I was all set to begin today with the statement, “Paul Tillich is not a great prose stylist,” and then go on to talk about what exactly it is that makes his English prose so lucid, so convincing, so compelling. Perhaps I will in brief. The short of it – the root of it – is that Tillich learns English according to what he already knows, namely Latin and Greek, and so is wary of the meanings of words that we as native speakers take for granted. There is a simplicity in sentence structure that almost can feel juvenile for certain whole books, as in Dynamics of Faith. It seems incongruous, at times, but wonderfully so. As many of his essays are adapted lectures, there is an orality to way the sentences unfold. Orality is about rate, as the ear is slower than the eye. He taught, and has that teacher’s ability to sense what is known and isn’t known, stop where he is, and break a concept down. There is a calmness and measuredness. Although certain practices irk him, he is never polemical, which is rare when one is writing about religion.
The plan was then to examine Tillich’s response to Einstein’s theological statements in 1959, which is a nice introduction to his viewpoint. Specifically, it a fine example of how the pond of Tillich’s onto-theological system receives the boulder of Athiesm without a ripple of disturbance…He likewise receives Freud, Nietszche, and has enlivening and enriching things to say at various points about their brilliant contributions to human thought. I should do this, at a certain point, as it might lead to good discussion of contemporary Athiesm. Anyhow, as I sat there thinking, outlining a course, my mind ran ahead….
To talk about Tillich is soon enough to talk about Ontology and the Ontological approach to the question of God. Paul Tillich is, perhaps first and foremost, an Ontologist. What exactly is Ontology? It’s definable as the branch of metaphysics that deals specifically with questions of Being. The roots are the Greek on, which means “being,” and the word logos, which means “word.” The logos, as Tillich traces it through history, is shown to refer not only to a word but what the word signifies. He also describes the logos as “the creative structure of the world.” All this is complicated. Ontology, at its basis, is simple. It can be called the beginning and basis of philosophy. It is the philosophical practice that someone with no philosophical training has the best chance of happening into while lying in his bathtub. It is an investigation of the fact that there is not Nothing, and wondering, just as Parmenides once did, why this Nothing is not. It is to simultaneously to wonder why Being is, and what Being is.
Of course that is only one way of describing it, and I am not one to say that I am fit to be offering any description at all. As I sat down several hours ago, out of curiosity, I flipped open the Wikipedia breakdown of the history of the ontological argument for the existence of God, which traces the major points made by the major players from Avicenna, to Anselm, to Descartes, to Leibniz, to Kant, to Bertrand Russell, et al. At the present moment, though not quite so devastatingly as an hour and a half ago, I feel profoundly humbled. Embarrassed, almost. The arguments that brilliant thinkers all through history have lain their minds, like tiny jellyfish, at the altars of….Whatever arrogance creeps up in you that you might actually get a good pile of understanding on any given subject, goes up in smoke in about one second when the enormity of your unknown is encountered….
I can remember wandering the 7th floor stacks one summer afternoon at the NYU library; I was 24, only a few months removed from the completion of an MFA; out of the blue, I found myself completely overwhelmed by the awareness that even if I lived to be 110, even if I blew no hours twiddling thumbs, unambitiously thumbing guitars, doing things for others, or watching sporting events, even if I ate only sandwiches and meal-replacement bars (foods that can be consumed while actively engaging a book) I wouldn’t have a chance against those stacks….Of course this sort of knowledge is available to you at any time you wish. You can always know that you will never set foot in every nation of the world. You always know that you can never memorize every word in your entire library, or read every book in any good library. You can be sure of it as you are sure you didn’t start the sun a-burning with a well-fired arrow. Yet when such awareness comes as, when it breaks in of its own accord, it is, well, let us just say it is different. Ultimately, I think we would all agree that it is a good thing….
In any event, to return to this Wikipedia breakdown: what is the ontological argument for the existence of God? You’d perhaps be better served typing the subject heading and reading for yourself. Or maybe you wouldn’t, as it doesn’t really lay the argument out, or describe how it feels, or describe what causes it to feel the way it does….Bertrand Russell, in the two-paragraph booth Wikipedia gives , speaks of the ontological argument as fallacious-seeming to a modern mind. Yet he speaks also of the difficulty of finding exactly where the fallacy lies. One might compare the Ontological argument then to a patient who is greenish and queasy, but resists an exact diagnosis. “I see a man that clearly is sick,” speaks herr doctor, “but I know not with what.” Wikipedia points out that he quote from Russell, “Great God in his boots! The ontological proof is sound!” was uttered early in his philosophical career. There is something about those exclamation points that is characteristic of the ontological realization. There is a tremendous bang that it gives off in the mind; what sadness then, when, as the mind moves, this magnificent and multi-colored firework, this beautiful boom, is re-imagined as a paper sack “filled with air and given a good smack.” We want that feeling of truth to be exploding in us each moment, and if we feel that it doesn’t, we feel we aren’t in the truth.
