We want only to show you something we have seen and to tell you something we have heard: That in the midst of the old creation there is a New Creation, and that this New Creation is manifest in Jesus who is called the Christ. [i]Paul Tillich, The New Being,
What does it mean to call something new? It’s such a simple word, and yet it carries powerful emotions of emergence and change. To declare something as new invokes ideas of birth, emergence, and growth. What’s new captures our imaginations, leaving us in wonder and awe at what has come—what will this new life, this new joy, this new love bring? Truly, the new affirms the continuation of life, a sign perhaps that there remains an ever-hopeful future beyond a bleak horizon. The new also carries forth the excitement of the unknown, for the new is also an encounter with something unique and unfamiliar. Indeed, what is new can be equal parts wondrous and frightening. It suggests something to come that we can neither predict or guess at with any degree of certainty or confidence—a new day, a new job, a new decision, a new life offer no guarantees of either success or failure. As such, it’s this very mystery that makes what is new, or newness, so tantalizing and engrossing. For within its bounds reside hope, joy, and success, as well as disappointment, hurt, and failure.
Given its mystery and power, can we rightly call anything new? Days come and go, decisions are made, jobs end, and life grows old and passes away. What once brought mystery inevitably fades into understanding. What is new has a way of slipping away from us. Life’s endless toil and grind leaves us wondering if we’ll ever see anything new again. What happened to the mystery and joy we use to feel? Did we miss it? Perhaps there wasn’t anything new to begin with. It’s this cynicism of life that provoked the Teacher to ask,
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us. [ii]
Like the Teacher, it’s often hard to see what’s new in life. Its ceaseless burden can leave us jaded, pessimistic, and alone. The new seems far from us and promises of its appearance add little to sustain us. Suddenly, life becomes heavy and what was once new finally succumbs to the burdens of the past. Ironically, we’re bombarded each day with a unending barrage of things that claim to be new. We’re told to “buy this” and “see that.” There seems to be no end of new wonders to buy and see. New cars, new computers, new inventions, and so on certainly bring their own sort of marvel and joy. Technological marvels add to our comfort but do little beyond masking the age-old systemic problems of hate, violence, inequality, and injustice. Indeed, we only need to look to the last century to see how disastrous this “new” can be. For despite all that claims to be new there still remain the same problems. The new isn’t just about technological marvels. Even the Teacher would’ve seen changes and improvements in his time. What the Teacher sought was the new of transformation. Ultimately, it’s this experience of the new that matters most. Have we ever experienced the transforming effect of that which is new?
Christianity is the message of the New Creation, the New Being, the New Reality which has appeared with the appearance of Jesus who for this reason, and just for this reason, is called the Christ. For the Christ, the Messiah, the selected and anointed one is He who brings the new state of things. [iii]
In the above quote, Paul Tillich (1886-1965) frames the New as the essence of the Christian message. Drawing from Galatians 6:15, Tillich situates his exploration of the new through the lenses “of a re-newal: The threefold ‘re,’ namely, re-conciliation, re-union, re-surrection” [iv].
Tillich was a master at juxtaposing the old and new, as much of his work demonstrates through his exploration of boundaries. For Tillich, life is at its most interesting when it’s in-between—intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Moreover, his work reflects a passion for correlating the Christian message in ways that are meaningful for contemporary society. Remarkably, he succeeds in that effort. Even now, over a half-century later, his works continue to resonate with a striking feeling of relevance that few thinkers have ever achieved.
For Tillich, the Christian message boils down quite simply to this: To proclaim that a new reality has arrived. But what does it mean to proclaim a “new reality?” He writes that “Christianity is more than a religion; it is the message of a New Creation [v].” Meaning that for Tillich, the Christian message goes beyond a proclamation of my religion against your religion. The Christian message isn’t about laws, rites, or commandments. Rather it’s a message of a newness that transforms everything. The New Reality renews the old by re-conciling with others, re-uniting the separated, and re-surrecting life from death. Furthermore, all of this has happened, and continues to happen, through the appearance of the New Being—Jesus the Christ.
