Ultimate Concern

There are certain things in life that we value even though they don't make us feel good or benefit us in any obvious way. That there is wilderness remaining on this planet in remote parts of Canada, Siberia and Brazil is something most of us value, even though we are unlikely to ever go there to experience its wonders, and even though leaving it as wilderness means its natural resources will not be extracted to produce manufactured goods for us to consume. We have this idea that we would find the world to be a poorer place if these great stretches of wilderness were to disappear. Similarly, there are genres of music that we may not enjoy or benefit from in any tangible way that we would still defend if all record of them were about to be wiped clean. Outside of movie soundtracks, for instance, most Americans do not listen to classical music; nevertheless, most would feel deprived if the world suddenly found itself bereft of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. There is something about wilderness and Beethoven, about endangered species, city skylines and Miles Davis, about great writers and thinkers, about distant cultures, about the life of others - even strangers we will never meet and creatures we will never see - there is something about these things that leads most of us to grant them value, even though they might bring us no first-hand pleasure or practical advantage. In recognizing their value, in granting them worth in the great scheme of things, we commit an act that is really very complex.

Why, after all, should it matter that a piece of music not vanish, or an ecosystem not degrade to the point of irreversibility, or a child in Sierra Leone not have her arms hacked off by a guerilla soldier? Assuming it is music one doesn't listen to, an ecosystem one will never set foot in, or a child one will never meet, if pressed for an answer for why one is nevertheless concerned about these things, the response is typically to resort to a handful of aesthetic and moral abstractions to explain the concern. The music, while not one's cup of tea, is a beautiful and elegant composition; the ecosystem has an integrity that ought not be spoiled, and it sustains forms of life that are deserving of respect; the child's well-being is a matter of justice, of rights, of concern for the weak, respect for innocence.

Good reasons, but it could be pressed further - why should one care about beauty and elegance, integrity, life, justice, rights, and innocence? On what grounds do these abstractions acquire the obvious authority that we grant them? In Hindu mythology, the universe is understood to rest on a platform that sits on the backs of four elephants, and the elephants all stand on a turtle's back. Clifford Geertz tells the story of an Indian who, when asked what the turtle rested on, answered, "Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down."1 The turtle, here, is a symbol for the last reality that can be conceptualized, beyond which is a mystery that our consciousness cannot articulate but our faith still affirms. In a similar vein, Augustine followed a chain of inquiry, chasing down leads in search of God, from land to sea to living things to air to heavenly bodies - each, at the time, the embodiment of some cosmic power or metaphysical principle:

But what is my God? I put my question to the earth. It answered, "I am not God," and all things on earth declared the same. I asked the sea and the chasms of the deep and the living things that creep in them, but they answered, "We are not your God. Seek what is above us." I spoke to the winds that blow, and the whole air and all that lives in it replied, "I am not God." I asked the sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars, but they told me "Neither are we the God whom you seek." I spoke to all the things that are about me, all that can be admitted by the door of the senses, and I said, "Since you are not my God, tell me about him. Tell me something of my God." Clear and loud they answered, "God is he who made us."2

Tillich proposed that within the consciousness of every person the reality beyond the last principle and beneath the last turtle is something called "ultimate concern." Out of the multitude of things we value in life - food, shelter, pleasure, truth, beauty, integrity, love, justice, etc. -something makes an unconditional claim upon us, and we organize our lives and all of our other values in accordance with it. For each of us, there is something of supreme worth, a concern in-light-of-which and for-the-sake-of-which we order everything else we care about. This is an old idea in theology. Augustine put the idea thus: "All agree that God is that thing which they place above all other things."3 It is this concern that sustains us through our lives. As Jack Kerouac said to his friend, Carlo Marx (Allen Ginzberg) in On the Road, "That last thing is what you can't get, Carlo. Nobody can get to that last thing. We keep on living in hopes of catching it once for all."4

