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Tillich's Theological Influence on Wendy Farley (1958-present)

Wendy Farley (from here)

Article by Mackenna Lewellen

Wendy Farley, Professor of Religion and Ethics at Emory University, has become an influential figure in feminist theological circles in the last two decades. She is a theologian of suffering, and her work has opened territory within constructive theology and ethics for subsequent generations of scholars to ask questions about tragedy, trauma, and healing, mainly within Christian traditions.

Her sources are vast - from standard names in Reformed theology, to lesser-known Medieval female mystics and contemplatives, to folk music and Greek tragedy. It is impossible to name a single primary influence. Still, Tillich's voice echoes in the language and concepts of Farley's work. Indeed, she names Tillich as one of a handful of influential predecessors in her first book, Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion, a rewrite of her dissertation. He stands among other theological giants in a list of voices she deems significant to this particular work. Farley's exploration of theodicy serves as a precursor for her later writing, and so this scaffold of Farley's theology, including elements influenced by Tillich, carry forward - in The Wounding and Healing of Desire, Eros for the Other, Gathering Those Driven Away, and a prolific series of essays and lectures.

A cursory reading of the two theologians finds echoes of Tillich's theology in Farley's language. The ethos of both writers is driven by a deep awareness of suffering and a need to create a meaningful theological structure in light of that pain. For Tillich, his work harbors evidence of his military chaplaincy and witness of European destruction; Farley's bears witness to the existence of radical evil in the world, to experiences of affliction. Where is it an element of Tillich's thought, it is the core of Farley's framework. The opening line of her incarnational theology reads, “For me, the genesis of theology is pain. When my heart is broken, I expect theology to walk with me.” [1] The centrality of suffering in both theologians’ work makes elements of their theology good companions with Buddhist traditions. Farley is explicit here, adopting a suffering-compassion dynamic over a traditionally Christian sin-grace or sin-judgment frame in her theodicy.

Beyond a cursory reading, their articulated geneses are different, but for both, finitude plays a significant role in their respective works. [2] Farley's stated beginning is pain. In order to reorient her theodicy in suffering rather than sin, she reaches for a broader theological anthropology built on assumptions of finitude and fragility. She notes, “finitude is subject to decay, frustration, hurt, and death. Embodiment in a natural, material world may be the most basic feature of human life, but it subjects human beings to an assortment of dangers and sufferings.” [3] She sets this human finitude, this contingent being, against God's ultimacy and “Ungroundedness.” In this broader expression, Farley frees the theologian of suffering from the need to explain or justify pain as they encounter it.

Farley also carries God beyond Being, and Abysmal language for God into her construct. [4] She uses language of God that signals the question of being, naming God as One beyond Being. Perhaps in as much an apophatic spirit as a Tillichian one, Farley uses a handful of metaphors to shout toward God. Members of the Trinity are referred to as “Ungroundedness,” “Erotic Abyss,” “Divine Eros,” “Good Beyond Being,” and “Beloved.” Tillich's roots are felt here not only in language and concept, but also in the intensely relational and erotic expression for describing the Divine Life and its interaction with created beings. This Divine Eros is the foundation of all reality, extending over all of creation: “Nothing exists except through the gracious flow of this living power. It is the power of healing and redemption, calling each being toward deeper intimacy.”[5]

Frequently, when she mentions Tillich directly, Farley does so to follow his anti-idolatry sentiment, maintaining that “God is ‘ungrounded’: no external ground or power gives being to ultimate reality.”[6] Her use of this particular theological affirmation is rooted in her determination to disrupt a “logic of domination” of an omnipotent God-Being that excommunicates the damned, heretics, minorities, etc. [7] This concept of God beyond Being, of Erotic Abyss or Divine Eros, is central to her understanding of incarnation and her redemptive use of it. Jesus, for Farley, is the result of the Good Beyond Being that cannot be spoken, yearning to express itself. In its yearning, it manifests as Wisdom Enfleshed. [8] The incarnation of Wisdom is not then two substances inexplicably mixing, but the human form, “fully realized” - which resonates remarkably with Tillich's New Being.[9]

Though Farley diverges from a theological expression that ascribes redemptive qualities to the crucifixion, she, like Tillich, argues for historic salvation. She argues fervidly that eschatological vision holds dangerous potential for passivity in the face of historic evil. She writes, “Eschatology can console those who find no refuge in history. It can attest to a hope that evil is not the last word. But it is in history that we live, struggle, think, act, and suffer.” [10] Eschatology is the source of ahistorical hope, but hope is not redemption. [11] Redemption must speak to the human made inhuman, the being who so intensely suffering, they nearly cease to be.

