Original Leisure & Entertainment


The important thing to note here is that Tillich insists that talk about a personal God is symbolic language (a metaphor) and not a literal description of a being that thinks and acts exactly like a human being, except that he is much bigger and stronger. When we start thinking that way, Tillich says, we have confused the signpost with that to which it was pointing. And he is also correct in saying that in most periods of Christian history, the top ranking theologians have regarded the idea of a personal God as an image which is totally or almost totally metaphorical, not literal.

The supra-personal vs. the sub-personal: Einstein insisted that a humanistic religion had to talk about the “supra-personal,” and cannot get bogged down in myths and fantasies about personal gods drawn from primitive religion. And Tillich agrees with him, and says that this may be the best way of putting the most important issue here. Only we must look harder than Einstein did, at what is necessitated if we look at the issue this way.

We must remember that the supra-personal is not the same thing as the sub-personal. “The depth of being cannot be symbolized by objects taken from a realm which is lower than the personal, from the realm of things or sub-personal living beings. The supra-personal is not an “it.” If we try to avoid using any personal symbolism at all in talking about the ground of being, we will of necessity turn this ground into an It. When the only tool we possess for talking about the ground of being and meaning is construed as only a bare “It,” this always ends up turning our understanding of human existence into a sub-personal one: The “It” element transforms the alleged supra-personal into a sub-personal…And such a neutral sub-personal cannot grasp the center of our personality; it can satisfy our aesthetic feeling or our intellectual needs, but it cannot convert our will, it cannot overcome our loneliness, anxiety, and despair. For as the philosopher Schelling says: “Only a person can heal a person.” This is the reason that the symbol of the personal God is indispensable for a living religion. It is a symbol, not an object, and it never should be interpreted as an object. And it is one symbol besides others indicating that our personal center is grasped by the manifestation of the inaccessible ground and abyss of being.

Let us try putting Tillich’s argument in another form. Human beings, who are being forced to walk through the Dark Night of the Soul, are not being thrown into overpowering feelings of rage, self-pity, anxiety, and despair, because they do not understand a particular mathematical law of physics, or because they misunderstand the precise biological functioning of the gall bladder. They cannot be pulled back into the light by teaching them about physics or biology, or by giving them a mechanical view of the universe.

Instead they have to discover (or be taught) a new source of personal meaning, one to which they can be persuaded to give their total loyalty and commitment. They need to learn about love and compassion for other human beings. They will have to allow themselves to feel all their sorrow for everything in the past that has now been destroyed, and weep tears if necessary, before they will ever discover true acceptance. They will need to come to terms with their own deep inner feelings of guilt, shame, and failure over the things that they did or did not do when their personal worlds were crumbling into ruins, both real guilt and imaginary guilt (That can be even harder to overcome).

Latest posts by Glenn Chesnut (see all)

Glenn Chesnut

He was Professor of History and Religious Studies at IU South Bend for 33 years, winning IU's Herman Frederic Lieber Award for excellence in teaching in 1988. He has written a number of works that primarily focus on Christianity & Alcoholics Anonymous. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer