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Book Review

Dynamics of Faith. By Paul Tillich. New York: Harper & Row, 1957. 147 pages.

Reviews by JBH and SL

Review by JBH

[Note: This review references the pagination of the 2001 Perennial Classics version of the original text.]

Dynamics of Faith, along with The Courage to Be, proves to be one of Paul Tillich’s more accessible texts for a popular audience without technical training in theology or philosophy of religion.  Tillich himself seems to have written the text with such intentions noting in his introductory remarks that the word “faith” has become so trivialized and diluted in the public sphere that one may well be tempted to expunge it from theological discourse altogether.  Against this inclination, Tillich argues that “there is as yet no substitute expressing the reality to which the term ‘faith’ points” (xxi).  The aim of the book, then, is to reinterpret and re-situate this contested term such that readers come to know “the hidden power of faith within themselves and of the infinite significance of that to which faith is related” (xxii).

In the first chapter, Tillich succinctly delineates his own definition of faith. Put quite simply, faith is “the state of being ultimately concerned,” the dynamics of which are “the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern” (1). While faith may certainly involve rationality and emotion, for Tillich it transcends them both without destroying either, thereby overcoming the gap between subjectivity and objectivity (7, 12).  In one of the more interesting passages of the book Tillich claims that the holy mysterium tremendum et fascinans — that which grasps a person ultimately — lies in a substratum below good and evil, appearing as both creative and destructive (16ff.).  “Our ultimate concern can destroy us as it can heal us,” Tillich writes, “[b]ut we never can be without it” (18).  Likewise, faith also involves the risk or wager of existential courage, i.e., the acceptance of uncertainty within the element of certainty.  Under the conditions of existential estrangement, the only certainty is “ultimacy as ultimacy, the infinite passion as infinite passion” (19).

Chapter two explicates Tillich’s assertions of what faith is not.  Here he explores three primary distortions of the meaning of faith as the centered act of being ultimately concerned with one’s whole personality, i.e., of one’s whole being.  For Tillich, each of these misunderstandings of faith stem from the tendency to collapse the whole of faith within only one of the functions that constitute the whole personality (36).  The first and most pervasive distortion of faith is the penchant to identify or conflate faith as an act of knowledge with little evidence.  When this occurs it is almost certain that one is referring to cognitive belief rather than faith itself.  The second distortion assumes and builds upon the first.  If faith means belief with little or no evidence then it must be supplemented or complemented by a subjective act of the will.  This is what Tillich calls the voluntaristic distortion of the meaning of faith.  In Roman Catholicism this amounts to an act of the will enabled by grace and contingent upon assent to the teachings of the church; in Protestantism the will to believe is also enabled by grace and is directly connected to personal piety and moralism.  Against these tendencies, Tillich claims that insofar as it involves the existential weight of that which is ultimate “no command to believe and no will to believe can create faith” (44).  Finally, there is the emotionalistic distortion of faith.  Rather than embracing faith as either a matter of the intellect or the will alone this misunderstanding relegates faith to the sphere of subjective feeling “without a content to be known and a demand to be obeyed” (45).  For Tillich, such a view dilutes the potency of religion to the point that “no claims to truth can be made by it” (Ibid.).

Chapters three and four outline the symbols of faith and delineate between different types of faith.  Here Tillich explains that any expression of ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically “because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate” (47).  God functions as the most fundamental symbol for ultimate concern.  Regardless of whether one accepts or rejects “God,” the symbol of God is always affirmed insofar God is a type of shorthand for what concerns humanity ultimately (52-53).  Myths in this view serve as the language and narrative through which ultimate symbols are communicated or transmitted.  Through symbol and myth faith is tangibly manifest in the life of the individual ontologically and morally.  Ontologically, that which grasps a person ultimately is experienced as being present, here and now, and in the act of faith one “see[s] in a concrete piece of reality the ultimate ground and meaning of all reality” (66).  Drawing a distinction once again between the structure of faith and its determinate content, Tillich claims that this ontological type of faith is universal, sacramental, and present in all formal religions.  It is “the state of being grasped by the holy through a special medium” and not “the belief that something is holy and other things are not” (67, italics original). Conversely, the moral type of faith “demands moral obedience,” conceiving of God as the one who “gives law as a gift and as a command” (74).  Thus, the content of faith is emphasized over its ontological structure.  Because each type of faith — the ontological and the moral — are incomplete in themselves, Tillich claims that while one may certainly gain precedent over the other in the life of faith, persons should seek to unite both in dynamic, “mutual participation” so that each might experience the transcendence of itself through the aid and supplement of the other (80).

