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Tillich’s Challenge: The Search for New Vocabulary

Part One

 
Confusion about words can divide rather than unite, and so I wonder: is there a language that both secular humanists and Christians can agree on? When I say humanist, I mean people who are doing good in the world. I do not mean selfish, greedy, or hateful people. And when I say Christian, I mean people who get their guidance from Jesus about how to be whole within themselves and to be loving to others. I do not mean a church that hates gays, that tries to impose its belief system on society, that proclaims that hurricanes are god’s punishment for …well, you get the picture. I am limiting myself to humanists and Christians because they are two groups that I think I understand, and I do not want to presume to speak for other religious thinking.

Paul Tillich was a brilliant man who tried to bridge the gap between theology and philosophy, between secular thinking and religious thinking. God, for example, was conceived as our ultimate concern. And faith was having the courage to be in the face of the threat of non-being. Although the language will be different, Tillich’s program needs to be re-kindled, because we need to speak with each other now more than ever, and the more we learn the more aware we become that Christians and humanists, at the core, are speaking the same language.

Quite possibly, no word creates more division between people than the word “god”. Modern technological advances have devised ear bud gadgets that can help in cross cultural situations by instantly translating one language to another while engaged in conversation. Sounds like a definite gadget to get for the world traveler, but I wonder how such devices would serve certain people when they need to translate the word “god”.

The difficulty arises not only in transcultural situations, but intra-cultural as well. Your definition and understanding of “god” could be quite different from mine, and probably is. The greatest division between people with respect to god, however, is between those who have a belief in a god and those who don’t.

So here’s the situation: the word means different things to different cultures and religions, has different connotations for various persons, and is denied as specious and vacuous by a good percentage of the human population.

I have a suggestion: let’s strike the word “god” from our vocabulary and substitute the word “love” instead. Granted, we need to work on defining this word, but at least it’s something we can all accept as a basis for discussion.

Christian biblicists will protest, but there is a great deal of material in the Bible itself that points in this direction. A person or group that we refer to as “John”, writing in the second century CE, says quite simply: “God is love. Whoever abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

In the 13th chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul extols the virtue of love, and ends with the famous quote: “Faith, hope and love abide. These three. But the greatest of these is love.”

The gospel of Luke relates the story of a teacher who challenged Jesus with a question: what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus responds: You know the law, love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself. The young man asks: and who is my neighbor? Then follows the story of the good Samaritan, probably the most famous of the parables of Jesus. The Samaritan, enemy of the Jews, was the one who proved neighbor to the one who had been robbed and beaten, going so far as to pay for his rehabilitation, all without thought of reward. Question: what must I do to be made whole, to inherit eternal life? Answer: love your neighbor.

Both as a description of god and as a fulfilling way of life, the word is love. That sounds good, but it’s not so simple. The Greeks identified at least seven types of love, and three, in particular, are in common English usage: agape, philia, and eros. Starting with the last, I suppose we all know what erotic love is. And philia- brotherly/sisterly love, is also well known. The third, perhaps less familiar, is the word used in John: God is agape, and a life of agape is how life becomes fulfilling. It is given without thought for reward, “pure”, if you will.

The origin of the word “agape” is subject to debate. It was used by Plato, but not much. The early church made it much more common, some believe, because it sounded like the Hebrew word for love. In any case, agape means unconditional love and is applied both to God and to a life inspired by God. Take out the word god, and you have unconditional love. So let’s work with that. My guess is that everyone can at least understand the meaning of unconditional love.

Or can we? John Bennett was president of Union Seminary while I was there and he championed an ethic based on what was referred to as middle axioms. Love was considered a bit abstract and so needed some concepts to bring it down to reality, concepts like justice, freedom, and equality. Following this line of analysis, saying that god is love could be interpreted as meaning that god is justice, for example. On this basis, it’s understandable why many progressive churches today have programs that focus on social justice. Be that as it may, the next question is: what is justice? and I suppose that the first phrase in answering that question is: well, it depends…

The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a book on ethics in which he sought to define the highest goal for which one should strive. One was the good: a person should seek the highest good. Another was the right: one should seek to do that which is right. In attempting the good or the right, one must inevitably decide, whatever the issue is, in terms of another criterion: the fitting. Abstract definitions of what is good or what is right remain divorced from reality unless we can understand what is fitting in a given situation. And how do we determine what is fitting? Do I decide on my own? Is it a communal decision? Does it depend on my culture? Is it as simple as: do unto others…?

I think it is. And there are lots of examples of persons who give of themselves without thought of payback. Think of Gandhi, Mandela, King. Think of family members who devote their life to one another, of community members who do the same. Think of Jesus, whose heart went out to his impoverished countrymen, only to be executed by the very empire he sought to change. Think of the unheralded daily acts of people caring for one another. The recent hurricanes and CA wildfires have been the occasions for strangers to step forward and lend a helping hand to people they don’t even know. Yes, it all counts, all selfless love, and it depends on what is fitting in the circumstance.

Does this mean, then, that we are left without any universal standard, lost in a vacuum of absolute relativism, where whatever I think is acceptable, just because I think it? And you think your way, and so on, down the line? and we are all trying to be loving.

Finding that place between total relativism and universalism is not easy, and perhaps not possible. I have always been a contextualist when it comes to ethics: you don’t know what fits until you’re in the situation. At the same time, I am absolutely certain that what Hitler did was wrong. How can I hold these two together? I don’t know.

Facing this dialectic, I come back to the story Jesus told of the Good Samaritan, who stopped to help a stranger of another culture who had been beaten and robbed. He had no thought of compensation of any type. He bound up the man’s wounds and brought him to an inn, telling the keeper to care for the man and he would pay the bill, regardless of cost. Agape love at its finest. There can be no doubt that the Samaritan did the right thing, the good thing, the fitting thing, the loving thing.

We started by asking if we could replace the word god with the word love. We have seen that both words are not easily defined or understood. And yet, given the importance of finding common ground, I think that at least for the time being, we should give it a try and replace the word god with the word love in the context of humanist/Christian dialogue. Christians can talk about god all they want when talking among themselves, just as humanists can deny god all they want when talking among themselves. But when talking to each other, using the word love, as exemplified by the Samaritan, would be a helpful way to begin the dialogue. If we can agree on love, then will follow the awareness that indeed we have much more in common.

Read Part Two Here
Read Part Three Here

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