Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Blame It On Tillich

Occasionally and with much regret, I ponder the times in my past when I was incredibly foolish in buying into sophisticated rationalizations for acting in very ungodly and self-centered ways. In other words, it is very painful to see how I have been so adept at justifying sin in my life.

There have been several periods in my younger years in which I indulged in things that were clearly wrong, but in each instance I had convinced myself that what I was doing was okay and even sanctioned by God in some form or another. Then there have been sinful desires that I nurtured even into my beginning years as a pastor by deeming them as "natural" and "human affirming," like viewing sexy movies as "artistically expressive" or promoting sustained anger as a just response to whatever I perceived to be injustice. Like Eve in the third chapter of Genesis, I could not just directly disobey God by eating the fruit of the tree of knowing good and evil. First, it was important to find some "good" reason for eating the fruit, something that would justify the action as right and worthy. In this way, I was able to fool myself, and even like Eve was able to openly defy the clear Word of God while convincing myself that I was acting in a righteous - albeit self-righteous - manner.

The problem for me has always been my fear of missing out on all of what life has to offer. I have this voracious appetite for living life to the fullest. This is what attracted me to following Jesus in the first place. When I walked down that sawdust trail to give my life to Christ, it was in response to a sermon emphasizing that in Christ we can have life that is abundant and full. This is something I desperately desired, and still do. However, I've since discovered Satan has my number on this, and has used it to lure me into his dark domain where he can then influence my thinking and my living. After all, Satan can not tempt or torment any follower of Jesus unless we willfully choose to descend into darkness, for only there is Satan's power wielded with effectiveness against God's people.

Obviously, if I had been more diligent at studying the Word and immersing myself in prayer, there would have been less opportunity for me to be led astray, but where I became most open to yielding myself to evil's influence came not through the blatant attractions of defiance and immorality, but through my thorough and prolific study of philosophy and theology. In fact, I can even pinpoint the theologian and writing that most equipped me for justifying my sin, and that was Paul Tillich and his little book, Love, Power, and Justice. While I read Tillich primarily to "know how the enemy thinks," the subtleties of his reasoning were (dare I say) "beautiful." His use of existentialism in constructing a reality that ennobles all human desires in a struggle with the "void of non-being" profoundly resonated with my fear of missing out on living life to the fullest. Even though my copy of this little book is marked up with very negative comments that I wrote in the margins, his sophisticated reasoning captured something deep within me.

I thought I had mastered an understanding of Tillich, his thought had instead mastered me, thus now enabling me perniciously to justify my own sinful desires as being intrinsically "human" desires that need to be expressed in order to live fully. I began to see life as a Promethean struggle against all that would negate or demean the goodness and worthiness of basic human instincts. In this way, even the most vile desire of the flesh can be made to be a noble quest for discovering meaning. And like most who embrace this path for human potential or self-authentication, the wounds incurred become scars of honor for one's courage to go into the forbidden areas of life. This is a major theme in writers like Hemingway, Henry James, Balzac, Joyce, and Sartre. What is clearly revealed as sin in the light of the Word of God becomes rationalized as a courageous path for becoming fully human. In one sense, this lie of evil is sadly very truthful as one does discover what is fully human, but human in the sense of our deep alienation from God and the nightmare of regret-filled despair.

So, do I blame it all on Tillich? No, for it was the evil in my own heart that simply seized on Tillich's brilliant reasoning as a tool for justifying doing sinful things. Thankfully, the light of God's Word and the prayers of many faithful fellow disciples enabled me to recognize the darkness as the domain of Satan, and lifted me up into the life of the Spirit of God. Thankfully, it is only in God's Word that a remedy is found for being "fully human" in the sinful sense. Only in the Christ is there the healing grace of God that enables me to overcome the despair of my sin with the hope of God. Only when we can be lifted into the presence of God and find acceptance despite our unworthiness is the fullness of life truly discovered as God the Creator of life meant it to be.

As Irenaeus wrote so long ago - in a manner similar to Tillich's but infused with the light of God's Word - "the glory of God is man fully alive." But this is not mere life seeking to make its own meaning out of human existence; no, this is life that is from God, of God, by God, and for God. Homo adorans, human life that glorifies God, not justifying our sinfulness.