Deleuze, Tillich, and Advent: Theological and Christological Concept Creation

What elements of the contemporary philosophical consciousness can be used for the theological interpretation of the Christian symbols?[1]

The problem now concerns the one who believes in the world, and not in the existence of the world but in the possibilities of movements and intensities, so as to once again give birth to new modes of existence… It may be that believing in this world, in this life, [has become] our most difficult task…[2]

In What is Philosophy?, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari outline a philosophical constructivism representative of their understanding of the nature and exercise of philosophy. For both, the task of philosophy is threefold: first, the creation of concepts; second, the establishing of a plane of immanence; and third, the development and emergence of conceptual personae from that plane and through those concepts.

Following Deleuze, a concept is a formalisation of the philosopher’s interpretation of reality (i.e. the Idea, the cogito etc.), under many ever varying criteria. These criteria may often be associated with, what is, for Deleuze and Guattari, the prephilosophical plane of immanence out of which all philosophy may be done. The plane is a malleable, amorphous, unstable image the act of thinking gives itself, thus serving to provide the coordinates of reality the philosopher intuits for the generation of concepts.

Finally, emerging from both these conceptual exercises and the plane, are conceptual personae. These personae are figures that emerge in a philosophers thought that surpass and take on an identity beyond that thought. Deleuze and Guattari offer examples such as Nietzsche’s Dionysius or Zarathustra, Descartes’ Idiot, the Socratic Friend, and so on. They are titles and identities that the philosopher becomes as they feel the plane and let it overtake and further elicit ideas and concepts.

It is with this that I would like to draw out and make some connections between the project that Deleuze and Guattari have presented and aspects of the theology Paul Tillich advances in his Theology of Culture. This is a risky move: where Deleuze criticises transcendence in favour of immanence, Tillich has a metaphysics that almost explicitly contradicts this Deleuzian impulse. This is not, I hope, a simple, “Deleuze and Tillich have the same project” manner of thinking. What I hope to outline is a theological thinking of the concept, as Deleuze might suggest it – in this sense, I will be hedging my bets with Deleuze’s thought in the main.


Two Tillichian categories that I feel most helpfully suggest themselves for comparative exercise are those of ‘symbol’ and ‘Being.’ Where Deleuze has the concept – that philosophical interpretation and organising of reality – we might say Tillich has the symbol. The symbol is that image, idea, or object (e.g. words, arts, iconography, actions etc.) which, in theological terms, exceeds its own being. It participates in a reality that is not limited to the coordinates of its own length, breadth, and depth. As Tillich puts it,

Symbols, although they are not the same as that which they symbolize, participate in its meaning and power.[3]

To go further, the symbol participates in Being. Being here might – by no means straightforwardly – be paralleled, in some sense, with the plane of immanence. Where the concept is immersed in an immanence it serves to define and represent, the symbol is immersed in Being to which it points to and, more, participates in. Being here is the ground in which all things exist. It is an ontological foundation that pervades and implicates itself in and with all things.[4] Simply put, for Tillich, God is Being (though, of course, less simply, the word God is a symbol, a symbol of and for Being); and so, in this sense, the symbol is an aspect of ordinary reality (language, music etc.) established and understood by human beings which allows for the experience of an ontological weight and significance present and accessible at all times and in all things.

To step beyond these Tillichian categories, and to establish a third parallel on and of our own, we might say that Deleuze and Guattari’s conceptual personae, are theologically best presented in relation to standard theological and Christological claims and titles (Creator, Son of God, Messiah, etc.). These titles or “personae” are a way of thinking the Tillichian symbol – and while they may themselves become symbols, they often, it seems, add a level of description and elaboration to, what might be said to be, a more primary symbol.

However, let us make one more additional association between the Deleuzian concept and the Tillichian symbol. Where Deleuze outlines the dissolution of a concept, as the philosopher’s relation to immanence shifts and is reconceptualised, Tillich also posits the death of the symbol. Tillich writes,

In the moment in which [the] inner situation of the human group to a symbol has ceased to exist, then the symbol dies. The symbol does not “say” anything anymore.[5]

To make this post’s connection to Advent a little clearer let’s take an example that Tillich makes which conveniently marks the climax of Advent liturgy: the virginal conception of Christ in Mary. Tillich outlines how this symbol has all but died in Protestantism: it has ceased to have symbolic value, not least because one who is born without a father could hardly be considered fully human, and this marks, for Tillich, the “quasiheretical” nature of the doctrine.

