Pat Conover: Sharing the Journey
Class 6 - Dialectic Theology

Bay Bridge Morning by Thomas Hawk
Pat Conover
April 29, 2008

When I talk about dialectic theology I am talking about the theology of Paul Tillich. You should know that I am biased and consider Tillich to be the greatest theologian of the 20th Century. He wrote a three volume set of Systematic Theology that I found so engaging that I spent half my study time over three years of seminary study reading the three books. Then I used Tillichian thinking to construct my constructive chapter in my M. Div. thesis and then again in my Ph. D. dissertation in sociology.

The aspect of Tillich's work that we will claim for this class is his dialectic thinking. Tillich believed that many of the great truths, the great organizing concepts for thinking about life and the world, came in dialectic pairs. A dialectic truth holds two apparently opposite truths in tension with each other. Instead of having two polar opposites at two ends of a spectrum, say the numbers one and zero, or the colors black and white, Tillich saw apparently opposite ideas as intrinsically interrelated.

The three dialectic tensions that he used the most are the concepts of being and becoming, of freedom and destiny, and of individuation and participation. You can see the same kind of intrinsic connections between thinking and feeling or order and chaos, and in other areas as well. Even when two concepts don't really match up well as a formal dialectic tension, the spirit of Tillich's writing is not so much to win an argument by proving a single point but rather to claim all the truth in a discussion and then work at figuring out how it fits together. Several philosophical or theological systems, particularly the work of Aristotle and his philosophical descendants, are good at making distinctions, good at definitions. Tillich is good about pulling things together. The key words are integration and engagement.

Another great contribution of Tillich is to think about the trinity as three ways of knowing God, making the doctrine of the trinity an epistemological rather than a metaphysical construct. God the Father, also known as God the Creator, becomes the "Ground of Being."The Son, also known as Jesus the Christ, becomes the Logos, the form of God living among us. The Holy Spirit becomes the Divine Presence or the Spiritual Presence, the ongoing action of God.

While Tillich's work is systematic and "heady,"it is grounded in the Christian response to our existential condition, our finiteness, our loneliness or estrangement, and our hopelessness.

Assignment for the small groups

Discuss the following question. You are free to do whatever you want so why should you try to discern and then follow the calling of God?

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