In the final two chapters, Tillich outlines what he calls the truth of faith, i.e., its relationship to other disciplines (reason, science, history, and philosophy, etc.) and the life of faith as the integration of the totality of one’s personality within the religious community.  For Tillich, faith and reason are not incompatible nor are they mutually exclusive.  Rather, the latter is the precondition of the former.  Faith is “the act in which reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself” such that reason rises above its own finitude within the conditions of subjective existence (87).  Likewise, epistemologically, the truth of faith is not contradictory to the truth of science, history, or faith — and vice versa.  Since faith is the religious structure of that which grasps a person ultimately, its truth cannot be completely confirmed or validated by the truth of history or science, nor can it be denied.  Faith functions more as an interpretive discourse in relation to science, history or philosophy; it asks questions of ultimate meaning and is therefore in no position to pass judgment upon the validity of historical investigation or scientific experimentation.  Finally, the life of faith is one marked with various tensions — between doubt and courage, estrangement and wholeness, individual and community — and the attempt to maintain balance such that faith, hope and love are concretely present within the totality of the human personality.  Faith then, in Tillich’s view, is eternally present within the life of the human being insofar as it is the symbolic apprehension of that which concerns one ultimately (146).

This slim but rich little volume is perhaps the best introduction to Tillich’s work and his overall contribution to theology outside of his Systematic Theology itself.  It succinctly and concisely delineates Tillich’s understanding of the symbol, his method of correlation, and provides a basic schematic for his ontology and his doctrine of God.  For its time, Dynamics of Faith stands among works such as H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture in its attempt to reincorporate religious language and symbolism within a shifting, so-called “secular” culture.  For his part, Tillich appears to have succeeded were Niebuhr, and certainly Karl Barth, failed, i.e., in constructing a theology of culture that views the world as a text to be exegeted for its latent yet rich religiosity rather than a monolith to either be rejected (Barth) or transformed a priori (Niebuhr).  Moreover, in our time, when one of the fastest growing religious demographics in North America are those who call themselves “spiritual but not religious,” Tillich’s broad understanding of faith as ultimate concern provides an interesting and fecund basis for theological discourse unrestricted by a rigid dogmatics.

Its laudable merits notwithstanding, Tillich’s work in Dynamics of Faith highlights a few issues which strike to the heart of Tillich’s theological system, issues which, for some, may not surface without an intensive study of the system itself.  This, too, is significant insofar as it affords the reader the opportunity to engage Tillich in a singular volume, to catch a glimpse into the heart of his immense and intense theological edifice in an uncharacteristically crystallized form.  The question at hand, however, is whether a few key problems raised in Dynamics of Faith are revelatory of Tillich’s own theological nearsightedness and his indebtedness to the Neoplatonic tradition.  For brevity’s sake, I will only mention the single problematic here which I believe drives to the very foundation of Tillich’s entire theological enterprise.  For Tillich, faith involves a fundamental dynamic between several different sets of existential or ontological polarities, the culmination of which is best seen in the difference drawn, though not explicitly in this work, between existential and essential being.  Within Tillich’s theological system the latter functions as the original and most fundamental state of reality, a state in which the conditions of the latter, i.e., of existential estrangement are once and finally overcome.  Again, though Tillich does not explicate this distinction in detail in Dynamics of Faith, the irreducible gap between essence and existence is the foundation upon which his understanding of faith as ultimate concern is erected.  Indeed, the supposition that essential being is an actually existing reality toward which human beings are ontologically driven enables Tillich to make the claim that the risk of faith involves the totality of the human personality such that, in the final instance, the “cleavage between subject and object” is overcome and the conditions of “existential disappointment” ultimately conquered (13).

