We all have our doubts about Paul Tillich (heresy, philandering, or the embarrassingly earnest Christian existentialist phase you had in college), but he crafted some seriously good Protestant ethics in a small tract called Morality and Beyond. With his trademark psychological acumen, he’s one of the few ethicists who casts the question in Law/Grace terminology. I have my doubts, too, but the narrative he traces is a compelling one, and it produces passages of startling insight.
First, humans, unlike God, are different in our existence from the way we are in our essence. This idea has been central for centuries in Christian ontology, but Tillich’s version of it is more psychological. Humanity’s essence is love, service, obedience to God – epitomized by the life of Christ. In its actual existence, however, human life departs radically from its essence. Innocence is lost; we give in to temptation; in actualizing our freedom and power, we estrange ourselves from simple obedience to God. Conscience, therefore, becomes “the silent voice of man’s own essential nature, judging his actual being.”
In simplistic terms, the voice of conscience, reminding us of the gap between “is” and “ought” in our lives, is what Kant universalized in his idea of the categorical imperative. In partially affirming Kant, Tillich takes the ontology of the Law more seriously than many others labeled “Christian existentialists” – Kierkegaard, for instance, errs on the side of conflating it with mystical love (according to Tillich).
For Tillich, the origins of the moral law are phenomenal. The phenomenon of encounter with another person places the demand upon us that she be respected fully as a person; when this phenomenon passes from individual demand to collective demand (respect all people as persons), the moral demand becomes an ideal: justice. Although this idea can of course be anchored in the Bible, and indeed is, Tillich addresses himself to the skeptic in basing his ethical system upon a primal encounter with another person. Because of this anchor in everyday experience, justice in ethics is not adequate if it is abstracted away from personal relationships into a depersonalized system of equality. For this reason, justice must be anchored in love, specifically the Greek agape, which transcends and includes justice because of its unity of personal love and concern for general well-being. With this philosophy of ethics in place, we turn to moral motivation.
Like Luther, Tillich finds Law/Grace to be a true-to-life dynamic that describes the elements of personal moral decision in an accurate way – Law and Grace cut to the heart of the matter. Like Luther, too, Tillich explores the ontological goodness of the Law and the practical opposition of Law and Grace, holding the two in tension while treating each with the utmost seriousness:
Can the commanding law, which presupposes the contrast between our essential and our actual being, motivate us to transform ourselves in the direction of reuniting the actual with the essential [i.e., living up to the Law in our inmost being]? The first logically consistent answer: it cannot! For the very existence of the commanding law is based on that split. The law (in the following sections used only in the sense of the commanding law) is an expression of man’s estrangement from his true nature. How would it be able to overcome that estrangement? The logically unavoidable answer is also the psychologically experienced answer. The command to be good does not make us good. It may indeed drive us toward evil!
The Law is foremost an expression of our distance from the ideal and, as such, it cannot possibly heal the divide:
…Let us consider this answer in several realms of experience. Most contemporary is the psychotherapeutic discovery that the least effective way of treating a person under a destructive compulsion – alcoholism, for example – is to direct him in terms of a moral command, “Don’t drink any more!” No psychoanalyst worthy of his profession would commit such a destructive error…The patient would withdraw to his freedom to contradict himself, even though he might then destroy himself. The patient, in this action, defends a decisive element in human freedom…it is precisely the pathological loss of power to respond to moral commands that makes these persons patients.
The great insight of modern psychotherapy, according to Tillich, is to accept the patient as she is, which then may produce change of its own accord:
[Once the power of compulsion is broken in therapy], the further question must be raised whether the moral law, appealing to their freedom, has motivating power, or whether it is powerless without a religious element in it – the religious element being an acceptance that transcends the psychotherapeutic distinction between healer and healed.
Amazing stuff! Simul iustus et Tillich, indeed.