Radical Theology and Faith vs Belief

In honor of Paul Tillich’s birthday (20 August) what follows combines Tillich’s helpful reminder of what faith is not with John Caputo’s musings on what faith in a radical theology (a la Derrida) might become.

Tillich3I happened to flip through Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith today and was struck by his insistence upon the difference between faith and belief. Well, that isn’t quite true. I had actually gone in search of this chapter on What Faith Is Not. I am frequently in search of one thing or another these days, and this time I actually found what I was searching for. What I am really in search of is a weak theology, a radical theology that takes my restless searching seriously. This theology must be one that does not offer cheap answers to difficult questions, or it could be one that doesn’t offer answers at all. I am less interested in answers and more interested in questions. My purusal of Dynamics of Faith today reminded me that Tillich also was less interested in certainty (belief) and more interested in the state of being ultimately concerned (faith), or in pursuing something, searching after something with one’s whole being. According to Tillich, “The most ordinary misconception of faith is to consider it an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence” (Dynamics of Faith, 36). Accepting theoretical knowledge as fact is a matter of belief, not faith. Faith, on the other hand, is unconcerned with fact and is something much more radical. Tillich understands faith as the state of being ultimately concerned. He makes very clear that one’s ultimate concern must be a concern for the ultimate, which sounds like circular reasoning but really means that one can’t be ultimately concerned about something mundane, ordinary, or non-ultimate. For him this ultimate would be something metaphysically distinct from our reality. While I don’t want to go in the metaphysical direction with Tillich just yet, I appreciate the radicality of his understanding of faith. The matter of ultimate concern reorients one’s life and actions toward that concern. This is not a simple affirmation of a set of beliefs or doctrines, but a call to a different way of operating in the world. Hence, while belief may seem cheap and easy as a matter of assent, faith requires responsibility.

This piece of responsibility and human action as a result of faith resonates with Caputo’s statements on faith in The Insistence of God. Unlike Tillich, Caputo is not interested in metaphysics or even in claiming God’s ultimacy. Yet he is interested in a radical understanding of faith that again reorients one’s entire self toward a different and risky way of life. “I measure theology by the extent to which it avoids the pitfalls of a too-comforting piety…” writes Caputo (Insistence, 24). While belief and approximations to fact or theoretical knowledge may provide some comfort, this is quite possibly entirely antithetical to the Christian message. Faith for Caputo is faith in the event, the means by which we are called upon in the name of God. (for more on the event and radical theology, see this post) The very nature of the structure of events is such that they surprise us and impinge upon us in unsuspected ways, meaning that the comforting piety of belief simply won’t do. “If the name of God is not causing us a great deal of difficulty, it is not God we are talking about” (Insistence, 28). What gets itself called in the name of God, what arrives via the event is, like Tillich’s state of being ultimately concerned, a bit risky and shaky. There is no guarantee that all will be well, at least not in any immediate sense, but nevertheless our responsibility lies in responding to the call, to the event.

Life is messy and raises messy questions; therefore, easy answers just don’t work. Moreover, easy living misses the point. “God’s problem is that God insists, is an insistent problem that won’t go away…” (Insistence, 29). Such insistence requires something of us. If God insists and we exist, then our existence becomes the means by which God acts in the world. This radical theology is not a sit on your laurels, cling to your favorite worship song sort of theology, but is one that calls us out. Thus faithfulness to the event or faith as the state of being ultimately concerned does not rest in easy answers; it finds no solace in piety and prostration, but calls us out of church buildings and into the fray to deal with the messines of the world.