The crucial question here is whether Tillich, despite all his important work to free Christian theology from myopic dogmatism, is still tacitly reliant upon a linear and indeed Neoplatonic theological trajectory still pervasive in Christianity, even in many liberal-progressive quarters.  This structure unfolds thusly: humanity and creation initially existed in a state of perfection from which they are now estranged.  The ultimate telos toward which all creation, including especially humanity, is oriented is the restoration of this original, essential state of being.  Whether one interprets this trajectory literally vis-à-vis the biblical text matters very little if at all.  Tillich certainly does not and for that theologians can be very grateful.  However, it is unclear, especially in the present text, as to whether his theological enterprise is buttressed by this linear, triumphalistic trajectory such that the ultimate eschatological end involves the final and indeed terminal realization of essential being over and against existential estrangement.  Insofar as Tillich privileges the eventual triumph of one side of all the various ontological and existential polarities in Dynamics of Faith and elsewhere it would seem that this may be the case.  Would it not be more true to the vicissitudes of existential reality as such to suggest that the dynamic between essence and existence is not one of linearity, but of oscillation?  Rather than forcing experience into a theological structure which seems to prescribe final reconciliation and restoration a priori perhaps Tillich’s distinction between essence and existence might be better interpreted as a true gap or aporia, one which is never fully overcome or mended but always remains open as a fissure inscribed into the heart of reality and the ground of being itself.  Essence may indeed eclipse existence but such a transfiguration is only momentary, always fleeting and never final or complete.  Thus, these two concepts — essential being and existential being — would function not as total opposites on the spectrum of experience but as symbols of reality which are always implicated in one another, presenting themselves as inextricable aspects of human nature, not as phases or stages through which one progresses straightforwardly.  To be fair, there instances in Dynamics of Faith where Tillich, whether he realizes it or not, creates the possibility for such a reading, namely his insistence that faith is always an act of courage and risk from within the conditions of existence (19-20ff.).  Nevertheless, Tillich’s Neoplatonic proclivities and his reliance upon the linear trajectory outlined above cannot be overlooked.  Thus, Tillich’s own conviction that tradition and the thinkers which form and constitute it much be met with a constructive “yes” and a critical “no” must surely be applied to himself.

In sum, Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, while assuming some potentially problematic theoretical background better explicated in his Systematic Theology, is undoubtedly one of his more accessible (and successful) works, solidifying his position as one our last 20th century public theologians.  His recovery of faith as the existential dynamic or structure of that which apprehends and grasps a person ultimately regardless of particular form or content is an important theological achievement in itself.  This combined with his salient discussion of the function of symbols within theological discourse and religious experience constitute the enduring legacy of Dynamics of Faith as a text which aims to crystallize an intricate, erudite and indeed robust theological system in a succinct yet compelling manner for the non-specialist.

Review by SL

[Note: This review references the pagination of the First Harper Torchbook edition published in 1958.]

In an effort to convince readers of their power and significance in relation to faith, Paul Tillich, in his book Dynamics of Faith, redefines and reinterprets the meaning of the term “faith,” a highly contested and distorted word in religious language (ix). From the outset, Tillich defines faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned” (1). Something that holds ultimate concern for us must meet two criteria: it must demand unconditional acceptance of the claim and it must look forward with “the promise of ultimate fulfillment.” If the demand is not adhered to, exclusion from the ultimate fulfillment would result (2).

Tillich moves on to describe faith as a centered act of the whole individual. It is an act, a conscious decision largely influenced by the subconscious elements of an individual’s personality (5). In this regard, it is a decision in which “both the rational and the nonrational elements of his being are transcended”. (6) Thus, the act of faith is ecstatic. It transcends the rational and nonrational structures of personality to allow one to “[stand] outside of oneself—without ceasing to be oneself—with all the elements which are united in the personal center” (7). This ecstatic element allows the individual to turn to the most truly ultimate of concerns, which “unites the subjective and objective side of the act of faith” (10). Doubt, especially in existential forms, plays a vital role in relationship to faith as it serves as the opposite pole in the state of ultimate concern (22). Doubt requires the individual to show courage in order to accept doubt as a part of the existential condition. The expression of faith and doubt within communities is imperative, for language is necessary in the development of an individual’s spiritual life. However, communities of faith must not be bound by legalistic ties to doctrinal statements of belief, but rather assert the freedom of faith within the community (29).

In the second chapter, Tillich addresses what faith is not. In the intellectualistic distortion of faith, faith becomes belief rather than the state of being ultimate concerned (31). He also contests the widely held conception of faith as “knowledge with a low degree of probability” (35). A second distortion comes in the form of “voluntaristic faith.” Here Tillich contradicts the “will to believe” in which faith is dependent upon teachings of the church (Catholicism) and morality of the individual (Protestantism) (36-7). The final distortion of faith is emotionalistic. For Tillich, faith is not “a matter of merely subjective emotions, without a content to be known and a demand to be obeyed” (39). Through negating these three distortions—faith as matter of intellect, matter of the will, or matter of emotion—Tillich reasserts that faith “is a centered act of the whole personality” (30).

Tillich explains in the third chapter the relationship between faith and symbols. He asserts, “[An individual’s] ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate” (41). Symbols are different than signs, and important to theological language, because they participate in the “reality to which they point” (42). “God” functions as the primary symbol for ultimate concern (45). “God is a symbol for God” in that it is ultimate and has concrete manifestations in “ordinary experience” (46). Other symbols for ultimate concern are used with different concrete manifestations from existential experience (47). Tillich then connects the concept of symbols to the ways myths are created through language and narrative to describe “divine-human encounters” (49).

