Sunday, March 9, 2014


            While reading Paul Tillich’s “The Courage to Be,” and doing some follow-up reading on the internet, I learned a new word: Transtheism.  I don’t think I will adopt it for myself just yet (“atheist” is more generally understood, and more accurate at the moment), but I want to share what it means to me.
Transtheism refers to a state which is neither theistic nor atheistic. This appeals to me because it attempts to avoid some of the limitations of either position. In Tillich’s philosophy, transtheism is described in various terms, like “the God beyond the God of theism” and “Being-Itself.” For my own purposes, I interpret Tillich as wanting to establish a relationship with something transcendent, something infinite, something that surrounds and includes him, without reducing it to the supernatural/ mythological/ all-too-human character “God.” So, it’s not theistic (since he’s going beyond God) and not exactly atheistic (too worshipful for that, I think). “Being-Itself” is no God, but it’s more than no-God.
            Of course, Tillich’s transtheism has its limitations. I think he wants “Being-Itself” to serve some godly functions, but it can’t, given its lack of agency and personality. And despite his book, I have trouble understanding how “Being-Itself” can provide an individual with courage (or morality, for that matter).
            But I share Tillich’s inclination towards the infinite, and his sensitivity towards Being-as-a-whole. While I am a non-believer, I want to continue to have a relationship (of some sort) with the Whole and the Transcendent, even if none of those will be god. I also recently finished reading Mitchell Silver’s very excellent book A Plausible God: Secular Reflections on Liberal Jewish Theology*, in which Silver considers the relative strengths and weaknesses of the naturalistic God-concepts of Mordecai Kaplan, Michael Lerner, and Art Green. Overall, Silver expresses skepticism at the usefulness of such a God-concept, until he discusses it alongside the limits of (certain conceptions of) humanism:

The theism is justified not by its humanism, but rather by its suggestion that humanism may not be all there is to value and meaning. Although God is immanent and most found in humans, God's separate name allows us to avoid a too quick identification between the divine and the human. We need God to avoid humanism. (94)

This is what I’ve meant by the empty throne. Humanistic values are utterly important, but humanism itself can run the risk of forgetting the relative smallness of humanity and its abilities. Perhaps something like a transtheism is necessary, just to remind us of our relativity.
            Of course, transtheism does just feel like a variation on atheism. I doubt a transtheist would pray, or religious texts (beyond negative theology) that speak to their faith. But it retains a love of the Whole and the Transcendent, which are not necessarily retained by either atheism or humanism.

*I swear that I had neither read Silver’s 2006 book nor even heard of him when I was forming my concepts of God1 and God2 and arguing Why God2 should not be called God. But WOW was this book ever written for me!


  1. tillichs transtheism has no limitations