Dreaming Innocence in America – Paul Tillich’s Radical Theology of Liberation, Part 3 (Alan Jay Richard)

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The following is the final installment of a three-part series.  The first installment can be accessed here.  The second part can be found here.

Dreaming Innocence and “Americans”: the Charrua and Us

The circumstances of the development of Tillich’s Systematic Theology and his concept of Dreaming Innocence in particular belong to revolutionary political expectations and disappointments in Germany and to more muted but still decidedly left of center expectations and disappointments in the United States. As its anticipations in the dissertations on Schelling indicate, however, it is rooted in the post-Kantian idealism that coincided with the Napoleonic invasion of the multiple and complex tangle of small principalities and states forming the Holy Roman Empire, and the rise of bourgeois German nationalism.

The legacy of this movement is deeply ambiguous from the perspective of early twenty-first century struggles. J. Cameron Karter has argued at length that Kant’s system, particularly when read in relationship to his anthropology, creates a new form of Christian supersessionism in which whiteness becomes the “biological underpinning” of modernity, its “racial ground.” 1 Whiteness, for Kant, is the way that nature distributes “predispositions” for the deployment of universal Reason. Nature has equipped the human species with diverse “seeds” and “natural predispositions” that are activated only under specific environmental conditions, though once those seeds are “deeply rooted” through generations of reproduction, even environmental conditions do not immediately change them.

Whites, because they have been deposited in a “climatically moderate” region, are essentially or almost raceless 2 “a ‘race’ that is not quite a race.” 3 Other races are trapped in their particularity, whereas whites are just human. 4 This is especially true of black people. “In the Negro race, white flesh observes a race so mired in its particularity as never to be able to speak with universal force” 5 Whites – as opposed to Hindus, Americans (indigenous peoples of America), and Blacks – are capable of successful revolutions.

As Carter reports, Kant in a private note wrote that “all of the races will undergo an inner rotting or decay leading to their utter eradication, but never that of whites.” 6 Reason’s interest, never merely speculative but practical, is in assisting human beings to cultivate freedom. This means assisting them in building a cosmopolis that runs only on Reasons’s self-imposed laws, the laws of freedom and autonomy over against heteronomy. It means subordinating and eventually erasing the racial and cultural particularity that impede the building of this cosmopolis, sacrificing the particular to the universal.

Carter, echoing Charles Long, 7 detects this self-sacrifice of the particular working in Tillich’s notion of the cross, in which the particular man Jesus sacrifices himself to the Christ and is thus rendered transparent to God. If the analysis in this essay is correct, Tillich’s argument works against such transparency. The concept of Dreaming Innocence as Tillich develops it does not and cannot point to a transparent state. Further, the divine anxiety on which it finally lands raises questions about the degree to which transparency can be attributed to Tillich’s Jesus. But the mere name “Dreaming Innocence,” like the metaphor of transparency in Tillich’s Christology, cannot be freed of the desire for the kind of Enlightened Kantian identity that Tillich and his influences seek to escape.

While I think this desire is apparent in Tillich’s use of metaphor, I hope I have shown that Tillich’s notion of divinity is anything but transparent. It is grounded not in Kant but in Schelling’s response to the wreck of Kantian identity resulting from its internal conflicts, themselves a result of its collision with existence in the form of the “thing in itself,” radical evil, and the sublime. The transition from “Dreaming Innocence” to the Fall, from essential potentiality to actual existence, the “point of coincidence” between Fall and Creation, and the polarity within God that separates God’s will from its expression and then reunites them in Spirit, are all developments of his reading of Schelling.

The earliest Tillichian retelling of Dreaming Innocence and the Fall occurs in his first dissertation on Schelling. Here, it is not framed by the myth of Adam but by that of Creation and of Babel. Tillich, reading Schelling, writes that the completion of creation was humanity’s freedom. 8 God “did not desire the involuntary and untried blessedness of the creature.” Nevertheless, the Fall “does not occur because of any strict necessity,” and is not subject to a priori proof. It is a fact of existence, part of its structure but it is not, strictly speaking, necessary. Humanity’s freedom means that, like God in creation, humanity “can set the potencies in tension.” The “ambiguous nature of the first potency,” creator and destroyer of form, is in the human creature, and tempts that creature to be like God and to create and destroy. But “it is an error in man to believe that he can remain lord of the potencies (of dynamism and form) even when he has set them in motion.”

