The Historical Jesus and Paul Tillich’s God

Are all of the stories about Jesus in the Gospels historically accurate?  There are three main answers:

  1. Yes, good historical research suggests that those things really happened, so Christians can carry on like they did before the advent of modern history.  Nothing has changed.
  2. No, modern historical research proves that the Gospels are fiction, so Christianity has been disproven and must die.
  3. Well, historical research shows that many of the Gospel stories aren’t historically accurate, but Christian faith can continue in a new way

I obsessed over this question during my last two years of college, eventually reading over 20 books on the topic by all sorts of historians and theologians.  I eventually concluded that both answers #1 and #2, though very popular, are easy answers that I cannot live with.

The Spark Notes version of my current is opinion is that, having looked long and hard at the evidence, I find it highly unlikely that Jesus really did and said everything in the Gospel stories.  Yet I still find great value in all of the Gospels because each is a unique profession of faith in story form, each told by a real community with real experiences and real faith.  I ended up with answer #3.  Despite my great initial fear about leaving the comfortable, familiar land of #1, I have found #3 to be a rich way to live.

These days, I’ve been focusing on a different question: Is God real (and if so, how does God act in the world)?  As before, there are two popular answers:

  1. Yep!  The notion of God  shared by many of today’s Christians makes total sense.  Carry on as before, Christians!
  2. Nope!  Science, the problem of evil, and other considerations prove that God definitely doesn’t exist.  Religion must die.

As before, both of those seem like shallow, oversimplified answers to me.  #2 fails to do justice to the beauty and reality of God that I encountered when I was an Evangelical.  #1 fails to do justice to the tough questions and inconvenient evidence that I’ve discovered more recently.  But where is #3 this time?

I had hoped that process theology would do the trick, so recently I spent four weeks reading two books by process thinker John Cobb.  The process notion of God is far more believable than the notion of God distributed by popular religion, but process theology wasn’t as persuasive as I had hoped, at least on my first go-around.

Perhaps German philosophical theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965), one of the most influential theologians of the 21st Century, can solve my problem.  By the end of this weekend, I will be halfway through Volume 1 of Tillich’s Systematic Theology.  So far, I’m loving it.  Like any good German theologian, Tillich combines powerful reasoning with charisma and passion.

But can he convince me that his notion of God is more than wishful thinking?  Can he witness to the goodness of God without denying or trivializing the reality of human suffering?  Can he explain the relevance and influence of God without contradicting modern science?  Can his notion of God sustain my own journey with God?  Now that I’ve waded through almost 160 pages of Tillich’s thoughts on theological methodology, ontology, reason, and revelation, I’m about to find out.  The last half of this volume is titled “Being and God.”

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