The new, as Tillich describes it, isn’t a replacement of the old. Instead, it’s the transformation of the old creation into a new one, not into something entirely different, but into that which creation was always intended to be—a victory of life. Drawing from the Apostle Paul, Tillich frames the old creation as the place of our old hates, fears, and anxieties. The old creation offers us violence and division—between one another and between ourselves. Thus, what we find in the old isn’t an acceptance of difference, but the violent rejection of it. It’s a hatred of the other, manifested in our fear of differences—looks, behaviors, and beliefs. The old represents a world of tribalism, nationalism, and inquisition—group versus group, nation versus nation, belief versus belief, and so on. Moreover, the old creation also cultivates a crippling separation within individuals. Faced with a world that rejects us, we feel that we must conform or perish. Those unable to conform—to fit in—subsequently feel abandoned and alone. We interpret a failure of acceptance as a failure within ourselves. As Tillich puts it,
We try to make ourselves more acceptable to our own judgment and, when we fail, we grow more hostile toward ourselves. And he who feels rejected by God and who rejects himself feels also rejected by the others. As he grows hostile toward destiny and hostile toward himself, he also grows hostile toward other men. [vi]
How do we overcome rejection and hostility? According to Tillich, it’s impossible under our own power. As part of the old creation, we’re not immune to its haunting effects of failure and disappointment. We know what should be done—to forgive, to embrace, to love—yet we’re unable to do so (despite wanting to very much). There are some hurts that are too deep to overcome and some histories too long to forget. For most of us, our pain can’t be turned off with the flip of a switch. We may want to forgive and find reconciliation and reunion, but wanting isn’t the same as doing. And despite all our efforts to overcome our hostility (with ourselves or with others) we fail. A sentiment perfectly encapsulated in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans [vii].
The message of Christianity, as Tillich sees it, isn’t the proclamation of a new religion or a set of laws that will make you more religious. Being better at religion isn’t the point. The message is this, “A new reality has appeared in which you are reconciled. To enter the New Being we do not need to show anything. We must only be open to be grasped by it, although we have nothing to show” [viii]. Within the New Reality we are first reconciled and then reunited. But how is this done? The New Reality arrives in the appearance of the New Being—Jesus the Christ.
“A new reality has appeared in which you are reconciled.”
Which returns us to our original question: What do we mean by new? Tillich characterizes what we call “new” as reunion—an overcoming of those traditional barriers that divide us from others. The new transforms and repurposes our hostility and fear into acceptance and joy. The new replaces strangeness and uncertainty with familiarity and comfort. The new leads us to see others as necessary and integral parts of our own wholeness. Consequently, its transforming effects restore our own individual wholeness. In the experience of the new, love replaces our hostility, which then eliminates the cancerous effects that hostility can have on our mental and spiritual well-being. To discover the new—to see it, live it, and feel it—changes everything we know about relationship. Thus, the ultimate mark of the New Reality is love, and it’s this love that remakes us inside and out. The old creation is transformed into the new.
Where one is grasped by a human face as human, although one has to overcome personal distaste, or racial strangeness, or national conflicts, or the difference of sex, of age, of beauty, of strength, of knowledge, and all the other innumerable causes of separation—there New Creation happens! [ix]
The New Being, who Tillich describes as being manifested in Jesus the Christ, makes these transforming effects possible. In Christ, reconciliation and reunion are possible because “the separation never overcame the unity between Him and God, between Him and mankind, between Him and Himself. . . . In Him we look at a human life that maintained the union in spite of everything that drove Him into separation [x].” Thus, in Christ that which was old becomes new, life’s unity is restored, and wholeness replaces brokenness because the New Being represents our own resurrection. The Old Reality was unable to overcome the New Being. Thus, we can experience the New Reality because the New Being didn’t succumb to the power of the old. Tillich explains that,
Resurrection means the victory of the New state of things, the New Being born out of the death of the Old. Resurrection is not an event that might happen in some remote future, but it is the power of the New Being to create life out of death, here and now, today and tomorrow. [xi]
Tillich reminds us that the resurrection happens every day, and each day is an opportunity to experience the transforming effects of that resurrection. A New Reality has appeared and continues to appear. As such, it brings a reality of hope, joy, and love that we all can participate and share with others. Consequently, it’s the message of Christianity to proclaim this New Reality to all, especially those mired in the disastrous and disturbing effects of the Old Reality. We do this by reconciling the broken, reuniting the divided, and reminding the disheartened that there is a resurrection of life that we all can participate in.
Thus, the New Reality transforms the Teacher’s question into a confident declaration: “See, this is new!”
[i] Paul Tillich, The New Being (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1955), 18.
[ii] Ecclesiastes 1:10 (NRSV)
[iii] Tillich, 15.
[iv] Tillich, 20.
[v] Tillich, 16.
[vi] Tillich, 21.
[vii] Romans 7:15-20 (ESV).
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
[viii] Tillich, 22. Emphasis in the original.
[ix] Tillich, 23. Emphasis in the original.
[x] Tillich, 22.
[xi] Tillich, 24.
Featured Photo by Libby Whitley (libby_l_u) on Instagram. Used with permission.
Cover image by Rebekah Best (squirrelcharm) on Instagram. Used with permission.