Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Candidate Wars

[UPDATE:] Pastor Dan has a few things to say on the subject over at Street Prophets. Wander over when you are done reading this offering.[END]

I've just finished reading Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich. Tillich is one of the most prominent theologians of this past century. If you are used to philosophical and theological discussions then this is a good read. If not, then you may find it a bit difficult.

Tillich spends 146 pages defining a very difficult word... faith. He opens...


"Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned: the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man's ultimate concern. Man, like every living being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns - cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group. If it claims ultimacy it demands the total surrender of him who accepts this claim, and it promises total fulfillment even if all other claims have to be subjected to it or rejected in its name. If a national group makes the life and growth of the nation its ultimate concern, it demands that all other concerns, economic well-being, health and life, family, aesthetic and cognitive truth, justice and humanity, be sacrificed. The extreme nationalism of our century are laboratories for the study of what ultimate concern means in all aspects of human existence, including the smallest concern of one's daily life. Everything is centered in the only god, the nation - a god who certainly proves to be a demon, but who shows clearly the unconditional character of an ultimate concern.

But it is not only the unconditional demand made by that which is one's ultimate concern, it is also the promise of ultimate fulfillment which is accepted in the act of faith. The content of this promise is not necessarily defined. It can be expressed in indefinite symbols or in concrete symbols which cannot be taken literally, like the "greatness" of one's nation in which one participates even if one has died for it, or the conquest of mankind by the "saving race," etc. In each of these cases it is "ultimate fulfillment" that is promised, and it is exclusion from such fulfillment which is threatened if the unconditional demand is not obeyed."

Everyone has something that is central to their being. Their "ultimate concern." Survival... food, shelter, health, companionship, procreation, etc are certainly concerns of this sort. He defines it further by stating it is a purely human "ultimate concern" of a spiritual nature. The word "spiritual" might get cause us some difficulty in conversation but bear with me (and Tillich).

I often define the word "spiritual" as pertaining to my inner life. The part of me that I cannot share with another no matter what words I use or how hard I try. The inner self in each of us. "Spiritual" like "faith" is loaded with lots of baggage. Let's dispense with the historical baggage and find some common definitions we can use regardless of our own personal beliefs or non-beliefs. And let me add that Tillich is clear in separating the words belief and faith. They are not the same. We can believe in things unseen, unknown, unproven, but faith has nothing to do with that.

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.

Spirit is the inner, core self.

So what is the ultimate concern of that inner self? What is the core of being?

He concludes the first section with this...

"Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith. And this is the first step we have to make in order to understand the dynamics of faith."

So regardless of what religion we are or aren't there is something at the core of our being, an ultimate concern, that invests and expresses itself in every facet of our lives.

The content is of infinite importance to each of us individually but the understanding that the condition, regardless of the contents, exists for each of us is important to understand as our starting point.


"Faith as ultimate concern is an act of the total personality. It happens in the center of the personal life and includes all its elements. Faith is the most centered act of the human mind. It is not a movement of a special section or a special function of man's total being. They all are united in the act of faith. But faith is not the sum total of their impacts. It transcends every special impact as well as the totality of them and it has itself a decisive impact on each of them."

Faith is the most centered act of the human mind. Even in our confusion, or our delusion, it is there in the center... as the center... of our personal life.

Tillich continues a very logical and systematic progression through what faith is and into what faith is not. From there into how we use symbols as expressions of an ultimate concern that is infinite in nature and therefore cannot be captured and expressed in the finite terms of words.

He is very clear that one of the dangers of a finite existence attempting to center itself on an infinite concern is the common fault of accepting something smaller, something finite and tangible as the infinite, ultimate concern. He calls this idolatrous faith. The replacement of the ultimate with the finite. It is a simple, understandable and common trap we humans fall into in our thinking.

"The more idolatrous a faith the less it is able to overcome the cleavage between subject and object. For that is the difference between true and idolatrous faith. In true faith the ultimate concern is a concern about the truly ultimate; while in idolatrous faith preliminary, finite realities are elevated to the rank of ultimacy. The inescapable consequence of idolatrous faith is "existential disappointment," a disappointment which penetrates into the very existence of man! This is the dynamics of idolatrous faith: that it is faith, and as such, the centered act of a personality; that the centering point is something which is more or less on the periphery; and that, therefore, the act of faith leads to a loss of the center and to a disruption of the personality. The ecstatic character of even an idolatrous faith can hide this consequence only for a certain time. But finally it breaks into the open."

Often these preliminary or finite realities are the very symbols we hold up as examples of the ultimate. The infinite, being too big for our grasp (of understanding, language, and hands), is replaced by the smaller more understandable, and therefore more finite, symbol.

