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Tillich and Ethics

The struggle to find a satisfactory resolution between authority and freedom remains an uphill battle for contemporary Christian ethics. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was highly influenced by existentialist themes, most notably Schelling, but also Kierkegaard and Heidegger. But he was also a foundationalist. By this, his dogmatics is based on a type of ontological-metaphysical “realism.” Tillich’s realism is of a sort that sees God as virtually synonymous with Being itself (otherwise the Ultimate, the Absolute, the Unconditional). All of his dogmatic and ethical formulations are thus based in metaphysics of Being. God is the a priori of all thinking, feeling, and acting. He addressed the problem of doubt and anxiety saying that to overcome these things requires one to make the necessary choices and to commit oneself to the “courage to be.”

Problematically, Tillich’s ontological authority is incapable of establishing its own criteria. The “Ultimate” is purely Tillich’s symbolic way of speaking of the existential abyss of reality, which is meaninglessness. It cannot be said to exist in any ordinary sense of the word. Because the Ultimate cannot be spoken of directly, it becomes an extension of pure subjectivity; of indeterminate autonomy. The Unconditioned opens up to us only in the most mystical sense of “breakthrough,” which is “a special and extraordinary manifestation which removes the veil from something which is hidden in a special and extraordinary way.” Only when one seizes or grasps existentially the Ultimate, does one “breakthrough” to revelation. “Revelation is the breakthrough of the Unconditioned to the conditioned.” We can speak of revelation as our decisive concern, “because it is the ground of our being.”

Since Tillich, postliberals and postmoderns in the West have rejected systems of foundationalism that look for ontological substantiation. In distinguishing the non-foundationalism spirit of postmodernism from the older modernism, James A. Reimer, says “that we have come to recognize that there are numerous rationalities (each one intratextually coherent), and consequently, numerous understanding of ethics (virtue, goodness, justice, etc.).” Representative of the postliberal ethic, influenced by Karl Barth, is Yale theologian, David H. Kelsey, who, clarifies the central idea of non-foundationalism. “Thus Scripture is not the starting-point for theology. Indeed, a theological system does not consist of ‘one long over-arching argument’ resting on any starting-point, whether religious experience or religions text, but rather is a set of several different families of argument which, taken as a whole might be looked at in a quasi-aesthetic way as solicitation of mind and imagination to look at Christianity in a certain way.’” This secular form of postmodernism in framed in theological language that rejects any ultimate, objective reference point for the ground of ethics. What is left is a “quasi-aesthetic way as solicitation of mind and imagination” —basically content-less, philosophical air that fails to anchor itself to real authority and is proud of it.

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