08 November 2007

Deconstructing Tillich

In my German for Theological Reading course over the Summer, I had to translate the following passage:
Tillich fragte sich: "wie die christliche Lehre zu verstehen ware, wenn die Nichtezistenz des historichen Jesus wahrscheinlich wurde." Tillich kam zu der erkenntnis: "Nicht der historische Jesus, sondern das biblische Christusbild is das Fundament des christlichen glaubens."
Which, roughly, equates to the following:
[Theologian Paul] Tillich wondered: "how are the Christian teachings to be understood, if it is likely that 'the historical Jesus' never existed?" Tillich came to the conclusion that "it is not the historical Jesus, but rather the biblical picture of the Church which is the foundation of Christian belief.
I have to wonder if Tillich realized how hollow this sounds: that a religion that is entirely based around the fact that a certain fellow existed simultaneously as both god and man is not impaired by the likelihood that such a man never existed.

This statement is very interesting to me, because in this Tillich and I are in complete agreement: as far as religions are concerned, there needs to be absolutely no historical truth, or even a historical basis for their claims. All belief systems create reality by consensus: for the Christians, that consensus is that there was a fellow called Jesus who set some important ethical standards and performed some miracles, was literally of divine parentage, and died in order to let people into paradise. Whether or not these claims are historically true is immaterial as far as the religion itself is concerned, because its adherents take it to be true.

But the only reason I can make that statement is because I have nothing at stake in Christianity; looking at the phenomenon from the outside, I can say that Christianity is about whatever the Christians say it is about, and nothing else. But what I really want to know is how a believing, practicing Christian can deny the literal truth-value of his most sacred proposition? Put another way, I wonder how Tillich can make this statement and not instantly lose his faith?
In asking this question and finding the answer that he does, Tillich is essentially ripping out the Rappaportian cornerstone on which his entire faith-system is built.* The consensus-effect of Christian belief only works everyone believes (or claims to believe) in the literal truth-value of the central tenet, from which the rest of the faith derives. That's why "faith" is such a buzz-word among Christians: they realize that their beliefs are kind of wacky, but they also recognize (perhaps subconsciously) that questioning those beliefs will lead to chaos in their society (incidentally, that's why they're so afraid of us Atheists, too). And so you have people touting their faith to the heavens: it's like a game where whoever can convince himself the most completely of a silly idea wins. The more demonstratively you suffer for it, the better! (People willing to die for their convictions get bonus points!)

Now, anyone who sees that the historicity of the Jesus figure is immaterial to the Christian faith but paradoxically remains a Christian nevertheless is trying to have his cake and eat it too. Such a man demonstrates his preference of belief over the conclusions of logic, and is shrinking away from an uncomfortable realization to which his conceptual pursuit has taken him. Tillich, in other words, is an intellectual coward.

But more importantly, Tillich's comment I think says a great deal about the Christian response to modern Biblical research. In fact, when I was starting out here at the Div School in September, I overheard a conversation wherein a good friend of mine (an aspiring Catholic Theologian) was trying to define "Systematic Theology" to another student. It's been a while now, so I don't remember his exact words - but when he was finished, I asked the following:
So, let me get this straight. If I may paraphrase, the job of the systematic theologian is to try to pick up the pieces and salvage the god hypothesis after secular Biblical Scholars come in with their facts, potsherds, and scientific method, and ruin your little theological house of cards?
TO which he responded (and for this I love him):
Yeah. Pretty much.
If the historical Jesus never was, or was nothing like the Jesus of later Christianity, then the whole thing is founded on a lie. But Christianity is about far more than the Jesus fellow: it's a culture, it's a history, it's a way of life, it's a linguistic idiom, it's a way of contextualizing one's experience of living in the world. Many Christians can't just abandon it - so what can they do? The answer of Systematic Theology has been to try to save it with endless layers of intellectual band-aids and the compromise of liberal theology. But this, as we know, has its own share of problems. Perhaps this too is a call for a (non-Theological) Humanist version of Christianity?

*Anthropologist Roy Rappaport wrote a fantastic paper once (whose title escapes me at present) whose thesis was essentially thus: that at the heart of every religious belief system is a central, paradoxical, supernatural claim; that the power of this central image derived from the fact that it was illogical; therefore the fact that it was illogical meant that it could not be logically falsified; and thus all other statements of truth value in a society were made in reference to that central symbol (i.e. swearing to a god as a way of making an oath). The direct result of this thesis, for our purposes, is that people who question that central tenet (*cough cough*) threaten to destabilize the entire culture, because if the truth value of the central proposal is called into question, then all derivative claims can no longer be trusted. I don't do the theory justice, and I'm not sure I agree with everything he says, but he brings up some very interesting points that are always worth considering.


Anonymous said...

The central tenet of Christianity is that we should act as Jesus would.

What we think Jesus would do is,at best, only loosely related to whether we think Jesus actually existed and did what he is said to have done.

The "truth-value" of the central tenet is T. We should act as Jesus would.

Ben Cox said...

Ok, excellent. Class, observe: here we have an actual theological statement from a contemporary, internet-crawling Christian. Let's examine it:

The anonymous respondent seems to be going along with Tillich's modernist interpretation: i.e. that the existenz/nonexistenz of a historical Jesus is a moot point because the heart of the Christian message is the moral example that we attribute to Jesus.

Fair enough. I see in this similarities to the Deist Christianity of, say, Thomas Jefferson - for whom Jesus was just a man with some pretty good ideas of how to act toward each other.

But my question, to play Devil's advocate, is this: if Jesus never existed, then from where does this moral example come? Who attributed these sayings and actions to a man who didn't exist, and why?

Furthermore, even if a historical Jesus did indeed exist (and I believe he probably did, although he was probably nothing like he appears in the Gospels), it is still a very difficult, if not impossible, task to determine what he would have done in any given circumstance. Like it or not, all attempts to predict what a given person - fictional or not - would do in a given situation is intrinsically an interpretive, speculative exercise. Thanks to the free will that people are always touting, we can predict human responses with no certainty. And given the propensity of people to find justifications for their actions, there's a whole host of things one can argue Jesus would have endorsed, and we will simply never know for certain.

Now, of course one will argue that this is one of the tasks of theology: to make educated guesses about moral choices given a limited set of holy precedents. And again I say fair enough. But what I would like to bring to your attention is the fact that these guesses must be dictated at least in part by the zeitgeist. Because the actual Jesus is less important than the kinds of behavior people think he would be ok with, and because we can't call him up and ask him, then ultimately the decisions of moral/immoral good/bad are in the hands of the people who claim to speak for him.

So far so good: that's organized religion. There's a caste of divine functionaries who are believed to have the ability to speak on behalf of the departed precedent-setter.

But, and this is coming full-circle now, if one claims that there needn't have been an actual Jesus, or that Jesus' divinity is not an important part of the equation, then those people who claim to speak on his authority do not have any divine backing - seemingly by their own admission. Instead, we have a bunch of people arguing about whether a fictional character would approve of or engage in such-and-such a behavior.

So why, then, can't we cut out the middleman, and instead have these debates about whether such and such a thing is acceptable in the abstract? Why can't we have secular ethics without the distraction of having a fictitious a desert mendicant peering over our shoulders? If Jesus' existence or divinity is not important, then one's choice of him as a role model is completely arbitrary (albeit culturally determined) - and the ethics attributed to him in any given era are the morals of that era, and not the other way around.