Tillich's Theological Influence on Robert S. Corrington
Jonathan Morgan, Boston University,
Robert Corrington (from
Philosopher Robert Corrington has
spent his career building a philosophical system called
(in some places) Ecstatic Naturalism. His work has many
influences, but it is particularly resonant with Paul
Tillich’s thought. The similarities and the points of
departure between the two thinkers are apparent in the
name: Ecstatic Naturalism. While the terms operate
differently for Corrington and Tillich, those
differences cloak a deeper resonance that is likely born
out of similar experiences.
Corrington places Tillich in the
lineage of ecstatic naturalism, but this is questionable
since Tillich himself rejected naturalism. Tillich sees
naturalism as preferable to supranaturalism, but
nevertheless flawed. Since naturalism holds that nature
is all there is, then God is simply the power within
reality. Naturalism therefore denies any infinite
distance between God and the finite world. Tillich is
committed to this fundamental distance and therefore
seeks an alternative which he calls self-transcendent or
ecstatic. The world is self-transcendent because it
points beyond itself towards the ultimate. The
realization of this transcendence is ecstasis. Since
Tillich offers ecstasis in contrast to naturalism,
Corrington’s combination of the two ideas in “ecstatic
naturalism” is initially confusing.
Tillich’s analysis is primarily in
service to his concept of God as the Ground of Being.
Corrington is not committed to this idea of God and
therefore is free to adopt naturalism. While he is not
worried about preserving the infinite distance for which
Tillich sacrificed naturalism, Corrington does seek to
establish depth within nature. To do so he follows the
tradition that distinguishes natura naturans
(nature naturing) from natura naturata (nature
natured). Natura naturata is the full range of
phenomena themselves: past, present, and future.
Natura naturans on the other hand creates a space
for the potency of phenomena. This distinction gives
depth to nature without positing anything outside of
nature. While Corrington diverges from Tillich by
asserting naturalism, the structure which he creates
shares the important character of depth.
This depth allows Corrington to
follow Tillich in asserting the self-transcendent
character of nature. But Corrington’s understanding of
transcendence differs from Tillich’s. Instead of the
finite world pointing beyond itself, Corrington sees
self-transcendence as the eternal power of the movement
from natura naturans to natura naturata.
Corrington’s use of “ecstatic” also diverges to be
closer to jouissance (enjoyment and sexual release) as
used by the psychoanalysts Lacan and Kristeva.
Again, while important features of
their systems differ, the spirits are resonant. Both see
a depth structure within nature and a transcendent
tendency within this structure. Thus, Corrington is not
remiss when he puts himself in Tillich’s camp. At the
heart of their similarities is a shared understanding of
nature as deeply fragmented and full of internal
tension. Both thinkers are committed to the abyss, or
non-being, within being.
This commitment leads to the
clearest influence that Tillich has had upon Corrington.
Tillich argues that the “shock of non-being” is
necessary to appreciate “the power of Being.” In
Corrington’s analysis of natural grace and the
“providingness of nature” he echoes Tillich’s insight:
we must first become aware of the fissuring abyss at the
heart of nature before seeing its providingness.
Corrington also follows Tillich’s insight that courage
is necessary to overcome the anxiety of non-being. Their
language is different—Tillich uses terms of human
experience, while Corrington uses the language of
semiotics—but the spirit is similar. Similar but not the
same: Corrington argues that encountering the abyss can
take less dramatic forms than those described by Tillich
and the character of the abyss is different for each of
Both of these philosophers
experienced intense mental breakdowns (Corrington gives
a first-hand account of his in Riding the Windhorse).
Given the central role of the abyss in their systems, we
are left to wonder whether this similarity arises from
Tillich’s influence on Corrington or from their shared
personal encounters with the fragility of life. In all
likelihood, Corrington found Tillich to be a resonant
soul due to this shared experience.
But resonance is about as far as
Corrington is willing to go with any philosopher. He
draws on many theologians, philosophers, and
psychologists. Tillich and the pragmatist Peirce are
foremost among them, but they share company with Lacan,
Kristeva, and the depth psychologists Jung and Reich.
Corrington’s work is not exegetical, it is primarily
constructive; so he does not often evoke outside
authority. The ideas most reminiscent of Tillich are
amalgamations shaped by Corrington’s unique style. If
Corrington is building a house, the style belongs to a
specific school and individual architectural features
are borrowed from Tillich and other thinkers, but the
scaffolding and frame are uniquely his own.
One of the elements that Corrington
repeatedly borrows is Tillich’s analysis of art and
religion. Tillich discusses the capacity of art to point
beyond itself to the depths of nature. Corrington
elaborates this point as one case among many instances
where ultimate meaning pushes against the confining
styles of expression.They also diverge, however, as
Corrington describes this push occurring across levels.
Tillich was averse to the metaphor of levels due to the
difficulty of describing relations across levels.
Instead he prefers the metaphor of dimensions, which
emphasizes the unity of life. Corrington’s work with
semiotics influences his penchant for levels, but he is
also bound to this metaphor from his adoption of the
natura naturata/natura naturans distinction.
Corrington adopts other features
from Tillich: the insight that guilt is the product of
moving towards autonomy; Tillich’s analysis of
fundamentalism; Tillich’s concept of the eternal now;
and Tillich’s understanding of the apostle Paul. But
these instances are non-essential asides to Corrington’s
In Corrington’s earlier work,
Tillich was invoked to support critical moves. As
Corrington’s system became more established, the
references to Tillich became less frequent and less
essential. Yet, even when established, Corrington’s
system shares a similar spirit to Tillich’s. This
similarity is more a matter of resemblance than direct
influence. Since the fissured abyss at the heart of
nature also lies at the heart of each thinker’s system,
it is likely that Corrington was more influenced by his
own personal encounter with the abyss than by his
encounter with Tillich. In Tillich he may have found a
kindred soul to help give form and voice to the
fragmentary yet ecstatic experience of existence.
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