On the Meaning of Faith

Book Cover Theology of Culture Paul TillichIn his book Theology of Culture, Paul Tillich starts from a hypothetical case in which someone asks a representative of an existing religion (we may assume that he speaks about the Judeo-Christian tradition) and someone from the scientific community about the essence of religion. The first would maintain that the knowledge of God does not belong to human capacities, but it is solely the result of His Self-revelation. On the other hand, the member of the scientific community would insist on the human dispositions that make possible any religious idea, without any transcendent interference. These are the Scylla and Charybdis between which every attempt to understand the religious phenomenon and every debate on the meaning of faith must dare to advance.

On the Meaning of Faith: Religion as Dimension of Depth

Of course, we may say that both positions are consistent with their own premises: if we were to admit the existence of an infinite God, we would also have to admit that the finite human mind is unable to know Him. This mind needs God to come to him and unveil Himself. On the other hand, representatives of the scientific community could reply that religion is a result of several human and natural dispositions, an idea that is supported by the historical evolution of religion from the simplest superstitions to the most elaborate religious conceptions.

All of these stages imply the presence of a specific type of thinking: mythical thinking. This type of thinking is no longer actual in the age of science, because it involves the tendency to mentally associate realities that have nothing in common and whose associations cannot be proved. And what is more, this psychological tendency most often has no other basis than pure emotion, like fear or desire.

Paul Tillich maintains that both sides are both right and wrong. On the one hand, the scientific community assumes that by having shown the historicity of religion it also has proved the inconsistency of religion’s claims that an objective God exists. On the other hand, those who claim that God reveals Himself only to some elected people, and not to all, sooner or later push those believers who cannot partake in revelation into the space of atheism. In this way, they may be as harmful (or even more so) as those who plainly consider religion only a human issue.

For him, religion is not a special function of the human spirit: rather it is the dimension of depth in all of those functions (p. 5). We may add that scientists have readily admitted a religious function, only to deny the objectivity of the contents that this function produced. They repeat Kant’s arguments that although the functions of the human mind create human experience, it cannot be inferred that this experience corresponds unequivocally to an objective reality.

Trying to explain in what the metaphor of depth consists, Tillich says that this depth is the longing of the human spirit for unconditionality and ultimate meaning in every form of its activity (p. 8). Whenever we are involved in a specific human activity – in moral action, artistic creation or scientific endeavor – we strive for ultimate meaning: the meaning that confers full truth to that activity. Certainly, we may find here the influence of Scheleiermacher‘s view about religion.

For this German theologian from the early 19th century, too, religion was not a function of the human mind but an intuition of the infinite Universe. From this point of view, religion is something like a feeling that gets crystallized into definite religious ideas that let the Infinite transpire, though not able to reflect it adequately. Of course, it is not a feeling in the usual sense, nor is it an intuition in the common meaning of the word used by the philosophical (German) schools, according to which intuition means the capacity to perceive an object in the immediate experience.

During the same period, Hegel developed a philosophical conception in which this intuition was replaced with philosophical speculation. This faculty that belonged to human reason, was able to transcend the limited character of the human intellect and of finite experience and build a conceptual path into the Infinite.

On the Meaning of Faith: Christian Priests
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Two ways of Knowing God

In a second essay of the book, Tillich deals with the ontological and cosmological way of knowing God. The first one involves the overcoming of the age-old estrangement existing between the human mind and God, wherein the human being discovers that he is part and parcel of something infinitely larger, but identical to him in its way of being.

Cosmological knowledge involves meeting God as a stranger, and being puzzled by this overwhelming meeting. Rudolf Otto’s definition of the sacred as mysterium tremendum et fascinans comes immediately to mind in the last case, whereas the whole idealist Western tradition is related to the first case. The latter tradition was brought into Christian speculation by Saint Augustine.

Beyond Skepticism

Augustine maintains that we, as thinking beings, live within God’s truth, in Deo. The main argument for this idea is that whatever skeptical position someone holds, his skepticism is, at the same time, a claim of truth. That is to say, the one who negates the possibility of knowledge – that we are able to know the truth – states that his negation is true. His statement contradicts his intention.

Therefore, the truth is seated much deeper than any mistrust or doubt: prior to any doubt, the human being is enfolded in truth. Every attempt to ascertain something presupposes this capacity of knowing the truth. However, this capacity does not belong to the human mind, but grounds the human mind, make it possible. We cannot function apart from this capacity, which gets metamorphosed into a multitude of practical tasks and ignored beneath them.

This turn of thinking also grounds the so-called ontological argument. In its initial purpose, this argument did not aim to prove the existence of the highest being, as Anselm or Descartes developed it. It only tried to highlight this all-encompassing medium in which our mind exists, which surpasses the distinction between truth and false and which is the basis of every fact that the human mind ascertains, being thus the Absolute.

We may continue Tillich’s idea by saying that when Descartes grounded human thinking in doubt, by stating the famous sentence dubito ergo cogito, and inferred from here the fact of his own existence (and of any thinking being in general), he separated the human mind from that original medium. In that medium, object and subject of knowledge disappear, they are indistinguishable.

Why Hallucination Is Still Perception

It is worth in insisting some more on this idea. When we perceive an object outside us, we maintain that that object exists. If our perception is false, then our sentence is false too. However, in both cases, there exists an awareness of perception that cannot be denied, the experience of perceiving something, even though this something could only be a hallucination.

This experience is prior to any distinction between perceived and hallucinated object, proper or wrong perception. And even when I can decide that this perception is only a hallucination – that the hallucination is only a play of my mind – the experience of hallucinating is still a positive experience, an irreducible fact, a content that I live.

