Curing the Religious Disease, Part 2: The Protestant Principle

Thanks to Tracy (who has guest posted here before) I've started reading some Paul Tillich. Given my existential bent, it should come as no surprise to those who know Tillich that I like what I'm reading.

Relevant to this series, I have been struck by Tillich's notion of embedding criticism into the very fabric of faith. Tillich calls this the Protestant Principle honoring how Protestantism during the Reformation was able to criticize the Roman church. Tillich takes this event of "protest" to be more than just a historical one-off phenomenon, but rather an illustration of a reoccurring mechanism that should be built into the fabric of communal faith. In his Dynamics of Faith, after discussing the role of doubt in personal faith, Tillich turns his attention to communal faith:

The second step in the solution of the problem deals with faith and doubt within the community of faith itself. The question is whether the dynamic concept of faith is incompatible with a community which needs creedal expressions of the concrete elements of it ultimate concern. The answer is that no answer is possible if the character of the creedal excludes all presence of doubt. The concept of the "infallibility" of a decision by a council or a bishop or a book excludes doubt as an element of faith in those who subject themselves to these authorities. They may have to struggle within themselves about their subjection; but after they have made the decision, no doubt can be admitted by them about the infallible statements of the authorities. This faith has become static, a nonquestioning surrender...In this way something preliminary and conditional--the human interpretation of the content of faith from the Biblical writers to the present--receives ultimacy and is elevated above the risk of doubt...

So we stand again before the question: how can a faith which has doubt as an element within itself be united with creedal statements of the community of faith? The answer can only be that creedal statements of the ultimate concern of the community must include their own criticism. It must become obvious in all of them--be they liturgical, doctrinal, or ethical expressions of the faith of the community--that they are not ultimate. Rather, their function is to point to the ultimate which is beyond all of them. This is what I call the "Protestant principle," the critical element in the expression of the community of faith and consequently the element of doubt in the act of faith. Neither the doubt nor the critical element is always actual, but both must always be possible within the circle of faith. From the Christian point of view, one would say that the church with all its doctrines and institutions and authorities stands under the prophetic judgment and not above it. Criticism and doubt show that the community of faith stands "under the Cross," if the Cross is understood as the divine judgment over man's religious life, and even over Christianity though it has accepted the sign of the cross. In this way the dynamic faith which we first described in personal terms is applied to the community of faith. Certainly, the life of a community of faith is a continuous risk, if faith itself is understood as a risk. But this is the character of dynamic faith, and the consequence of the Protestant principle.


Recall from my last post the symptoms of the religious disease:

Disease = Static + Insular + Moral Conviction (an objectively experienced, emotionally laden, moral universal)

Given this "disease" I think Tillich's comments go a fair distance in helping break the fever. Here are some of, in my opinion, Tillich's important insights:

1. Even creedal expressions need to be held tentatively.

2. We should be wary of "infallibility" as it locks in the belief system, shutting down further exploration, questioning, and critique.

3. We must be consistently reminded that the trappings of our religious environment (and this includes the contents of my mind) are provisional human constructions. Gestures toward the Divine but not, in themselves, the Divine.

4. To keep faith fluid and searching entails risk.

5. Most importantly, faith must build in a mechanism of criticism.

I think this idea of embedding mechanisms of criticism within the faith community (and in your own life) is the key insight. I don't see many faith communities building in these mechanisms. Why not? Well, as Tillich notes, faith is inherently risky. And people don't like risk. It's uncomfortable. Thus, we avoid criticism. And as we avoid voices of critique our faith becomes more and more insular. Which means the faith congeals and grows static. And the illness sets in.

So how would you know if a faith community was allowing critique? I'm still thinking about this, but here's my guess:

Do they listen?

Pick a church and ask these questions: Do they listen to the poor? Do they listen to the Democrats? Do they listen to the Republicans? Do they listen to the Iraqis? Do they listen to the culture? Do they listen to the homosexual community? Do they listen to the feminists? Do they listen to the gang leaders? Do they listen to the criminals in prison? And on and on.

Do they listen? Truly listen?

