Sunday, December 8, 2013

Tillich: Of Grace, Providence and Cheeseburgers

I grew up in a small town in Southern Illinois called Carmi. Fourteen miles away, just across a rickety toll bridge over the Wabash River, was New Harmony, Indiana - a site of several communal living experiments in the first half of the 19th century. 

Mainly New Harmony was a place one drove through on the way to Evansville - the largest city within easy driving distance of Carmi. My parents would occasionally go there to shop for groceries, and it was here that I went to see a podiatrist who told me that I had the flattest feet in seven counties. When I was in high school, friends and I would occasionally go there to see a new release movie. This is where, for example, I saw the "Exorcist."

The bridge across the Wabash

The toll booth on the Illinois side of the river

I heard recently that this old bridge is going to be torn down. Back in the 70's, I think the toll was 25 cents. There are probably all kinds of stories that could be told about this bridge and toll booth. One that I recall was when Ruth Ann Smith, my employer when I worked as a bus boy at Two Tonys Smorgasbord in Carmi, told us how, instead of paying a quarter (or whatever it was) she handed the toll booth operator a cheeseburger and drove on.

But I digress. When I was a kid, my family occasionally went to New Harmony, and I recall the "Roofless Church" that is pictured in the lead photo. I also vaguely recall a park adjacent to the church dedicated to the memory of the German Lutheran theologian, Paul Tillich. In those days, I had no idea who Paul Tillich was, nor did I know that his ashes are interred in the garden. (Why I don't know - yet.)

I was introduced to Paul Tillich in my freshman year in college at Illinois Wesleyan University. (It's interesting ... I have written before about memory. As I have been thinking about that year at Wesleyan, memories have come back of hallways, of classrooms, of professors - places and people that I haven't thought about in years and thus thought that I had lost my memory of that time of my life. It is so exhilarating to experience the thrill of memory!)

That year really opened my mind to a lot of new ideas and concepts as I took Humanities classes and a religion class called "Man and His Quest for Meaning." It was in the latter that I first heard the terms "Christian existentialist" and "Christian Humanism" and read some writings of Tillich, who was a German Lutheran theologian and one of the most profound religious thinkers of the 20th century.

I was so taken with Tillich's writings that I read more than was assigned in class and even purchased the first volume of Tillich's Systematic Theology to read over the summer. But the following fall, I transferred to the University of Illinois, joined a fraternity and largely abandoned what I had found so exhilarating the previous year. What residual interest I had was extinguished when I joined the Mormon Church at age 24.

It wasn't until I came out three years ago and started on my (rather rapid) journey out of the Mormon Church that I once again encountered these words of Tillich, which resonated deeply:

This is only the last couple of sentences of a passage that speaks of grace and acceptance, both divine and by oneself - a passage that I plan to revisit and perhaps blog about.

In my reading over the past couple of months, I have run into numerous references to Tillich, most recently a couple of days ago in my reading in Catholic Means Universal, by David Richo. In writing about faith, Richo quoted the following passage from Tillich's book, The Shaking of Foundations:
"Faith in divine providence is the faith that nothing can prevent us from fulfilling the ultimate meaning of our existence. Providence does not mean a divine planning by which everything is predetermined ... Providence means that there is a creative and saving possibility implied in every situation, which cannot be destroyed by any event. Providence means that the demonic and destructive forces within ourselves and our world [such as those unleashed during the Second World War] can never have an unbreakable grasp upon us, and that the bond which connects us with the fulfilling love can never be disrupted."
Bust of Tillich in New Harmony, Indiana
Richo added his own thoughts about "providence." "Actually," he writes, "providence means that in the face of suffering, cruelty, death and injustice, we have it in us to go on loving ... It is not that external situations rectify themselves but that interior powers of love remain intact no matter what. Our capacity to love surveys the pain and abuse we have experienced."

This, I think, is a large part of where faith comes in. We, I, need to have the faith that, no matter what,  we have it in us to love, to go on loving, to grow in our capacity to love.

I'm grateful that I have discovered Tillich once again after all these years. This post turned out entirely different than what I had originally contemplated, and it is a grace that, through this post, I have continued to re-establish contact with and embrace who I was before I joined the Mormon Church.

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