Tag Archives: Paul Tillich

Emptiness is Abundance

“The most expressive form of art today in connection with religion might be sacred emptiness; an emptiness which does not pretend to have at its disposal symbols which it actually does not have. In all realms of life today we must have some emptiness. … On the basis of a preliminary sacred emptiness, something may develop.”

-Paul Tillich

I believe in the desert. I go there perennially, to remind myself how much I believe. Last weekend, I went out to Joshua Tree, which is a desert National Park about 80 miles east of Los Angeles. It’s a vast, empty, preserved land of rocks, cactus, desert flowers, and lizards. And it’s in my backyard—just an hour away from one of the most hectic, crowded, chaotic cities in the world.

It’s desolate. There’s really not much to see out there. No waterfalls, no amazing mountains, no grand canyons. There is hardly any water anywhere. And it gets hot.

But oh is it beautiful. On a cool spring morning, when the heat is still at bay and the smog hasn’t yet wafted in from L.A., it’s as clear and clean and magnificent as just about anywhere on earth. I can see why U2 named an album after the place.

It’s a place that makes one forget that the world is abuzz just miles down the highway, that there are outlet malls and casinos and Rat Pack mansions down in the valley (Palm Springs). It’s a place that reminds you that flowers can grow in the unfriendliest climates, out of chalky moon dirt that sees rain maybe 8 times a year. Above all, it’s a place that reminds you that there is beauty is the desolate and abundance in emptiness. There is so much inferred in the lack.

In terms of how we live, what we long for, and what we find beautiful—so often the nexus of it is something that is absent. Absence drives our existence more than just about anything. Absence, I suggest, galvanizes us in our protestations against apathy, malaise, and debilitating continence. It gives us a reason to be passionate, to burn brightly and agonize over things like truth and beauty. It gives us hope; and we need hope.

It is no coincidence that so many of our great art works and stories summon the glories and beauty of days gone by, or envisage other worlds, or invoke the images and destinies of what might be (horizons, open roads, the unknown future). All of this is about the beyond: something absent and thereby unbound by our mortal limitations. As Jack Kerouac writes of his restless journey in On the Road, “It was always mañana. For the next week that was all I heard—mañana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven.” We live for mañana, for tomorrow, for in our minds, tomorrow can be anything.

One of my favorite pieces of art is The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In that book (which I read every April), mañana is embodied in a green light that flashes from the dock of Daisy Buchanan—a light that Gatsby watches from across the bay, pining for something that remains absent in his life, despite his many successes. “It had gone beyond her, beyond everything,” Fitzgerald writes. “He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

For Gatsby, the green light was not really about Daisy, for she was just as mortal and flawed as him. His ambitions, like every human’s, were ultimately pointing toward that which could not be satiated within himself, or within another person, or with anything in this life. The green light is forever absent in this material world. And yet it still flashes, constantly, through the fog and across a vast expanse. It beckons us to look toward it, to look beyond, to see that the land it sits on is absent, but the light shining from it is present in our world, gleaming in our eyes and illuminating the darkness.

As we approach Easter, one of the most beautiful images of absence that I have been meditating on it that of the empty tomb. Like a sunset, this image is simultaneously joyful and tragic—joyful because it symbolizes a resurrected Jesus, tragic because it is a tomb: we see ourselves (and everyone we love) in it someday. When Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus first encountered the angel and the empty tomb, their immediate reaction was confusion and fright. Had someone stolen the body of Jesus? What was going on? But, as with so much in this life that appears stark and hopeless, there was a silver lining. Jesus was alive. There was hope through their tears, a holy reassurance in His absence. As the women fled the scene, they were “afraid yet filled with joy” (Matthew 28:8, TNIV)—and I wonder if this kind of joy isn’t the best kind there is. Joy amid fear, amid uncertainty, amid absence.

Art should not shy away from those things we associate with absence—loss, sadness, depravity, uncertainty. For without absence, there would be no reason for art. Art comes from the heart, and every human heart is like that empty tomb on Easter morning: missing something.

I Understand Very Little (Some Advent Thoughts)

Yesterday I read this Newsweek article that attempts to debunk the apparently misguided biblical argument against gay marriage. I will say nothing more about it, except that the article hammered home one major point: Christianity and the Bible are frightfully misunderstood.

For the past several weeks, I’ve been researching an article that I am writing on the “missional” movement in Christianity. I’ve been interviewing dozens of professors, theologians, pastors, and church historians in efforts to understand what “missional” is saying about the purpose of the Christian church in the world. I will say nothing more about it, except that it reminded me of one thing: even Christians have trouble agreeing upon what Christianity really means.

These two instances, in combination with scores of other things (including but not limited to the plane crash that killed four people in San Diego, Oprah getting fat, and Handel’s Messiah), have reinforced to me the deep and abiding mystery that is Christianity. I mean, the word and the religion are not all that mysterious, but how it all works—the birth of Jesus, the death, the resurrection, and all the fancy words we use to make sense of it all (incarnation, justification, salvation, atonement)—is utterly and unavailingly mystifying.

But really, could it be any other way? We’re talking about God here, the eternal, omni-everything Being of beings, the Ultimate Concern (as Tillich would say) who created all things… and he condescended to our little planet in the form of an infant? And as this human, the person that history recorded as Jesus Christ, God made himself fathomable. This is how I look at Jesus: as the form through which God revealed the knowable part of himself to his creation.

It makes sense that Jesus was the complicated, counterintuitive, controversial figure that he was. He was God in a man’s body—fully human and fully God. No wonder we’re still talking about, wrestling with, trying to make sense of this guy. No wonder people still argue about what he meant by this or that, or “what he would do” in this or that scenario. No wonder we pray to him and sing songs about him, and go crazy every December in commemorate his birth.

God (aka Yahweh) was pretty complicated and mysterious before Jesus happened (i.e. in the Old Testament), but his mystery increased exponentially when he became a human. I mean, who does that??? I’ve read the Bible many times, I’ve heard Paul and the others when they talk about why God sent Jesus to earth and to the cross. And I still can’t fully understand what is going on. I mean, I understand enough. I understand that it was all out of love, for me, for a divine purpose, and that it was God moving to rescue his creation from self-destruction and sin. I understand the creeds, the theology, and I believe it wholeheartedly. But so much of it is still totally over my head.

And that is why Advent and Christmas are so wonderful. They are blatantly, audaciously inexplicable. They embrace mystery. They are about the mystery of God and Jesus. It’s comforting to know that all these thousands of years later, with centuries of intellect and science and progress and theology, we are just as awed and brought to our knees by the mystery as we ever were. The phenomenon is just clear enough that it has survived millennia and will survive forever onward, and mysterious enough to be worthy of worship.

And so we’ll press on, continuing in faith to be the church that God founded through Christ for the world. We don’t have to understand it all to be useful or meaningful. God is using his people in ways they scarcely can imagine. Our cognizant compliance is irrelevant.

But thanks be to God that we can understand some things. In the Christmas star, the cold winds, the nostalgic reverie of tinseled trees and warm rum and spiced cakes.

We can understand some things.