In the fourth chapter, Tillich describes two types of faith: ontological and moral. In the ontological type of faith, an individual’s ultimate concern is manifest in present and concrete interactions with reality (58). This “sacramental” character of faith “is the state of being grasped by the holy through a special medium” (58). The moral types of faith are largely influenced by the gift of the law given by God, which “demands moral obedience” (65). Tillich explains that the structure and protection of the law make life “possible and satisfying,” allowing for “continuous actualization” of the ultimate concern in the existential reality (67). He sees the two types of faith, ontological and moral, as both incomplete, and the “mutual participation” of the two as the “complex, dynamic, and self-transcending” goal of faith (70).

Tillich’s fifth chapter gives insight into the truth within the symbols and myths of faith. Reason—understood as the human capacity that fosters creativity and growth for humanity within the structures of reality—gives rise to faith, in which “reason reaches ecstatically beyond itself” (76). Tillich makes it clear that science and faith should not interfere with each other, in that neither can prove nor deny the other; they operate on different dimensions of meaning (85). In terms of historical truth, faith can assert that events of ultimate concern occurred in the past, but cannot assert the historical truth of any particular events where ultimate concern is supposedly revealed. Thus, those of faith are free from the burdens of determining the veracity of historical occurrences (89). The relationship between philosophical truth and the truth of faith are more interconnected, in that elements of each exist in the other. However, neither determines the course of the other (95).

Tillich turns in his final chapter to the manifestation of faith in the life of an individual. He describes the experience of faith as a “tension between participation and separation, between the faithful one and [his or her] ultimate concern” (99). This is most explicitly experienced through doubt, which is overcome by courage to assume doubt into the experience of faith (101). Tillich asserts that the “concern of faith is identical with the desire of love: reunion with that to which one belongs and from which one is estranged” (112). Love serves as the manifestation of the state of being ultimately concerned within the conditions of existence.

In this text, written in the same year in which the second volume of his Systematic Theology (ST) appeared, Tillich offers a sample of his theology with an eye toward the non-academic community. Dynamics of Faith (DF) hits on major theological points from the ST: ultimate concern, non-being, estrangement, and tensive polarities, to name a few. While the tone of the book has a far more popular appeal, Tillich does not shy away from wrestling with grand theological questions. In addressing concepts such as creeds in the church, the role of reason in relation to faith, and the function of doubt in the life of the faithful, among others, Tillich serves his audience well by confronting problematic issues within religious communities.

Several specific points deserve praise in DF. The first is the nature of Tillich’s definition of faith, which leaves open the opportunity to define faith in terms of other religions. In fact, Tillich states in his discussion of moral types of faith: "The question of faith is not Moses or Jesus or Mohammed; the question is: Who expresses most adequately one’s ultimate concern? The conflict between religions is not a conflict between forms of belief, but it is a conflict between expressions of our ultimate concern" (66).

He goes on later to point out that the perspective from which the discussion is arising will inevitably produce a response that justifies the ultimate concern in that perspective (70-71). Tillich acknowledges the many expressions of ultimate concern that exist in the world. And while he would assert that Christianity, in its unified form in ontological and moral faith, would “fulfill the dynamics of the history of faith in the past and future” (73), he gives credence to other manifestations of being ultimately concerned. We have to wonder if this publication had anything to do with Tillich’s late-in-life discovery of the veracity of other faiths, and his later desire to revise the ST with an eye toward a more religiously inclusive theology.

The second accolade due to Tillich in DF is his depiction of faith as action in the final chapter. With references to the third volume of the ST, Tillich lays out the concept of faith in manageable and practical ways for the individual. His connection of faith to love—explicitly in terms of the combination of agape and eros, which proves to be a fruitful description of his vision of ultimately concerned love—allows the reader to get a sense for the direction in which this faith takes us.
It is along these same lines, however, that Tillich also should be criticized. His definition of love and its identification with faith in the final chapter revolves around, and is predicated upon. the notion of being separated and estranged from one’s essence. While someone who has read the second volume of the ST would know what estrangement entails, those who have not—and it is assumed that the majority reading this would have not—would have only a vague idea of what the state of estrangement means, based on Tillich’s slim description in DF. Thus, the point of faith, that which is concerned with what is truly ultimate, and its connection to love, through reunion from what humanity is separated, would be lost. While Tillich acknowledges that faith is a universal component in the human condition, and thus all individuals experience it, the lack of a specific explanation of estrangement leaves the action in Tillich’s conclusion hanging.

While his treatment of estrangement leaves much to be desired, Tillich gives a compelling reinterpretation and illumination of faith. He strengthens a term that carries much baggage throughout the history of religious understanding, leaving the reader with a renewed sense of integrity and purpose appropriate to his vision of faith.

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