Reading Notes 7/14/2014

I’m nearing the end of Wright’s ‘Simply Jesus’, and so far, the most interesting part has been his placing Jesus in the tradition of failed Messiah-kings (Wright cites Judah the Hammer, Simon the Star, Bar-Kosiba and Herod as examples of failed Messiah-kings, then shows how Jesus is the actual king who inaugurates both the new creation and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth (as it is in heaven). Interesting fleshing out of this idea. A lot of the book is fairly basic Wright themes – if you’ve read his weightier books, then this one will seem pretty repetitive.

I’ve been reading more closely Paul Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’, and aspects of it are very interesting. As far as a survey of various strands of existentialism throughout history, it’s a great book, but his theology, if you can call it that (it’s more of trading theology for ontology, and ontology of existential psychology) isn’t really worth much. He strikes me as fairly Wittgensteinian in his ‘theology’, which upon close examination, turns out to be more of a semiology than theology. So basically, he goes from theology to ontology, from ontology to psychology, and then from psychology to semiology. A note I found very interesting was his classifying Plato as existentialist, on account of (for Tillich) Plato’s philosophy ultimately showing that man is estranged from his essential essence.

I started going back over some of Brian Greene’s physics books – ‘The Hidden Reality’ and ‘The Fabric of the Cosmos’, to learn more about inflationary cosmology. What a fantastic teacher of physics – it took a minute of reading, but he broke down IC in such an easy way that even I was able to grasp the broader principles behind it. His use of analogy and metaphor in place of dense mathematics is brilliant. I tried reading Susskind’s ‘The Theoretical Minimum’, and there was just too much math – for someone as terrible at math as me, that’s basically a non-starter.

Bruggemann’s ‘Old Testament Theology’ is continuing to be a solid, challenging book. I disagree with his methodology, almost in its entirety, but a lot of his conclusions and exegesis is pretty solid. His emphasis on the rhetorical nature of the OT as well as thinking of the OT in solely in the category of ‘witness’ is a very fruitful avenue. His flippant dismissal of Christian interpretations of the OT isn’t as fruitful, though. It’s odd (I mentioned this in an earlier post on this book) that someone so willing to interpret the OT along post-modern/critical lines (which is fine – I’m not one of those anti-PoMo Christians), which is a very foreign category to the OT, simply dismisses Christian interpretations (for example, the OT being a ‘pointer’ or ‘witness’ to Christ) as wrong.

Kenneth Kitchen’s ‘On the Reliability of the Old Testament’ is a tour de force of OT archaeology and interpretation. While the style is as engaging as the nutrition facts on a cereal box, the content is fantastic and the attention to detail is rigourous to a fault – I read through half a dozen pages comparing styles of architecture among ancient near eastern temples, grain prices, slave prices, etc. Great content, terrible style.




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.

Paul Tillich, the God Beyond God, and Theism Transcended

Paul Tillich makes an interesting point about theism – we have to, in a sense, transcend theism. I take Tillich to be saying that we have to abandon our concepts of God and allow the God ‘beyond’ theism is make Himself known to us – the God beyond god, to use his terminology. In ‘The Courage to Be’, he basically argues against a view of God as a being alongside other beings, as opposed to Being itself, and his criticism of what generally gets called ‘theistic personalism’, is quite blistering.

Then Tillich goes into a whole bunch of stuff that he’s famous for, ultimate concern, courage, absolute faith, all that stuff, and he totally loses me. Seems like when he talks about general kind of subjects, like in ‘The Shaking of the Foundations’, he’s way better than in his more specific analyses of things like faith, god, etc.

Musing on Tillich

Tillich is interesting for me. He’s just the kind of theologian who irritated Barth – reducing theology to ontology, or existential anthropology. I strongly disagree with lots of what he writes. Batsmen he nails it, he really, really nails it. He’s also just the kind of theologian who irritated Bonhoeffer – with his ideas of ultimate questions and what not. But again, when he writes about being accepted by grace, for example – wow. At the very least, it’s thought provoking, and in my opinion, at times, quite profound. More to come as I continue to read Paul Tillich.

You Are Accepted

‘Do we know what it means to be struck by grace? It does not mean that we suddenly believe that God exists, or that Jesus is the Saviour, or that the Bible contains the truth. To believe that something is, is almost contrary to the meaning of grace. Furthermore, grace does not mean simply that we are making progress in our moral self-control, in our fight against special faults, and in our relationships to men and to society. Moral progress may be a fruit of grace; but it is not grace itself, and it can even prevent us from receiving grace. For there is too often a graceless acceptance of Christian doctrines and a graceless battle against the structures of evil in our personalities. Such a graceless relation to God may lead us by necessity either to arrogance or to despair. It would be better to refuse God and the Christ and the Bible than to accept them without grace. For if we accept without grace, we do so in the state of separation, and can only succeed in deepening the separation. We cannot transform our lives, unless we allow them to be transformed by that stroke of grace. It happens; or it does not happen. And certainly it does not happen if we try to force it upon ourselves, just as it shall not happen so long as we think, in our self-complacency, that we have no need of it. Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. It strikes us when we feel that our separation is deeper than usual, because we have violated another life, a life which we loved, or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when our disgust for our own being, our indifference, our weakness, our hostility, and our lack of direction and composure have become intolerable to us. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement. And nothing is demanded of this experience, no religious or moral or intellectual presupposition, nothing but acceptance.’ (Paul Tillich)

Differences between Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I just purchased Tillich’s ‘The Courage to Be’, and so far it’s been a very interesting read. For Tillich, God is conceived in a very different way than in most typical Christian thought – Tillich famously declared that God does not exist. The big questions occupy Tillich – existence, anxiety, and death all play a prominent part in his thought and it is faith and God that are able to answer these ultimate questions. It’s the total opposite of Bonhoeffer’s approach, where such ultimate questions are created by a man come of age in a world that has no need for religion or God. Both approaches are powerful in their own ways – Tillich wrestling with  existential despair and Bonhoeffer laying those questions bare as desperate attempts to make room for God in the world.