The philosophical problems of knowing ‘God’


I recently read a paper Tillich once presented called The Two Types of Philosophy of Religion. In it he, surprise surprise, identifies two kinds of philosophical approaches to the idea of knowing God, or more specifically ‘religious truth’.

The first is the ontological way which presupposes a transcendent and permanent unity with the ultimate. He describes it as being a ‘way of overcoming estrangement’ – rediscovering that truth which is already intimately present to us.

The cosmological way is the second. This is much more like meeting a stranger, it encounters truth here and there through the accidental. The truth is not known with certainty but is considered likely.

His premise is that the ontological way is the basis of every religion, and that using the cosmological apart from the ontological leads to a ‘cleavage’ between philosophy and religion.

This is, in his view, the old mythological explanations of the world – the powers – have been made subservient religiously to the God of Israel and philosophically to absolute principles. Thus meaning is either religious or philosophical.

This divide is the “problem of the two absolutes”; ‘the Deus and the Esse (God and ‘Being’) cannot be unconnected!’ They are connected in the statement “God is”. But the character of this connection is the ‘problem of all problems’ – and as long as this connection remains broken the West will increasingly lose its religious consciousness.

Tillich proceeds to look at first the Augustinian idea of how these two might be connected through varying forms of the ontological way. These are characterised by the notion that God is the presupposition of God; that is, that he cannot be attained as the object of a question if he’s not the starting point of the question. This is because knowledge of God is conceived as immediate or as direct; without-mediation. Thus the answer to the question of how “God is” is that “God is”.

This may well seem to be tautological and nonsensical to us, but we in the western tradition think within the legacy of Thomas Aquinas. Tillich explains that for Thomas knowledge of God is mediated, or indirect. This is because of a common theological distinction between the knowledge of God as he is in himself, and the knowledge of God as mediated through his effects. This is similar, indeed, to how we know each other. You do not know me, Samuel, through sharing in my experience of myself but through my words and actions. As such your knowledge of me is mediated. Thomas presents a materialistically inclined rationalism that moves from potentiality to actuality. This results in God becoming another object to study, as we might a stone or a star.

Tillich claims that although attempts have been made to suggest other types or ways of the philosophy of religion he thinks that they can all be understood in these two categories and fail to adequately hold together the idea of God and Being.

In order to try and ‘solve’ the problem, Tillich (re)-defines both the ontological and cosmological elements and places them in relation to and with one another.

He says:

The ontological principle in the philosophy of religion may be stated in the following way: Man is immediately aware of something unconditional which is the prius of the separation and interaction of subject and object, theoretically as well as practically.”

This requires some terminological unpacking.

Awareness is imagined as both immediate and itself unconditional. This is a holistic manner of knowing, not dependant on the will or feeling, nor experience or intuition

The unconditional is a higher ‘something’ than being. It isn’t a thing or an object itself but is the power of being ‘in which every being participates’.

This unconditional is prior to everything that has being. It is prior to the distinction between the subject and the object. This is where we have to acknowledge something of a paradox; the unconditional is not an object to us, but through being aware of its reality it becomes a part of the ‘subject object correlation’. It is this epistemic complex subtlety that gives us our tendency to conflate “God is” with the question of the ‘existence of God’.

He then says:

“History and analysis have shown that the cosmological approach to religion leads to the self-destruction of religion, except as it is based on the ontological approach. If this basis is given, the cosmological principle can be stated in the following way: The Unconditioned of which we have an immediate awareness, without interference, can be recognised in the cultural and natural universe.

With this pair of statements of the cosmological way operating on the basis of the ontological way, Tillich has redefined the truth that was divided by religion and philosophy to be the unconditioned; which is known in concrete embodiment within both theological and scientific language and symbols. The danger of this embodiment of the unconditional is that the embodied witness is mistakenly elevated to the status of the ultimate.

As such, Tillich concludes that the whole task of theology can be summed up in the statement:

Theology is the permanent guardian of the unconditional against the aspiration of its own religious and secular appearances.

With my own background of examining the christology of Thomas Torrance, it strikes me that this argument works well in tandem with Torrance’s own strident rejection of dualism and his love of the ‘scientific theological method’ which centres on critical realism as a means where by the conceptual can be correlated with the material in such a way, in his thinking, as to make the incarnation of Jesus the ‘ontological linchpin of reality’. Using Torrance’s stratification of theological knowledge, I would suggest it is in the unity of the divine and human natures of Jesus that we would find best expresses the relationship which Tillich desires to place the ontological and cosmological ways of knowing God.


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