Monday, June 17, 2013

On Paul Tillich

Fr. Jim Bacik lectures on Paul Tillich.

“Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned.” Paul Tillich

I just heard Fr. Jim Bacik lecture on Paul Tillich (1886-1965), the Christian (Lutheran) existentialist theologian and scholar who was born in Germany and came to the US in 1933 to flee the Nazis. Tillich said that he had lived "on the border" ever since that time: between countries, religions, cultures, identities. Paul Tillich had a distinguished teaching career at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Harvard, and the University of Chicago. His influence was great, and his life and work live on.

Fr. Bacik spoke brilliantly about Tillich’s beliefs, the intersections he saw between religion and culture, the significance of symbols, the nature of concern and faith. No photos, powerpoint, or gimmicks. Just an informative handout and straight talk, straight up.  Stark. Engaging.  Fr. Bacik perfectly understands Tillich, and he drew the audience into that understanding with an insightful discussion of Tillich's beliefs and the culture of “The Millennials."

This is the generation that grew up in the 1990s and early 21st century—a generation that is "hooked-up,” tech savvy, and range in types from extreme individualists to ecumenicals to evangelicals.   My own grandchildren are among them, which peaked my curiosity about "millenials" even more. 

Tillich believed that “You always have to ask the right questions.” So Farther Bacik formulated those questions in the context of the millennials' culture, showed us how Tillich thought, the questions he would ask, how he would respond, what he would have to say. He took us into the depths of Tillich’s thinking, embodied in such popular works as The Courage to Be and Dynamics of Faith and his 3-volume scholarly study Systemic Theology.  Bacik brought the latest scholarship to bear, including recent talks by Harvard humanist Robert Bella (Habits of the Heart, among others), who I had heard give a moving lecture many years ago.   

I find Tillich's theology, and these kinds of works in general, hard to read, however, and harder to understand. Father Bacik made them understandable and interesting, and showed us the relevance of Tillich’s views to modern culture. I thought Tillich as presented by Bacik sometimes sounded more like a psychologist than a theologian, asking why, why, why to get to “the ultimate depth” of any question. But Tillich clearly focused on a “God-normed culture,” Fr.Bacik emphasized, as opposed to a “going along” culture that he believed deadens the human spirit. Father Bacik made clear Tillich's contribution to theological thought in the universe of faith and worship.   

As interesting to me as the subject was the lecturer, Fr. Jim Bacik, a brilliant Jesuit, intellectual, down-to-earth, contemporary, funny.  I followed my curiosity after his lecture, going to his website, reading articles in the Toledo Blade and Bacik's own articles and reflections.  Fr. Bacik is a highly regarded pastor, teacher and lecturer throughout the Toledo area, the nation and, indeed, around the world.  He was a popular and active campus minister and teacher of the humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years, retiring last year. He continues to lecture and write. “One of America’s most insightful theologians,” he’s been called. Fr. Bacik’s legacy as pastor of the Corpus Christi University Parish, which he helped establish, plus his teaching and compassionate leadership, are legendary, I learned.

I enjoyed reading Fr. Bacik's recent reflections on the new Pope, because this pope caught my attention early on, the fact that he was from South America and that he named himself Francis.  Bacik agreed that was a great start, choosing the right name for the times, symbolic of the simplicity. compassion and openness of St. Francis.  Pope Francis, moreover, has shown concern for the poor and vulnerable, lives simply himself, and has expressed interest in reforming and opening up the Vatican to the people. In these ways, Fr. Bacik believes, the new pope "signals hope for keeping alive the spirit of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII."  That is saying a lot! I remember John XXIII and recall a visit to his church in Istanbul, which echoed with his compassion and enduring relevance.

As I left the lecture hall and walked slowly under the loggia of the Franciscan Center, rain pouring down, I saw the lovely tile commemorating Pope John XXIII.  I can see why I was drawn to it after hearing Fr. Bacik's lecture on Tillich.  I've always found Pope John XXIII a symbol of hope, the kind of symbol, Tillich might say, that opens the door to "ultimate concerns and ultimate faith."  And amazingly, just at that very moment, a penultimate symbol emerged in the form of a beautiful rainbow across the sky.  How heavenly the magnificence of our journey through life and our search for the universal and transcendent Holy Spirit.   What hope lies over the rainbow. 
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