Monday, September 26, 2005

Paul Tillich's Inexpressible Unconditioned Absolute

Paul Tillich has offered an innovative critique pertaining to transcendent reality and the human experience of that which rational agents determine to exceed the finite stream of relativities.[1] The German Protestant theologian initially analyzes the word origin of the signifier “absolute” in terms of the cognitive realm (i.e. thinking). He subsequently demonstrates that one may ascertain the historical derivation of “absolute” by contemplating the Latin infinitive absolvere that potentially bears the signification, “to loosen.”[2] From this starting point, Tillich reasons that being-itself is absolute in that no relation can delimit or condition being-itself (=undifferentiated reality). His argument suggests that discourse agents cannot legitimately invoke the absolute as a subject or conceive it as an object: being transcends the stream of conditioned relativities tout court.[3] Since being-itself surpasses the subject-object distinction, it does not seem possible for members of a particular speech community to designate being-itself “an absolute being.” Conversely, the absolute is “being-itself” or undifferentiated reality, not one being alongside other beings.[4] To avoid conditioning that which is wholly other and ipso facto unconditioned, Tillich christens the ultimate Ground of Being, “the God above God” (Der Gott über Gott).[5] By this expression, he indicates that the Unconditioned supersedes the deity of conventional theism. The power of Being (Des Macht des Seins) thus remains incognoscible or ineffable.[6] Not even mysticism can infiltrate Tillich’s self-postulated “cloud of unknowing.” Des Macht des Seins remains wholly other without much relevance for humankind.[7]

[1] Tillich’s corpus includes: My Search for Absolutes (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967); The Courage to Be (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971); Der Mut zum Sein (Furche-Verlag: 1968); Systematic Theology. 3 volumes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

[2] Tillich, My Search for Absolutes, 66.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. 127.

[5] Tillich, The Courage to Be, 186-190.

[6] The Courage to Be, 182-187.

[7] Ibid.

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