “stained” in some way. He feels that there are parts of himself that he would not want to see the light of day, characteristics of himself that he would not put in his memoir, shadow qualities that he tries his best to hide in his everyday presentation of self, parts that he tries to hide even from himself. He acknowledges that he has hurt other people, perhaps irreparably, by putting his own interests before what he knows is good and right. He is aware that those closest to him know that in many ways he is a coward and a fraud. Perhaps he can make amends for some of his behavior, but he has to admit that he would not blame the people he has harmed if they were unable fully to trust him again. He is not even sure he fully trusts himself.
Is such a self-assessment irrational? Is it neurotic? Again, each person must decide for himself.
The next step for the person of faith, however, is irrational. It is at this point that Tillich’s scientist should raise his finger. What the person pursued by the hound of heaven is in need of is forgiveness. Only forgiveness—the wiping clean of his slate—can help the person with a troubled conscience. And forgiveness is at its core irrational.
What is rational is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” What is rational is that the righteous brother of the prodigal son should be rewarded, not the prodigal! What is rational is that the laborers in the vineyard who started work at dawn should be paid more than those who came at the eleventh hour. That is what makes sense. Forgiveness does not make sense. It isn’t fair.
What makes the good news good? Nothing, if you are the righteous brother. It is the worst news possible. If you are the brother who played by the rules all his life, who always did the acceptable thing, who maintained all his relationships responsibly even when the going got tough, it is understandably infuriating that the brother who trashed his relationships and wasted his life in debauchery gets the feast. And yet the person of faith experiences that he is forgiven and accepted, that all his debts have been cancelled. When he expresses this in the language of religious symbolism, he says, “God is like the father in the parable. God forgives and accepts me, not because I deserve it or because I am basically okay, but because he loves me beyond reason, as a father or mother loves a child.” As Tillich put it, we find ourselves accepted, not because we are acceptable, but in spite of our being unacceptable.
This is irrational, not just because we have now introduced the idea of God and raised the Santa Claus question, but more fundamentally because forgiveness is itself irrational. It would be irrational for a person convicted of a crime to expect that he will be immediately set free. It would be irrational for a borrower to expect the lender to simply write off her debt. Both law and ethics rest on the idea of moral consequences for our actions. Forgiveness is an apparent acte gratuit, a gratuitous, off-the-wall event, not subject to any rational rule.
But what if forgiveness were seen, not merely as a judgment on the past, but as a creator of the future? As it happens, that is faith’s view of the fact of forgiveness. It is not that the prodigal son cleans up his act and is therefore forgiven. It is the other way around. It is only possible for a prodigal son to clean up his act because he finds himself forgiven—or, as in the story, because he has faith that he will be. Otherwise, he could never have gone home.
Forgiveness does not merely judge the old situation; it creates a new situation. The New Testament is full of metaphors for this phenomenon of faith. John has Jesus say that we can be born again. Paul says that we are a new creation, that we die to our old selves and are resurrected as a new self. But isn’t it irrational—indeed, delusional—to trust that the utterly new can happen, that a new future can be handed to us? Well, perhaps it would be—if it hadn’t happened to us.
But what about our acceptance of being accepted? Isn’t that necessarily suspect? Are we simply letting ourselves off the hook, deluding ourselves that we have “been accepted” so that we can rid ourselves of our burden of guilt? This is another juncture at which people may understandably opt out of the circle of faith. They may judge that those who “experience forgiveness” are really only excusing themselves and covering up the self-serving nature of their bogus act of faith, hiding it from themselves to lend legitimacy to the experience. This is a sincere and damning objection, and the person of faith must wrestle constantly with it.
The New Testament’s answer is that it is the future that will tell the tale. The unmerciful servant in the parable has his debt cancelled by his master, only to grab his own debtor by the throat and demand repayment. The mark of whether we have truly experienced the magnitude of our being accepted is how we behave toward those in debt to us. The mark of genuine forgiveness is that we forgive. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Perhaps, though, it is fraudulent to accept acceptance even if it does eventuate in our being merciful to others. How dare we attribute our own excusing of ourselves to having received divine pardon?
Because faith is a sort of confidence, an analysis of the logic of confidence may shed some light on the phenomenon of religious faith. Many adolescents struggle with issues of self-confidence. It is easy to see why this is so. It is impossible to perform well without confidence, but it seems impossible to have confidence without foreknowledge that you will perform well. Without confidence, adolescents spiral downward, becoming more awkward and consequently even less confident. With confidence, adolescents spiral upward, becoming less awkward and consequently even more confident. What determines which way an adolescent develops is an acte gratuit, something external that breaks the cycle, breaks into the cycle, and determines its direction. Perhaps it is the blind love of a parent or the interest of a teacher. Perhaps it is dumb luck: the adolescent succeeds at something “in spite of himself” and is thereby launched in an upward spiral of confidence and success. Or perhaps she has had early successes based on her particular set of inherited or developed skills, and it never occurs to her that her competence in any other sphere is a terrifyingly open question. In any case, the determining factor is always something external to the cycle of confidence. The adolescent is given the wherewithal to break the cycle. Through no merit of her own, she is handed a get-out-of-jail-free card. Here Tillich’s scientist can raise his finger again. Confidence—trust, faith—in ourselves is always in the end dependent on something that cannot be rationally derived from the situation itself. No amount of saying “Be confident!” to oneself can produce confidence. It is a gift.
The same is true of the faith to accept acceptance. Such faith is not a judgment based on a single experience of feeling accepted. People “grow in faith.” When you experience yourself as forgiven, you may find you are no longer an unmerciful servant. On the contrary, you may find yourself freed to be merciful to others. In this way, you participate in creating a new situation, for yourself and for someone else. This freedom in turn strengthens your trust in the fact that you have inexplicably been given a gift, a clean slate, cleared of the smudge of your own past.