My hunch is that if they listen, honestly listen, then that church will hear plenty of critique, tales of how the church and religion have failed people, overlooked people, damned people, and abused people. And if Tillich is right, to listen is to risk. And my guess is, if the church takes that risk, then God just might find a way to speak to that church.

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7 thoughts on “Curing the Religious Disease, Part 2: The Protestant Principle”

  1. Amen, amen and amen! I totally agree with this 100%. Not too long ago the congregation where I attend wanted to become more "evangelistic" and so they formed a commitee and started to brain storm about how to reach the "unchurched." So they bought books for this commitee called, "The Unchurched" and how they became churched...or something like that. It was a book of interviews of people who use to be unchurced and then became churched and why they decided to go to church. And here my husband and I, unchurched most of our lives, were sitting right next to these people every Sunday and Wednesday! So we asked if we could be a part of this commitee, and of course they let us, but it didn't last, they didn't like our input, to say the least. But somehow they valued the opinions of those from the book??? The point I am making in this comment is that the church doesn't just fail in not listening to the "unchurched" but they fail at listening to the "churched" as well. Sometimes the most critical can be from the inside. I suppose this risk of faith is too much to handle in some ways, that is why its easier to fall in love with the mission and vision of "community" all the while destroying it because of their love of mission instead of loving those around them in which will create what they work so hard for day after day.

    It is very frustrating not to be heard and listened to. It is very frustrating to be told that my perception is invalid and that it is my expectations that are too high... even if that is true, it would be nice to know that we are listened to...that our opinions matter and that our criticism is not neccessarily a "personal" attack, but that sometimes we see things others do not, precisely because we didn't grow up the church. (But doesn't everybody bring something valuable to the table?)

    So needless to say, the commitee is still having meetings after meetings brainstorming on how to reach the "unchurched."

    Just a little note: I do not mean to offend anyone by using the word "unchurched..." thats just a word I have learned recently from that book I mentioned earlier and that is all I mean by that...

  2. Good stuff. The problem in my experience is that critique has been the tool often used for new forms of "infallibility." Some have no problem compounding critique to build their empire of creedal domination. However that is usually not so much a critique of ideas as it is venom spewed toward other people.

    But as you said the problem lies in not listening to the critiques of our faith. That's hard to do.

  3. Richard,
    It seems ironic to me that a static, insular system of faith with deep moral convictions could change so much over time, but it has. When I was attending church 30 years ago we were Democratic (with some Republicans) but now it's the other way around. Something creeped into the Christian culture and bent it into a direction that resembles little of what I remember. I'm not against change but I do think the big picture of what makes one a follower of Christ has been lost as Christians co-opt American popular culture and make it theirs. This means we now have a "Christian" president who starts a war and hires "Christian" mercenaries (Black Water), institutes torture, errodes our freedoms by trashing the constitution, etc.
    How did this errosion of the faith happen? Richard, you've stated before that you like the prophetic tradition in Christianity. Do you think that the church needs to listen to needy, keep the big picture of what following Jesus means and *also* encourage prophetic types to speak out against the tendency to loose focus and morph into anti-christian behavior. Oh, I forgot about false prophets. That's probably how it all went south so quickly.
    Thanks for some great posts,
    Rick T.

  4. Richard, I'm thinking about how the creedal system and the authority of the church got established in the first place: It arose in response to conflict. Strong authority keeps conflict at bay. The docetists, the gnostics, the montanists, etc. were all vying for dominance, and enormous diversity (chaos) would have resulted had not one group established itself above the others. Consider the results of the protestant reformation: something like 20k different denominations. What about the cost of unity? I'm guessing you would say this open-mindedness is worth the cost, but can you elaborate on this?

  5. 1. Today's modern organizations anticipate that things will go wrong, that there will be learning opportunities that devolve from any endeavor. They call it "lessons learned". Often, at the onset of a program or project, it is predetermined that near the end of the effort, a list or a report of lessons learned will be produced. Why should the church be any different?

    2. Long ago I had a friend who was a fan of Tillich. One thing I learned that has stayed with me all these years is that my friend said that even in the early 1960's, when Tillich was getting pretty old, he would go to the dorms at night to talk with his seminary students. That impresses me as someone who was anxious to learn, was young at heart, and who was in the process of practicing the self-critique that is described in the passage.