Instead, subjectivity, which is potential in every creature, attempts to negate the creature in whom it develops. “As long as man chooses to be the universal essence, he remains at the center, and is the lord of the potencies.” But when he wants to become lord of the potencies “as an individual being,” he becomes subject to “that which ought not to be,” or “that which ought to remain potential.” 9 Sin is neither exactly negative nor exactly positive but “that which is not but which desires to be,” and thus it is “a lie.”

The decision to sin results in the dismemberment of consciousness – its separation into multiple acts of synthesis and freedom, each of which is unconditional – and “the external, dismembered world arose, lacking inwardness,” the world of morally indifferent causal necessity. The “false” time also arose, the ever-repeating “unhappy and monotonous uniformity.” This world is “enslaved by the power of subjectivity” and “has fallen into the antithesis of particularity and abstraction,” into the world of categories of the understanding, of space and time. This is not a fall out of but into a Kantian world.

The essence from which humanity is separated in the Fall is not pure Reason but precisely what would have prevented Reason from closing in on itself, and thus precisely what prevents Kant and Fichte from completing the rational system. With the fantastic coincidence of universal freedom and transcendental apperception with multiple selves “comes the necessity of death.” 10 Death occurs because fallen humanity embodies two irreconcilable principles: “that which truly is and that which is not but which wants to be.” Ideality and reality are separated, and “God is no longer united with his will in the world.”

Once humanity asserts autonomous freedom over and against the causal chain of appearances that resists that freedom, “the will of the ground becomes an enemy to creatures and a destroyer,” the very principle of divine wrath. In trinitarian terms, “God is no longer related to the world as Father, for only by the generation of the Son in the world process is he Father. But on account of the Fall, the Son, that is, the will of the second potency (form and act) has lost his lordship over being.” 11 In order to regain it, “a new process is necessary,” the process of history.

Reading Schelling’s Philosophy of Mythology, Tillich retells the Fall from Schelling once again, this time as the beginning of history rather than as the end of creation. The previous iteration of the Fall generates “the possibility of history” rather than immediately actual history. 12 This is the “prehistorical” condition. It is “a situation in which nothing happens” outside natural functions, “a kind of eternity that only becomes time, that is, time past, by means of historical time.” Times in history are qualitatively different from each other because of the separation of prehistorical from historical time.

A prehistorical condition is a necessary myth because “every history, at the very least, presupposes a duality of principles that contend with each other.” The first potency keeps humanity in a condition “analogous to that total unconsciousness which prevailed before the beginning of the natural creation.” The “actualized ground” is “hostile to everything concrete, conscious, and spiritual” and preserves “a calm, undisturbed unity” and “an original, but relative monotheism” that does not oppose itself to polytheism. Tillich calls it “a monotheism mythologically conceived.” Prehistoric time is interrupted when the effect of the “second potency” on consciousness caused the severing of that unity, issuing in a “time of transition,” the proliferation of folk-gods, dissolution of humanity into “nations, tribes, and races” primarily by means of mythology. 13

The story of the Tower of Babel “manifests a genuine recollection of that moment when the second potencykatherine_cornell_the_age_of_innocence appeared from afar to consciousness, and mankind was seized by a fear of the loss of unity.” Every race thus “broke away from the common humanity” and “identified itself with that stage of the mythological process whose representative it was destined to become.” What is absent from Tillich’s otherwise quite detailed analysis of this text is what Schelling says about this divine act of racial apartheid. This is important because the ideological element of texts is often in what they leave out, 14 particularly when what they leave out is a materiality that they invert, Marx’s “camera obscura.”

