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Tillich's Theological Influence on Robert S. Corrington (1950- )

Jonathan Morgan, Boston University, 2012

 

Robert Corrington (from here)

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 them.

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 central development.

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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