That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!

Among the many unsung benefits of entering the discipline of theology is the opportunity to ponder brilliant thoughts from some of the most erudite minds and sensitive spirits of history. Another unsung benefit is getting to read the bizarre nonsense that some of the same erudite minds slough off  along the way.

Along the lines of Stephen Colbert’s occasional segments by the same title, I thought I’d offer two quotes (with commentary) that made me say, “That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!”

Paul Tillich:

“The concreteness of man’s ultimate concern drives him toward polytheistic structures; the reaction of the absolute element against these drives him toward monotheistic structures; and the need for a balance between the concrete and the absolute drives him toward trinitarian structures.” [1]

A Tillich-inspired Recipe:

  1. Take your ultimate concern.
  2. Average the concreteness of your ultimate concern with the absolute element also found therein.
  3. Remove the polytheistic and monotheistic by-products.
  4. Voila! A Trinitarian drive!
  5. Drop the trinitarian drive in your Volvo, and not only will your gas milage dramatically improve, but the circumincessio occuring in your engine is now totally self-lubricating!

Friedrich Schleiermacher:

“Thus, in fact, people become all the more indifferent to the church the more they increase in religion, and the most pious sever themselves from it proudly and coldly. Nothing can in fact be clearer than that seekers of religion are in this association [i.e. the church] only because they have no religion; they persevere in it only so long as they have none.” [2]

Indeed, one excellent measure for just how much true religion a person might have would be the degree of coldness and pride with which that person passes by any religious establishment. People with a wholehearted dedication to the church are clearly (nay, most clearly) the most muddleheaded irreligious shams you could ever encounter!


[1] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 221.

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, trans. Richard Crouter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 172.

8 Replies to “That’s the craziest f#$%@# thing I’ve ever heard!”

  1. Yes, I know, Schleiermacher means something else by “religion.” But if your definition of “religion” (which is more or less interchangeable with Christianity in the Speeches) leads you to say crazy stuff like this about the church, maybe it’s time to re-think your categories…

  2. This is probably the most convincing explanation of the trinity I’ve ever heard. It does seem to capture something of the underlying psychology. So, will you humor and try to be explicit about what makes this crazy? Also, what writer do you find has the most convincing explanation of the trinity?

    1. Justin,

      One question, when you say “this,” do you mean Tillich’s explanation more generally, or this sentence in particular? Knowing that would make some difference in how I’d respond.

      For starters though, Tillich’s sentence here is mathematically tidy (i.e. three is a nice number between “many” and “one”), but every ancient exponent of trinitarianism that I’ve read has insisted at length that the threeness of the divine persons is not mathematical. In other words, you can’t add Father, Son, and Spirit to get 3, nor do you divide “God” into thirds and find three persons. Christians speak of three divine persons as a way of saying that the Father is not the Son nor the Spirit, and that the Son is not the Father nor the Spirit, and that the Spirit is not the Son nor the Father. At the same time Christians affirm (in some continuity with their Jewish heritage) that there is no God but the God who gave the Torah, and to whom the “shema” (“Hear o Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” Deut. 6:4) applies. The trinity is affirmed in paradox, not (as Evan said) as a via media.

      What makes this crazy to me is symptomatic of my problems with Tillich’s broader approach as well. I think that he argues in the wrong direction. He attempts to move from general principles and observations toward a Christian response. Here’s his way of summarizing his method:

      “In using the method of correlation, systematic theology proceeds in the following way: it makes an analysis of the human situation out of which the existential questions arise, and it demonstrates that the symbols used in the Christian message are the answers to these questions.” (62)

      He works in an apologetic mode. So the Trinity becomes the “Christian answer” to the supposedly universal impulses toward concreteness and absoluteness in the object of our ultimate concern (Tillichian for “God”). This is fine so far as it goes. If God exists as Trinity, we might reasonable expect that there could be some glints and glimmers of that reality reflected in our experience of the world and the structures of our thought. However, it makes me nervous whenever authors begin to verge (as Tillich does here) on some kind of derivation of the trinity from basic ontological principles universally accessible to human experience.

      My resistance to Tillich’s method (which is echoed often enough in other authors) goes something like this: 1) Historically, this is simply not how Christians came to confess the divine Trinity; 2) I’m not sure that the impulses that Tillich references are universal, or that they necessarily point to the Trinity (why not 4, 2, or 7 persons?).

