Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

The shaking of the foundations. Lecture 1

Theme: Faith   Place: London Parish   Period: 1961-1965   Genre: Talk

We start this year on something we have never attempted before, on an effort to read together and to discuss together this book which has impressed very deeply a whole generation of people and which is responsible nowadays for many writing for(of?) which it serves as background. It is a book by Tillich, called “The shaking of the Foundations”. In these discussions we have assumed that the book will be read or in the process of reading by everyone who will come to the talks and discussions, so that we can avoid reading together long stretches of the book. As I am not quite sure that this is the fact today we will proceed in a slightly different way. I will say certain number of things and I will quote probably rather extensively from the first of these sermons by Tillich in order to provide a more concrete ground for discussi­ons but next time we will try to dispense with quotations as far as possible to give more time for an exchange.

In his preface Tillich gives his reasons for publishing this book of sermons; the first reason is that many found his systematic theology rather difficult to understand while his theology expres­sed in the form of sermons was an easier thing for them. The second reason is that these sermons were addressed not only to a Christian surrounding but also to people who were outsiders to the Christian terminology and the Christian thought and that therefore he makes an attempt at expressing in them, in terms which are human, which are drawn from the human situation, those truths which can be found and used as a basis for life in Scripture. I think it is very important for us in our epoch to realise that sermons are a theology, different from systematic theology in technique, different in method of exposition but basically a theology. Much to often sermons tend to be a purely devotional exposition which lack back­ground completely. The theology which underlines these sermons is crisp and precise; we may disagree with it very profoundly but it has substance. The link between this systematic theology and the practical implications, what he calls the existential implications of his theology, is very important because as we are taught by the old writers like Gregory of Nazians in the 4th century and by many others, theology is not knowledge about God, it is the knowle­dge of God with all the implications which this knowledge has, and even when it appears in form of systematic theology, that is of discursive thoughts organised according to human thought patterns, it aims at speaking about Someone and not about something; it aims at opening a door towards the knowledge of a person and not the knowledge of a system of thought. This assertion may as we will see later probably clash with certain of Tillich’s view and own’s (?) definition; he writes on the 20th page of this book, speaking of the shaking of the foundations and the fact that one can not be cynical when things are of a deathly importance: “But if the foundation begins to crumble, cynicism itself crumbles with them. And only two alternatives remain — despair, which is the certainty of eternal destruction, or faith, which is the certainty of eternal salvation. The world itself shall grumble, says the Lord, but my salvation knows no end”. And Tillich adds: “This is the alternative for which the prophets stood. This is what we should call religion, or more precisely, the religious ground for all religion”.

We will have probably to meet with Tillich’s view of religion more fully, but at this point it seems to be paradoxical to conceive theology as the knowledge of God Himself and to see as the religious ground for all religion this tragic situation which is a door through which men does not seem to have entered into anything at all because despair which is certainty of eternal destruction or faith which is the certainty of eternal salvation is not yet any knowledge of the personal, the living God who is the object or rather the contents of religion and of life. So this is my first problem in connection with this first definition which Tillich gives. These sermons which are a practical approach, an existential theology put us face to face with the problem of the contents of this theology and of what it has got to say, and the contents of religi­on and what religion is.

The second point which he makes concerns the outside of the Christian circle which needs other terms, human terms of explication; this is a situation which has not existed for a certain number of centuries in normal ordinary preaching which yet was the normal, the only situation in which the Word of God, the Truth, the Gospel, Life, was preached in the early centuries. There was a time when the Apostles addressed themselves to no one who was not an outsider of the Christian circle, when the Apostles spoke only to outsiders and this is also the case nowadays; our preaching addresses itself increasingly to a circle of outsiders. What we now understand or consider as being specifically Christian terms are they Christian terms? Were they originally Christian terms in the sense in which they have become such? I think not, because if they had been Christian terms in inverted comas from the very start they would have been completely incomprehensible to the people to whom this preaching was addressed in the beginning. What we find in the Gospel and in the New Testament in general is a preaching addressed to people in their own terms, and when Tillich insists on the fact that his preaching must be couched in new terms or ra­ther in human terms, understandable to everyone, because he addresses himself not only to members of the Church, however much or little they understand the old idioms, but to an increasing number of outsiders, he is doing something which is the experience of the Church since the very beginning. There is no innovation in this, but there is the recapturing of something absolutely essential. Gradual­ly Christian preaching, Christian theological thinking, theological speech has become very peculiar indeed, it has become such that only people of a certain milieu, of a certain background can unders­tand it and can listen to it without surprise, without having the feeling that one speaks around them a language that makes very little sense and which is completely conventional. Nowadays, and this what Tillich underlines so strongly, the preaching has become the preaching of the Word, God’s Word in human words that must be intelligible, that must have background and an echo in every human soul, that must draw their power of conviction, not from a noble past but from the acute meaning which they have today for the person who reads or who listen to them; and in that respect we must be prepared when we read Tillich’s sermons, to find a great deal which is modern thought and modern expression.

