Tillich and Otto
1. The second commandment in the Protestant ordering prohibits idols. What are those?
- Sign and symbol both point beyond themselves--but the symbol participates in that which it points to. Think of the difference between a blueprint and a wallet photo of a loved one.
- Symbols are found in all religions. Symbols can be in all media. Think of participation in singing a hymn versus just reading out loud a treatise about God. The singing of a hymn is a symbol of life in God, not just a sign.
- The pointing and the participation come together in a symbol. Think of Eastern Orthodox icons. The icon of the Trinity is full of meaning. Blue stands for divinity. Each of the persons has that. But the Holy Spirit also has green--for new life--and a hand pointing down. The Father has shimmering robes of glory. The Son in addition to the blue of the divinity has brown for earthly humanity, and holds out two fingers, for his two natures, human and divine. The icon is at the same time a treatise of theology (the Orthodox do not talk of "painting" icons but of "writing" them), as something that symbolizes God in a detailed way, and yet it participates in that holiness. One would not light a candle in front of a book about the Trinity, but the Orthodox will light a candle before the icon.
- Everything in existence can be a symbol of God, because God is the ground of being.
- According to Tillich, a symbol becomes an idol if it is no longer seen as pointing beyond itself, if it is seen as the holy itself, and not as something that points to the holy.
- Symbols have their meaning only in a certain context. To think that they have unconditional meaning, meaning beyond their context, is to treat them as idols.
In particular, doctrines like the virginal conception of Jesus are symbols, and when they are in a culture that does not get much out of them, they become idols. Tillich seems to be thinking that if something is treated as having "ultimate validity", a validity transcending culture, then it is being treated as God.
- Is this right? Mathematics seems to have a validity transcending culture, but when we say this, we are not treating mathematics as God. As a historical matter of fact, either Mary was a virgin or was not a virgin when Jesus was conceived. Whether she was or was not, the fact is objective, physical and transcends culture. But this does not mean that the fact is being worshiped. (By the way, Tillich's argument that Christ was not fully human if he did not have a human father is simply fallacious. Presumably, there was a first human being at some point in history, and that first human being by definition also did not have a human father, but was no less human for that.)
- Tillich opposes the literal and the symbolic. But perhaps there is a fourth category besides sign, symbol and idol, a category for something that both is literal and symbolic, and where the two are intertwined. Consider something like the crossing of the Red Sea. One can say that on the one hand it was a literal and physical event. On the other hand, this physical event symbolized many things--God's liberating love, salvation, baptism. It was precisely because the event was a literal liberation from the Egyptians that it is capable of symbolizing these things. Some Christians (e.g., Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Lutherans) believe that in the communion service, Christ comes to be both actually present and to be symbolized (the physical eating symbolizes his spiritually feeding us).
2. The next command commands us to keep holy the divine name. Traditionally, this is understood as a prohibition against false oaths that invoke the divine name.
- I had you read Otto on what "holy" means. It does not just mean "morally good" or anything that can be put into words. It has a meaning that goes beyond that. It signifies the morally good plus the "numinous". What is the numinous? The best way is to describe it is as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans--the mystery that provokes fear/awe and yet that attracts. It pushes and pulls. We understand this non-rational addition through feeling in certain indescribable ways.
- Question: Do we owe respect to what people from other religions treat as holy? Are all these things symbols of God? Or only some?