Updated: Sep 10, 2019
Only a few years after the end of World War II, Paul Tillich, a German-American theologian, published a collection of sermons entitled, “The Shaking of the Foundations.” I recently bought a copy and have started reading these (surprisingly timely) interpretations of Christian Scriptures. A few sermons into the text, the aged blue and white and black and grey cover—as well as the original price of $1.25 on the top left corner—are the only indicators that these words were penned seventy years ago.
The chaos and turmoil, the tension and unrest which Tillich describes sounds rather familiar to me as I scroll through my Facebook and Twitter feed, seeing videos, articles, and statuses about school-shootings, walk-outs, celebrity appearances and performances at protests, name-calling from all corners, personal hurt, and systematic inefficiency (not to mention obvious corruption and oppression).
As a relatively young person, it is difficult for me to imagine what the cultural climate must have been in the days following WWII. Something within me believes our present situation isn’t even close to what must have been a palpable constriction on many levels. What is heightened today is our wonderfully rapid ability to access information and news. For the record, I think the technology which allows us to share and receive information and news is a good thing, but naturally our relationship with and loyalty to this part of our reality must be kept in check. And when they are not kept in check, strange and disastrous things happen (a.k.a. the premise of most sci-fi films these days).
While I’m not entirely sure how much 2018 should be compared to 1948, Tillich’s message on Isaiah 40 offers us a grounding that our news feeds cannot. The prophet speaks of a future where Israel, who is living the misery of exile, will return home and experience renewal, and Tillich notes that this is a rather… well, gutsy proclamation to people living in such deep turmoil, observing that there are two orders at play in our reality: the historical/human and the eternal/divine.
The genius of the prophet, Tillich says, is “that the eternal order reveals itself in the historical order” (23). The prophet is the one who can find the eternal within the historical. Or to put it another way, the prophet is the one who can see the divine within the human.
And this is precisely the spiritual skill required to encounter the God described in Christianity. For when we affirm that God took on flesh, we are suggesting that God is not found in distant, lofty realms, but in the heat of our breath and and rhythm of our pulse. Look not to the heavenly realm to find this God, for this God “did not consider equality with God something to be exploited; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
About this death Tillich writes, “the Man on the Cross, represents another order, an order in which the weakest is the strongest, the mid humiliated, the most victorious. The historical, human order is overcome by the suffering servant, the crucified Saviour” (21). In essence, Tillich suggests that Christ and those who follow in his weakness actually transform history, making it more eternal, and my spirit believes this to be true.
So as we move into this Holy Week, as we move toward witnessing Christ’s suffering and death, as we watch the world around us pull itself apart, perhaps we can embody the prophetic wisdom of weakness, which finds the divine order within the human, and thereby transform history into eternity. Of course, this does require us to become weak and enter into the death of Christ.
Piece of cake.