  6. Richard,

    I am amazed at how fast you synthesize new material--the conceptual jazz man! Thanks again for this wonderful series of posts.

    A couple of comments:

    First, since you're looking into "the religious disease," I think that it is important to see that for Tillich this "disease" is a manifestation of an underlying and universal human problem, and one for which religion--ideally, yet ironically--should be the solution.

    The problem is that it is inescapably human to see the world through our own most cherished values--whether collective or individual. Thus, when others disagree with us at a core level, they tend to become our enemies.

    The problem with religion is that it tends to set up, define, and reinforce ultimate concerns that become foci of disagreement. Thus, when religious people interact with outsiders there is a real danger that the upshot will be, "Them's fight'en words!"

    I think that Tillich's spot on with this, both in seeing religions--in addition to nations and highly partisan sports fans, etc.--as tending to set up "the problem," and also in seeing the problem with religion as a universal human problem. For instance, try making demeaning statements about my kids, if you want to get a rise aout of me. And I'll wager that you too have cherished concerns for which criticism, let alone outright threat, will constitute "fight'en words."

    Without this context "the religious disease" as diagnosed by Tillich is taken to be exclusively religious, when it is not.

    Second, Tillich sees Christianity as essentially and ideally a solution to this very disease: A Christian is to make perfect love to all her ideal, thus pacifying lesser (from a Christian standpoint) ideals.

    Of course Pecs too is spot on in noting that Christian creedal systems arose out of conflict. I'll quote Tillich on this.

    "Is historical humanity able to stand the freedom of a Spiritual religion...for more than a short period? Unfortunately, the unanimous testimony of history is that it cannot. The real danger is not that they are overwhelmed by other less fragile forms of religion, but that in defending themselves they are led to violate their very nature and shape themselves into the image of those who attach them..." (Christianity and the Encounter of the World Religions, p. 11)

    (Recall Martin Luther King's quote of Ghandi to the effect that by hating one's enemies one becomes like them.)

    True, though Christianity should be an innoculation against "the religious disease," live viruses usually make it into the innoculation, turning it into not only part of the problem, but a means of spreading it...

    This, however, is not a crass problem in all cases, as our recent admiration of Bonhoeffer--who plotted to kill Hitler--reveals. Wasn't that plot justified conflict in defense of DB's cherished (Christian) values? Hitler swayed more than one pacifist--most famously Einstein--to recant!

    Nevertheless, Tillich does think that religious symbolism can be used to determine whether good or evil is being served by one's "ultimate concern": do one's words and actions serve the whole of humanity, "in religious language, of the Kingdom of God"? Perhaps that view can resolve the seeming exception that Hitler poses to Tillich's framework.

    Taking the big picture, I agree with Tillich mostly because the moral cynic has the facts on her side (sic.). For that in turn points up the importance of inclusive faith as moral courage.

    Tracy

    BTW: Tillich makes much of the quote following the famous "Love your enemies" section from The Sermon on the Mount: The usually translated "You must be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" should be translated "You must be all-inclusive as your heavenly Father is all-inclusive." (...the Encounter... p. 35-6)

  7. Roxanne,
    That must be a depressing experience. Too many churches don't like to hear difficult feedback about themselves.

    Josh,
    That's an interesting point. What starts as critique can often become a new orthodoxy, perhaps worse than the one it was "protesting" against. And its worse is the critique is simply masquerading self-interest.

    Rick,
    Thinking historically, I think many people think Christianity lost its way when it became the official religion under Constantine. Constantinianism must be prophesied against, and that goes for what is going on in this "Christian Nation."

    Pecs,
    I don't have a great answer for this, but I recently encountered an idea about this from Rodney Stark in his new book "Discovering God." Stark makes the interesting claim that free-market competition allows for the "truer" forms of religion to emerge over time. Hmmm...

    Steve,
    Wow, what a great story about Tillich.

    Tracy,
    Your knowledge of Tillich far outstrips mine! Thanks for sharing it. Thinking along with you, I was struck by Tillich's notion that faith involves divine and demonic components. I guess a Tillichian way to see this series is that it is a discussion about how to fend off the demonic potentialities in faith/religion.

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