In Philosophy of Mythology, Schelling writes that an “affection of consciousness” shook consciousness “in its ground” metaphorically struck the Tower of Babel and separated mythologies, languages, and races. Before this particular Fall, humanity’s “language is also fluid, mutable, not fully withdrawn from the others, such that to an extent, actually, various languages are spoken promiscuously, just as the old story assumes only a confusion, not immediately a complete separation of languages from each other.” 15 Overlapping words and phrases are the traces of this transition. In historical existence, humanity is prevented from this division of myth, language, and race by a “fear” of the loss of self.

Not an external impulse, but rather the impulse of inner agitation, the feeling not to be the entire humanity, but rather only a part of it; and no longer to belong to the ultimate One, but rather to have fallen prey to a particular god or particular gods: it is this feeling that drove them from land to land, from coast to coast, until each saw itself alone and separated from all the foreign peoples and had found the place proper and destined for them. 16

There are two races that stand as exceptions to the general rule that balances the separation of languages and myths with the dread that conserves their unity: the “African bushmen” and “savages in South America.” Here, Schelling cites 18th century Spanish Enlightenment naturalist, soldier, and surveyor Felix de Azara’s account of the people with whom he dwelt while waiting for the arrival of Portuguese counterparts to complete the demarcation of boundaries between Spanish and Portuguese territories. Schelling accurately cites Azara’s report, which characterizes these aborigines as

without any type of community among themselves, fully like animals of the field, in that they acknowledge just as little a visible authority above themselves as an invisible one, and feel as foreign to each other as animals of the same species feel to each other. And the form a people just as little as the wolves or foxes form a people amongst themselves; indeed, they live more unsociably than some of the animals living and working in a community, such as the beavers, ants, or honey bees. Every effort to make them into a people – that is, to produce amongst them a social connection – would be in vain. Introduced by violent fiat, such a connection would be their demise; it would be a proof that a people not born immediately as a people can come into being through neither divine power nor human power and that where the original unity and community of consciousness is missing, none can be produced. 17

Schelling argues that, based on this report, these people indubitably “are without religion.” 18

The role of the “exceptions” for Schelling is to show this to us: the “still only externally human population of South America” is not a survival of humanity’s earliest condition, “the first condition,” because “they refute most definitively the illusion of such a stupid primordial condition of the human species, in that they indicate that from out of such a condition no progress is possible.” 19 They are not humankind in a pre-lapsarian state, and they are not remnants of the indistinct unity of and relative monotheism of prehistory. They do not belong to Dreaming Innocence. Nor can they be justly regarded as a reversion of formerly enlightened peoples to barbarism. Even a degenerated nation still has marriage and family, moveable property, and contracts.

Political decay could not produce “such a state of absolute lawlessness, and – such a dehumanization (brutality), as is that in which those races are found that are without respect of any law, and any society, or any obligatory regulations, as well as without any religious ideas.” 20 Although they have never posed a problem for conventional thinkers, who “merely help themselves on with already used thoughts,” they give reason for a “thorough thinker” to pause, since such a thinker can find “no place for them.” “They seem to me to be only the tragic result of precisely that crisis from out of which the rest of mankind had saved the ground of all human consciousness, while this ground was fully lost for them. They are the still living testimony of the completed, utterly unrestrained dissolution; the entire curse of the dispersion has been realized in them – actually they are, properly, the flock that grazes without shepherd; and, without becoming a people, they were annihilated in just the crisis that gave the peoples determinate being.” 21

Schelling argues that “the condition preceding the emergence of peoples” still seen among these savages is “a condition of complete un-culture and animal coarseness, from which a transition to social development would never have been possible.” Indeed, one of these savages “has as little a past as any species of animal.” They are “the part of the original humanity in which all consciousness of unity has really perished.” So “we see in them what the whole of humanity would have become, if it had saved nothing of the original unity.”

