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Exploring Faith

15 Nov

Creative change necessarily includes a phase of disorientation, when the certainties of a worm’s world are strangely no longer relevant and the new horizons of the butterfly’s world are still unclear. On the near side of this threshold of transformation committees of worms meet in earnest to decide how the old verities can be preserved – or recovered, to the degree they’ve already been lost. We have to keep our feet on the ground and hang on to the reality we know. We need to get back to the way we were before the confusion set in. This agony will pass, but we must remain faithful!

Closer to the threshold, perhaps, are some others – still worms, however – who feel things melting away and look longingly to what the future might hold. By virtue of the perspective offered from a higher perch in the branches, they can see farther out than their fellow worms down below. In the coming era we will be completely liberated from this pathetic existence, they whisper. Life transcendent and trouble-free awaits us; we must remain faithful!

What does it mean to “remain faithful”? In the context of my parable it simply refers to a determination to hold fast, whether in a conservative stance to a previous and more familiar mode of life, or in a liberal stance to an unprecedented and more advanced mode of life. Yet both parties are fundamentally the same, in that they are reacting as worms to the contractions of change. Whether the signals of creative change are interpreted as the loss of something we thought we could depend on or as the suggestion of something that will finally set us free, our primary point of reference is outside and apart from this present reality.

To help me explore creative change as it relates to the meaning of faith (and being faith-full), I am inviting three authors to the conversation: Friedrich Schleiermacher (On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers, 1799), Soren Kierkegaard (Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, 1846), and Paul Tillich (Dynamics of Faith, 1957). Each one of these individuals lived in a time of cultural sea-change, when it seemed as if the wheels were coming off the train of tradition and the world was falling off-center.

Schleiermacher was rooted in the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity, which placed high value on scripture (the inspired written word), Logos (The Word made flesh in Jesus), theology (words about God), and logical reason as our primary way of understanding the spiritual mystery. Caught up in the same wave of philosophical revolution as Immanuel Kant, Schleiermacher shifted his focus of study from the object under investigation (as in classical philosophy) to the individual’s experience of the object – which came to be known as phenomenology. This shift would radically redefine faith; many would argue that it brought us back to its original meaning.

Kierkegaard found his voice against the philosophy of Georg W.F. Hegel, whose rational system resolved reality itself down to an absolute mind (God) conceiving the physical universe, and then coming to self-awareness through the speculations and reflections of the human intellect. The action in Hegel’s system was very transcendent and universal, giving little account to the historically grounded and particular individual. Just like Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard sought to grasp the nature of experience and to affirm the experiencing subject, whom he felt had all been written off in Hegel’s system.

Tillich was educated and ordained an army chaplain in the German Lutheran tradition and served during the First World War. The pressures of Hitler’s regime eventually motivated him to come to the United States, with the help of his friend and theological admirer Reinhold Niebuhr. Both World Wars had delivered a deep wound to the secular optimism of nineteenth-century Western culture. The creative powers and divine potential of the human being were severely challenged by equally destructive powers and an apparent proclivity for the demonic, as evidenced in the violence and brutality of Auschwitz. While mainline Christianity was increasingly emphasizing human depravity and the radical transcendence of God, Tillich took up the challenge of understanding faith as a dynamic force for world change.

In the interest of transparency, I must admit that these thinkers struck a chord in me a long time ago. Tillich, especially, would become my nighttime library adviser during seminary, as I was taught the principles of Reformed Theology in the classroom during the day. So many words – so much meaning – can interfere with the experience of mystery. Despite his voluminous output, I detected in Tillich a mystic’s sensibility, a willingness – even a driving imperative – to drop out of the gears of discursive thinking every so often in order to sink into the ineffable experience of God.

As in my previous conversation with Nietzsche, Watts and Heschel, my intention is to move through the above-mentioned writings chapter by chapter. When something grabs me as especially relevant to the question of faith, I will offer some reflection on the author’s point of view and its consequences for our ongoing dialogue. Where possible, I also want to stage a conversation between and among the author’s themselves, to explore how their distinctive approaches and perspectives might cross-pollinate to suggest our next bend in the road.

I hope you’ll join me and read along!

 

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