Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart.

Paul Tillich defined God as being-itself.  He argued that being-itself is not any being; it is not a thing, and it does not even exist.  For Tillich, being-itself transcends existence.  It cannot be identified with any being (neither with any particular nor with any universal).  It cannot be located within the categories of any ontology (scientific or otherwise).  As purely transcendent, Tillich’s being-itself is like the Platonic Form of the Good or like the Neoplatonic One.   It is the ultimate power of being, the form of forms, the highest form, at the top of the Platonic Divided Line or Neoplatonic great chain of being.

As the ultimate power of being, being-itself generates all the other powers of being.  It emanates all the other powers of being.  Tillich describes these powers of being in terms of the Platonic forms (1951: 254).  The Platonic form of a tree (for instance) is what all trees have in common; it is their shared essence or patterning.  It is that which makes every tree be a tree rather than some other thing.  These forms are also known as universals.  Platonic forms are traditionally thought of as creative powers, and Tillich continues in this tradition.  He says the Platonic forms are “eternal essences” and that they are “the powers of being which make a thing what it is” (1951: 254).  For example, he says that tree-ness is “that power which makes every tree a tree and nothing else” (1957: 21).

Although Tillich says that being-itself is transcendent, he also says that it is immanent – that it the power of being that is inherent in every existing thing.  And thus he contradicts himself: being-itself cannot be both immanent and transcendent.  As long as being-itself has this transcendental aspect, is super-natural.  And Tillich does say that being-itself is beyond the world (1951: 237).  Thus it is above and beyond nature.   This transcendent aspect is necessary for Tillich to identify being-itself with God.  But God as defined by Tillich, God as being-itself, is not the God of Abraham; it is not the Christian God.  Christian revelation is not true of it.  And it is not any type of theistic deity – on the contrary, it is impersonal, and it cannot act within the universe in any special way.   It isn’t really even the God of the Philosophers.  It probably isn’t any type of God at all.  Some atheists, those who merely deny theistic deities, can easily accept the reality of Tillich’s non-theistic God.

And yet there are fatal problems with Tillich’s God.  It seems impossible to say that any object is both transcendent and immanent.   For the sake of consistency, it is necessary to reject either the transcendence or the immanence.   Naturalists, including religious naturalists, will reject the transcendence.  When the transcendental aspect of being-itself is rejected, the result is a fully immanent concept of being-itself.  Being-itself is the ultimate immanent creative power of being.  It is the natural creative power inherent in all existing things – it is natura naturans.  It closely matches the Wiccan ultimate deity as well as the powers of being described by many atheistic philosophers.

When transcendence is stripped from Tillich’s being-itself, it ceases to be a god in any sense.   It may still be sacred, holy, or divine (much as reason or truth may be sacred, holy, or divine).  When transcendence is stripped from being-itself, it ceases to be a purely Platonic form.  It ceases to be a universal above and beyond the things that instantiate or realize it and it becomes a universal within the things that realize it.  It ceases to be the highest universal and becomes the deepest universal.  It is the innermost essence common to all existent things.  It is shared by all universals and particulars; by all mathematical and material things; by all things in our universe as well as in any other universes.  It is the unity of nature.  If there is a theory of everything, then that theory is the theory of the extension of being-itself.  Rationalists will affirm that being-itself is the universal reason inherent in nature.  The existence of this universal reason is empirically justified by the success of science as a rational enterprise.


Tillich, P. (1951) Systematic Theology.  Vol. 1.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tillich, P. (1957) Systematic Theology.  Vol. 2.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • SAWells

    “The Platonic form of a tree (for instance) is what all trees have in common; it is their shared essence or patterning”

    What all trees have in common is common ancestry, Eric, Platonism has kinda not caught up with evolutionary theory. Just because Plato couldn’t think how all ladybirds could be similar unless there was an Ideal Ladybird doesn’t mean we have to keep making the same mistake now.

  • kraut

    “It is the natural creative power inherent in all existing things – it is natura naturans.”

    It simply means that the Universe is itself, it does need no other power than itself to create. A conclusion that follows observation.

  • steerpike

    OK, so not being (see what I did there?) a Philosophy professor, or even a philosophy major or even a philosophy buff, really ( took the usual number of classes and seminars in the course of earning a liberal arts degree), I will jump in here and point out that this looks to me like just the old “God is everywhere and present in everything” argument, on steroids. One can simply wave off any demand for proof of God’s existence by saying “look about you. Everything you see is proof of His wonderful majesty. Beauty; truth; music; love; the incomprehensible complexity and interconnectedness of life itself. These things could not exist without a divine hand of the Creator”. In other words, “Being-Itself” is all the proof you could ask for, and the only proof that could conceivably exist. The problem is, there is no substantive difference between a God that is everywhere and one that is nowhere. “God is everywhere and everything” just dilutes the deity to meaninglessness. Fine, to paraphrase Robert Pirsig, the godhead resides in the petals of a flower and the gears of a motorcycle. I can learn everything I need to know about flowers and motorcycles by studying botany or mechanics. The study of God adds exactly zero to my understanding of either.

  • Eric Steinhart

    Not every abstract object is God. And not even every ultimate abstract object is God.

    The standard sense of the term “God” is the theistic deity. The Logos of Heraclitus is not God; Plato’s Form of the Good is not God; Plotinus’s One is not God; the Stoic World-Soul is not God; Spinoza’s substance is not God; Schopenhauer’s will is not God; Nietzsche’s will to power is not God; and as much as Tillich wants to use the term “God” of his being-itself, it ain’t God.

    And those philosophers who are theists have very different Gods. The God of Leibniz is not the God of Hegel or the God of Kierkegaard. Nor, indeed, is the God of Protestants the God of the Catholics. Nor is the God of the liberal Protestants the God of the fundamentalists.

    Philosophers are clear about this. Atheists, like Dawkins and Stenger, are also clear.

    The study of Gods enables you to understand the differences in American religious life.

    • SAWells

      In the spirit of fairness, since I disagree with so much else Eric says, I’d like to specify that I agree with this comment.

  • jwloftus

    Excellent essay, thanks. I’ll have to remember to link to this whenever a liberal talks of Tillich and his notion of “ultimate concern.”

    • Eric Steinhart

      Thanks! I’m glad it’s useful.