Tillich and Whitehead – July 2008

Question: I’m a recent ‘convert’ to Process Theology and find it utterly transforming. The problem is that I also like Tillich (and by extension John Shelby Spong). Is there a way of adequately combining the two, or is that one step too far?

Publication Month: July 2008

Dr. Cobb’s Response

I like this question, and my answer is that accepting process theology certainly should not lead one to reject or oppose what one has appreciated in Tillich and Spong. Progressive Christian thinkers need each other, and those who opt for a philosophical theology, being a small group, certainly should not spend their time putting one another down. On the other hand, there are differences of some importance between Whiteheadian theologians and Tillich.

It is not possible to articulate these differences without dealing explicitly with that most excluded, but most important, dimension of philosophy: metaphysics. So you give me an excuse to write about metaphysical questions. I hope this does not turn you off before you read.    

I share your appreciation of Paul Tillich. During my thirty-two years of teaching theology at Claremont, I gave courses on Tillich more often than on any other theologian. Although Barth and Brunner may have been more influential, I had little enthusiasm for teaching them at length or in detail. Tillich was a different matter. When I expounded Tillich, I told students that I agreed with 95% of what I expounded in exposition of his thought. “Agreed” is an inadequate term for expressing appreciation for what I learned from Tillich every time I taught his theology. Nevertheless, the 5% of disagreement is also important.

In my broad view of the theological scene, one branch is philosophical. Within it today there are two main options: the Thomistic and the process. In the Thomistic family, esse ipsum, or Being Itself, is Ultimate Reality, and Ultimate Reality is God. Much of modern philosophy obscured the distinction between Being Itself and the finite beings like ourselves who populate the universe. It often implied the “Being Itself” could only be an abstraction, and an abstraction can certainly not be Ultimate Reality..

Through the centuries Thomists kept the distinction alive, but in secular philosophical circles their work was viewed as theological dogmatism. Since the great majority of Thomists thought in the service of the Roman Catholic Church, there was some truth to this. Heidegger reintroduced the idea of Being Itself in a fresh way into twentieth-century philosophy, although the analytic philosophers who dominate the departments of English-language universities can still make nothing of it.

Heidegger, however, created an acute problem for the theological use of this profound philosophic insight. He pointed out that Being Itself is not a being. Since he assumed that God is understood as being, specifically the Supreme Being, he insisted that Being Itself, despite its long identification with God, is not God. For Heidegger, if God exists, God is a being.

Tillich fully appropriated Heidegger’s understanding of Being Itself. He agreed that Being Itself cannot be a being, even the Supreme Being. Nevertheless, he named it God. He knew that Being Itself is not the God of the Bible. He taught that it is the God beyond the God of the Bible. It is God as Ultimate Reality, understood as Being Itself, to which Tillichian faith is directed. Tillich was convinced that Christian theology should be re-thought in relation to the now better-understood truth about Ultimate Reality.

When Christians identify Being Itself with God, as is the case in the whole Thomist tradition, there is a strong tendency to attribute personal characteristics to Being Itself. There is some of this in Tillich’s writings. But he is clearer than most Thomists that these attributions should not be taken straightforwardly.

Whitehead developed his philosophy quite independently of the Thomist tradition. We find nothing about Being Itself and beings. However, quite remarkably, he formulated a similar distinction between creativity and the creatures. Just as for Tillich each being is an instantiation of Being Itself, for Whitehead, each creature is an instantiation of creativity.

The difference here is itself metaphysical. Thomism operated in the context of what we call “substance” metaphysics. The beings are substances, that is, entities that endure through time and underlie their diverse and sometimes changing attributes. Whitehead proffered a “process metaphysics” in which the creatures or “actual entities” are momentary events largely constituted by their relations to other events.

This difference, however, is less rigid than it seems. Thomism is a large family and has developed in many directions. Some Thomists work to overcome the static connotations of being. Tillich is among those who affirm the dynamism of Being Itself. Much of what he says in traditional Thomist language can be transposed into Whiteheadian language with little distortion.

Whitehead calls creativity ultimate, and there are theologians influenced by Whitehead who view creativity as God. Between them and Tillich, differences in the understanding of the relation of individual entities to God are quite minor in the larger context of Christian thought. However, Whitehead’s own view is like that of Heidegger. For Whitehead, “God” must be an actual entity
One distinction between the biblical God and Being Itself is that the former is understood to be righteous or just. Being Itself as the God beyond the biblical God is beyond such distinctions. Whitehead thought that the word “God” should be reserved for that which is relevant to questions of better and worse, right and wrong.

In Whitehead’s judgment, creativity in itself requires for its functioning a sphere of potentialities ordered so as to lure the world toward the realization of greater value. He thought that these potentialities could have causal efficacy in the world only if they were embodied in an actual entity. It is this actual entity he called God. Finally he speculated that just as all other actual entities are largely constituted by the influence of others, so also the divine actual entity absorbs into itself what takes place in the world. Thus in Whitehead, there are both creativity and an everlasting actual entity that plays in the world roles that are continuous with those of the God of the Bible. Whiteheadian theologians take much in the Bible more straightforwardly than is possible for Tillich and those who follow him.

I will illustrate the difference on the topic of love. Tillich has taught us much about the various meanings of love among human beings and how they are related. We Whiteheadians can only be grateful. He also points out that all these forms of love are rooted and grounded in God. In this sense, we can say that God is love.

Obviously, this does not exhaust the biblical meaning of affirming God’s love of creatures. The straightforward meaning is that God acts specifically for the good of creatures and that what happens to creatures makes a difference to God. A Tillichian may say that God gives the creatures their being, but cannot say in any straightforward way that what happens to the creatures makes a difference to God. A Whiteheadian believes that not only do we owe our existence to God but we also receive a call to actualize ourselves in that way that realizes most value in ourselves and in others. A Whiteheadian also believes that everything about our experience makes an everlasting difference in the divine experience. Thus we attribute to God, quite straightforwardly, both agape and compassion.

This does not mean that Whiteheadians are biblicists. We do not accept every idea put forward in the Bible. We think a good deal of demythologizing is needed. But the God we worship is the God of the Bible.

Part of what draws me so fully to Whitehead is that he offers a rich and complex vision within which much that others have thought and said can be extensively appropriated. He opens the door to much that the modern world has ignored or excluded. The price is that there is more in his system that strains the credulity of those who have been deeply shaped by modernity. Those who would be careful not to be led into doubtful beliefs often draw back. Christians who belong to this group want to build their lives on secure foundations. If they are attracted to Whitehead they may come to see reality in a way that makes them confident of the ultimacy of creativity and our dependence upon it. But they may find the argument for the primordial nature of God obscure and unconvincing. Even more they may think that the reasons for affirming the consequent nature of God are insufficient to give an assured foundation for faith.

As a Whiteheadian theologian who makes use of the whole range of Whitehead’s theories, I am grateful for his support in affirming much that the Bible had led me to think, especially that the differences between better and worse are grounded in the nature of reality and that I am fully known and loved. But I have great appreciation for those who have found in Being Itself or creativity a basis for overcoming the nihilism that arises so easily in modernity and orienting themselves to that which is ultimate. That, too, is fully supported by Whitehead.

There is in our old line denominations today a kind of “liberalism” that defines itself by its rejection of what it opposes. There is certainly much to oppose. But we cannot live by negation alone. Both Tillich and process theologians are providing a positive message, grounded in solid thought, and with much continuity with our Christian heritage. There are differences between us, and these should be intensively discussed rather than papered over. But let us understand ourselves as allies in the struggle for a credible faith savingly relevant to our time.