Tillich: “Here more than anywhere else the dynamics of faith become manifest and conscious: the infinite tension between the absoluteness of its claim and the relativity of its life.”
My conversation with Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, and Tillich has emphasized the point that faith is a verb more than a noun. Furthermore it is an act of existential and not merely of practical significance – that is to say, it involves one’s whole being in an attitude of openness to reality. It’s not so much what you do, but how you do the be-ing of your life.
The opposite of faith is not doubt but anxiety, the tendency we all have to get gripped up inside ourselves, to become hostage to our insecurities and ego defenses. While insecurity is a mark of our existence, we can easily fall in and become overwhelmed by the fact that so much is outside our control and our life is passing away. This is where the fact of our insecurity gets twisted up into the demon of anxiety.
More and more, religion is serving as therapy for this existential anxiety afflicting so many. In its beginnings it was a dynamic system of myth, ritual and morality, coordinating our human experience with the larger rhythm of the seasons, the harvest, the hunt and the changing stations of life in society. Over time, however, the focus of human concerns became increasingly personal – less about balancing heaven and earth, and more about individual salvation in the next life.
To the extent that religion has always been about the knowledge of ultimate reality, for most of its history this special knowledge has been sought for the purpose of living with a bigger context in mind. Your values, choices and actions need to be appreciated in light of your place in the cosmos, among the generations, as a member of your community, and at this particular intersection of fate and opportunity. This is what was originally called “wisdom,” and it was knowledge that really mattered because it concerned more than you and your ego ambitions.
Once ego took the dominant and commanding position – as illustrated in the ascent of the mythological god who demanded worship, glory and honor – knowledge ceased to be true wisdom and became instead doctrinal orthodoxy. You need to get it right not in order to fit your life to the greater whole, but to gain passage through the last gate and receive your reward for being right.
In that case, the absoluteness of the claims of faith can become like tamping gun powder into a tight hole: the fervor in your need to be right – given what’s at stake should you be wrong – might produce a flash of clarity, but the overall effect is much more heat than light. The dogmatic orthodoxy that characterizes so much of religion today is mostly useless as far as providing orientation and guidance in life is concerned.
In reality, life is much more grey than the black-and-white absolutes will allow. This is what Tillich means by the “relativity” of the life of faith. It may be helpful to sift and flatten the complexity down to a simplistic dualism of right and wrong, good and evil, us versus them. But because actual existence is not that simple, you have to screen out a lot of reality and misconstrue the rest to fit your boxes.
There is an obvious tension between the claims and life of faith that requires humility and courage to acknowledge. Such a claim as “God exists,” for instance, was beyond question back in the day when worldviews were based in mythological narratives. There was no need to check the story against reality, for the simple reason that the premodern mind couldn’t conceive of anything as real outside of the myths. There simply was no “outside.”
But with the awakening of a more rational-technical intelligence, there suddenly appeared a vast realm of physical existence that was without meaning – the sheer fact of matter. This is where Greek science was born, on the “other side” of our stories. For the first time, those listening to the myths recited in the theater or around the campfire would have to ask the question, “Did that really happen?”
Today, the absolute claims of religion are typically derived from scriptural proof-texts that are required to be taken quite literally. The circular arguments notwithstanding, a certain passion – and a passion for certainty – is needed for adults to energetically defend fiction as reality. Never mind that no one has ever seen god outside the myths he inhabits, or that there is no heavenly abode above the sky or tormenting hell under our feet. For obvious reasons this makes our belief in an afterlife (up in heaven or down in hell) considerably more effortful, and a lot less sexy.
A postmodern spirituality will be able to appreciate the sacred narratives of mythology, but the god who lives there must be allowed to live only there. While stories will continue to inform our grasp on reality, they should never become so literal – and the claims derived from them so absolute – that we are ready to commit every violence in their defense.
In the end – but even more importantly, along the way to the end – the relativity of life in the world invites us to pursue our quest for meaning like hikers on a mountain ascent. It’s not a race to see who can get to the top first, or whose backpack contains all the “right” things. It’s not how you finish, or even whether you make it all the way to the peak.
It all comes down to how real you can manage to be, how present to life, and how well you pay attention to the Greater Mystery as you move along.