Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself

Atheism and the Sacred: Being-Itself December 22, 2011

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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