Ontological and Moral Faith

According to Tillich, we respond to the two faces of the holy with these two types of faith: ontological faith and moral faith. Ontolo-gical faith finds itself enchanted by the fascinating face of the holy, by the moments in which the numinous shines through existing beings19 and the unconditional endorsement of being-as-it-is that this signifies. That plain, finite reality is found adequate to serve as a receptacle for the transcendent beauty of the divine is deeply reassuring. Ontological faith gravitates toward sacramental and mystical types of piety. In sacramental religions, ultimate reality is expected to be encountered through concrete things, persons, and events - this particular jar of water, piece of bread, tree, or building. The experience of being grasped and stilled in the presence of something that strikes one as being charged with mystery and power is key here. The Catholic Mass is such an event. Here, after the consecration of the elements, the bread and wine are transubstantiated into God who becomes physically present in this space. Awareness of this has influenced the architecture of worship spaces in the Catholic Church - flying buttresses were invented in the Middle Ages in order to accommodate these divine visitations.

Moral faith, on the other hand, is attuned to the terrifying side of the holy, picking up on how, in the presence of the infinite, all finite reality falls short of what it ought to be. Sensing that the holy in its purity stands over against us, measuring us and our world by standards of perfect justice and love that far exceed our best achievements, the ears of faith hear a relentless moral demand to make the world a more fit receptacle for God. Aware of their shortcomings, those with moral faith occupy themselves with constructing a way of life that is just and compassionate. Only then will we be found fit for the presence of the divine. Moral faith gravitates toward law-generating, activist, and utopian expressions of piety.20

A helpful way to think about these two types is by posing the simple question: How is it that the holy enters the world? Is it through the portals of those things that are beautiful - natural phenomena like waterfalls and shooting stars, noble thoughts, elegant poetry, and great works of art -which due to their grandeur and magnificence inspire in us a sense of awe? Or is it through moral action, the sacrificial and sustained efforts of people to act lovingly and with justice toward others? The word "holy" is commonly used in both senses. We say of Yosemite Valley, "This is a holy place"; we say of Mother Theresa, "She lived a holy life." Onto-logical and moral faiths are two ways we ascribe meaning to the finite world - it is through its abundant beauty, on one hand, and through its approximations of justice, on the other, that a point of contact is made between it and the infinite reality that transcends it. If the finite world is to have meaning for us, it must have some points of contact with the infinite.

In short, with ontological faith, one anticipates encountering God in the beautiful; with moral faith, one anticipates encountering God in the good. And while these two types of faith tend to pull in different directions, Tillich insists that each one is in need of the counterbalancing effect of the other. For religious faith to thrive, it must strike a balance between the moral and the ontological. Because God is both beautiful and good, at least as evoked in the experience of the holy, the human response of faith must take account of both. But also, in very practical terms, a desire for beauty that is cut free from moral goodness can descend to the worst sorts of cruelty, as can be seen in the eras of Caligula and Nero, Lorenzo de Medici, Louis IX, Ivan the Terrible and, more recently, Saddam Hussein - regimes characterized by the erection of lavish palaces and the patronage of art, yet surrounded by a vast and impoverished under-class. The subversive fiction of the Marquis de Sade, Nietzsche's assertion that aesthetics, not ethics, is the only human achievement that will ultimately justify our existence,21 Antonin Artaud's "theater of cruelty," modern aesthetic hedonism of the sort that "worships pure experience without restraint of any kind,"22 and the proliferation of sex and violence with all the ramped up special effects that characterize current Hollywood cinema (think of a movie like Natural Born Killers) are all instances of the worship of beauty untethered from any moral faith.

The opposite danger is a moral faith that dismisses any trust in the sacramental capacities of being. An ardently secular humanism that abandons the religious symbols and myths that originally gave rise to it runs the risk of losing its way and depleting its passion for justice. "I think that history has shown - and it is my personal experience, too," Tillich told a group of students in 1963, "that only the vision of the holy itself, of that ground of our own being on which we depend, can make us take the moral law with ultimate seriousness."23 For moral faith to endure it must be sustained by ontological faith, by symbols with transcendent power that testify to the goodness of being.

These two concepts - moral and ontological types of faith - are in operation within Western culture, and are amply expressed through popular culture outside of the sphere of religio^. In fact, they are often used as rostrums from which the culture criticizes organized religion. Religioni critics often resort to their own moral faith when they disparage religion2 adherents for being hypocrites who do not practice what they preach, or reach into their own ontological faith when they dismiss religion2 adherents for always harping on about sin and guilt and thereby failing to live their lives more abundantly. To charge anyone else with "Puritanism" is to confess to one's own ontological faith.

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