Yes, one could argue that some affliction of my perceptive organ creates that illusion and, when that affliction is removed, proper perception is restored. Thus, hallucination is only a subjective experience. But this argument doesn’t get the point: it is not the cause of hallucination that is the subject of debate, but its experience. For example: it is not that I hallucinate a house, but the fact that I can experience in general the hallucinated relationship between me and an outer object called a house.

This sort of fundamental structure of the mind is a pre-condition of hallucination. Where this structure is lacking, there can be neither perception nor hallucination. Maybe this is the reason why we do not have any memories from a very early stage of life: only after this subject-object structure has been established are we capable of having either perception or hallucination.

Saint Meditating on the Meaning of Faith - Stained Glass Window
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The Root of the Human Mind

Certainly, Descartes was right to infer the attribute of existence starting from thinking. But then he needed not only a loving and benevolent God to overcome the hypothesis of the malin génie (malicious demon), but also a God that was the highest Being, the Being that cannot lack any property, and thus cannot lack the property of existence. By proceeding in this way, he separated God and the human mind, initiating the modern way of thinking and the modern subjectivism.

Tillich maintains that the course of the pre-modern ontological argument was different. This argument did not insist on the superiority of the infinite divine mind in relation to the human mind, as if they were two comparable quantities or things, but on the fact that the human mind is part of the divine mind, emerging from it and being organically rooted in it.

The human being needs only to become aware of this origin through a proper focusing of the mind. And this was precisely the role of the so-called ontological argument: to focus the mind on this ultimate content of the mind that surpasses every logic, distinction, and concept. It was more an attempt to ‘illuminate’ the mind, than to prove something, to help it to attain a sort of rational revelation rather than rationally convincing it.

Spinoza, at the beginning of modernity, said, in the same vein, that truth is a condition both of truth and falsity (Ethics, Part II, Prop. XLIII, Scholium), which Tillich admirably re-formulates (of course, referring to the medieval discussion of this topic) by saying that God is the presupposition of the question of God (p. 16). If the first part of the previous sentence may be acceptable, the second part seems to be paradoxical: How can God be a presupposition of the question of God?

We must remind ourselves here of the traditional conception of truth. Unlike modernity, the philosophical and theological pre-modern tradition did not see truth as a product of the human mind or brain, but as one of the main attributes of God. According to this tradition, one doesn’t create truth, one lives in truth. This is because when we say that the mind creates the truth and claim to have formulated a true sentence, the consciousness of truth or rather the (vague) knowledge that there exists truth precedes the sentence that we consider to be true.

The sole way to overcome this circular reasoning is by accepting that truth is an all-encompassing medium in which the human mind lives and thrives. This medium comprises everything, from the subtlest awareness of time to the rawest sensation: in both cases, we know that we are dealing with something real, and consider this knowledge as something true. Therefore, this medium transcends both matter and (human) spirit, and is God Himself: of course, in this context, God is understood as Spirit, as John 4:24 in the New Testament put it.

By reasoning in this way, there cannot be any discussion about the highest or the smallest existence, because this divine spiritual medium encompasses and permeates everything: it cannot be the ‘highest’ Being, simply because it is the Being, the whole Being. And if the human mind sees God as this all-encompassing truth, then, indeed, every question about God presupposes God Himself.

Laughing Nuns
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Knowing God Through His Creation

The theologian who removed this chain of speculation, according to Tillich, was Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas distinguished between two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of an object by itself and knowledge of the same object by us. God, who is the Creator, is the only one who can know Himself immediately, by Himself. Man cannot know Him immediately, only mediately, through what God reveals about Himself to man. Thus, the human being cannot help but refer to the divine revelation to know the Divinity.

In order to understand this distinction, we might refer to the way in which someone knows himself and the way in which a different person knows him. Thus, a liar knows immediately that he lies, whereas those who listen to him, do not know his intentions (because they have no access to his inner consciousness). They only hear his words or see his behavior, both of which are very deceptive.

By establishing the previously mentioned distinction, Thomas Aquinas cut outright the divine rootedness of the human mind, making the inside of God unattainable to the human mind. To be sure, God was still conceived as love, as the New Testament proclaimed. Based on His love, God reveals Himself through His Creation (the World) and through His word (the Bible). Now both the world and the Bible were conceived as signs allowing us to infer the nature of their Creator and thus as an indirect forms of knowledge. Through this new speculation, religion was reduced to faith, i.e., it eliminated the moment of inner certainty proper to the previous age.


We may add to the presentation of Tillich the idea that if in both cases one might speak about ‘faith,’ the meaning of this word is not the same. When God as truth was conceived as the condition and ‘standard’ of every truth (Augustine, the Franciscans, Spinoza), the intellectual grasping of this over-truth was not properly seen as an act of thought, and therefore it could be called ‘faith’ or even an unio mystica. This act of thought had no object, which associated it with faith.

It was a contemplation of something immediate, but this could neither be thought nor explained. It was a sort of immersion into the absolute void, the fullest emptiness or the dazzling darkness. However, it involved intellectual certainty. Conversely, when man is referred to the world and the Bible in order to know God, then these two elements require the will to see them as something more than they appear, i.e., an act of faith. In this case, there is no certainty, no immediate help to support faith.

We may say that the new, modern valuing of nature originated in religious speculation: Thomas conceived nature as a path to know God, as His revelation. Man was called to know nature because through this knowledge he could gain knowledge of its Creator. From here the path was open to the later complete denial of religion and faith. However, this change involved a full association of the concept of Being with an epistemology based on sensations: something which, starting with the religious speculation of Thomas Aquinas, continued in the thought of Duns Scotus or William of Occam, opening the nominalist paradigm of modernity, in which we still think.

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