In her most recent work, redemption is two-fold; there is redemption from suffering, and redemption as theosis, as seeing Christ in ourselves and the other, and participating in that vision of ourselves and other.[12]

Though these echoes of Tillichian thought permeate her construct, Farley offers something of a corrective to the notable absence of the tragic or utter doom in Tillich's thought. He gestures toward tragedy, and speaks of the threat of nonbeing, but fails to fully confront realities of permanent threat of nonbeing or experiences beyond redemption in the system. For instance, her understanding of root passions as including terror specifically notes the ineffectiveness of Tillich's thought in developing compassion for “the paralysis of the soul” sparked by terror, or existential shock. [13] Farley's exploration of radical suffering places the truth of affliction at the center of her thought; from this place of prominence, and in a construct rather than a system, she is able to expand Tillich's vision. Tillich provides courage as a vehicle to resist nonbeing. Farley's construct though, stretches Tillich, proposing the possibility of an experience that is not just a momentary shock, but a rupture so significant that it reorients human beings entirely toward suffering and destroys their ability to remain a being held in categories of finitude (like time, space, etc.). [14] She argues that this dehumanization in radical suffering holds the capability of leaving one “maimed beyond recovery“ and placed “beyond the pale of redemption.”[15]

Farley's engagement with radical suffering allows for the acknowledgement that being can become so distorted and dis-membered that it nearly or does cease to be. There, no amount of courage can restore being because there is no hope for a different future, no past from which to draw, and no structures of finitude that remain in tact from which to reconstruct a sense of being. Tillich's courage requires a will to be at all. It is not courage for Farley, but compassion that constitutes this resistance and defiance of the tragic or of nonbeing.[16]

Surely, there are more parallels to uncover - for instance, Farley's more recent borrowing of Tillich's language of the demonic. And though Farley's thought is a synthesis of a vast gathering of influence both with and beyond the traditional arc of theological discourse, Tillich's influence surfaces notably in the major themes of her work.


Farley, Wendy. Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

Farley, Wendy. Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Farley, Wendy. The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Tillich, Paul. Systematic Theology. Vol. 1. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1951.

Appendix - Direct Mentions of Tillich in Farley's Work

Farley, Wendy. “And What Is a Merciful Heart? Apophatic Theology and Christian Ethics.” Theology Today 67 (2011): 408.

Farley, Wendy. “Duality and Non-Duality in Christian Practice: Reflections on the Benefits of Buddhist-Christian Dialogue for Constructive Theology.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 31 (2011): 136.

Farley, Wendy. Eros for the Other: Retaining Truth in a Pluralistic World. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996, 72n, 91n, 106.

Farley, Wendy. Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011, 17n, 37n, 42, 69-70.

Farley, Wendy. “Reforming Desire: A Theology of Incarnation.” Lecture, Yale University, December 1, 2010.

Farley, Wendy. Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990, 14, 102-3.

Farley, Wendy. The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005, 56-7, 170n.


[1] Gathering Those Driven Away, 1.

[2] “It is the finitude of being which drives us to the question of God” (ST 1, 166).

[3] Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion 82.

[4] See Tillich's rough trinitarian sketch: Abyss, Logos, Spirit in ST 1, 156-7.

[5] Gathering, 51.

[6] Tragic Vision, 102.

[7] Gathering, 66.

[8] Ibid, 12.

[9] Ibid, 66.

[10] Tragic Vision, 22.

[11] She continues, “Suffering is precisely the experience of hopelessness; it cannot be redeemed by hope. Further, future vindication does not erase the wrongness of being made inhuman by suffering” (Tragic Vision, 64).

[12] For a full exploration of this two-fold redemption, see Gathering Those Driven Away, Chapters 7-8.

[13] The Wounding and Healing of Desire, 57.

[14] She writes, “Radical suffering defines the human being as a victim or sufferer, so she (or he) becomes a deformed creature whose habitus is suffering. All experience is absorbed into suffering and the sufferer is impaled upon her pain. The past is gone and the future a miserable repetition of the present” (TV 58). In addition to providing an understanding of radical suffering, her use of ruptured time is a partial diagnosis of trauma.

[15] Tragic Vision, 59.

[16] Ibid, 39.

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