There are a number of Christian thinkers I admire: I admire Kierkegaard for his penmanship; I admire William James for his insight; I admire Aquinas for the awesome breadth of his mind...
However there is only one Christian thinker whose intuitions have chimed so resonantly with my own that I, for a fleeting instant, have been tempted by theism. The thinker in question is Paul Tillich. I had been aware of Tillich for some time, in fact I teach his theory of symbolic language on my philosophy of religion course. In that context he is a dry and difficult thinker of the phenomenological tradition; I dread teaching him, making Tillich 'fun' for my students is near impossible.
One day in an old second hand bookshop I saw a copy of a book by Tillich entitled The Shaking of the Foundations
– it was only 50p and so, not thinking much of it, I bought it. When I finally got round to opening it I was immediately disappointed to find it was a collection of sermons. My initial reaction was that I would rather lick sandpaper than spend my time reading Christian sermons. However, there being no sandpaper to hand, I started to read. The sermons date to 1947 and are written by a priest talking to a congregation emerging from the trauma of WWII and facing the terror of the atomic age. I was absolutely gripped – the sermons were arcane and filled with the horror of the age. Whatever else Tillich could be accused of he was not peddling platitudes nor was there much in the way of false hope.
I thought I would quote the part that just for a moment made me doubt my self-identification of 'atheist' (Incidentally I am sure for most this will not have that effect - nor am I arguing Tillich's point):
Look at the student who knows the content of the hundred most important books of world history, and yet whose spiritual life remains as shallow as it ever was… And then look at the uneducated worker who … suddenly asks himself: ‘What does it mean, that I do this work? What does it mean for my life? What is the meaning of my life?’ Because he asks these questions, that man is on the way into depth, where as ... the student … dwells on the surface…
The depth of thought is part of the depth of life. Most of our life continues on the surface. We are enslaved by the routine of our daily lives, in work and pleasure, in business and recreation. We are conquered by innumerable hazards, both good and evil. We are more driven than driving. We do not stop to look at … the depth below us … We are in constant motion and never stop to plunge into the depth. … We accept ourselves as we appear to ourselves, and do not care what we really are … We miss, therefore, our depth and our true life. […]
[M]ystics and priests, poets and philosophers, simple people and educated people … [t]hey have found that they were not what they believed themselves to be, even after a deeper level had appeared to them below the vanishing surface. That deeper level itself became a surface, when as still deeper level was discovered, this happening again and again, as long as their very lives, as long as they kept on the road to their depth.
Today a new … method has become famous the so-called ‘psychology of depth’*. It leads us from the surface of our self-knowledge into levels where things are recorded which we knew nothing about on the surface of our consciousness. … It can help us find the way into our depth, although it cannot help us in an ultimate way, because it cannot guide us to the deepest ground of our being and of all being, the depth, of life itself.
The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without any reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learnt about God, perhaps even that word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! … He who knows about depth knows about God.
- Paul Tillich The Depth of Existence published in The Shaking of the Foundations.
It always annoys me that theists rarely read the works of any great atheists. At best they will have read some dust jackets; or listened to potted versions of Dawkins or Hitchins on youtube. So in the spirit of being better than that ourselves;What theist writers have you read and admire?