Broken Myths, Dead Symbols, and a Stage 4 Faith: Rereading Tillich

A little while back, I referred to Paul Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith, but as I couldn’t locate my copy, I had to rely on a quote from James Fowler’s Stages of Faith.

I’ve since been able to find it, and have spent the last couple of days rereading it–much more slowly and appreciatively than when I first encountered it more than 20 years ago as a seminary assignment.

There is, in my mind, a synergy between Fowler’s Stages, Tillich’s Dynamics, and all the stuff I’ve been rereading from Postman. All of this has to do with my own discomfort with church-as-it-is (and to an extent, what I see it becoming). Some people might say I’ve lost faith–I don’t attend services regularly at the moment (although I don’t rule out a return, but as a different person than the one I was when I moved toward the metaphoric church door). Prayer is a very different, and much less frequent thing, than it was even five years ago.

But rereading Tillich and Fowler, I’m reassured that “loss of faith” is not what is happening. A moving on from conventional church participation is more the thing; the “problem” is more with the fact that church is not a welcoming place for those who move beyond conventional participation. My reading tells me that this is an entirely normal, predictable part of spiritual life. As much as I hate admitting anything about me is “predictable”, I am happy to know I’m not a complete aberration–at least to better minds than my own.

Religious symbolism, ritual, authority–all of this is helpful in the spiritual life. But it has its limits. What happens with most people is they get to about Fowler’s Stage 3, and rather than going on to Stage 4 and beyond, they become a more secure Stage 3: They know more about their tradition’s history, practice more of its spiritual disciplines. But, it seems, most never really get to the place where everything comes under question. And conventional religious leadership cannot cope with people who move into that stage.

The usual move (by both ordained ministers and believing lay people) is criticism, almost ridicule, toward those who do not hold the conventional religious party line. There is little in the churches that helps people who move onto a deep questioning of everything they have learned, heard, believed. And Tillich is absolutely right when he identifies what happens to believing people when they move into that questioning phase:

Many Christians, as well as members of other religious groups, feel anxiety, guilt and despair about what they call ‘loss of faith.’ But serious doubt is confirmation of faith. (Tillich, “Dynamics of Faith”, p. 22)

I have yet to hear anyone with so-called religious authority tell me this. Maybe I’ve just not encountered many minds as good as Tillich’s–but as Dynamics seems to be widely read in (at least Episcopal) seminaries, it’s not that those training for pastoral ministry haven’t had this put in front of them. I read it in my Introduction to Religion and Theology class–the very first term in my seminary study. What I wonder is, why is this not something that gets built on through the curriculum for aspiring ministers?

Why are we not helping people to see what is beyond the symbols, stories, and rituals? Tillich claims that these myths break down, the symbols die–we realize that they are symbol and myth, and once that happens, they are no longer effective at conveying the meaning they are assigned. But the meaning remains, and we strive for it.

Even the symbol of God.

Over the last few days, since I began my rereading of this short book, I’ve been shocked by how much a very short sentence resonates with where I am:

A god disappears; divinity remains. Faith risks the vanishing of the concrete god in whom it believes. (Tillich, ‘Dynamics of Faith’, p. 18)

Our churches–and my guess is, other religious institutions–are ill equipped to help people relate to the divine remnant when the concrete god has vanished. And the tendency is to ridicule, even ostracize, those who strive toward the divinity beyond the god represented in myth, ritual, and symbol.

Yet, that seems to me where a large portion of the Spiritual but Not Religious find themselves–reaching toward what Tillich calls “ultimate concern”, which the churches may have helped them recognize, but which is beyond church and ecclesiastical concerns. Large portions of American society now self-identify with the SBNR; I think it would benefit the churches to find better ways of relating–healing the myths, resurrecting the symbols–than to continue in the currently popular dismissal of serious faith that has moved beyond conventional religiosity.

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