Tillich, Pornography, and the Law

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For my psychodynamic psychopathology class we are reading an excellent text by Nancy McWilliams entitled Psychoanalytic Diagnosis. In a section on Obsessive and Compulsive personality structures she discusses how obsessives tend to employ the defense of reaction formation. This is illustrated by the young child who is jealous of his newborn baby sister and acts opposite to those feelings by being excessively doting and protective. Another favorite example of mine is the hyper-masculinity and anti-homosexual attitudes characteristic of many a male who unconsciously harbors homoerotic feelings.

In this text, McWilliams writes, “Every compulsively organized person seems to have one messy drawer. Paragons of virtue may have a paradoxical island of corruption: The eminent theologian Paul Tillich had an extensive pornography collection” (286).

Another text that discussed Tillich’s sexual side is Rollo May’s book Paulus: Tillich as Spiritual Teacher. He reminisces that at age 80 Tillich was still a very attractive man who commanded every women’s attention when he walked in the room. He even recalls a story where Tillich spent an afternoon with May’s future wife, and describes how Tillich and her explored a fantasy world (reminded me of something akin to Lord of the Rings). To make a long story short, at the end of the imagined adventure Tillich and May’s future wife fantasized together about the love they would make to bring the adventure to a close. May recounts not feeling jealousy but admiration for Tillich’s fantastical, whimsical nature (perhaps another example of reaction formation).

Obviously, McWilliams’ assessment of Tillich as a hypocrite because of his pornographic stash seems to completely misunderstand Tillich. In an interview posted on youtube. Tillich explains his dislike of moralistic piety. He prefers to have an ethic of love as opposed to one of Law.

Zizek explores a similar connection between the pastor who lambastes the sinfulness of pornography, but who is secretly involved with prostitutes. Zizek believes that to reduce the pastor to some pathetic hypocrite misses the point when it comes to the subject’s relationship to the Law. Paul, of course understood the subject’s relationship to the Law quite well, especially his understanding how an understanding of the Law is what initially makes one conscious of sin and guilt. A helpful example can be taken from the beginning of the spread of Islam. Certain ascetics would intentionally violate crucial laws: not fasting on Ramadan, not attending daily prayers, and not adhering to ablution rituals so as to make the mercy of Allah all the more apparent. Of course, this position is completely perverse and the exact position Paul’s enemies held (should we sin all the more to make God’s grace more abundant, no!). Again if we take Paul’s understanding of the Law as inviting the subject’s transgression we can better understand the televangelist’s seemingly paradoxical behavior. The pastor who preaches against the sinfulness of sexuality does not do so merely in bad faith, but rather his rallying cry against sexuality is the very thing that enjoins him to sin.

For me, then the problem with Tillich is not the ethic of love or pornography stash (I’ll save those thoughts for another day), but rather the naive way in which he gets there to ostensibly justify it. Being the good existentialist he was, radical freedom demanded that no laws could be passed down from generation because that would limit man’s free subjectivity. Hence, no laws are eternal, all we need to follow is an ethic of love. An extension of this manifests itself in his rather amorphous Christology of “new being”. I think a case could be made that Badiou’s reading of St Paul with his emphasis on grace, universality, and the resurrection parallels quite well with Tillich’s overall conception of Christianity. In fact, I would argue that Tillich’s engagement with theology in general need not even be considered Christian (I feel the same way about process theology). His “God beyond God” does not really require the Trinity nor does his concept of the “new being” demand Jesus of Nazareth’s concrete, historical existence (this helps explain why Tillich believed that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the same God as the God of the philosophers). Ultimately, both Tillich and Badiou falter because they cannot account for the Cross and sin (I’m no Tillichian, but does anyone know where he comments on the crucifixion?). They short-circuit the system by jumping straight to grace and the “new being”. The lack of negativity in both thinker’s system is also what makes both of their engagements with Christianity naive and idealistic. Finally, if we do not understand how the subject can readjust her relation to the Law then this might serve to encourages the perverse relation to the Law that needs to be avoided. One cannot merely jump to grace and freedom from sin without first accounting for how the subject can reorient his relationship to sin and the Law. Here, this is why it is especially important to remember Jesus was not against the Law in its entirety (a common anti-Jewish, Johannine influenced reading), but rather believed he had come to fulfill the Law.

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