Tillich, Anxiety and Contingency

Paul Tillich made a point which caught my eye in ‘The Courage to Be’. He asserted that anxiety is different from fear in this way: that fear has an object. while the object of anxiety is non-being. Hm, I thought. Odd. He then went on to say that it’s not merely the awareness of non-being, but the awareness that non-being is part of one’s own being, and that it’s not so much even the awareness of non-being, it’s the experience of the ‘transitory’, such as death, that impacts our own latent awareness of our own transitoriness.

This seems to be more or less the rather obvious (though differently worded) fact that we are aware of our own contingency. We are contingent beings – we are aware of this. We aren’t necessary beings – we are aware of this. This is, as far as I can see, what Tillich can be boiled down to. And I confess that I’m at a loss to see how this is a negative thing, when pretty much all of metaphysics saw this, and, far from seeing it as anxiety over non-being, saw it as an experience of being itself (for more on this, definitely see Hart’s ‘The Experience of God’).

But I’m no Tillich scholar, so I’m open to correction. I’ll confess also that I find a lot of his writing (and existentialism in general) to be very long-winded without saying very much.


Science, Metaphysics and Language

The extent to which science and metaphysics are intertwined (one could almost say bound up) with each other is, at times, astounding – and I think this intertwine-ness comes from language. The conceptual grammar which makes science possibly comes almost entirely from metaphysics – cause, purpose, etc – but are often confused with the science itself. Causality is an example of this – causality is a metaphysical category, yet it’s nearly impossible to say anything having to do with science without using some kind of causal-language. The conceptual grammar becomes inextricably part of the actual science.

Consider a similar, but negative, situation: the elimination of formal/final causes in modern science (initiated, by, say the early moderns). This shows, to me, a remarkable conceptual confusion by eliminating metaphysical categories from empirical study. Formal and final causality, being metaphysical categories, cannot be studied under a microscope – (though biology will often use the language of purpose and form, it’s a decidedly different kind of thing than formal and final causality).

I say all this not to offer a solution to this problem but to simply note the striking manner in which science and metaphysics are conceptually confused – though a solution, to paraphrase L.W., may involve the release of the fly from the fly-bottle. Matters of method (say, the elimination of formal/final causality) are fine kept strictly as a matter of method – to confuse a matter of method with reality, though, is nothing but a conceptual confusion.

Thought on Tolerance and Reactions

It’s ironic that in the name of tolerance, reconciliation and acceptance, boundaries have a tendency to be drawn very closely and very tightly. This reveals a trait about humanity very starkly: our default response to any given issue is one of reaction and overcorrection, with the result that the reaction becomes the exact same thing that was being reacted against, only more intense. For example, suppose organization X is seen as being intolerant, exclusive, with tightly drawn boundaries, by group Y. who are  committed to inclusive-ity and acceptance. The reaction of Y will be to draw its own boundaries in such a manner that X, or anyone affirming the beliefs of X, are excluded. Rather than being truly inclusive, Y becomes just as intolerant and exclusive as X only moreso, because the nature of reaction is to overcorrect for what is seen to a glaring fault or something to be avoided.

Reading Notes 3/18/14

I recently purchased ‘Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms’, which is a history of the evolution of, obviously enough, horseshoe crabs and velvet worms. Horseshoe crabs are one of my favourite animals, and learning about their biological history (and about evolutionary biology in general) is fascinating. Fun fact: the crabs can’t bleed to death, and the quality which makes this so is sought after by some of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world and is used in a variety of medical treatments.

E.P. Sanders ‘Paul, the Law, and the Jewish People’ has been getting a good amount of attention from me lately. It’s a great book for anyone interested in a sustained study of one of the central tenets of the (not so) New Perspective on Paul: that the keeping of Torah was not an entrance requirement to the people of God. While somewhat dated, it’s still a classic study well worth reading.

I’ve also been reading Wright’s ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, which I finally bought for myself – the series has been reprinted with a great new cover artpiece, but still the same sucky Fortress press quality material – FP books always (in my experience) suffer from cheap construction, i.e. splitting covers, poor paper quality, poor binding, etc. But that aside, the book is obviously great – it’s good to be able to slowly go through it. I skipped a bit ahead to the part about the cross and the actual victory of God – good, good stuff. I love Wright’s take on Jesus’ vocation/calling. Wright’s mastery over the second-temple period and sources is pretty much without peer, especially when it comes to themes like exile, restoration, the covenant people, etc.

I haven’t been reading too much fiction lately, aside from very, very slowly reading Asimov’s Foundation series (like, 2-3 pages per night kind of slowly). What fantastic books – beat out Tolkien for a Hugo! Speaking of, Tolkien’s got a translation of Beowulf coming out, which has me excited. I haven’t read his translation/take on the Arthur legend, but I’d like to. I read his books to the point where they were falling apart (I had to duct tape some of them back together) some time ago, and haven’t read them seriously in some time, but every time I go back and skim through, I remember why he’s the greatest writer of all time. My personal favourite works are his ‘Book of Lost Tales’, both 1 and 2.

On a sad note, I lost my Nook ereader on my camping trip – but it gives me an excuse to save up for a bit and buy one of the new light-up ones.

