Tillich: Against idolization of prelimary concerns as ultimate

Ultimate concern is the abstract translation of the great commandment:  “The Lord, our God, the Lord is one; … (etc., Mk 12:29).

“The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary….  Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy.  Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance (the best example is the contemporary idolatry of religious nationalism).  The conflict between the finite basis of such a concern and its infinite claim leads to a conflict of ultimates; it radically contradicts the biblical commandments….

“Theology cannot and should not give judgments about the aesthetic value of an artistic creation, about the scientific value of a physical theory or a historical conjecture, about the best methods of medical healing or social reconstruction, about the solution of political or international conflicts.  The theologian as theologian is no expert in any matters of preliminary concern.  And, conversely, those who are experts in these matters should not as such claim to be experts in theology.”  (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. I, p.11-13)

I have noticed that Christians are prone to this idolatry described by Tillich when they attempt to discern the relation of their own political and social roles to the text of the great commandment, “… and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  But I see enough value in Tillich’s theological criterion to attempt its use under the conditions he imposes.  Certainly there must be a possible inward response to the biblical command which does not translate these ancient words as a call for an outward theocracy. 

“Physical or historical or psychological insights can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their cognitive form, but from the point of view of their power of revealing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately in and through their cognitive form.  Social ideas and actions, legal projects and procedures, political programs and decisions, can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their social, legal and political form, but from the point of view of their power of actualizing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately in and through their social, legal, and political forms.” (p.13-14)

Rhetoric, or possibility?  The subtlety of the distinction Tillich draws here is in need of fleshing out (which he does in the rest of his Introduction).  But I have known a few Evangelicals and Catholics for whom it is too much trouble – who interpret the great commandment in a manner Tillich would call idolatrous.  As if nothing in the whole world could be called “subtle” except the so-called devil, and all his works.

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One thought on “Tillich: Against idolization of prelimary concerns as ultimate

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