“There is something precious in our being mysteries to ourselves, in our being unable ever to see through even the person who is closest to our heart and to reckon with him as though he were a logical proposition or a problem in accounting.”

Rudolf Bultmann

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 strange thing for a theologian to say! 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 an affirmation.

(At patheos.com 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  his mysterious words interest me.


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 multivalent that it can mean 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: http://bigthink.com/Picture-This/finding-the-lighter-side-of-mark-rothko





Smoke and mirrors

All political power is primarily an illusion… Mirrors and blue smoke, beautiful blue smoke rolling over the surface of highly polished mirrors… If somebody tells you how to look, there can be seen in the smoke great, magnificent shapes, castles and kingdoms, and maybe they can be yours.”

American journalist Jimmy Breslin. In his Notes from Impeachment Summer.

my real self wanders elsewhere

“My real self wanders elsewhere, far away, wanders on and on invisibly and has nothing to do with my life.”

Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

“What could I say to you that would be of value, except that perhaps you seek too much, that as a result of your seeking you cannot find.”

Hermann Hesse, Siddharta

Certain books one read as a youth seem to make a fatal imprint upon one’s life, or to remain with one like the memory of a young love. Long afterwards, even as we move on with our lives and we change both within ourselves and our relationships, something of this first love remains like a lingering scent.

I discovered Hermann Hesse in my mid teens: Narcissus and Goldmund, Damian and Siddhartha were significant books for me. In one sense they reflected my own discontent with the Scheinwelt, a sense that there was an unknown path to be walked, that “my real self walked elsewhere”.

Hesse’s Buddhist sensibility was – at least to me then – free of overtly Buddhist parlance – it was expressed through beautifully told stories, an easily accessible idiom.

It was the opposite of the sort of de rigeur nonsense that passes as Buddhism in a self-obsessed capitalist-consumerist West, where even the way of enlightenment becomes one more commodity, an exercise in self-branding, a way to serve at the altar of Self.

To have been exposed to Hesse in an oppressive, late-1970’s South Africa was a liberating experience for me. In a conservative patriarchal society ruled by an authoritarian spirit, and in a family dominated by an authoritarian father, Hesse represented a window on another world for me, a world where kindness and gentleness prevailed, where the coldness and sterility of life was challenged by an altogether different spirit of peace and – for fear of sounding “New Age” – for want of a better term, a spiritual expansiveness.

I suppose that as I grew older I grew away from Hesse, much as his Siddhartha found his own way apart from the Buddha. It is not a platitude to say we are all making our own journey, even if we are unaware of it, even though it’s beginning is forgotten and it’s end beyond the horizon of our comprehension. Perhaps it is a journey to awakening, to a knowing, to authenticity. I don’t think it is a journey in any way like the journeys that the guru, life coach and motivational speaker would have us make.

As a result of your seeking you cannot find”. 

Counterintuitive perhaps, or perhaps it reflects the Psalmist’s words:
Be still, and know I am God.”


We are so much like the seafarers of old, insisting that we are captains of our own ships, forgetting that the wind and ocean currents may force us from our charted course. And yet at every turn we encounter the belief system- so intimately linked to the capitalist metanarrative – that we can be in control. Life’s vicissitudes prove otherwise: death (the discussion of which is practically anathema in a society which fetishizes youth and “the new” and which displaces death into movies and videogames where once again it becomes a servant of our own self-interest) is the ultimate negation of our conceit. Death scrambles our radar, eviscerates our charts.


Every weekday evening on the radio financial “experts” discuss “the markets”, confident they can turn it’s volatility to profit. Financial experts remind us how under-insured most of us are, and we feel a twinge of resentment towards this elite few with their offshore investment portfolios. The advertising industry ensures the sense of anxiety is sustained at fever pitch, constantly reminding us that if we only buy this or that we will be more loveable, more acceptable, that our worth is somehow directly correlated to our ability to aquire “stuff.”

But all of this is Scheinwelt, maya, a world of illusions, smoke an mirrors.


What are we to make of Christ’s words to the rich young man, “Go, and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me”?

Too radical for us, too challenging to our shabby egotism and our obsession with money, we casually ignore and explain away Christ’s words. Fetishizing money, lost in our own idolatrous phantasms, we easily pervert Christ’s teachings to endorse our own avarice. Creflo Dollar (Google him if you really want to get depressed) is but one example of such aberation: the Word of Faith movement shows us how insidiously widespread heterodoxy has become, how the moneychangers have crept back into the temple with their rickety tables, tatty doves and their grubby coins.

What if the young man had followed Jesus? What would have become of his ‘financial planning’? What of the navigational charts he’d carefully prepared for his life? We know that the Shepherd was soon to be crucified, his sheep scattered, and terrible persecution was to follow. Would the young man not have been ill-advised to follow the Teacher? And as for the aforementioned Mr Dollar: would he put the persecution of the early church down to their lack of faith?

A definition: Scheinwelt: illusory world, a world of appearance.