Grasped by ultimate concern

It is nearly eight years since I wrote my first article for this blog. The piece was not so much an article as a short welcome to prospective readers of what was hoped to become something of substance. It was published on 20 July 2012.
After sixteen years of teaching secondary school Humanities, I was about to retire from all forms of employment that stretched back to 1960 – when I began work in a relatively short career as a Telecommunications Technician with the Australian Post Office. In between the latter (teacher – 1996-2012) and the former (technician – 1960-1966), I served the Christian Church, in a thirty-year career, as an Ordained Minister of the Baptist denomination.
During the past eight years I have had the opportunity of reflecting on those years and the requisite three careers that have now passed into history and memory. Much of that reflection has found its way into the articles that have appeared in this blog. Someone said to me recently that, by reading the last paragraph of each article, you can usually tell what each of them has been about. In so doing, continued the commentator, the reader would discover that the blog has been about one of “politics, religion or royalty”.
Should that same commentator search through the 149 previous articles comprising this blog, it would reveal that such a conclusion would be incorrect. This blog has contained a substantial volume of articles concerned with such disciplines as music, literature, philosophy and ethics, history and comment of a more personal nature. The sub-heading for the website locating the blog articles says that it is “A site for the examination of and commenting on life and time.” On inspection and as the author of the articles, it occurs to me that the blog has to do with what, in a general manner of speaking, could be described as “culture”.
For our purposes The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “culture” as: 1 a. the arts and other manifestation of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively, b. a refined understanding of this; intellectual development, 2. The customs, civilisations and achievements of a particular time and people. In short, life and time!
Coincidentally or otherwise, it seems timely that, as I recently was running my eyes over a now aging and little used theological library, my gaze alighted on a small book which, whilst protected with a plastic cover, nevertheless, showed the signs of age and use. An address label on the inside of the book’s cover indicated that it had once resided, with the same owner, at an address in Melbourne, Australia, attesting to the fact of the book’s longevity (it was published in this reprinted edition in 1972).
The name of the book is Theology of Culture. It was written by Paul Tillich, the German theologian and philosopher of religion. Dr Paul Tillich is, by general consent, the 20th century’s best known and most creative writer on religion. Perhaps the widest read and most influential publications of Paul Tillich are Courage to Be and his scholarly volumes on Systematic Theology.
Theology of Culture is a little gem of a book. It draws together fifteen of Paul Tillich’s finest essays, “in which a diversity of contemporary attitudes and problems is brought within the wide scope of his philosophy.” By discussing religion in relation to art, psychoanalysis, (the philosophy of) Existentialism, science and education, Dr Tillich shows “the religious dimension in many special spheres of man’s cultural activity.” He compares the cultures of “Europe and America, America and Russia, and the philosophies of Protestantism and Judaism.”
Tillich provides a definition of “religion” that I adopted and used for many years. He states that “religion is being ultimately concerned about that which is and should be our ultimate concern. This means that religious faith is a state of being grasped by an ultimate concern, and God is the name for the object and content of that concern (whatever that concern may be).” He is pointing to an existential, not a theoretical, understanding of religion – a God grounded in human existence and experience; not one that is supernatural, supra-terrestrial or defined by dogma and submerged in formulae.
Paul Tillich is equating religion with radical questioning about what is the meaning of human existence. He does so against the background of what is happening to human beings in the 20th century – world and continental wars, economic crisis, wealth inequality, scientific discoveries, disparities in education, and the meaningless of so much that is part of human life. As I reflect on his writings, situated as I am in the early part of the 21st century, and do so against the background of the troubles, travails and terrors of contemporary life and times – in a word “culture” – to this list I would add worldwide terrorism, the full force of market globalisation, and the environmental crisis.
The over-arching invitation of Theology of Culture is for the reader, indeed, for humanity, to discover through all the exigencies of contemporary living what is of ultimate concern and importance for human life – what is ultimately important for me! In this discovery God and the purpose of humanity, indeed, what it means to be a person, are to be found.
Some years ago, around the period of the pinnacle of Paul Tillich’s literary influence, it was said that the kind of thinking represented by his works and words, as encapsulated in Theology of Culture, is part of “the expression of the great revolution within and against Western industrial society which was prepared in the nineteenth century and is being carried out in the twentieth.”
As I conclude this, my 150th blog article, it seems clear to me that the thoughts and words of Dr Paul Tillich, his philosophy of God and of human existence, resonate as much in the 21st century as they ever did.


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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