A week of study leave has me returning to read one of my favorite twentieth century theologians, Paul Tillich, and his book Dynamics of Faith. Tillich was devastated by what he experienced in World War I as an army chaplain. In war’s aftermath, his work sought to address the emptiness and anxiety of meaningless people felt. He was a humanist and a lover of literature, poetry and art—which is probably why he is my favorite. Tillich speaks of God in language like no other; his words are lyrical, poetic and hopeful. Turning to Tillich today, it is eerie to resonate with a man’s words about Nazi Germany, the idolatry of nationalism, and all its consequences.
Tillich defines faith as the “state of being ultimately concerned.” We, as human beings, have faith in many things—faith in family, money, education, institutions, the strength of our military, our nation. Tillich’s definition, though, raises the question of what is the “ultimate” or final state of our faith? What have we placed on top? Whatever we humans prioritize as our ultimate concern influences everything else.
For instance, Tillich writes:
If a national group makes the life and growth of the nation its ultimate concern, it demands that all other concerns, economic well-being, health and life, family aesthetic and cognitive truth, justice and humanity, be sacrificed.
Our nation’s new isolationist mantra, “Make America Great Again,” comes to mind as I read this warning from Tillich with the sacrifices of truth, justice and humanity playing out daily in the news. I, like many of you, am at a loss for what to do about this evil except find ways to recognize, address and overcome the seeds of isolationism, racism and white supremacy within myself and actively resist it in the society of which I am a part.
In light of this week’s news of children separated from their parents and locked in detention centers along our Southern border and the U.S. backing out of the United Nations Human Rights Council, my prayer is that we, as a nation, might give ourselves to something larger and higher than our own or our nation’s welfare—something more like Jesus’ ultimate concern from Luke 10, that leads to life, rather than tragedy, injustice and death.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. Do this, and you will live.