arguments for God’s existence :: Paul Tillich

by Eric Daryl Meyer

I’ve been delighted by a few gems here and there while reading through Paul Tillich’s Systematic Theology, but one of the best so far has been his treatment of arguments for the existence of God. Beyond a bit of freshman excitement, I can’t say that I’ve ever invested myself too heavily in arguing for God’s existence—it has just never seemed like the sort of thing where arguing actually did much good.

Well, Paul Tillich gave the issue a genuinely intelligent treatment that I haven’t heard before in quite these terms:

It is a remarkable fact that for many centuries leading theologians and philosophers were almost equally divided between those who attacked and those who defended the arguments for the existence of God. Neither group prevailed over the other in a final way. This situation admits only one explanation: the one group did not attack what the other group defended.

Tillich goes on to argue that, among other confusions, attributing “existence” to God is already problematic insofar as it renders God a determinate Being among beings.

Actually they [the scholastics] did not mean ‘existence.’ They meant the reality, the validity, the truth of the idea of God, an idea which did not carry the connotation of something or someone who might or might not exist.

He continues by arguing that every argument for the existence of God is more or less a failure qua argument, but that these arguments are unparalleled statements of the inerradicable question mark overhanging human finitude.

The arguments for the existence of God neither are arguments nor are they proof of the existence of God. They are expressions of the question of God which is implied in human finitude. This question is their truth; every answer they give is untrue.

What the arguments end up “proving” is that there are trajectories in the structure of human existence that remain inexplicable in terms of human experience.

The ‘first cause’ is a hypostatised question, not a statement about a being which initiates the causal chain….In the same way, a ‘necessary substance’ is a hypostatized question, not a statement about a being which gives substantiality to all substances.

The finite conditions of goodness, being, causation, truth, meaning, purpose, etc., all depend for their validity on some unconditioned Highest instance. The trouble occurs when this necessary structural position in human thought and experience is identified, point blank, with God. Onto-logical necessities are taken to indicate the existence of a highest Being. Unfortunately, this is already to “fit” God into the structure of Being-as-we-know-it, which is an implicit denial of God’s transcendence. God is, of course, wilier than to be pinned down so easily!

All quotes from Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology I (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 204-210.