The Diversity of What Wo/man Should Be

I might as well warn you now: I am reading a lot of theology for this term, and will probably be posting on theological topics at length.  One of my classes is strictly focusing on Paul Tillich, while another is on feminist theology and theory, reading folks like Mary Daly and Simone de Beauvoir.  I will post my book list soon for the latter class just to show off how awesome it is.

But today’s p0st is on Tillich.  I just finished the introduction to Systematic Theology.  I have many questions and quibbles and concerns, as well as many points of agreement, but I won’t focus on one of them now.  But I did want to raise one foreseeable problem I have with the direction Tillich seems to be taking, and I thought I would post it here as an experiment in tracking the development of my response to a specific problem over time.  More after the jump.

On page 17, Tillich elaborates part of his understanding of the doctrine of Logos in Christian Theology in a footnote (footnote 5):

The Logos doctrine is misunderstood if the tension between universal and concrete is interpreted as a tension between abstract and particular.  Abstraction negates parts of that from which it abstracts.  Universality includes every part because it includes concreteness.  Particularity excludes every other particular from every other one.  Concreteness represents every other concrete because it includes universality.  Christian theology moves between the poles of the universal and the concrete and not between those of the abstract and the particular.

The Logos doctrine is, succinctly, that the “Word(Greek Logos) was in the beginning with God, and the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in the form of Jesus Christ.  It caused something of a scandal in the world of late antiquity too, “the scandal of particularity,” because of significant concerns with any doctrine that held that the divine essence of the supreme transcendent force in the universe could deign to sully itself in the relatively unimportant realm of flesh and blood and materials and matter.  So Tillich, in a sense, is making an argument that the concreteness of the Christ is a component of universality, and that universality does not necessarily abstract itself in a fashion that falsifies or negates its constituent parts.

I see his point.  Often, to make a valuable abstraction from a set of diverse particularities, one must ignore important components of each in order to essentialize some notion one finds fruitful or meaningful.  Tillich, by contrast, seems intent on finding a way to raise these universal questions without doing violence to the full realities contained in individual, concrete parts — and uses the Logos doctrine, in its fullest sense, as a model of this goal.

But given this problem identified in the use of “abstraction” terminology, I find a later development puzzling, and a question for my further reflection this quarter.  On pages 66-67, Tillich describes his project of constructing a systematic theology, and while relating his sections on “Being and God” and “Existence and Christ,” he makes clear his intention that the realities of life must impact the notions of any credible systematic theology.

In so far as [wo/]man’s existence has the character of self-contradiction or estrangement, a double consideration is demanded, one side dealing with [wo/]man as [s/]he essentially is (or ought to be) and the other dealing with what [s/]he is in his[/er] self-estranged existence (and should not be). […] [T]he essential as well as the existential characteristics are abstractions and…in reality they appear in the complex and dynamic unity which is called “life.”  The power of essential being is ambiguously present in all existential distortions.

A few problems immediately are posed for me.  First, Tillich, quite admirably, seems intent on pluralizing the existential notions — the “distortions.”  I think such a pluralizing method is quite appropriate, considering the staggering degree of diversity one is confronted with when encountering real people and their lived experiences across the spectrum — class, gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, age, etc.

But Tillich calls both his essential and existential notions “abstractions.”  That is, he is tacitly admitting that any attempt to formulate these in a condensed way does violence to the particulars of their individual expressions.  The fact that he acknowledges particulars with regard to existential questions is valid.  But he seems less inclined to acknowledge that his other formulation, of humans as they ought to be, is equally abstract: it, too, elides distinctions in individuals.

I suspect that Tillich’s plan is to formulate a single, essentialized notion of what “[wo/]man’s” essential state out to be: I think this is an error.  As Tillich suggests, to think of this “essential [wo/]man” is, however, to distort something in the diversity of possible expressions of humanity as it should be.  I am interested in examining the possible diversities of what we should be.  If Tillich is not equally interested in this formulation, I will be sure to write more on it.

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2 comments on “The Diversity of What Wo/man Should Be

  1. Neil says:

    Interesting and important questions you raise, Madison. I’m also curious to see how all this plays out. My suspicion is that Tillich is quite aware of these issues. I don’t know how he will answer them exactly, but I wonder if his notion of “New Being in Jesus as the Christ” contains the seed of a response. Professor Hector was talking at the end of class about novelty and creativity, and I think this is important for Tillich as well. The “new” way of being is also a way of the new, of openness to possibility. This would allow for the diversity of possible expressions of humanity you would like to see.

  2. Brett says:

    Isn’t this part of the problem of focusing on the “concreteness” of the incarnation, instead of its “particularity”? That is, by insisting on concreteness in order to be more inclusive of diversity, Tillich is actually setting himself up to formulate a conception of the human being that is not open to particularity?

    “The scandal of particularity” ought to force us to accept that God become a particular sort of individual. By accepting this, we have to be open to God being made manifest in each individual, through their particularity (unless, of course, we should all undergo radical reconstructive surgery, genetic manipulation, etc. to become a male Palestinian Jew). By safeguarding against the exclusivity of Christ’s particularity, Tillich may be setting himself up for an abstraction that is blind to individuality.

    Please keep us updated on what Tillich says! I, of course, have not been assigned him to read 😉

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