As further evidence, Schelling cites the traces of original unity preserved in even the most diverse languages but lacking among Americans. “I doubt any material agreement between the idioms of this American population and the languages of peoples proper, just as I must leave undecided to what extent the study that has been devoted to these idioms was able to fulfill the hope in which it was undertaken, namely, to arrive at real, namely genetic elements of them.” 22

Instead of related idioms, “the language changes from horde to horde, even from hut to hut, such that often only the members of the same family understand each other; and not merely this, but rather the capacity for language itself seems with them to be near termination and extinction.” They speak only softly, he says, and they do not cry out “even when one kills them.” They hardly move their lips, and their speech is not accompanied by “a look that demands attentiveness.” Their language “hovers at the final frontier, beyond which it ceases entirely.” 23

For Schelling, these savages evoke “this fear, this horror before the loss of all consciousness of unity,” which is nothing short of the total disappearance “of all truly human consciousness” and which provided human peoples “with the first institutions of the religious type” and “even the first civil institutions.” The horror of this loss of humanity motivates “the formation of special communities” and the division into castes, “whose foundation is as old as history and common to all peoples.” The building of the Tower of Babel is not for Schelling a manifestation of hubris but rather a response to a crisis of dispersion – the threat of the loss of a center – but this impulse toward preservation of unity is simultaneously where “the separation begins, thus also the repulsion and exclusion.” 24 The Cyclops, for Schelling, is a mythic reminder of the “beginning toward those fully disbanded races” where “none show consideration for the others, in that they remain as foreign amongst themselves as animals do and are not bound through any consciousness to any sort of solidarity.”

62a826964061859a2e3bdb7a1c78b4fdWhat is happening here? In the course of developing an account of philosophical history (not the history of philosophy) that includes a history of religion that may have inspired Tillich’s own early and late interest in the history of religion, Schelling, like Tillich, is trying to negotiate a tension in German politics and culture that dates to from the French Revolution, runs through the various alliances forged against an Enlightenment, revolutionary French domination in which German nationalism was born, and re-emerges in Tillich’s time as the tense alliance between the forces of romantic reaction and the forces of bourgeois revolution, and as the conflict of proletarian movements with both.

Schelling, whose life coincides with the beginning of the long nineteenth century in German-speaking areas of Europe, like Tillich, whose life corresponds with its abrupt end in World War I and its aftermath, is anxious about these tensions and, while ultimately affirming the revolutionary impulse, tempers this affirmation with a fear of the loss of a unity that can only be preserved by the powers of origin, by one’s distinct and particular cultural ground. Recall that Tillich’s Dreaming Innocence remains strangely contemporary with estranged existence as ontological anxiety and absolute utopia, and that its loss is one of the risks that makes self-transcendence so risky.

The kind of atheism for which Schelling cites Azara appears as “unbelief” in the Systematic Theology. 25 In unbelief, a human being “turns to himself and away from God in knowledge, will, and emotion.” 26 Unbelief is not a refusal to adhere to doctrine, but “the empirical shift from the blessedness of divine life to the pleasures of a separated life.” 27 In this context, it might also be important to recall that Tillich, in his lectures on utopia, rejects the notion that “those who are lowest in society in terms of power of being are the real bearers of utopia because of their discontent.” 28 Rather, the bearers of utopia are “those who have sufficient power of being to achieve advance.”

Tillich points to the role of the “highly cultivated” bourgoisie in the revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century to support this view. Here, he seems to be saying that effective ontological discontent depends on having at least one leg standing in the powers or origin, which here appear as a kind of stable ground from which revolution can be launched. Is Dreaming Innocence finally what separates a highly cultivated vanguard from the reign of particularity that overwhelms “those who are lowest in society”?

Schelling reads Azara’s account as testimony to just this kind of extreme separation, separation that encompasses language, religion, and culture, so that even false gods are abandoned without a shred of interest. Azara’s wild Americans, for Schelling, are not warnings to German readers about the ambiguous nature of the powers of origin, but conversely, monstrous testimony to the disintegrative powers of the demand, the revolutionary element within the origin, when the origin fails to restrain them. Azara’s religionless wild Indians were the Charrua, who by Azara’s own account, mounted a more effective resistance to Spanish invasion than the Aztecs. 29

He also notes that the Europeans who are captured by them “seldom decide to return to their parents and relatives” due to the freedom they have found among the Charrua. 30 Earlier, the Jesuit Lozano had expressed a horror at this “Geneva of these provinces” that calls to mind the horror that Schelling, though not Azara himself, expresses at the way of life he sees described in Azara’s text:

