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Pete Enns & The Bible for Normal People

paul tillich

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

A God whose existence or nonexistence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. . . . It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they not only have refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word God. Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheist scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.

Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture (1959), pp. 4-5. 

So I am reading along, minding my own business, in Ilia Delio’s The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, p. 59 and came across this quote from Paul Tillich (TILL-lick), a towering figure in 20th-century theology.

A lot of moving parts here, worthy of a right lengthy post. But I am throwing it out there because I resonate strongly with Tillich’s gist. 

A God whose existence or nonexistence you can argue is a thing beside others within the universe of existing things. . . . 

Tillich means that seeing God as “a thing” (= “a being”) that exists is a problem.

Over the years it has rung true to me more and more that speaking of God as a being—though hard to avoid—is not helpful, because it treats God as yet another thing in this universe alongside all the other things, just a much bigger thing. 

Speaking of God as a being is anthropomorphic (thinking of God within the limitations of human language). I do think (as I presume Tillich does, too) that anthropomorphic language is inevitable and also suitable for speaking of God, but God can never be fully aligned with any human speech. 

Rather, as do many others, I prefer at this point to speak of God as Being or to borrow Tillich’s language, the Ground of Being. That does not end the discussion nor prove anything. It is just a way of consciously avoiding the pitfall of objectifying God and in doing so reducing God to our image—which is to say, no God.

It is regrettable that scientists believe that they have refuted religion when they rightly have shown that there is no evidence whatsoever for the assumption that such a being exists. Actually, they not only have refuted religion, but they have done it a considerable service. They have forced it to reconsider and to restate the meaning of the tremendous word God

Scientists are very good at things like evidence, and I’m a big fan, not only because of all the sciencey stuff that fascinates me to no end, but because they have helped clear away the clutter of certain Western modes of thinking, where God is an object, the existence of which is as open to proof or disproof as is whether a dropped object will fall to the Earth. 

If God is Being—the very heartbeat [note anthropomorphic language] of the vibrant cosmos—then God is by definition not a being that can be tested and prodded by our minds. 

As the mystics say, God is mystery and therefore infinitely knowable, and that “knowing” involves much more than (but certainly including) the whole of our rational faculties. It also includes other dimensions of our humanity, such as experience, intuition, community, the biblical story, and whatever other means by which God’s Presence can be known to us. 

Scientists have dethroned the anthropomorphic God as an object of logical certainty and analysis. Segments of the Christian church have always understood God’s transcendence, and perhaps the times has come for a revival.

Unfortunately, many theologians make the same mistake. They begin their message with the assertion that there is a highest being called God, whose authoritative revelations they have received. They are more dangerous for religion than the so-called atheist scientists. They take the first step on the road which inescapably leads to what is called atheism. Theologians who make of God a highest being who has given some people information about Himself, provoke inescapably the resistance of those who are told they must subject themselves to the authority of this information.

Now we’re getting to the Bible. 

This last part may be less convincing, or even a deal-breaker for some, but I see Tillich’s position as a logical conclusion to what comes before. I resonate with this, and it is also a subtext of my last three books, The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works.

The problems Tillich picks up on here are (1) the notion of God as a being paired with (2) the Bible providing functionally exhaustive final information about that God.

The first is very much tied to the second and together they provide the perfect recipe for objectifying God. And when God is objectified, Christians have wound up pitting their objectified God against others—and people get hurt, whether in religious wars or driven from their religious community.

Like I said, there are a lot of moving parts here, and this quote doesn’t capture exactly how I might put things. But what I am picking up from it resonates with me and perhaps with you, too.

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