Ultimate Concern

Ultimate Concern

It has been fascinating watching the media go a-gog over former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney’s announcement of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan as his Vice Presidential running mate. Fiscal conservatives are rejoicing and celebrating this apparent move to the right by Governor Romney. Social liberals are aghast at the threat Rep. Ryan’s appointment and possible election will have on the social fabric and net in our country.

The Christian Church in America is a significant player in this conversation—some denominations choosing silence, with far more taking very public stances. Conservative denominations and congregations find Rep. Ryan’s pro-life, anti-contraception stance a bright light on the horizon. The American Catholic Bishops have issued a statement expressing opposition to Rep. Ryan’s proposed federal budget as running counter to Biblical teaching. Liberal denominations and religious organizations have sounded the alarm about the diminished care and compassion that Rep. Ryan’s budget proposal represents to the elderly, unemployed, homeless, hungry, under-educated, and other groups that lack a voice in the public sector. Each of these denominations, groups, congregations, and religious leaders each claim to be speaking for God, and God’s Word—the Bible.

This is not a new phenomenon in American culture, but for me, this raises the question of people’s perception or experience of God. With such a wide variance of opinions, perspectives, and beliefs, how can these groups and individuals profess a faith in the same Deity?

Paul Tillich, the existential theologian, defined God as that which was of “ultimate concern” to an individual. “It means that whatever concerns a man ultimately becomes god for him, and, conversely, it means that a man can be concerned ultimately only about that which is god for him” (Church, 1999). Tillich says this definition transcends the concrete concepts or descriptions that religions attribute to the idea of the Holy, and, thus, may create tension with the individual’s personal experience of the Sacred.

Growing up in a conservative Christian denomination, I learned a specific vision of who God was and what God stood for concerning life and relationships. I was taught to rely on the Bible to tell me about the nature and personality of God, and not to trust my personal experiences or perspectives. This kind of teaching assured that I would not venture outside the bounds of church doctrine. In addition, such teaching guaranteed a well-defined, consistent community of individuals who shared the same understandings and knowledge.

However, like so many others raised in Christian homes and communities, as time passed, many of my experiences of the Divine conflicted with what I had been taught, and sometimes even ran contrary to the most basic beliefs I had accepted as absolute truth.

The tension and angst created by the differences between what I had learned and what I experienced has been, to this point in my life, my most difficult struggle. My training and practice as an existential therapist has enabled me to wrestle through many of these moments and develop a greater appreciation for the variety of ways people come to experience the Sacred in their lives. It has heightened my sense of awareness of the role of the transcendent in people’s lives, even in those who deny that anything “otherworldly” has something to do with what is happening in their daily lives.

As the political drama that we call a Presidential election unfolds, one aspect presenting itself is what gods we as culture and society choose to honor. We will observe and witness what Tillich referred to as the “God beyond God,” or that which is of “ultimate concern,” as individuals, groups, and political party’s take their respective stands. As the rhetoric claims to speak for that which is Holy, we will discover whether the real god being worshiped is the individual’s ultimate concern for unborn children, the homeless, the destitute, a strong military defense, or a “more Christian” government.

In addition, defining the transcendent as that which is of “ultimate concern,” eliminates the need to discuss one’s acceptance of a supernatural being or presence. Each of us has an “ultimate concern” or concerns, and so we establish a deity that we honor and worship … consciously or unconsciously, worldly or otherworldly. Such an understanding elevates the conversation about the Sacred from the question of specific religion and dogma.

How we vote this fall is not just about one’s political leanings or candidate preference. I believe how we vote is an exercise of our spirituality, and demonstrates that which we hold as being of “ultimate concern” in our life and community.

— Steve Fehl

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