When I read this book I was however impressed by something else. The themes seem to be more modern than the vocabulary and the approach. I may be completely wrong in my reaction, but my impression of his sermons was rather of a man who uses the old vocabulary, the old quotations, has got a very deep sense and perception of the classical Christian way of putting things and who tries to restate them in terms which are alien to the usual terminology of Christendom, but then there seems to be a gap, a gap between what he says and what he is speaking about; and this is a second question which I would like to put to you, in that respect how far have you got the same feeling that there is in every one of his sermons a level which belongs to the Scriptures and a level which belongs, not only in speech but in thought in his perception of things, to a world which is secular and which is outside the Christian approach, not only in terminology but in reaction and in response. This applies perhaps in this first sermons to what he says about science and civilisation; when I read it I am not impressed by the way in which it blends with the Scripture but by the insistence on what is the direct and secular impression of man and the passage which I have already quoted in which faith and despair appear to be the two foundations stones of the ground of all religion, is it the old concrete faith which we find in St. Paul, in the early Christians, in later time also, is it something that is more puzzling, the act of faith blind and unsupported by anything which allows a man to survive because there is in him a certain intensity of live which does not allow him to renounce the fight, to give way to despair?

Now a third point which I would like to raise is this the shaking of the foundations is the first theme he touches upon; his theology begins, his practical existential thinking of faith begins with a consideration of the world as it appears to us nowadays and in a really biblical way he sets at the outset of any thinking something which one could call a crisis, he presents us with the crisis of the modern world. The world is shaking, it is not only shaking morally, it is not only shaking in the minds of people; what Jeremiah, what Isaiah have described in the quotations he gives is happening physically, is happening now “It is hard to speak after the prophets have spoken as they have in these pronouncements. Every word is like the stroke of a hammer. There was a time when we could listen to such words without much feeling and without understanding. There were decades and even centuries when we did not take them seriously. Those days are gone. Today we must take them seriously. For they describe with visionary power what the majority of human beings in our period have experienced, and what perhaps in a not too distant future, all mankind will experience abundantly: “The foundations of the earth do shake”. The visions of the prophets have become an actual, physical possibility, and might become an historical reality. The phrase “Earth is split in pieces” is not merely a poetic metaphor for us, but a hard reality. This is the religious meaning of the age into which we have entered.”

The foundations of the earth are shaking physically, it is no longer a problem of human consciousness, it is no longer people who shake the foundations of society, of morals, of human relationships; we can see the earth quake, we can see the foundations of the earth shake and this is a moment of crisis in two senses. In the sense in which the word is used constantly in common speech, it is a criti­cal moment, at any second something may happen that will transform a moment full of possible tragedy into the next moment which will be tragedy itself; but it also is a moment of crisis, a critical moment in a more precise sense of the word. The word ”crisis” in Greek means judgement, it is a moment when mankind is being judged, but again not in terms which are so often absolute for many of a divine judgement which one must assume and believe in, but in terms which are perceptible for anyone whether he wishes or not, perceptible because it is the earth that quakes, because it is around us physi­cal phenomenon that takes place; the atom is split and people die.

Events of the physical world confront us nowadays and are passing a judgement on the quality of what has been in the course of the last century man’s activity, what has resulted from the inner life of man, because the mastery which man has gradually acquired over the material world has begun to shake the foundations of this world instead of being part of a creative process. “The Bible, says Tillich, has always told us of the beginning and the end of the world, it speaks of eternity before the world was founded, it speaks of the time when God laid the foundation of the earth, it speaks of the shaking of these foundations and of the crumbling of the world, in one of the later books, second Peter, it says that ‘the heaven will vanish with a crackling roar, and the elements will melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works therein shall be burnt up’. This is no longer vision; it has become physics. We know that in the ground of everything in our world that has form and structure, destructive forces are bound. Laying the foundations of the earth means bindings these forces. When the unruly power of the smallest parts of our material world was restrained by cohesive structures, a place was provided in which life could grow and history develop, in which words could be heard and love be felt, and in which truth could be discovered and the Eternal adored. All this was possible because the fiery chaos of the beginnings was transformed into the fertile soil of the earth”. It is the chaos who seems to be looming now, the chaos as opposed to the cosmos, the unruly yet unstructured world, still a possibility of a world that now looms ready to destroy, to swallow up the cosmos which was beginning to come out of the hands of God and was given into the hands of man to fulfill; the cosmos as structured organised harmonised world as contrast with the chaos full of possibilities but also capable of destroying. And man who has found the key, as he says, which can unlock the forces of the ground, these forces which were bound when the foundations of the earth were laid, man has begun to use this key but all he can do is to unleash the chaotic forces, he does not seem capable of structuring them under the guidance of God. And in our present day the prophetic cry which corresponds to the old warning of Jeremiah and Isaiah, the cry that comes from the scientist, from the moralist from anyone however simple who observes what is happening, the warning that comes from every side is that these forces are being unleashed and that it is the powers of destruction that are coming forwards and that we are moving towards a tragic end, the end which second Peter describes so tragically in the quotation which I have made before.

