Interstices of the Sublime – Chapter 6 – Ages of the World and Creation ex Nihilo, Part I


Introduction: Theology’s Return to Tillich

Freud is supposed to have said to Jung, “they don’t realize we’re bringing them the plague”, with regards to America’s uncritical embrace of psychoanalysis. This also seems fitting to describe America’s reception of postmodernism. On the one hand, we have interpreters describing it as a threatening, abyssal nihilism, and on the other hand, some worship it as holy writ without realizing the ramifications. Both blind acceptance and automatic rejection are to be refused. Postmodern theory needs to be critically investigated for its strengths and shortcomings. Crockett goes on to argue that theology must orient itself towards postmodernism by taking Lacan seriously and returning to Tillich. However, this return to Tillich will be a circuitous one because “a theological return to Tillich must detour through Lacan’s return to Freud and Tillich via Lacan” (98). There are three reasons to return to Tillich. First, Tillich emphasized important intersections of culture and theology going so far as to claim that a cultural theology is much more revolutionary than any orthodox theology. Second, Crockett believes Tillich’s sincere honesty is a great resource for those doubting and will not lead to simple-minded solutions. Finally, Tillich’s theology stands in an interesting relation to the death of God. According to Crockett, Tillich’s statement that “God is being-itself” should be read along with Lacan’s statement “God is unconscious”. This sheds light on the fact that Tillich’s non-symbolic statement is to be placed in the Lacanian Real. Hence, our thinking of God is always symbolic and includes distortions that are inevitable when attempting to conceptualize the Real.

Tillich in Europe

Psychology is an awkward science. Universities often struggle knowing whether it should be understood as a natural or social science. Lacan preferred to differentiate the sciences as exact and inexact. He placed psychoanalysis in the inexact sciences. Crockett urges us to think of theology and religious studies as inexact sciences, which would afford these disciplines the freedom from being enslaved to social scientific methodology.

Tillich in American

Tillich’s stay in American impressed on him the importance of pragmatic considerations of all theoretical thinking. A radical theology must embrace pragmatism while simultaneously avoiding the traps of laziness and sloppiness that often accompany any focus on praxis. Crockett concludes by proposing that, “a sophisticated understanding of psychoanalytic theory can provide a medium to relate American and continental thought and theology, focused around a consideration that God is unconscious” (103). He then maps out an agenda for the next two chapters. First, he will read Schelling qua Tillich along with Schelling’s draft of Ages of the World. In chapter seven he will explore Schelling qua Zizek to compare and contrast the different readings both Tillich and Zizek offer to understand creation ex nihilo.

Schelling and Tillich

Tillich wrote two dissertations on Schelling, and Crockett focuses on the first one entitled The Construction of the History of Religion in Schelling’s Positive Philosophy. This is a study focused on Schelling’s middle and later period, which includes his drafts Ages of the World. During that period Schelling struggled to articulate the power and potencies that helped create a finite world from the absolute. “Tillich works out a theoretical understanding of the potencies from Schelling’s middle period, and then he follows the direction of Schelling’s later philosophy by situating his own conception of religion on top of that” (105). The unified duality of human will in Schelling is divided between nature (unconscious ground) and human consciousness, which is self-awareness. The unconscious activity is “real, expansive” while the conscious is “ideal, repulsive”. These different potencies are unified by the absolute will that does not will anything. This absolute, eternal will differentiates itself to produce reality by the movement of the two forces of expansion and contraction. According to Tillich, Schelling ultimately favored the unconscious ground thus introducing an irrational element into philosophy. Along with these two potencies Schelling conceives of a third potency, spirit. This third potency reconciles the first two potencies, which brings about a state of quiescence of the absolute identity. Although this sounds very Hegelian, Schelling differs here from Hegel by positing that fullness was present from the beginning. Tillich understands the unconscious ground potency as a state of relative nonbeing (pure potentiality); the conscious potency is a necessary being, which contracts “into determinate being of being that is for itself” (108). Spirit is the unity of the subject-object beyond the perspectives of the first two potencies.

