Sunday, January 14, 2007

Paul Tillich - The Dynamics of Faith - Symbols of Faith: Symbols and Myths

"The resistance against demythologization expresses itself in literalism. The symbols and myths are understood in their immediate meaning. The material, taken from nature and history, is used in its proper sense. The character of the symbol to point beyond itself to something else is disregarded. Creation is taken as a magic act which happened once upon a time. The fall of Adam is localized on a special geographical point and attributed to a human individual. The virgin birth of the Messiah is understood in biological terms, resurrection and ascension as physical events, the second coming of Christ as a telluric, or cosmic, catastrophe. The presupposition of such literalism is that God is a being, acting in time and space, dwelling in a special place, affecting the course of events and being affected by them like any other being in the universe. Literalism deprives God of his ultimacy and, religiously speaking, of his majesty. It draws him down to the level of that which is not ultimate, the finite and conditional."

It's quite a conundrum, what Tillich says here about literalism depriving God of majesty and ultimacy. On one hand we have Tillich's idea that t
he character of the symbol must point beyond itself to something else, but on the other hand symbols ground us in the present--they relate the divine to the human. Each of these myths; creation, the fall of Adam, the virgin birth and so on, relate an event of cosmic consequence to the natural and the local. To see the creativity of a creator in a literal seven-day creation, or a big bang - to understand the virgin birth as a virgin birth, the resurrection and ascension as physical fact or to see these as symbols and descriptive devices of divine love of and concern with man-- are all ways of looking at a symbol.

Tillich is writing (here, at least) against the myth that all religions contain -- the myth that is a part of all lives religious or not. I tend to disagree though. Myth is powerful -- Myth is so important to the human mind and I don't think of it as depriving God of majesty or ultimacy. I think what Tillich is doing here is using his personal myth -- which is a much less literal myth than that of say, Karl Barth -- and making it his starting point. His myth may allow to deny the virgin birth, see the scientific relevance of modernity and deny creation, resurrection and ascension -- but that it just his myth? Isn't his wholly symbolic way of looking at religion just the opposite pole of the literalism he speaks against? I would hope for some sort of hybrid way of being symbolically literal.


Blogger Patrik said...

I think first of all it is important to note that Tillich criticizes literalism from a religious point of view, not because of any conflict with a modern vision of the world.

I haven't, shame to admit, read dynamics of faith, but in his system he does not devalue myth in any way, quite the opposite. He is criticizing the tendency to not allow myth to be myth, which he sees as what literalists are doing in reaction to Bultmann's demythologization programme. What he is saying is that religion need myths, but he want to offer an interpretation (or rather, a re-mythologization, Tillich himself at one point calls it a (half-way demythologization) in order to transmit the myths to modern man in a way that is less open to misunderstandings.

I'm not 100% sure about this, but I think a lot of the high regard in our time for myth, which you give voice to in your last paragraph, in theology at least originates from Tillich. (You may have it from literature studies?)

4:01 AM  
Blogger Penelope said...

Of course, Tillich thinks myth should be *interpreted,* not simply removed or rejected. His rejection of literalism is very emphatic, but he interprets the biblical texts symbolically; he doesn't simply disregard them. Check out sermon 15, "The Theologian," in Shaking the Foundations.

1:13 PM  
Blogger Slayyer2003 said...


7:00 PM  
Blogger Richard M. Nixon said...

I agree with "Patrik".

Tillich finds myth and symbol extremely valuable. Indeed, many would argue that it is only through religious language (like myth) that one can access the unverifiable, and most important, truths.

What Tillich is suggesting is that by taking myth literally, it does much to devalue to truth behind it.

Please check out my recent post on Tillich's sermon on "The Theologian".

2:53 PM  

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