An impossible God

God does not exist. He is being-itself beyond essence and existence.
Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.

– Paul Tillich

What a bizarre statement for a theologian to make! But once you recover from the shock of the first part of his statement, the second sentence goes some way to clarifying the first, and we see that this is not a denial of God, but a profound and radical affirmation.

(At there is an essay by Daniel Fincke, written in some measure against Tillich, titled “The Impossible God of Paul Tillich”
Fincke finds Tillich guilty of a kind of pantheism, and I can see why. Yet the disquiet at his strange, existentialist theology has a peculiar resonance for me. I don’t claim to have read much of Tillich’s work, so my view isn’t relevant really – it is just a novice’s point of view.

I think that a Christianity which has witnessed the catastrophes of the twentieth century – the Great War and the Second World War both nightmare events in the history of the world –  and waged by so-called “christian nations” – must inevitably discover its very language has become deeply suspect. A ‘traditional theodicy’ essentially collapses in the face of the magnitude of such events. Perhaps a traditional theodicy was murdered in the gas chambers.

(WWI: estimated to be 10 million military dead, 7 million civilian deaths, 21 million wounded, and 7.7 million missing or imprisoned. WWII: Over 60 million people died in World War II. Estimated deaths range from 50-80 million. 38 to 55 million civilians were killed, including 13 to 20 million from war-related disease and famine).


When words have become the domain of propaganda and double-speak, when meanings shift and change or are perverted so radically that these meanings are obscured and destroyed, it is inevitable that another language would be sought.

The word “God” itself is so promiscuous that it means a million contradictory things. It is at once the deity of the Islamist suicide bomber, the deity of the charlatan televangelist and so on.

The designation Christian can cast you into the company of intolerant and ignorant fundamentalists in some narrow corner of Texas, or a group of kind and tolerant quakers in rural England, or into the company of Syriac Orthodox believers in Baghdad.

I read somewhere that it is no accident that after the First World War, western art turned increasingly to abstraction, as if it could no longer bear to reflect reality (or rather the “maya”, the phantasmagorical world we have made for ourselves). Tillich’s theology is, for me, like a Rothko painting. I remember sitting silently in the Tate Gallery in London completely overwhelmed by a nameless emotion before the restrained, silent grandeur of Rothko’s large canvases. I was transfixed, moved beyond words. I think this is where Tillich takes us, his theology taking the path of artists and poets. I may be wrong: perhaps it is as Fincke says, that “Much of Tillich’s theology looks like a pantheistic or pagan theology onto which a superficial layer of exhausted Christian ideology is painted. That paint peels off easily”.

images (2)

I do see Paul Tillich the philosopher and theologian as a kind of painter, and his paintings are in some sense like those of Rothko. Imagine sitting before Tillich’s mysterious “painting” – perhaps like “Untitled” above: the abstract painting of his theology. If you sit quietly enough, If you can silence the cacophony of the everyday, and suspend the clutter of received, conventional wisdom of the divine which can cloud the soul, you may hear the quiet voice of God.

Image: Mark Rothko. Untitled, 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 92 × 78 7/8 in. (233.7 × 200.3 cm). Private Collection. © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko. See:






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s