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From Hume to Tillich: Teaching Faith & Benevolence

Nancy Bunge was taught philosophy by two of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers, Willard Quine and Paul Tillich. She remembers the profound effect of Tillich’s ideas.

Forty years ago when I was a philosophy major at Harvard-Radcliffe, I took classes from two philosophers who could be seen as philosophic descendants of David Hume. In the case of Willard Quine, the link to Hume seems obvious and indeed, in his autobiography The Time of My Life, Quine reports that when forced to choose between teaching Leibniz and Hume early in his career, he easily chose the latter: “The critical knowledge of Hume that I would need for my course would mesh with my own philosophical thinking, providing enrichment and perspective.” The tie between Paul Tillich and David Hume seems far less obvious. Tillich himself sees the contribution of Hume and other skeptics to his theology as limited and blames Hume for philosophical positivism and its impact on the history of philosophy: “It is the tragedy of this positivism that it either transforms itself into a conservative absolutism or into a cynical type of relativism.”

Yet the first book on the reading list for Tillich’s course on the Philosophy of Religion was David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion and, indeed, Tillich’s position on arguments for the existence of God closely resembles that of Philo in Hume’s Dialogues. For instance, Tillich argues that the language used to create such proofs reek of finitude; anyone who attempts to describe God with it, destroys God: “If we derive God from the world, he cannot be that which transcends the world infinitely.”

Philo puts much the same notion this way: “Wisdom, thought, design, knowledge, these we justly ascribe to him because these words are honorable among men, and we have no other language or other conceptions by which we can express our adoration of him. But let us beware lest we think that our ideas … correspond to his perfections.”

Philo and Tillich agree that attempts to prove the existence of God promulgate a false, limited notion of God stripped of mystery and immensity in order to satisfy human delusions of omniscience. They argue that such proofs pose dangers to religion since those who can undermine their shaky logic may believe that they have in fact proven that God does not exist. Thus, Philo concludes, “to be a philosophical skeptic is, in a man of letters, the first and most essential step in being a sound, believing Christian.”

But Tillich believed that even though proofs for the existence of God had no validity, one could still construct a philosophy of religion and he essentially devoted his career to the attempt. Perhaps Tillich’s need to affirm God in some philosophically acceptable way helps explain why he began his lectures in ‘Philosophy of Religion’ with a discussion of Rudolph Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy. Otto agrees with Tillich and Hume that those who attempt to describe God rationally err, “yet though it eludes the conceptual way of understanding, it must be in some way or other within our grasp, else absolutely nothing could be asserted of it.” Otto follows this statement with a compelling phenomenological description of the experience of the sacred.

Although Tillich began his course with Otto, he concluded it – and his career at Harvard – with a two-hour lecture on twentieth century painting, complete with slides. And, later, in his last sermon at the University of Chicago, he confessed that no philosophic description could ever render the “experience of the holy” or a sense of what Tillich called “the god above god.” Theologians who wanted to communicate this awareness must turn to and use art: “It is the power of art to express something we encounter in the world and in ourselves, something only art can show us … Religion needs art.” The psychologist Rollo May, who wrote his doctoral dissertation under Tillich, agrees that Tillich’s systematic theology and indeed all important philosophies, need artistic complements to convey their meanings: “Every philosopher worthy of the name must have some way of leaping the gap when he has gone as far as his reason will take him. When he reached the limits of rationality, Plato used the myth. Someone else might express in a poem what Paulus is confronting in the last section of The Courage to Be.” Similarly, the appendix of Otto’s The Idea of the Holy lists literary works that render the experience he describes. In the text itself, Otto mentions specific musical compositions and paintings that he believes capture the sublimity that his book attempts to characterize.

Philo agrees that reason is far too limited to explain itself, let alone an infinite deity. The compulsion to attempt to discuss and analyze God rationally shows a human desire to aggrandize ourselves and “make ourselves the model of the whole universe.” Philo joins Tillich in asserting that revelation, not reason, bestows faith and makes possible the religious life: “A person, seasoned with a just sense of the imperfections of natural reason, will fly to revealed truth with the greatest avidity, while the haughty dogmatist, persuaded that he can erect a complete system of theology by the mere help of philosophy, disdains any further aid and rejects this adventurous instructor.” Revelation is an “adventurous instructor” because religious faith gained this way requires a logical leap that those who attempt to justify their faith with reason evade. Tillich calls this state “ecstatic reason”.

