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Faith, Doubt, Scholarship: Why Evangelicals Should Love Paul Tillich

Having Doubt About Doubt With a Healthy Does of Self-Criticism

Maybe it was no coincidence that Michael Patton posted on Roman Catholic scholars being incapable of critical scholarship the same weekend I completed a critical reading of neo-liberal Neo-Orthodox theologian Paul Tillich. Michael did admit that his post was going to be polemical, nor does he consider himself a scholars, and we should keep these in mind as I begin this conversation with a story.

Two years ago, as a Masters of Theology student at a progressive mainline seminary, I struck up a conversation with one of the school’s New Testament students, who, like me is Baptist, but he was admittedly theologically conservative. As someone who enjoys post-colonial and liberationist theologies, I, for one, am not opposed to self-criticism. In fact, on this blog, Chad and I last year had a series where we critiqued ourselves. It was a challenging task to public confess our blindspots. The one thing that I and the conservative student aforementioned could not agree on in our dialogue was the nature of religion. For that student, he believed that theology and biblical studies were driven by human subjectivity; it was experience that remained essential, and dare I say, the conversion experience. I know I am going to get in trouble here, but my reaction was to immediately draw attention to the similarities between my friend’s evangelical approach and the liberal approach, and he confessed that in terms of method, liberals and evangelicals shared common footings.

Today, I submit that Patton’s post does confirm the correctness of my argument. That what we have here is a form of dialectical thought, that faith is when a human being overcomes doubt. Patton indeed contends, “Without doubt, our faith can never really be tested. For to even take a test there must be some suspension of our presumption of perfection.” He continues, “I don’t think Christians should have any fear in testing their faith. We should not fear the doubt that leads to assurance of truth. Not only does God not mind our aspirations to such scholarship, he beckons us to such.” This comment seems fine, on the surface, of course it affirms the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints– who God has chosen to be saved will remain saved, and faithful, yes?

So, if faith is seen as primarily an free and subjective act on the part of the Christian individual, doubt is the opposite use of that freedom. Freedom, in this dialectic (oppositional form of thinking) is freedom FROM something, whether it be freedom from tradition, freedom from the community or freedom from the authorities. In this sense, Patton argues, Roman Catholic scholars ARE NOT free.

Is this notion of freedom correct, however? I would say that not only half of the story, Martin Luther, being the good Catholic that he was, would never affirm this definition of liberty. In fact, in his Freedom of a Christian (on of my favorite works of all time), all Christian freedoms are attached to servitude, to duty. Freedom is living away from sin and for others, as servants. Indeed, God came that He “that He might serve us, and that all the works He should do under that form of a servant, might become ours” On Christian Freedom. This is why in Luther’s 95 Theses, he proposes that the Christian should be taught to give to the poor rather than concern herself with indulgences (Theses 43).

By this understanding of freedom, could one not suggest that Catholic scholars are the freest of us all to be critical? What replaced Rome as the hermeneutical key for Protestants? I would say that here in the United States, it was America as Situation that replaced it, and thus, we have a ruggedly individualistic view of freedom, let alone academic freedom. My academic freedom to study the archaeology of the Red Sea means nothing if there are people in my neighborhood who are drowning in oppression. Scholarship, critical engagement, and doubt should not be centered around the self. This is the problem with conservative evangelical and mainline Protestant academia to begin with.

Faith, as I argued against Tillich, and I do here, against liberals and evangelicals who agree with Patton, is not something that starts with us Gentiles. In fact, in the story of Israel and Jesus, we Gentiles do not know what faith is outside of YHWH’s faithfulness Israel and Christ. Suggestions such as “Embrace your doubts. Doubt your doubts. Test all things. Follow the evidence, not your presuppositions.” sound okay, but is this the point of the writers’ of the Scripture’s own understanding of faith? I believe that the proper dialectic, if you will, is one of faithfulness overcoming faithlessness, and it is within that our Gentile story with our notions of doubt, faith, presuppositions, post-suppositions must submit itself.

As for critical Catholic scholars, I don’t think one has to look further than the emerging theologians from the Women In Theology blog. I have a difficult time taking Patton’s advocacy of doubt and critical scholarship seriously, especially since being aware that he comes from an institution in which students and faculty must not contradict the Statement of Faith. The very same statement in which one of my close friends was excommunicated from the DTS community and a letter mailed to his parents, informing them that their son was no longer saved. Brian LePort is completely right in comparing evangelical confessional scholarship and that of Catholics.

Jeremy (the Catholic, not Mormon–couldn’t resist) and Joel the Methodist has excellent responses as well.

“Now therefore revere [YHWH], and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve [YHWH]. Joshua 24:14, NRSV

Paul Tillich And Biblical Faith

What is faith? In contemporary Christian circles, evangelical and mainline alike, almost all Christians affirm the idea that doubting propositional truths is okay, since faith overcomes this doubt.  Is faith according to Scripture, a conquering of our uncertainties? Where does this idea come from?

In the mid-20th century, there were a group of theologians who referred to themselves as “Neo-Orthodox” or Neo-Protestant, with the ranks of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Emil Brunner, and Rudolph BultmannPaul Tillich belongs to the left wing of this movement, more specifically, a neo-liberal wing. I use the word Neo-liberal because Tillich sought to overcome the traditional liberal Protestant approach to theology which focused on God’s immanence with a different understanding of God’s transcendence.  In my work on American Liberal Theology and Gary Dorrien‘s trilogy, The Making of American Liberal Theology, I mention in Volume Two, the privilege that Tillich and Barth enjoyed in their experience here in the U.S. goes unmentioned in Dorrien’s work.

It is crucial to talk about this because anxiety (as a universal concept) as a driving concern is a mainline, white upper-middle class concern when it comes to talking about religion.  In other words, place is a significant determinant of the religious experience. The displacement of the Jewish prophets in exile is something that does not concern Tillich, for all of his talk of love and justice.

Now, on the matter of faith, Tillich defines faith as “the state of being ultimately concerned” (page 4, Dynamics of Faith).  Faith is a “centered act of the human mind” that is identical with freedom, with an awareness of infinity (page 5,9).  Faith is a risk, in that it is an affirmation of the self against that which would not affirm the self (being over nothingness).  The Protestant principle is this: that the cross stands over judgment over all of the community of faith, that even Christianity there is the risk of being judged from within.  The Cross, therefore, for Tillich, is the source of self-criticism and the prophetic tradition.  Faith is not the “will to believe” (page 37) nor is it a subjective emotional attachment [Tillich’s interpretation of Schleirmacher] which confuses culture and faith (p 39).

While Tillich claims that there is no faith without participation (100), this notion of “participation” is purely symbolic since our ultimate concerns can only be communicated in symbols, and since “he who has faith is separated from the object of his faith” (100).  This is exactly why Tillich dismisses the mystical traditions.

I do not believe that faith is a “centered act of the human mind” nor is it an adherence to propositional truths nor is it an overwhelming dependence on how I feel at this moment. Too easily, in each of these definitions of faith, we lose site of where human beings are placed in the world.  Instead, let me suggest that faith is first and foremost a gift from the Triune God, a gift that comes attached to the promises of YHWH, like God’s promises to the nomad Abram.  Faith is the very real participation in the historical presence of God that consumes our entire being.  Human beings do not initiate this, not any more than we could have first loved God or any more than we can hope more in our Selves.  God created us, and as Creator, loved us first.  For Christians, God is the God of hope, so therefore when someone like Rick Perry or Mitt Romney claim that America is the last great hope for the Earth, they are showing faithlessness to God.

Likewise, we cannot know what faith is unless we know who God is, who shows Godself to be faithful.


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The Economy of Jesus: An Introduction

A few weeks ago in the theo-blogosphere there were several concerned theo-bloggers who expressed questions about the Tea Party’s rise to political power after the mid-term elections, particularly their approach to economics: see for example, J Kameron Carter, Adam Kotsko, and David Horstkoetter.

As I promised via Twitter, I want to start exploring the ancient life of Israel & Judah, Christ, and their  relationship to economic practices, particularly here in the United States. I want it to be an exploration in Christology rather than a partisan polemic, which seeks not some abstract fascist leaning Third Way , but that which is guided by some principles, perhaps the Ten Commandments for example, or maybe notions of Christian nonviolence. Perhaps we should try to re-imagine the world without monetary policy or currency? Are they really necessary? Are these inherently violent? Maybe we should consider bringing back bartering, trading possessions between individuals and families?

I object to labelling Jesus of Nazareth either a Socialist or capitalist, due in large part to my suspicion that so many Western intellectuals have a bad habit of viewing, as J Kameron Carter in his work Race: A Theological Account, Jesus as the very best that the West had to offer in the garb of the Orient.  That, and the tendency I see on some on the left and right of encapsulating Christ as the embodiment of their ideals at the direct (whether it be conscious or unconscious remains to be seen) exclusion of Jesus’ Jewishness. By this, I mean not to delve into which sect he was part of ( Second-Temple Pharisee or revolutionary Essene, etc.) but the (economic and religious) practices which formed his identity and his earthly ministry.

I hope that you will join me in this journey.

Truth and Peace,


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