"Religion, as everything in life, stands under the law of ambiguity, "ambiguity" meaning that it is creative and destructive at the same time. Religion has its holiness and its unholiness, and the reason for this is obvious from what has been said about religious symbolism. Religious symbols point symbolically to that which transcends all of them. But since, as symbols, they participate in that to which they point, they always have a tendency (in the human mind, of course) to replace that to which they are supposed to point, and to become ultimate in themselves. And in the moment in which they do this, they become idols. All idolatry is nothing else than the absolutizing of symbols of the Holy, and making them identical with the Holy itself. In this way, for instance, holy persons can become a god. Ritual acts can take on unconditional validity, although they are only expressions of a special situation. In all sacramental activities of religion, in all holy objects, holy books, holy doctrines, holy rites, you find this danger which we will call "demonization." They become demonic at the moment in which they become elevated to the unconditional and ultimate character of the Holy itself."

In Zen Buddhism there is a saying, "The finger that points at the moon is not the moon." Do not confuse the teaching, the symbol, the ritual, the words for the real thing. They point at the real thing and then it is up to us to experience that reality for ourselves leaving that which points behind.

There is another saying that goes, "If you meet the Buddha on the road kill him!"

A more violent way (necessarily violent I think) of saying do not confuse the teacher for the experience of the teaching. Both of these say "Do not make idols out of the finite. Step beyond to the infinite."

One of the reviewers at Amazon.Com had this to say:

"In the first chapter, Tillich introduces one of his key terms - ultimate concern. Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned about something - God - without conditions or reservations. Ultimate concern can be religious or not, and can be misguided (people are tempted into idolatry, according to Tillich, not only by making things such as money, power and fame the objects of ultimate concern, but also by making particular ideas or views of God and religion into inappropriate ultimate concerns). In the second chapter, Tillich explores the ideas of what faith is not - faith is not merely intellectual understanding, emotional bonding, or even an act of will. Faith is rather (going back to the first chapter) an act of total personality - one's whole being is drawn to the ultimate concern."

So what does all this have to do with candidate wars?

One of the examples Tillich used of ultimate concerns other than God was nationalism. A theologian from pre-Hitler Germany, fired by the Nazi's, and then coming to the United States and writing this book at the University of Chicago in 1956, Tillich used known examples of extreme nationalism and the American dream of success.

(he also had a few things to say about fundamentalism and literalists)

We are a politically motivated and driven crowd. Whether our politics are directly our ultimate concern or not does not matter. Whatever our individual faith, our personal ultimate concern, it defines our politics, our views on society, obligation, right, wrong, justice, injustice... and make no mistake it is exactly the same for the other guy.

People... want... to believe.

Particularly after so many hard and desperate years. We want to believe. We want a leader and we want to believe that one of these people will be IT... our leader.

Chris Bowers worried about it with the cult of personality he saw in the Draft Gore efforts. Not everyone felt that way but even as a Gore supporter I saw it too.

Unfortunately, we don't have a horse in this race. Any of the three remaining Democrats will make a very fine Democratic President. They're smart, competent, mostly right on most issues, and so vast an improvement over the Republicans that the difference is immeasurable.

But they ain't ours. Not one of them.

People want a progressive movement leader and they want to believe that one of these candidates will be that person but they won't. And a lot of folks are trying to fit these square pegs into our round holes. I see it in diaries. I see it in blog comments. I see it on email lists. I see in on the ground.

I think what I am seeing is idolatry.

We want to change the direction of the country. We want to change the world. It is of ultimate, or at least penultimate, concern to us. We want a leader who will do that, make those changes. Our desperation drives us away from the ultimate towards the finite. Many of us have made our decisions about who that leader is and now we are trying to force solutions. It is not good enough to settle when the concern is ultimate.

We want to fight but we want to believe in what we are fighting for. And we HAVE to fight for it... yet we're not going to get what we feel this driving need to fight for. We have to settle for something less... and that's not good enough.

So begins delusion and demonic possession. We've lost sight of the ultimate for the finite and become deluded, possessed by the demons of desire, frustration, and desperation.

The long term goal will go far beyond this election or this presidency. Even a two-term presidency. This is but one step along the way. The ultimate concern is a life-time effort for each of us... no matter what our generation... and our kids.

We have the power. And yet we are powerless. We are making change. We are winning. And yet we are not going to get what we want.

Powerlessness is a real bitch. It is very frustrating. Its only cure is acceptance. And that level of letting go is very scary.

I think I'm may write-in Al Gore on Feb. 5 and accept whoever the eventual victor is. I'm not completely happy with any of them but I'll be perfectly happy to see one of them get elected.

I will not see my ultimate concern realized on earth in my lifetime. I do hope to be able to hand my granddaughter the legacy of effecting change that I was given and the better place that I was given. I do hope that she'll see a world much closer to that ideal, that ultimate, and she in her turn will be able to hand it over to her kids.

But I'm not going to get the President I want this election. I'm not going to get the government I want this election. I am going to do everything in my power to get the best of both that I can this time around.

And that's just the way it is... whether I like it or not.

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