Philo also implies that art does a better job than reason of conveying religious experience because a sense of the holy results from being touched and moved, not from being persuaded by an argument: “A talent of eloquence and strong imagery is more requisite than that of reasoning and argument. For is it necessary to prove what everyone feels within himself? It is only necessary to make us feel it, if possible, more intimately and sensibly.” But, finally, Philo argues that the best way to influence other human beings to embrace faith is through example, not through theological dispute or even through sublime art: “It is certain, from experience, that the smallest grain of natural honesty and benevolence has more effect on men’s conduct than the most pompous views suggested by theological theories and systems.”

Although one cannot comfortably attribute all of Philo’s views to Hume, one can easily document that Hume shares Philo’s faith in benevolence. Hume’s praise of honesty and courage and condemnation of manipulative fakery suggest that Hume also shares Philo’s commitment to integrity. When he urges people to cultivate the courage to be, or “self-affirmation of being in spite of the fact of nonbeing,” Paul Tillich links honesty and religiosity. Tillich believes faith makes the courage to be possible, for it allows people to face and accept the worst in themselves and in their world. So, the parallels between Philo’s view of religion and Paul Tillich’s are striking and suggest that Hume and Tillich’s shared suspicion of proofs for the existence of God grows from an understanding that living fully means using and welcoming a variety of abilities and awarenesses and knowledges, not just reason. And they even suggest a belief that philosophers should not fritter away their capabilities on attempts to build perfectly logical systems, but that they instead should draw upon all their capacities in order to help themselves and others understand how to best live. And, indeed, as a student of both Quine and Tillich, I found myself more interested and perhaps even more influenced by their behavior than by what they said. Measuring their conduct as teachers against Hume’s recommendations for living well helps explain their impact on me.

Hume’s brief, self-deprecatory autobiography reveals a sense of his pride in living independently, suggesting that he sees autonomy as a variety of integrity or honesty. Quine also prized his independence: if the inquiries he received did not reflect an intelligent understanding of his views, he simply did not respond. Perhaps to forestall the destructive influence of ignorant students, he always arrived at lecture with his comments fully written out and proceeded to read: “I like to take time for deliberate formulation. Hence my practice down the decades of preparing copious notes for the classroom and writing my public lectures in full.”

Hume also says that although he “wantonly exposed” himself “to the rage of both civil and religious factions… my friends never had occasion to vindicate any one circumstance of my character and conduct.” Given that Quine considered working on logical problems not directly relevant to the work he had in motion a holiday, it seems safe to conclude that he too avoided the dangers of lascivious living.

But the variety of his literary output indicates that Hume welcomed and pursed diverse perspectives. Hume particularly values poets because they produce work that can ignite people’s finest capacities: “And can it possibly be doubted that this talent itself of poets, to move the passions, this [most] PATHETIC AND SUBLIME of sentiments is a very considerable merit and being enhanced by its extreme rarity, may exalt the person possessed of it, above every character of the age in which he lives.” Quine, on the other hand, finds the strong feelings poetry can evoke uncomfortable: “I am deeply moved by occasional passages of poetry, and so, characteristically, I read little of it. I respond similarly to passages of grand opera … Otherwise I have a poor memory for fiction, for it resists integration with my system of the world.” Quine identifies impatience as the only feeling that takes strong hold on him while Tillich obviously shares Hume’s enthusiasm for artistic sublimity and its power to awaken the best in people.

And Hume joins to his independence a love of interacting with all kinds of people. He testifies to taking “particular pleasure in the company of modest women.” Moreover, he states in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, that “monkish virtues … stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.” On the other hand, he declares “that personal merit consists entirely in the usefulness or agreeableness of qualities to the person himself possessed of them or to others, who have any intercourse with him.”

Tillich, like Hume, loved interaction. Jerald Bruner, head of the Divinity School at the University of Chicago where Tillich spend his last years, explains that Tillich’s enthusiasm for dialogue made lecturing a need, not a job. As a former student, I can attest that he invited students to leave questions on the podium and he would invariably open the lecture by responding to them, often in a way that startled the student by revealing what a profound question he or she had asked. I particularly remember one time when a Harvard student asked Tillich to define the difference between his theology and that of Billy Graham. We all put on our smirks as Tillich began his response, but they faded away as he launched on an elaborate, respectful discussion of the differences between his theology and William Graham’s. Quine, on the other hand, read from prepared notes from such a distance that even an attentive, dutiful student like myself had trouble following him. It didn’t worry me that I couldn’t understand his talk because I knew it would be relatively easy to get the same ideas from his writings.

Tillich gave the impression that he was inventing his massively abstract and learned lectures on the spot. When he fell ill and his graduate student attempted to fill the void by reading from his notes, he commented that, in fact, Tillich’s lecture notes had very little relationship with what he actually said. So our sense that we had spent a semester watching an incredibly agile and cultivated mind in action was accurate.

