Tillich: the Risk of Faith

Bust of Paul Tillich

(c) Richard Keeling

Nestled between a few of the sources for our last look at Tillich’s Theology of Culture is a charming little section that Tillich titles “Ontological Certainty and the Risk of Faith.” With sentiments similar to those I’ve echoed elsewhere, Tillich argues against a purely propositional form of faith, in which the content of one’s belief is the preeminent means by which one validates their faith. Rather, for Tillich, faith in its essence requires that one act in the world, balancing the unconditional universal foundation with the contingent historical embodied act. The degree to which this action corresponds to the Unconditioned is the degree to which one’s faith is legitimated.

Therein lies the risk of faith. One acts on the self-evident, immediate awareness of some universalized notion, but in so acting the individual concretizes something that transcends time and culture, thereby rendering the Unconditioned into an ultimate concern. The ultimate concern can only exist in a specific circumstance, because it’s always a concern “for” or “about” some particular entity. Because faith is constructed on this “self-evident” awareness and on the contingent circumstances of one’s world, to faith essentially belongs “risk,” which is the personal instantiation of one’s ultimate concern in concrete doing. Mirroring Sartre’s emphasis on action, Tillich contends that one must act on this judgment in order to express faith, because faith by its nature “demands a risk.”

The risk is not that one may hold a wrong belief that could be refuted in time. Rather, on the one hand, the risk is that the embodied ultimate concern toward which one directs their life may fail them. On the other hand, the risk is that one’s faith may universalize what ought to remain a limited, historical moment–substituting the truth of God for a lie, as it were.

The immediate awareness of the Unconditioned has not the character of faith but of self-evidence. Faith contains a contingent element and demands a risk. It combines the ontological certainty of the Unconditioned with the uncertainty about everything conditioned and concrete. This, of course, does not mean that faith is belief in something which has higher or lower degrees of probability. The risk of faith is not that it accepts assertions about God, man and world, which cannot be fully verified, but might be or might not be in the future. The risk of faith is based on the fact that the unconditional element can become a matter of ultimate concern only if it appears in a concrete embodiment. It can appear in purified and rationalized mythological symbols like God or highest personal being, and like most of the other traditional theological concepts. It can appear in ritual and sacramental activities for the adherents of a priestly and authoritarian religion. It can appear in concrete formulas and a special behavior, expressing the ineffable, as it always occurs in living mysticism. It can appear in prophetic-political demands for social justice, if they are the ultimate concern of religious and secular movements. It can occur in the honesty and ultimate devotion of the servants of scientific truth. It can occur in the universalism of the classical idea of personality and in the Stoic (ancient and modern) attitude of elevation over the vicissitudes of existence. In all these cases the risk of faith is an existential risk, a risk in which the meaning and fulfillment of our lives is at stake, and not a theoretical judgment which may be refuted sooner or later.

The risk of faith is not arbitrariness; it is a unity of fate and decision. And it is based on a foundation which is not risk: the awareness of the unconditional element in ourselves and our world. Only on this basis is faith justified and possible. There are many examples of people of the mystical as well as of the prophetic and secular types who in moments (and even periods) of their lives experienced the failure of the faith they had risked, and who preserved the ontological certainty, the unconditional element in their faith. The profoundest doubt could not undermine the presupposition of doubt, the awareness of something unconditional.

Although faith is matter of fate and decision, the question must be raised whether there is a criterion for the element of decision in faith. The answer is: The unconditional of which we are immediately aware, if we turn our minds to it. The criterion of every concrete expression of our ultimate concern is the degree to which the concreteness of the concern is in unity with its ultimacy. It is the danger of every embodiment of the unconditional element, religious and secular, that it elevates something conditioned, a symbol, and institution, a movement as such to ultimacy. This danger was well known to the religious leaders of all types; and the whole work of theology can be summed up in the statement, that it is the permanent guardian of the unconditional against the aspiration of its own religious and secular appearances.[1]

It ought to be clear that Tillich espouses one of the chief tenets of historic liberalism in his desire to articulate a universal, inarticulable foundation for being. Through his construction of the immediate apprehension of the Unconditioned, Tillich creates a standard that mirrors Descartes’ cogito, in which all can be done only by virtue of the original, primal, immediate first-order question concerning one’s existence and ground.

Tillich seems to maintain an emphasis on the individual, at least through the first three chapters of Theology of Culture, which is to be expected. Religion, as far as he’s concerned, is a function of the individual’s self-reflection on the Unconditioned. In this section, Tillich only offers a glimpse of the place of community in his system, but it reads as primarily a danger to him.[2] I hope to investigate further in the work to see what place Tillich can afford to a normative, or even affirmative, community for religion.


[1] Tillich, Theology of Culture, p. 27 – 29.

[2] Note Tillich’s remarks on the “priestly and authoritarian religion” and his commendation of mysticism, which in the west has traditionally been a primarily individualistic phenomenon.

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