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Maxine, via the Internet, writes:


Question:

I do not know what is meant by the term “Ground of All Being” used by Paul Tillich and you. I do not get a concept of what the term means. I need someone to explain it to me in more understandable terms.

I have read all of Marcus Borg’s books and can understand his terminology of Panentheism, but am lost on what is meant by “Ground of All Being.”

 

Answer:

Dear Maxine,

Part of the power of that phrase, “Ground of All Being” is that it resists definition, so your quandary is both normal and natural. The phrase represents a rebellion against the idolatrous God definitions that mark human history. Historically, we human beings have defined God by analogy. God was like the tribal chief; God was like the king; God was like the father figure; God was like the judge. Then someone realized that all these images were male, so God by definition did not represent 50% of the human race. Human beings needed a God image bigger and more inclusive than that of an all-powerful male.

We also noticed that the duties ascribed to the powerful male deity began to shrink as we learned more about how the universe operated. Were natural disasters instruments of God’s hostility? For centuries that was our explanation. Some primitive and unlearned religious figures still traffic in that kind of nonsense. It was Jerry Falwell who stated on television that the tragedy of 9/11 was caused presumably by God since America needed to be punished for tolerating abortion, feminism, homosexuality and the American Civil Liberties Union. Pat Robertson announced that the earthquake in Haiti was an expression of the Divine wrath at the Haitians for throwing the French out and declaring independence.

The God understood as a supernatural male simply was no longer big enough to be the object of human worship. The question then was does this mean that there is no such thing as God? Or does it mean that our understanding and definition of God is so inept as to be false and misleading. The push to begin to think of God, not as a being, but as the Ground of Being was the result of this struggle.

The phrase was introduced into philosophical language with the work of Plotinus in the third century (204-270 CE). It proved to be emotionally unsatisfying and so it languished. It was brought into Christianity and popularized by a man named Paul Tillich (1886-1965), who probably became the most influential Christian theologian in the 20th century. It presents us with a concept of God in whom all that is, is rooted. It suggests that God is an idea or presence that permeates all living things. It suggests that the more deeply and totally each of us can be all that we are capable of being, the more we make the God who is the Ground of Being visible. It sees the divinity of Jesus not in incarnational terms in which God is thought to have invaded the realm of the human, but as a human life which expanded until humanity was seen as part of what God is. It suggests that good is the enhancement of being and that evil is the denigration of being. Ultimately, this concept of God challenges traditional Christianity at every point.

I got my theological degree in 1955 from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. My professor of theology, Clifford L. Stanley, was a thoroughgoing Tillichian. He challenged me in every way imaginable. The difficulty was that he was a lone voice on that faculty of “traditional believers” and so the thought of Paul Tillich was never integrated into the rest of Christianity. That has not happened yet. The concept of an external “theistic Being” operating on or in the world no longer has credibility and still the churches pray “Our Father, who art in heaven,” and speak of an intervening God who knows all and sees all.

To re-image God from a being to the Ground of Being is a theological revolution of the first order. The leader or the church that tries to achieve that revolution will probably be defeated or will die trying. Not to participate in that revolution, however, is also to die.

Yes, understanding the idea of God as the Ground of Being is difficult. It may never become clear to millions, but not to face the reality that God, understood as a being who is supernatural in power is also doomed, is the first step that must be taken.

To put it another way: If one ceases to be a theist does that make one an atheist or can one be a non-theist and a profound Christian at the same time? I vote for this latter possibility, but I do not see many churches, denominations or theological seminaries either willing or capable of entering this arena. I think that is tragic because the future of Christianity lies in the willingness to walk into this uncharted territory.

John Shelby Spong

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