The next point which I would like to put forward to you is the role of the prophet, whether he is a lay prophet, the scientist, or the prophet speaking as a visionary the words of God as Isaiah or Jeremiah, both have something in common, both may or not part company half way. What they have in common is the vision of things as they are. Isaiah wrote: “The foundations of the earth do shake. Earth breaks to pieces, earth is split in pieces, earth shakes to pieces, earth reels like a drunken man. Earth rocks like a hammock; under the weight of its transgression earth falls down to raise no more”. The same is being said by people who look and who have renounced the old slogans of the false prophets, see page 15: ” Progress, infinite progress. Peace, universal peace. Happiness, happiness for everyone” who have renounced these slogans to turn to stern realities, to disclosing, to describing to proclaiming what is really happening to those things which are no longer visions, but physics as Tillich puts it. But there is a point at which the prophet and the scientist — the prophet of the new age — may either continue together or else part company: it is the moment of hope, the moment of faith. In the passage quoted earlier Tillich says two alternatives remain, despair or faith, salvation. Despair may be the lot of the scientist, the lot of the man who sees things as they are and sees also that the only thing that could check the tragedy is not a new move of science but a new move of human consciousness. But the scientist as well as the prophet of old may also have faith, not in the naive way which consists in thinking that tragedy may not happen, that tragedy may not go so far, but a faith founded on something else. The same prophet Isaiah, whose prophecies I have read out, says a couple of lines lower, in the same prophecies: “Lift up your eyes to heaven and look upon the earth beneath, for the earth shall vanish like smoke. And the earth shall grow old like a robe; the world itself shall crumble. But my righteousness shall be forever; and my salvation knows no end.” And in another passage: “For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart form thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on me” ( Isaiah 54-10).

Tillich thinks that it is by considering not only the results of what man can do and is doing, but also by turning his gaze towards God that the prophet finds his balance, his peace and his security. See p. 20: “How could the prophets speak as they did? How could they paint these most terrible picture of doom and destruction without cynicism or despair? It was because, beyond the sphere of destruction, they saw the sphere of salvation; because, in the doom of the temporal, they saw the manifestation of the Eternal. It was because they were certain that they belonged within the two spheres, the changeable and the unchangeable. For only he who is also beyond the changeable, not bound within it alone, can face the end. All others are compelled to escape, to turn away. How much of our lives consist in nothing but attempts to look away from the end. We often succeed in forgetting the end. But ultimately we fail; for we always carry the end with us in our bodies and our souls. And often whole nations and cultures succeed in forgetting the end. But ultimately they fail too, for in their lives and growth they always carry the end with them. Often the whole earth succeeds in making its creatures forget its end, but sometimes these creatures feel that their earth is beginning to grow old, and that its foundations are beginning to shake. For the earth carries its end within it. We happen to live in a time when very few of us, very few nations, very few sections of the earth, will succeed in forgetting the end. For in these days the foundations of the earth do shake. May we not turn our eyes away; may we not close our ears and our mouths. But may we rather see, through the crumbling of a world, the rock of eternity and the salvation which has no end.”

This is I think the last problem which I see in this sermon. In what way, how, by what means does it happen that this vision of the eternal and the unchangeable affects us? Are we aware of the fact that we belong to the unchangeable and the eternal? To what extent are we concretely aware of the fact that this is true for us in body and soul and for all that surround us? Or is it that God survives the crumbling of this world? What does survive? Is there in the answer to this question “what” a sufficient ground for us not only to put aside despair, not only to have a blind faith, but to have a faith which is joy, a faith which is the certainty of eternal salvation, not only in a passive way but in the way in which made the early Christians say: “Come, Lord Jesus”; wait for this day which will be the final shaking of the earth, when the earth will be shaken indeed, when heaven will be wind up, when all things will stand in an ultimate dread of the Judgement and when yet, in spite of all the Church will continue to say together with the Spirit: “Come, Thou, Lord Jesus”.

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