Etymologically, "con-cern" means to sift or separate (cerne) with (con). It is by means of a concern that one is able to sort through the cares that constitute our lives. An ultimate concern is one's weightiest conviction, loyalty, or interest that assigns the relative gravity to all other convictions, loyalties, and interests that one holds. It is not accidental that the word "concern" is both a verb and noun. It is both a subjective act (we concern ourselves with something) and the object of that act (we have concerns). Tillich seizes upon this gerund-like quality of "concern," and suggests that ultimate concern in the subjective sense is what is meant by faith; in the objective sense it is what is meant by God. Thus, ultimate concern is a synonym both for faith and for God. Faith is the experience of being grasped by an ultimate concern. And insofar as everyone has a central conviction that organizes his or her life, everyone has faith. In this there is little difference between those who understand themselves as religious and those who do not. For Tillich, there are no unbelievers. Everyone is religious; everyone has an ultimate concern (with the exception of those who are suicidal or chronically depressed). But with respect to the object of ultimate concern, with respect to what functions for each of us as "god," there is great divergence. He writes: "Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned. The content matters infinitely for the life of the believer, but it does not matter for the formal definition of faith."5 The interesting question is not whether a person has faith, but in what that faith is lodged.

A concern that claims ultimacy in one's life has a triadic character, according to Tillich. It makes a demand, a threat, and a promise. First, it demands absolute loyalty and the willingness to surrender all of one's other concerns, if necessary, for its sake. Second, it threatens to exclude one from its benefits and from the fellowship of others who revere it if surrender to it is not complete. Third, it promises to fulfill one's being, to guide one into the best and most satisfying existence that is possible, if one remains faithful to it.

Tillich suggests that his concept of ultimate concern is nothing more than an "abstract translation" of the great commandment: "The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength" (Mk 12.29). With Augustine, Tillich held that human beings are driven by a restless heart that seeks "the infinite because that is where the finite wants to rest."6 Therefore, the only genuine ultimate concern is one that is attuned to God, who is infinite. But while, in the words of Havelock Ellis, "It is the infinite for which we hunger," we "ride gladly on every little wave that promises to bear us towards it."7 In our restlessness, we clutch onto idols. "Idolatry," Tillich writes, "is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy."8 We commit idolatry when we treat something that is conditioned as if it is unconditioned, when we treat an elephant or even a turtle as if it is the infinite mystery. The genuinely infinite will always be what resides below the lowest turtle.

Candidates for idolatrous ultimate concerns that Tillich frequently identified include one's nation (this was fresh on his mind given the ultimacy of blood and soil in Nazi Germany), economic well-being, health and life, family, beauty, truth, justice, or some abstract idea of humanity (think of the French Revolution, or of a free-standing concept of human rights). One could add other candidates: work, sports, education, romantic love, pleasure, physical fitness, self-fulfillment, political power, or freedom.

In a similar manner, William James, after describing "piety" as a surrendering to the feeling that one exists in "a wider life than that of this world's selfish little interests," suggested that this "wider life" might be personified as God, or it might be identified with "abstract moral ideals, civic or patriotic utopias, or inner visions of holiness," each of which can function as "the true lords and enlargers of our life." When one surrenders to such an enlarger of life, the religious effect is one of "an immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down."9

For James, as for Tillich, these "true lords and enlargers of our life" can lead to commendable acts of self-sacrifice and disciplined devotion that lend one's life to the well-being of others. But for Tillich, an ultimate concern that is, in reality, finite or transitory, and therefore less than ultimate, will eventually culminate in existential disappointment. This is a shattering experience that might be deferred for a long time, because even transitory ultimate concerns can function to orient and enlarge one's life. But it will, he assures us, finally break down.10 When this happens, one will feel some combination of forsakenness, betrayal, foolishness, self-loathing, deep disorientation, alienation, bitterness or despondency.

Eventually, another ultimate concern will rise in one's consciousness as an axis around which to order one's life. When this happens it is commonly described as conversion. It can be a conversion from one finite good to another, or from a finite good to a good that is genuinely ultimate. It can also be a conversion from one apprehension of God to another, say from faith in a God who hustles to satisfy the desires of the faithful to a view of God as indifferent to human desire. As Tillich suggests, the best literature moves its characters through such shifts and reversals in ultimate concerns.

While this account might make it sound relatively easy to identify one's ultimate concern, for most of us our ultimate concern does its work unnoticed and unexamined, unobtrusively pressing and pulling us in the ways we look upon and value the world. Nevertheless, it is a rich concept for shedding light on the religious dimensions of popular culture. As Tillich himself noted, "Pictures, poems, and music can become objects of theology ... from the point of view of their power of expressing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately."11

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