Although Quine gave off a sense of detached kindliness, students found it easy to believe that Tillich would like them and help them if he had the chance; a friend commented that if she could just ask Tillich, he’d know what she should choose for a major. When he spied a student standing in the doorway of the huge hall where he spoke, he stopped lecturing and insisted that she take an empty seat in the front row. She obeyed, but her bright red cheeks revealed her embarrassment. This human concern sometimes seemed more powerful than his intellectual interests. Two years before his death, he interrupted a University of Michigan student in the middle of a carefully crafted indictment of modern emptiness to say, “Those of you standing at the back. There are seats up here!” Although others who knew him better complain of Tillich’s arrogance and egotism, as a student his behavior sent the message that he did in fact live his belief that “wise are they who realize both the necessity and the limits of all learning and the superiority of love over knowledge.”

In brief, Paul Tillich showed us what intellectual and emotional vitality looked like and made us want to realize it in our own lives. This seems extremely close to what Philo identifies as the most effective way to convey the religious attitude. It also coordinates with Hume’s idea that one should measure the quality of one’s life by its positive social impact.

But in manifesting the courage to be and accepting himself in spite of being totally unacceptable, Tillich sometimes embraced and lived out a way of life appalling to others. His colleagues at the Union Theological Seminary were stunned when the distinguished German theologian who had taken refuge among them, and his wife, insisted that they all tour New York’s red light district. His numerous affairs deeply and repeatedly hurt his wife, as he acknowledged in his deathbed apology to her.

And the cultivation of uncertainty and spontaneity that allowed him to welcome and respond fully to questions from others meant that he embraced doubt and its discomforts all his life. He never stopped exploring and wondering. On the morning of his final illness, he announced to his wife Hannah that it was “dying day.” Despite his awareness that the end was near, as dreams haunted him in the hospital, he refused to ignore them as Hannah and his doctor urged, because he thought he could learn from them. So, he wondered out loud what it meant when he dreamt of all his dead friends and then of all those who had died in all the wars he knew about. As he died, Tillich worried that the world had forgotten so many war dead.

Quine reports that he liked to keep his office clean: “My desk is usually neat, with a single job on it; for I abhor loose ends. I pay bills on arrival and I answer a letter on arrival if I already see what to say, for it means one handling instead of two.” When Hannah Tillich unlocked her husband’s office after his death, she found a jumble of theology, pornography and letters from female admirers: “All the girls’ photos fell out, letters and poems, passionate appeal and disgust. Beside the drawers, which were supposed to contain his spiritual harvest, the books he had written and the unpublished manuscripts all lay in unprotected confusion. I was tempted to place between the sacred pages of his highly esteemed lifework those obscene signs of the real life that he had transformed into the gold of abstraction – King Midas of the spirit.”

Through Philo, Hume posits that the best way for one human being to persuade another in the religious attitude is for that person to live with “honesty and benevolence.” Although Tillich believed the purity of art could best render sublimity, his own life and its influence both clarify and validate Philo’s judgment here. Tillich lived with honesty; this brought him both great acclaim and great shame, great joy and great confusion. He was both the first Aryan professor thrown out of Germany by Adolf Hitler and an elderly theologian subject to lapses with the ladies. He lived and owned all of his life even though much of it was, to use his word, ‘unacceptable’. And surely this passionate acceptance of everything he was and of all those he encountered, even wrong-headed students, came from and manifested a deep faith in his God above God. Looking back over the many years since I sat in his classroom, it seems undeniable that his talk and his being had a profound effect on me – just as Philo claims it should.

© Prof. Nancy Bunge 2002

Nancy Bunge teaches in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965)

Through his books and his preaching Paul Tillich had a huge influence on theologically-inclined Americans. His existentialism gave his Protestantism a cutting edge of social relevance. He elaborated the ‘Protestant principle’ of not placing unconditional faith in anything humanly created (such as state, ideology or religious institutions), but in ‘Being-itself’, or what he called “the God above God”. In Germany he argued for religious socialism; in America he wrestled with the problems of faith, guilt and meaningless.

Willard Quine (1908-2000)

Willard Quine was arguably the foremost philosopher of the Englishspeaking world in the second half of the 20th century. His work in mathematical logic and the philosophy of language was especially influential. He considered philosophy to be a part of natural science. The 1927 Remington typewriter he used had some of its keys, including the question mark, replaced with logical symbols. When asked if he would miss the question mark, he replied that he dealt in certainties.

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