Note on Planning

Whatever you do, plan it out. This is an obvious truth that I learn nearly every day. I hiked part of the Appalachian trail this week, and poor planning resulted in sleeping outside during a snowstorm, an early departure because of weather, and a lack of toilet paper that was made up by frozen baby wipes. Yes, you read that correctly. Lesson learned. Plan ahead for every and anything.

Note on Barth and God

The most distinctive thing about Barth’s approach to the doctrine of God is his refusal to apply our conceptions to God – that is, the refusal to start with an idea of, say, omnipotence, or justice or wisdom, and then apply it to God. His reasoning is basically that in doing so, we don’t have God but only our projections of what God should be like based on our own conceptions. That’s the negative side – the positive side is that God determines how God will be known. God’s self-revelation is in Jesus – that’s where we meet, see and know God, and only there.

Another distinctive aspect about Barth is the ‘infinite qualitative distinction’ – there is an unbridgeable ontological gap between man and God (the context for this idea is late 19th/early 20th century liberal Protestantism). Set against the classical tradition, however, there’s more similarity – Barth’s discussion of God’s aseity, self-determination and freedom would be right at home amidst the best of the Scholastics. That God is the unconditioned Being of all beings isn’t something that’s ever been disputed, though again Barth does get there by a different road. I notice some similarities between Barth’s view and, say, David Bentley Hart’s view of God’s (and broadly the classical tradition’s) ‘donation of being’.

Note on Barth

I’m reading the CD II.1, specifically the section on ‘The Being of God in Freedom’. Some things that pop out to me: Barth refuses to discuss God in the abstract. When turning to ask about what God’s divinity and essence are, he comes back to the question, Who is God? There simply is no abstract discussion about God or anything about God – to know anything about God, you must know Who God is.

N.T. Wright on Repentance

‘Repentance’, in a good many texts, was what Israel must do if her exile is to come to an end. Though the Greek word metanoia and its cognates, which occur in the gospels with this meaning, are rare in the Septuagint – and when they do occur, they refer, more often than not, to YHWH himself ‘repenting’ – the first-century sense of the word encapsulates a range of meanings expressed in other ways in the Hebrew scriptures and their Greek translations. Deuteronomy spoke of Israel ‘returning’ to YHWH with her whole heart; this would be the condition of her forgiveness and of the return from exile. In Deuteronomic terms, this would mean a return to the shema, to the love of YHWH alone with all the heart. The prophets regularly used the term ‘repent’ to denote the turning to YHWH which would result in restoaration, return from exile. Indeed, the word shub and epistrephein, since they mean ‘return’, hint constantly, particularly in Jeremiah, that for Israel to ‘return’ to YHWH with all her heart is the crucial thing that will enable her to ‘return’ to her own land. The whole point of passages like Daniel 9, Ezra 9 or Nehemiah 9 is that these great prayers of repentance – and we must be careful not to confine our thinking simply to occurrences of shub and epistrephein – are prayers precisely designed to bring about the return from exile. (We may note once again that all three books are clearly ‘post-exilic’ in the normal sense, and yet still seeking the real ‘return’.) (N.T. Wright, ‘Jesus and the Victory of God’, pp. 248-249)

Intellect and Reality

So, Kant basically ascribed to the mind a real creative power – things are understandable only insofar as they brought under or within the conditions of sensibility. This I’ll call the active power of the mind, since the categories for understand-ability are supplied by the mind. Now, as I said before, that the mind is in fact an active and not merely passive factor in our knowledge of the world is a fairly incontestable point, but thinking more on this topic led me to think about the intellect in general.

Aristotle held that the intellect was divided into the active (a) an the passive (p). p is the part of the intellect which receives data from the material world, while a acts as a kind of formal cause on the sensory data, forming ideas and thoughts with determinate structure. Aquinas basically held this same view, but tweaked it a bit: p still receives sensory data, but a grasps the form, which it abstracts, from the sensory data (Scotus disagreed with this and believed that the object of the intellect wasn’t the essence or quiddity of a thing, but being itself, but for right now I won’t go into that – for a bit more on that topic, see this post). So you basically have a concept of the intellect (and there’s a lot more to it, with categories like quality and whatnot, but this suffices for present purposes) where it is both passive and active in its knowledge of the world.

The medievals had this great concept: the fit of the intellect to reality. There is some kind of match between the intellect and reality, or the world or whatever you like to call it. Our cognitive faculties are able to allows us to know things about the world – of course, the medievals attributed this to the fact that God had created the world in this way (which I also happen to believe), but whether or not one believes that such a fit is a product of divine creation, it certainly seems that there is in fact a fit between our intellect, or our cognitive faculties and the world in which we live.

This brings me from the medievals ( in my mind, all roads in philosophy lead to the medievals) back to Kant. Where Kant made the mind purely active, the medievals, and the classical tradition as a whole, saw the mind as both active and passive – passive in that there is a world which acts upon our minds, and active in that in some way, the mind acts as a formal cause upon the sensory data received by the mind to impose a determinate form upon the data, either by abstracting the form or essence from the data or by some other means.