So, again, what is the ontological argument for the existence of God? If we are Paul Tillich, we must first sigh a great continental European sigh, because we know “the existence of God” is not a possible verbal construction, and the ontological argument is not an argument….Nevertheless, in the ontological “argument,” it is conventional to say that the existence of God precedes knowledge. This is what Wikipedia means. To say that it precedes knowledge means that it precedes the cleavage of “Oneness” into subject and object. For there to be knowledge, there has to be something to know and someone to know it. God pre-cedes knowledge and super-cedes knowledge, because in God alone subject and object are one. There is no knower and no known, only that one substance which cannot even be said to be both knower and known equally. Those distinctions into subject and object do not yet exist. Likewise, in the ontological conception of God (which is, once again, utterly and absolutely paradoxical, as God cannot be conceived) essence and existence are one.
What does it mean, the statement that in God alone essence and existence are one? What is essence, first of all? Essence, answers the question as to what a thing is. What is it, this piece of the universe I am beholding? It’s an apple core; a desk; a wheel. Whatever it is that makes it what it is that thing’s essence. To ask then, “What is something essentially?” seems like a redundancy, but of course it is necessary when one is talking about a complex entity. A corporation like McDonalds, that says it is essentially a real-estate holding company, and not a conglomerate of red-and-yellow buildings that serves chip greasy thin burgers, separates its “whatness” into surface and depth. On the surface, what it is is a chain of burger joints. On a deeper level, what it is a real estate holding company. Essence, you could say then, is the answer to the question as to what a thing is in the “deepest” sense possible.
“Existence” answers the question that a thing is. If you walk around your living room, and keep walking, and say to yourself, “A chair would look nice over here,” the chair that you speak of, the object of your want, has essence but not existence. The chair that you are sitting in, if you’re sitting in a chair, has both essence and existence. What is it, that four legged or swiveling structure currently supporting your weight? It is a chair. Does it exist? Yes, one would be inclined to say. Despite our awareness that quarks and string theories are dancing through each pebble and leaf of the particulate world as we sit, and that on a sub-atomic level nothing actually ever touches anything else, we must park our idea of a ground somewhere. Rather, this idea parks itself somewhere. The chair you sit in possesses existence; otherwise you would collapse to the floor. (See: Stephen Daedalus kicking the stone along Sandymount Strand (in homage to Samuel Johnson), in Book I of Joyce’s Ulysses.)
To return: “In God alone essence and existence are one.” What does this mean? A different, and better way to state it would be that God is a word for that state in which essence and existence are one. If we say they are one, essence and existence, we mean that they are the same. Essence is existence. This is different from metaphor, at least metaphor in practice. It’s a stronger is than the is in metaphor, or implied in most statements of metaphor. Take some metaphorical lines of poetry like Robert Bly’s, “The bear between my legs / has one eye only / which it offers to God to see with.” This contains, by implication, the statement, “my penis is a one-eyed bear.” This is not a genuine statement of shared identity. It is not a statement of truth, and we all know this. It’s a statement of poetry. The lines are an expression of boldness. In the context of the poem – a fine symbolist love poem – love has excited the poet to a great boldness of speech. That we are necessary to existence is perhaps the boldest thing that can be said.
Again, though, God’s essence is existence. Not God’s existence, but existence itself. What God is is that Being is. You are ended up in Meister Eckart’s notion of God as Being itself. This is a simplification, but it is what provides the ontological bang. There is no leap of faith involved, because one has not arrived at the conclusion that some gigantic whim-ridden Father with two metric tons of white facial hair MUST and NECESSARILY exist, and that He has breathed existence into everything out of His puffed-up, Dizzy Gillespie cheeks. No such absurdity. One looks out the window, and, by encountering Being, which is in the tree bark and the grass blades and air and the puddles, in all things that are, feels suddenly and without embarrassment or guilt or foolishness or superstition that he can use this word: God. That’s what you might call the ontological bang. To quote Goethe: “So, waiting, I have won from you the end: God’s presence in each element.”
Of course all this can be philosophically disassembled, but I do not have the faculties or time to do it as of this moment. It is also theologically incomplete; I need to eat; I need to get myself out the door; tomorrow, or later on tonight, I’ll talk about Tillich and Einstein. This will give me an opportunity to speak in praise of Athiesm, at some point here, while offering some critiques. I’m going to see Seamus Heaney read tonight, and am quite excited. Be well till then! This is Matthew Yeager, signing off….