This scenario is obviously fraught with the possibility of doubt. The chief question is why you would deserve this gift. The answer is that you do not. Then why should you allow yourself to accept such a gift? Because you want to. Is this a wish-fulfilling fantasy? Or is it that you want to so badly that you are willing to pay the ultimate price, which is letting go of your own wishes, giving up all effort to justify yourself, all effort to think well of yourself, all pride? Perhaps you want to because thriving, flourishing, growing, creating feel to you to be at the heart of human existence, and if accepting the gift of acceptance allows you to flourish and to participate in creating a new self and new relationships and a new world, you feel there is nothing to be said but thank you.
The Santa Claus Question
Thank you to whom? Acceptance by whom? Is it not demanded of people of faith that they believe in the existence of some supernatural being who, among other things, accepts them? This is the question that in recent centuries has produced more rhetoric than any other religious question, most of it rather silly.
The first thing to be said is that all religious language is, as Tillich says, symbolic. Do we really at this late date need to say that when we speak of God as creator, we are not positing an alternative to the Big Bang? That when we speak of human beings having been created in the image of God, we are not proposing an alternative to evolution? These questions were sorted out in principle in the eighteenth century (although of course neither the Big Bang nor the theory of evolution had yet been proposed).
The Enlightenment skeptics are often said to have won these arguments, and that is certainly true; but the deeper truth is that, when the skeptics won, humanity won. When we take religious symbols literally, we do an injustice not only to reason, but also to faith. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not only irrational; it is blasphemous.
The reason these literalistic questions persist three hundred years after the Enlightenment is that people of faith have not done a very good job of answering a key question: if religious language is not to be taken literally, how is it to be taken? What sort of validity could it possibly have? How does it differ from fantasy?
It is tempting to think that perhaps people of faith should simply stop at the point at which we have arrived. Perhaps it is enough to speak only of our own existential experience of being accepted without adopting any particular religious symbols of the source of our acceptance. There are several religious traditions that take this tack, from the Theravada Buddhist experience of the Void to the Hindu practice of neti neti (not this, not this) to the Western medieval “way of negation,” the via negativa. The problem, as Tillich says, is that this is not a space in which most of us can live. Most of us are like the man in the parable who was cleansed of an unclean spirit; when it found his soul swept clean, it brought along seven other unclean spirits and moved back in. To put it another way: for most of us, the alternative to calling the source of our new life “Thou” is to call it “me.” But putting myself in the place of God is the very worldview that brought on my self-alienation, my experience of being unacceptable, in the first place. “Thou” expresses the experienced radical otherness of the source of our acceptance. “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” “Thou” also expresses the living relationship the person of faith feels to the source of his new life.
Who is this Thou? We can only answer symbolically. “He” is like a father whose prodigal son has returned to him. “He” is like a vineyard owner who chooses to pay the workers who arrived late in the day the same amount as those who worked all day. “He” is like a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one. “He” is like a master who distributes money in the expectation that it will not be put in the ground but will be put to use in order to make it grow. “He” is like a lender who especially loves the debtor for whom he forgave the greater debt. “She” is like a hen that gathers her brood under her wings.
That is all very well, says our scientist, but does he or she exist? In a word, no.
Entities exist. God is not an entity, not a “being alongside other beings” (Tillich). At this juncture people of faith struggle for language. God is being-itself or the ground of being (Aquinas). God is the power of being (Tillich). In biblical language, God is the Creator of all being. In a sense, all such language is irrational. That is, it resides at the boundary of rational discourse.
Heidegger’s question, “Why are there beings rather than nothing?” does not mean, “What is the cause in the chain of causation that produces being?” It means, “What is it about this power of being that distinguishes it from nothing; what is it that ‘overcomes’ nothingness?” At the organic level, what is the elan vital that (fleetingly) favors life over death? What is the mysterious power to heal and to grow? At the level of our libido, as well as our intellectual and spiritual striving, what is this irresistible desire that drives us beyond stasis? At the level of our relationships with other persons, what is the drive that makes us want to deepen them? At the noetic level, what is it about the strange power of consciousness that allows it to be conscious of itself? At the spiritual level, what is the power that makes it possible for us to accept transformation and go on despite our anxiety and despair? To the religious imagination, these manifestations of the power of being are all aspects of one power; call it the power of self-transcendence at every level of the chain of being. Is this irrational? Well, it is certainly non-rational. Rational argument can never demonstrate that we should relate to the self-transcendent power of being in a personal or spiritual way. That is a personal decision. Are there rational criteria for making that decision? No. We either experience it as a gift or we do not.
In the past, people stood more firmly within a historical tradition in which their forebears had defined themselves by the particularities of their relationship to the power of being. Now for the first time in human history, multiple historical traditions, sacred and secular, have become accessible to us. We cannot escape the frightening task of taking a personal stand. Kierkegaard called it by a very different word; he called it a leap, the leap of faith. In a sense, the reason we leap in one direction rather than any of the myriad others is “because we want to.” And the reason we want to is that we have received a gift.
Our scientist is perhaps right after all to keep his finger in the air the whole time.
Thomas Cathcart studied with Paul Tillich as both an undergraduate and a graduate student in the 1960s. He is co-author, with Daniel Klein, of the New York Times bestseller, Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes, as well as Heidegger and a Hippo Walk through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything In Between.
Cox, Harvey. The Future of Faith. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Kierkegaard, Søren. Training in Christianity. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1972.