Paul Tillich on Divine Omnipresence in a Spatially Monistic Universe

This is the third follow-up to the post, “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens“. The first follow-up post is here. The second post is here.

In the first volume of his Systematic Theology [Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Volume I: Reason and Revelation, Being and God (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1951)], the post-War liberal Protestant theologian Paul Tillich treats divine omnipresence.

The following is from pages 276-279.

(3) The meaning of Omnipresence: God’s relation to space, as his relation to time, must be interpreted in qualitative terms. God is neither endlessly extended in space nor limited to a definite space; nor is he [277] spaceless. A theology inclined toward pantheist formulation prefers the first alternative, while a theology with deistic tendencies chooses the second alternative. Omnipresence can be interpreted as an extension of the divine substance through all spaces. This, however, subjects God to dissected spatiality and puts him, so to speak, alongside himself sacrificing the personal center of the divine life. It must be rejected as much as the attempt to subject him to dissected temporality in terms of endless reiteration. Further, omnipresence can be interpreted to mean that God is present “personally” in a circumscribed place (in heaven above) but also simultaneously present with his power every place (in the earth beneath). But this is equally inadequate. The spatial symbols of above and below should not be taken literally in any respect. When Luther said that the “right hand of God” is not on a locus circumscriptus but everywhere, since God’s power and creativity act at every place, he destroyed the traditional interpretation of God’s omnipresence and expressed the doctrine of Nicolaus Cusandus that God is in everything, in that which is central as well as in that which is peripheral. In a vision of the universe which has no basis for a tripartite view of cosmic space in terms of earth, heaven, and underworld, theology must emphasize the symbolic character of spatial symbols, in spite of their rather literal use in Bible and cult. Almost every Christian doctrine has been shaped by these symbols and needs reformulation in the light of a spatially monistic universe. “God is in heaven”; this means that his life is qualitatively different from creaturely existence. But it does not mean that he “lives in” or “descends from” a special place.

Omnipresence, finally, is not spacelessness. We must reject punctuality in the divine life as much as simultaneity and timelessness. God creates extension in the ground of his life, in which everything spatial is rooted. But God is not subject to it; he transcends it and participates in it. God’s omnipresence is his creative participation in the spatial existence of his creatures.

It has been suggested that because of his spirituality God has a relation to time but not to space. It is affirmed that extension characterizes bodily existence, which cannot be asserted of God, even symbolically. But such an argument is based on an improper ontology. Certainly one cannot say that God is body. abut if it is said that he is Spirit, the ontological elements of vitality and personality are included and, with them, the participation of bodily existence in the divine life. Both vitality and personality have a bodily basis. Therefore, it is legitimate for Christian art to [278] include the bodily resurrected Christ in the trinity; therefore, Christianity prefers the symbol of resurrection to other symbols of eternal life; therefore, some Christian mystics and philosophers have emphasized that “corporality is the end of the ways of God” (Ötinger). This is a necessary consequence of the Christian doctrine of creation, with the rejection of the Greek doctrine of materia as an antispiritual principle. Only on this basis can the eternal presence of God be affirmed, for presence combines time with space. [fn. here: “The Latin word presentia as well as the German word Gegenwart contain a spatial image: ‘A thing which stands before one.’ “]

Tillich goes on to argue that

[I]n the certainty of the omnipresent God we are always in the sanctuary. We are in a holy place when we are in the most secular place, and the most holy place remains secular in comparison with our place in the ground of the divine life. Whenever omnipresence is experienced, it breaks down the difference between the sacred and the profane. The sacramental presence of God is a consequence of his omnipresence. It is an actual manifestation of his omnipresence, dependent of course on the history of revelation and the concrete symbols which have been created by it. His sacramental presence is not the appearance of somebody who is ordinarily absent and occasionally comes. If one always experienced the divine presence, there would be no difference between sacred and secular places. The difference does not exist in the divine life.

I am not certain that his understanding of sacramentality can claim a long pedigree within the Christian tradition. Regardless of whether Tillich is correct or not, I should also note that his notion of the difference between the sacred and the profane, while much better rooted in the tradition than his notion of the sacraments, appears differently when examined in historical profile. Perhaps I am simply weary of normative statements that are not explicitly historical.

His comments on Luther branch into history, however, although Tillich is rather brief in his treatment of Luther, here. Similarly, he is overly brief with his treatment of Nicholas of Cusa. Both require posts unto themselves. I will offer a few words in a following post about what I understand of Luther’s teaching on the body of Christ (both the ascended body and the body in the Eucharist), as this is highly relevant to the topics at which I was aiming in “Gagarin and the Seven Heavens”.

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Header image found here.

15 thoughts on “Paul Tillich on Divine Omnipresence in a Spatially Monistic Universe

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