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The Ocean’s Influence on Theology

This morning, I came across a quote from Paul Tillich that caught my attention.


It made me think of the influences that have shaped me into the person who I am today. Usually, we think of teachers, pastors, friends, family members, or authors who have contributed to our development, but Tillich’s quote reminded me of the environmental influences that may, more subtly, effect our perspective.

My formative years were spent at Winema Christian Camp, located along the Oregon Coast in the Western United States. The picture below is where I would sit, on that log to the left, and think about what I was hearing from my father and other mentors, what I was reading, how I was piecing together the world and my place in it.beachThis is a scene that I would return back to in the practice of centering prayer, meditating on the presence of God’s spirit that was there in the stillness of an empty beach, the cycles of the tide, the activity of the wind and waves, and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean spanning beyond the horizon.

For Paul Tillich, this vastness became a powerful symbol in his theological development. That he could be, in his finite position, pressing in only slightly to a seemingly infinite reality.

This provided a schema, even subconsciously, that gave space for his reflections that God cannot be reduced to a tangible entity, a person, or even a supernatural thing (such as a “metaphysical Principle, transcendent First Cause, or Necessary Being. The personal metaphors used in scripture are necessary only because we require that relational symbol to begin to understand God.

For Tillich, God is being itself, a concept that has had him characterized as a a-theistic because of its distance from the traditional theological conceptions of God. Christ introduces a state of new being and embodies the healing of existential and spiritual wounds.

Part of Tillich’s perspective also included the use of other disciplines- psychology, sociology, linguistics- to inform his theology. This inclusion sought to better understand the present location (the finite) but also integrate with and be informed by theological reflection (the infinite).

In a similar way to Tillich, the time I spent near the ocean helped to develop a theological perspective that sought to be inclusive of those beyond my experience, perhaps initiated by a familiarity with a horizon extending beyond my sightline in both breadth and extent. This location, combined with a diverse group of mentors, interaction with Christians from around the world, and exposure to inclusive practical theologies, gave a grounding for, as Tillich wrote, “my imagination with a symbol that gave substance to my emotions and creativity to my thought”.

Sitting alone on that log were moments where God’s presence was both personal to me and encompassing a world larger than I could imagine. These experiences were both deeply humbling and deeply inspiring, as they have continued to shape my spiritual development.

Are there places or symbols in your life or community that have shaped your faith in meaningful ways?
If so, share in the comments below.

Michael Shepherd is a graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary and Hope International University. He lives with his family in southern California, USA.

References: Fortress Introduction to Contemporary Theologies, Ed Miller and Stanley Grenz, editors.
On the Boundary: An Autobiographical Sketch, Paul Tillich

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