There, not only indians, but Mestizos, blacks and even some Spaniards (a horrifying thought), who want to live without social constraints or fear of the righteousness of the judges because of their enormous crimes, which they continue and augment in Charrua lands, live in a fashion that is worse than the pagans. 31

Gustavo Verdesio 32 notes that, despite the horror Lozano expresses at the Charrua’s failure to adopt Western juridical institutions and their mentality, generates a text that describes Charrua life in terms suggesting a kind of utopia. Verdesio is not asserting merely that this text might correspond to our own notions of utopia, but that it corresponds to Lozano’s own examples of European quasi-utopias. Lozano’s reference to the city of Geneva, famous for giving sanctuary to refugees, confers on the Charrua a dignity he does not appear to intend.

His use of the word “freedom,” which at the time of his writing was becoming a kind of shorthand for bourgeois revolutionary ambitions, does the same. Finally, as Verdesio argues, Lozano’s text (and Azara’s as well, though not the part quoted by Schelling) informs us of an objective fact: Members of diverse cultures and ethnic groups sought refuge among the Charrua, a culture that the authorities they were fleeing considered inferior to the European one. 33

In April 1831, while Schelling was in Munich working on his Philosophy of Mythology, the first president of Uraguay held a barbeque that he thought would attract the largest possible number of Charrua. 34 Once the guests had taken their fill of food and strong drink, a contingent of soldiers led by the president’s nephew began killing them. Women and children were enslaved. The few men who escaped were hunted down a few months later, again by the president’s nephew.

The Criollo ruling class, for whom the Charrua represented a failure to adapt to the requirements of a universal brotherhood, which had to include such supposedly universal needs as respect for private property, was silent about this massacre. Four surviving Charrua, including a shaman, a warrior, and a young couple, were captured and taken to Paris, where they were exhibited to the public and studied by naturalists. A child was born to the young couple. The three of them died a few years later. Until the 1990s, the response of intellectuals to these massacres, says Verdesio, was “silence and dissimulation.” 35

In “Interpretations of Black Religion in America,” Charles Long characterized the “American experience” as Otto’s mysterium fascinosum without the mysterium tremendum. 36 The Enlightenment’s “direct relationship to the sacred” through the forms of nature and moral conscience (theoretical and practical reason) was that through which “the destruction of the Indian cultures took place, and a nation which at its inception proclaimed the equality of all human beings was able to continue the institution of slavery.” 37

The “innocence and naivete of the American” emerges from self-concealment, and “is gained only through an intense suppression of the deeper and more subtle dimension of American experience.” Americans don’t have time to contemplate the depth of their deeds. They are always rushing forward. By means of this outward and forward gaze, Americans “are able to repress the profound and agonizing relationship which has defined their being in space and nature.” 38 In reference to Thomas JJ Altizer’s account of Moby Dick, Long, echoing his criticism of Tillich, says that this account “speaks of death as glibly as if he has never experienced, or is afraid to experience, the dying and the killing itself.” There is “no patience, no meditative attitude, no attentiveness” in this headlong rush into the future. Thus, this eschatology “is not rooted in that basic contact with reality which is the touchstone of every myth.” But there is another American experience,

that has confronted the reality of America, not as a plastic and flexible reality, amenable to the human will through hard work and moral fortitude, but as a reality impenetrable, definite, subtle, a reality so agonizing that it forced the American to give up innocence while at the same time sustaining him as joy and promise. 39

moby_dick_p510_illustrationThis quality of experience “destroyed forever the naïve innocence, simultaneously revealing a God of both nature and time – a God” – quoting Lift Every Voice and Sing – “of our silent tears and a God of our weary years.” Long proposes an orientation “that might be able to affirm nature as a non-innocent reality and at the same time open up the possibility of a true historical future” that would emerge only after America comes to terms “with its own depth in reality” and begins to take “the integrity of nature seriously.”

