Atheism and Faith

[Note: This is the first post I’ve written for this blog in many months due to a lack of philosophical creativity and post-worthy ideas. Now that the fall semester has started and I’ve begun to read philosophy again, I will try and update this blog semi-regularly, but don’t hold your breath if I don’t.]

I am taking a class this semester called “faith and reason” and we are exploring the relationship between truth, rationality, and faith. The first book we read for the class was Christian existentialist-theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. In this work, Tillich provides an existentialist definition of faith that I believe is compatible with atheism. How is this possible? Allow me to elucidate on Tillich’s refreshing idea.

Tillich essentially defines faith as an “ultimate concern with the infinite[or unconditional. I prefer “infinite.”]”. Thus, if you are an atheist you can still have “faith” granted that you are ultimately concerned with something that is not finite. What does this seemingly mystic definition mean? Surely, it is too abstract and mystical to be of any relevance to a scientifically oriented atheist such as myself (that, granted, has many philosophical leanings) What does Tillich mean here?

First of all, in order to understand what Tillich means by faith, it is important to understand what he doesn’t mean. He doesn’t equate faith with a cognitive belief structure or propositional knowledge-based faith, such as “I believe in God because I have faith that God exists.” This is not true faith for Tillich because only the cognitive aspect of the human being is concerned in such a faith. As an existentialist, this is unacceptable because “ultimate concern” deals with the total personality and not just a limited aspect of the human being, namely theoretical and reflective cognition.

Utilizing Heideggerian terminology, I think ultimate concern can be conceptualized in terms of ontological comportment by a Dasein. That is to say, as ontologically oriented creatures, human beings comport themselves towards that which defines their being, which is their own individual existence. I am a life to live. Such a conception of humanity differs from the Cartesian tradition’s emphasis on self-consciousness and mental gymnastics, instead focusing on how we are engaged with the world in our own personal lives. Furthermore, we care about our lives: our being is an issue for us and in this sense, Tillich seems to be echoing Heidegger in his insistence that the most critical aspect of our total personality is our ultimate concern with the infinite.

So what is the infinite if not some metaphysically abstract mumbojumbo? Well, ultimately its a metaphor so take it as you will, but I think its useful to view the infinite in terms of the reductionist/holist debate. I see the infinite as that which can’t be reduced to the finite, i.e. the infinite is wrapped up in that which can only be captured in holistic vocabulary. Such as what? Well, for one, our ontological being, which is social in nature, can’t be reduced to the physical motions of matter which supports our constitution, but rather, resides in an existential matrix that is spread out ontologically amongst a community of involved and engaged language users. It is this matrix which provides the significance missing in crudely naturalistic conceptions of the human world.

So, the infinite, is transcendent in that it goes above and beyond the concrete realm holistically, but nevertheless, remains grounded in the physicality of reality. It is this conception of infinite that I think is useful for the atheist in coming to terms with Tillich’s existentialist theology.

So how does an atheist utilize Tillich’s definitions to provide existential perspective to his life? Well, for starters, one can appreciate that mostly everyone is ultimately concerned with something, whether that something is a child, their work, or a nation/idea/etc. However, for Tillich, all these concerns are idolatrous in that they aren’t concerned with the infinite. How does Tillich get around this? Well, as a Christian he is concerned with the religious symbolism of God as an unconditional infinite Ground of Being. While I can make this work in my own mind, I fear that in our day and age, such terminology will never be socially useful because it would be annoying to try and explain in existentialist terms what you mean by “ultimate ground of being” everytime you mention that you have faith in God. So what should a good philosopher-atheist do? Take the Heideggerian path: situate your ultimate concern in terms of what you are already concerned with as an ontological being: your own being, your own life and how you live it, engaged and embodied in the world.

[To be continued]



Filed under Atheism, Philosophy, Theology

3 responses to “Atheism and Faith

  1. Samuel Skinner

    Everyone has dry spells. Of course, if you are a scientist, you may have them for the second half of your carreer, haunting you. Authors and philosophers are luckier.

    What we have here is something called “redefining the problem”. The mans definition has NO resemblance to what people actually do in reality- or to religion itself.
    For starters “comcern about the infinite” only applies to two things- theoretical mathmaticians, and cosmology (the universe might be infinite).

    His approach makes as much sense as saying atheists believe in God by defining God as soap.

    In addition, he misunderstands infinity. Infinity is NOT transendant. Transendant is something that “rises above”. Infinity is a way of describing something that doesn’t end. It is a direction, best illustrated in The Phantom Toll Booth. There is nothing really to think about it.

  2. Gary Williams

    I disagree that the term “infinite” can only be applied to theoretical and mathematical fields, because as I mentioned in the post, a lot of existentialist philosophy relies heavily on metaphors and imagery. This use of metaphors is crucial because its really hard and some would say impossible to discuss such matters in the classic Zen way i.e. teeth can’t bite themselves and the eye can’t look at itself. Such is the paradoxical problem of using language to talk about that which evades linguistic compartmentalization. How do you talk about the “infinite” or “transcendent” without the use of such metaphorical language? One option is to just not talk about such things at all and another is to use what you DO say to illustrate that which you CANT say(wittgenstein).

    I personally think that its useful to the human situation to discuss such matters regardless of how much you have to twist language because existential concerns have had a great impact on my mental life. Such language has transformed my perspective and given me greater insight into my own mind and the mind of others. If you can’t see the value in existential vocabulary, then more power to you, but for many of us, such language is useful in imparting a life-change.

    So, you can either stop talking about existential concerns and live your life, or you can confront them through language and utilize your intellect to break through the anxiety which plagues the human mind. As a philosopher, I opt to take the second route, but I am planning on getting paid to do so in the future, but thats just me:)

  3. Pingback: Atheism and Faith, part II « Minds and Brains

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