      Historically, the Trinity grows out of several centuries of grappling with what it means to refer to Jesus of Nazareth as “Lord”—particularly what it means for Jews (and those Gentiles who came to honor the Jewish Scriptures) to refer to Jesus of Nazareth as “Lord.” All manner of possible solutions to the cognitive dissonance that arises from attributing a divine title to a human being populated the 2nd-4th centuries. The solution that finally won acceptance was the one that embraced a radical paradox.

      Namely, given that background, it was only appropriate to speak of Jesus of Nazareth as “God” if he is not some derivative mediator of the divine, or a symbol of the divine, or the incarnation of God’s first, best, and most exalted creature, but if he is actually through and through identical (“of one substance”) with the God he called “Father.”

      I’m happy to explain this further (especially that last bit), but I’m wary of doing so without knowing whether this line of explanation is at all helpful. Likewise, I’d want to know more about your knowledge and interest before I recommended reading (i.e. is your curiosity likely to sustain you through a page, an article, a few chapters, a few books?). You could, however, do a lot worse than Augustine’s “De Trinitate.”

      1. Your explanation, Eric, is very helpful and I appreciate your taking the time to write it out.

        “1) Historically, this is simply not how Christians came to confess the divine Trinity;” You have convinced me of this. But could the way in which Christians confess the trinity possibly directly express the underlying psychology? Whether or not the motives have any relation to Tillich’s idea, wouldn’t those motives have to be repressed in the confession, because the earthliness of such motives would interfere with experience of the divine?

        It seems we can understand Christianity in two ways: by projecting it onto the historical/psychological dimensions, or by projecting it onto the spiritual/aesthetic dimensions. Perhaps it is not possible to understand it in these two modes simultaneously, and this is where Tillich runs into difficulty?

        I will read Augustine’s “De Trinitate” and see at that point if I have enough curiosity to sustain me through anything else. I will also meditate on your second to last paragraph this evening.

        1. I’ve thought some more about this over the last day and have a few ideas that relate to your third paragraph and the distinction in it.

          I think that the “spiritual/aesthetic” approach, as you call it (what might also be called the philosophical approach) is better employed secondarily in theology, rather than serving as the primary approach.

          This is simply because arguments that pertain to a aesthetic/spiritual/philosophical approach rely on some concept of formal necessity. That is, something “works” in these approaches because it corresponds to some larger pattern which is taken to be both necessary and true. So for example, Tillich posits two drives within any proper “ultimate concern”: a drive toward concreteness, and a drive toward absoluteness. Thinking of God as Trinity is taken to correspond to these formal drives in a manner that is (presumably) better than other ways of conceiving of God.

          This makes me suspicious that an argument like Tillich’s is actually tautological in a way that calls its integrity into suspicion. In other words, I think that Tillich 1) starts from his commitment to Christian doctrine, 2) makes the gesture of adopting methodological blinders that exclude this commitment, 3) analyzes the structure of human experience (something like your aesthetic/spiritual approach) from a position of supposed neutrality, 4) finds that his analysis of the structure of human experience points stands open to Christian doctrine correlates with his analysis of the structure of human experience better than any other religious option.

          I have no problem with this approach—when it is used secondarily in order to demonstrate that Christian doctrine (as received and interpreted) corresponds to and makes sense of reality as we encounter it. However, when the approach purports to come up with the doctrine of the Trinity, for example, it seems that the conclusion has been assumed (even if subconsciously) all along and simply masked by the ostensible objectivity of speech about formal necessity.

          Having recognized how deeply our thought patterns (and therefore our standards of objectivity) are grounded in our own cultural/historical/ideological contexts, this mode of argument feels intellectually dishonest to me.

          I’m not sure that this answers your comment very well, especially your use of the word “projecting” (which, I confess, I don’t entirely understand). Nevertheless, it’s quite helpful for me to formulate these thoughts.

  3. I would compare Tillich’s argument to the worn-out “Lord, Liar, Lunatic” apologetic for Christ’s divinity – it is too tidy, simple, deductive, reductive, and, most importantly, has nothing to do with the witness of the Church.

    1. Yes, as I just said above, it seems to be best employed as a post hoc justification for a conviction attained by other means. There are a lot of people who put tremendous stock in this sort of approach though!

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