Foreign language requirements are nothing new in higher education. The last language course I took was New Testament Greek at the undergraduate level. I actually enjoyed it. Of course, it’s a dead language that’s read, not spoken, and it has a fixed lexicon. Even if one includes intertestamental texts written in Greek and the Septuagint, there’s only so many words, constructions, etc. that one has to learn before a basic level of mastery is reached for ministerial exegesis. There’s the added nerdy bonus of being capable of a novice-level interaction with patristic documents written in Greek.
If you scan the requirements of PhD theology programs, a knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is assumed. They’re typically required components of most masters-level theology and divinity programs. What PhD programs add on is a working knowledge of German.
“Ugh!” is typically my response to this when I think forward to continuing into doctoral study. But then I read What is Religion? by Paul Tillich and realized that learning German would probably be easier than what I just went through trying to restate some bizarre construction used by his translators. And that’s after reading the paragraph five times, each time saying to myself, “I don’t know what this means.”
Sure, it’s English, but . . .
That being as it is, I really enjoyed this book. I searched out some books a couple of years ago to familiarize myself with Tillich. But this was one of those types of books that gets me hooked on a writer. Tillich is known for his novel reinterpretation and use of traditional Christian vocabulary. And in this book, that novel reinterpretation came through with some gems. I won’t go into all the details. But since my current educational pursuits are focused on Christian apologetics, I’ll focus on one particular passage from What is Religion? that I’m calling Tillich’s existentialist presuppositional apologetic.
The question concerning the truth of religion is answered by the metalogical apprehension of the nature of religion as directedness toward the unconditional meaning. It is meaningless to ask beyond that whether the Unconditional “exists,” hence whether the religious act is oriented to something real and in that respect is true or not. For the question whether the Unconditional exists presupposes already the unconditioned meaningfulness inherent in every act of knowing; it presupposes that which exists unconditionally. The certainty of the Unconditional is the grounding certainty from which all doubt can proceed, but it can never itself be the object of doubt. Therefore, the object of religion is not only real, but is also the presupposition of every affirmation of reality. But it is not real in the sense of some particular affirmation. (Tillich, “What is Religion?” 71)
Tillich is known for defining God as “Being Itself” or “The Ground of Being.” To fulfill this ontological role, God must himself be unconditioned. That is that the existence of everything is conditioned upon the existence of God. Otherwise, there would be an infinite regress of conditions. Thus, because we know that being exists (e.g., Descartes) and because we know inherently that our being is conditional (that is, we do not exist simply in and of ourselves) our being must ultimately rest on something unconditioned. The Unconditional is Tillich’s term for God in this respect.
This is, of course, recognizable as a recapitulation of the Cosmological Argument. But Tillich goes one step further by drawing in existential concerns. It’s not enough that I know that I have being. I need to also know that I have meaning. If my meaning is tied to the meaning supplied by other conditioned beings, then I really have no meaning in the end, because my conditional meaning will rest on the conditional meaning of others. And the endless regress leads to the ultimate conclusion that my being has no meaning because whatever meaning I derive is conditional rather than authentic — that is the core problem of Existentialism.
In order for us to know that we have being and that our being is meaningful, then our being and our meaning must ultimately rest on something with Unconditional being and Unconditional meaning. That is, of course, God. Going further, the claim to actually know anything presupposes that something exists the existence of which is not conditioned upon anything. And that is where the presuppositional aspect comes into play.
Presuppostional apologetics asserts that the knowledge that God exists is already within each human being regardless of external evidence. This assertion is based on a number of theological and philosophical foundations I will leave for the reader to research on their own. Suffice it to say that I see Tillich, here, engaging in a form of presuppostional apologetics by asserting that claiming to know anything, but particularly anything about being and meaning, must presuppose a knowledge of something that has being and meaning that is not conditioned upon the being and meaning of something else.
I could unpack this for days, and I probably will. But this is a blog post, after all.
And maybe I’ve got this all wrong. Maybe some scholar of Tillich will come along and tell me that I should invest in Rosetta Stone with my next paycheck. But for now, I’ll leave the German lessons for later. Even if I’m wrong about what Tillich is saying here, I’m totally digging the idea of an existentialist apologetic.