Long’s orientation has much in common with Tillich’s, but it calls for turning our gaze toward a past that begins with a contact between Europeans and those who did not fit easily into their myths of origin. This past, like Dreaming Innocence, is absolute in the sense that it is obscured by the conventional story of the mighty deeds of great men but accompanies that story as its disavowed underside, and it holds the key to promise. This is why a historiography of “the true story of America” would not take the place of an “objective” reporting of facts, because this very mode of historiography repeats the tale of self-transparent Reason and the mighty deeds of Reasoned men. 40 Long suggests it belongs to the category of myth.

Tillich’s characterization of Dreaming Innocence does not appear to have a place in this orientation, because innocence itself has become a suspicious category, as it already was for Tillich. But the Charrua do have a place, and not only as a monstrous other signifying unrestrained dispersion and loss of center. They have a place as “the depth in reality” of the struggle against an authority and exploitation that poses as objective, free, and innocent. The Charrua do not fit well into the picture of Dreaming Innocence but their centuries of effective resistance to the men who do the mighty deeds does suggest that they can inspire such resistance now and can offer a vision of a kind of world where the demand for freedom that Europe purports to cherish can be met, though not on terms set by the Europeans. But in addition to reading the silences in the texts about them that testify to their agency, as Verdesio does, this would involve facing up to the irretrievable loss of innocence in all its horrific and paradoxical detail as the reality within which joy and promise can appear.

Not Dreaming Innocence but precisely the mysterium tremendum, the impenetrable reality that resists transparency, the agonizing, conflictual encounter with an actual otherness that resists and does not yield to any demand, becomes the source for imagining and actualizing a New World and a New Being, if we have the courage to face that reality.

Alan Jay Richard, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and activist currently affiliated with Realistic Living, a nonprofit community in rural north Texas that experiments with new forms of collective Christian practice. He has been involved in activism since his work with the AIDS group ACT-UP in Syracuse during the late 1980s, leading to a 20-year career in public health epidemiology and research. Since leaving that career to work in the religion field, he has also been involved in environmental and anti-poverty activism. Along with his Realistic Living work, he serves as president of Citizens Organizing for Resources and Environment, and facilitator for the Fannin County Good Food Project, an effort to address rural food insecurity. He is currently interested in developing educational and spiritual formation paths for unconventional and subversive ministries.


  1. J. Cameron Carter, Race: A Theological Account (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 82.
  2. Ibid., 87.
  3. Ibid., 88.
  4. Ibid., 89.
  5. Ibid., 90.
  6. Ibid., 92.
  7. Charles Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986), 207.
  8. Paul Tillich, The Construction of the History of Religion in Schelling’s Positive Philosophy (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1974), 73.
  9. Ibid., 74.
  10. Ibid., 75.
  11. Ibid., 76.
  12. Ibid., 78.
  13. Ibid., 79.
  14. Terry Eagleton, Marxism and Literary Criticism (London: Matheun and Co., 1976), 34-35.
  15. F. W. J. Schelling, Historical-critical Introduction to the Philosophy of Mythology, trans. Mason Richey and Marcus Zisselsberger (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press), 79.
  16. Ibid., 80.
  17. Ibid., 48.
  18. Ibid., 49.
  19. Ibid., 80.
  20. Ibid., 81.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., 82.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid., 83.
  25. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. II (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 49.
  26. Ibid., 47.
  27. Ibid., 48.
  28. Paul Tillich, Political Expectation (New York: Harper Row, 1971), 170.
  29. Félix Azara, Descripción e historia del Paraguay y Río de la Plata. vol. I (Madrid: Sanchiz, 1847), 150.
  30. Ibid., 149.
  31. Pedro Lozano, Historia de la conquista del Paraguay, Rió de la Plata y Tucumán, ed. Andre´s Lamas, vol. I (Buenos Aires: Imprenta Popular, 1873), 410-11.
  32. Gustavo Verdesio, Forgotten Conquests: Rereading New World History from the Margins (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001), 98.
  33. Ibid., 98.
  34. Ibid., 151.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Long, 154.
  37. Ibid., 156.
  38. Ibid., 157.
  39. Ibid., 160.
  40. Ibid., 167.

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