Schelling in Itself

To explain the polarity between the two potencies, Schelling assumes an original unity or identity existed in the past. However, by trying to account for the unity, he ends up having to retroject this duality into the Absolute itself. From the struggle and conflict, Schelling postulates that an original state of quiescence. According to Schelling, everything that exists has a desire to remain in itself while evolving outwards. Every entity contracts itself into a determinate form, while the expansive force urges the entity to develop outside of itself. Furthermore, “this expansive force repeats the initial expansion of being and makes up the third potency, spirit” (109). Schelling conceives of the Absolute is in a state of indifference and it has the freedom to exist or not exist. In the Absolute, Schelling posits two wills. The first unconscious will desires nothing, and the other second will disrupts this calmness and generates excessive essence. The conflict between the wills in the Absolute is dramatically describes by Zizek. “God Himself…as it were, repeatedly dashes against his own wall: unable to stay within, He follows his urge to break out, yet the more He tries to escape, the more He is caught in His own trap” (111). Schelling then makes the move to equate these wills in the absolute with the two forces of nature (unconscious will with contracting potency, excessive will expanding potency). However, Schelling confuses terms because he wants to ground the expansive will as the excessive essence, when in reality the unconscious, self-negating actually generates essence. This shift in terms “serves a theological agenda to cast God as dark and threatening, while at the same time this dark unconscious ground is overcome by the expansive power of God’s love” (111).

Schelling for Tillich

Schelling’s though had a profound influence on Tillich’s Systematic Theology. Metaphors of ground and depth populate Tillich’s thinking on religion. The term ground was likely borrowed from Schelling’s irrational ground, although Tillich argues that there is both an irrational and rational element to ground. For Tillich the depths of reason and being can be related to the expansive potency in Schelling’s philosophy, whereas the structure of being and reason refer to the contractive potency that actualizes in particular essences. For Tillich, the unity takes places in the Word of God, which for Schelling was the spirit. Schelling also influenced Tillich’s theology on creation. For instance, Tillich wanted to dialectically relate being and non-being, but he ultimately rejected the Platonic me ontic understanding of being because of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Although Tillich wants to affirm a dialectical relationship of being and nonbeing with the conception of human finitude, he ultimately cannot reconcile this ontology with a Christian understanding of creation. Tillich’s doctrine of creation can be elucidated by Schelling’s thought. First, me on does not refer to external matter next to God, but rather the nothingness in the Absolute itself. This creation out of divine nothingness however “is a creation of finite creaturliness, which is or includes nonbeing” (115). Crockett summarizes it nicely, “[c]reation is an infinite process, while what is created is finite” (116). The first potency of an unconscious expansive potency is creation itself, while the contractive forces is responsible for the finite creatures.


3 Responses to “Interstices of the Sublime – Chapter 6 – Ages of the World and Creation ex Nihilo, Part I”

  1. Jeremy Says:

    I found this to be a fascinating section and it made me really want to read Zizek’s work on Schelling. However, when I got to the last section and watched Tillich struggle with creation ex nihilo, all I could think was is this doctrine really orthodoxy? I think Keller’s Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming argues quite convincingly both theologically and exegetically for a different, Jewish reading of Genesis 1. I’m curious how Tillich would’ve reacted to such an ambitious work.

  2. clayton crockett Says:

    Yeah, I think Tillich was really struggling with the tradition here, and drawn to me ontic creation but didn’t want to jettison ex nihilo. I think Keller’s tehom is a great solution too, although I argue for a re-interpretation of ex nihilo in the next chapter, via Lacan. So to be clear: I reject creatio ex nihilo in terms of theological metaphysical ontology–here I agree with Keller, but I retain a version of it in terms of language.

    When I had an email conversation with Keller about this, she had a great line–she said some of her best friends were ex-nihilists, which I thought was pretty great!

  3. Kamalini Martin Says:

    Hello, I’m from Bangalore, India, doing research on Schelling- propelled ‘unconciously’ (unwillingly? ;)) into philosophy of religion.
    I think Schelling’s (creative) nihilo was non-being as Aristotelian dunamis: infinite potential, moved into ‘actual’ power by energeia.
    There is also a great deal written on Schelling’s ‘indifference’ (Hegelian quote). I like to read it as ‘grounded’ on freedom, that is, pure possibility : the equipoised power to become either X or not-X. As I read Schelling, this is the ‘alpha’ of existence whereas the ‘omega’ is spirit, which is identity, that is, identity-in-difference, or wholeness of being, for instance, body-mind, nature-spirit, reason-emotion etc., all possibility being actualised. Only God is Absolute Identity, both alpha and omega, perfect purity of spirit. This reading accords well with aspects of both science and religion. I would welcome discussion on this.

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