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Book Review

My Search For Absolutes by Paul Tillich. Edited by Ruth Nanda Anshen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. 143 pages.

My Search for Absolutes by Paul Tillich is one work in a series called Credo Perspectives, created by Ruth Nanda Anshen. The intent of the series is to forge a clear intellectual and moral path into the future from the uncertain post-modern world. Anshen believes the current human social condition is unprecedented in human history and, through the “intellectual autobiography” (10) of each featured author, she seeks to explore the possible emotional and intellectual paths to a better future. Credo Perspectives is an exercise in meaning making and a condemnation of the post-Enlightenment dependence upon scientific standards of knowledge which preclude transcendental truths, ultimately leading to the post-modern ennui that seems to have been growing in our society even before Tillich's death. Anshen's foreword gestures at these transcendental and immaterial definitions of knowledge, morality, and meaning, and Tillich, despite acknowledged claims of relativism, contributes to Anshen's quest by establishing proofs of absolutes in just these human realms. The urgency of Anshen's preamble, an attempt to call the reader's attention to the importance of addressing moral and social concerns in the post-modern world, contrasts with Tillich's relatively brief and confident contribution to this series. He gives an account of his own thought, beginning with an autobiographical account of his childhood, and My Search for Absolutes is a testament to a lifetime of thought and scholarship.

My Search for Absolutes is written in four sections. The first is Tillich's autobiographical account of his childhood and early academic career. He highlights aspects of his personal life that influenced his philosophy, such as the effect of the First World War, the influence of his authoritarian father and forceful mother, as well his father's religion, Lutheranism. It was the tension between his humanistic education, however, earned in a German Gymnasium, and the pull of the religion  inherited from his father, that led to the creative productivity of his philosophical and theological pursuits. Tillich ultimately frames the tension between classical studies with humanistic concerns, and claims of religious absolutes, within the realm of “Being-Itself,” the absolute that grounds all specific religious absolutes. He illustrates the fundamental nature of Being-Itself in three sections that follow his autobiography: “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth”, “The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions”, and “The Holy—The Absolute and the Relative in Religion.”

In the section “Absolutes in Human Knowledge and the Idea of Truth,” Tillich gives a number of examples in human knowledge, language, and art, that support his basic assertion that absolutes must exist, because relativism, by definition, could not exist if there were no absolutes. His clearest linguistic example is the term “absolute relativism” itself. Applying the term “absolute” to the term “relative” is a contradiction in terms and technically and theoretically absurd. He also supports his absolutist claim by exploring the human ability of abstraction and essences in art and language, claiming that the subject-object distinction could not exist if there were no absolutes. For Tillich, the basic structures of the universe, polarities such as dynamics and form, freedom and destiny, are all dependent upon the absoluteness of Being-Itself. Therefore, the structure of reality being what it is, even claims to relativism are founded upon the absoluteness of Being-Itself. According to Tillich, this section is meant for the intellectual person, like himself, for whom intellectual and cognitive encounters with reality are as existentially vital as any other existential experience. All relativist and absolutist claims can be based upon the formulation of Being-Itself found in this section, but for those specifically concerned with the moral and religious aspects of life, Tillich wrote the second two sections.

In “The Absolute and the Relative Element in Moral Decisions” Tillich explains how the concept of love, a moral absolute based upon Kant's categorical imperative and the specific edict that we should  not use other people, mediates between the ground of being, Being-Itself, and the relative concrete situations in which the spirit of love must be applied. He even has a term for this existentially involved form of love, called “listening love.” As detailed so extensively in the Systematic Theology, Tillich states that there are two forms of being, essential being and existential being. In existential being the unity that categorizes essential being is broken, and human beings are estranged from the world, each other, and themselves. Love, according to Tillich,even to love our enemies, is the reunion of opposites, of subject and object, of self with other. To love, even one's enemies, is the absolute moral imperative, because to love is to desire reunion, and this is the desire for essential being, which in Tillich's system, is the only form of perfection. Still, Tillich recognizes that this desire for essential being does not materialize in existence simply upon our desiring it. We must use listening love to examine and search each moral situation in all its intricacies so as to love properly, mediating between the existential world and the essential moral absolute of love.

Still, Tillich recognizes that for some, the search for absolutes is not complete unless it specifically addresses the realm of religion. In “The Holy—The Absolute and the Relative in Religion”, Tillich explores the tension between relativism and absolutes as it takes shape in religious contexts. To do this Tillich defines two forms of religion. The larger definition is that religion is the human experience of the holy (the being holy defined as Being-Itself). The narrower definition of religion is the experience of individual, traditionally understood form of religions, wherein individuals as collectives experience the holy, but through unique symbols, customs, and practices. In this way, Tillich relegates Christianity to a relative position by subordinating it to the larger definition of religion. Therefore, Christianity is one way to experience the absolute, but just like all other religions, the experience is an obscured and incomplete one. Tillich does still affirm a special quality of Christianity, however. The awareness of the dangers of idolatry that Jesus imparted to Christianity allows Christianity to be self-critical. In this way, Christianity can urge other religions to self-examination, in turn guarding against idolatry and, though Tillich never specifically states so, enabling inter-religious dialogue. Though idolatry still occurs when one religion takes an internal aspect of its symbol system and elevates it to the status of an absolute, the self-criticism inherent in the teachings of Jesus can combat this tendency.

It is not surprising that Tillich, in reflecting upon his life's work and his work in Absolutes, departs somewhat from the Christocentric positions he espoused so strongly in his first two volumes of the Systematic Theology.  The three latter sections of his thought in My Search for Absolutes, however, are still different expressions of Tillich's proof of Being-Itself as the absolute ground of all religious and secular activity. The book's concern is with the search for a stable foundation for morality, religion, and human life in general, and Tillich is true to his understanding of the Ground of Being as the foundation of all absolutes and religion, which is also the basis for his Systematic Theology. He offers solutions to the problems that Anshen highlights while avoiding her almost frantic revolutionary tone. He suggests that the answers to our postmodern conundrums were there all the time, but, as sometimes occurs in religion, the truth was obscured and needed to be rediscovered.

Nathan Bieniek
Boston University
Spring, 2008

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