In this way, as a concept may be abandoned, interpolated, or otherwise reconfigured under humanity’s shifting relation to immanence; so might, theologically speaking, humanity’s relation to a symbol. As Tillich again writes,

Their truth is their adequacy to the religious situation in which they are created, and their inadequacy to another situation is their untruth.[6]

This all serves as one of the strengths of Tillich’s theology of culture: theologically speaking nothing is mediated, signified, or symbolised outside of the cultural situation – which in turn implies that when a change in culture occurs theological thinking must and will be reinterpreted with it, for all theology is symbolic.

In this sense, a theology of culture and the creation of concepts allow and provide the basis for a shared or similar thinking, as we recognise that all thought takes place and changes within a given time and circumstance.

The challenge then is to feel and fully intuit the cultural atmosphere and milieu in which we find ourselves. In this we may follow Deleuze in the development of a theology, a radical theology, that cuts off the metaphysical and ontological link that Tillichian symbols are conceptualised as bearing. What we may then seek is a theology of the event – an event that takes place immanently; immanent only to the plane; to “being,” not “Being;” an event which sees the concept and the symbol as equally poetic interpretations of immanence (one philosophical, the other theological).

If a symbol dies because the human’s relation to Being has changed – just as in Deleuze the philosopher’s concept “dies” when the people’s sense of the plane shifts or is reimagined – so we can say, to take a more radical theological turn, that traditional theological categories are for many ceasing to be meaningful. It is thus the task of a materialist, political theology not to re-establish the validity of what was, but to create symbols or concepts that allow us to become, anew.

Thus, in a time that knows the death of God, in an immanent time, in a time where the challenge is to “believe in the world,”[8] the question is how to do theology – or, how to think and imagine God and Christ – otherwise, beyond the boundaries of confessional theologies, with the assistance of contemporary philosophical consciousness.

In this way, a materialist theo-poetics suggests itself. A poetics that chases down the conceptual energy the name of God or Christ solicits, that seeks out what event is taking place in the name of both, while refusing to be in the know – refusing to have knowledge (of the) In-Itself – which is to say, that which is being symbolised.


This brings us fully and properly to Advent – a time with a humbling, if not frightening, conceptual and symbolic energy and excess. Here we speak not just of the virgin birth but the Incarnation; we speak of prophetic promise; the political hopes and dreams of old men, young women, and entire people’s; and God’s presence “with” each and all in Israel who experience those desires for justice and peace.

So we may ask, what is symbolised in the name of Jesus and in the name of God during this time – that is, felt time, time that impinges itself all the more because of insufficiency of the given structures of the world? What can be continually conceptualised in Advent? What do we wish to see “come?” How might we allow Advent to generate in us a belief in the world?

If we might suggest that most meaningful for a radical theology of culture is that which resists the neoliberal geo-political and economic suicide pact, then what does it mean to say “God with us?” What does it mean to say “come, Lord?” What is getting said, thought, and imagined in our symbols and our concepts? What event is stirring in the house of being?

What does it mean to say, “Justice, peace, and grace with us,”[8] made flesh among us, coming to us, dying in and with us? What does it mean to let Jesus of Nazareth become the moment and vehicle of such conceptualisation and symbolisation?

If we might follow Deleuze in affirming a plane of immanence – immanent only to itself – in materialising Being, in feeling for the event that is taking place in what we say and hope and desire, we change the co-ordinates and task of theology. We move it directly into culture, into the fullness of becoming; we move our symbols into the excesses of life and history, and ask forcefully, what we might make new?

It is here the question changes: we do not think of what Advent means, we think what it will mean. We imagine Advent anew – which is to say, we create and are created by theological and Christological concepts – in the name of believing in the world.

[1] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, 48

[2] Deleuze & Guattari, What is Philosophy?, 74-75

[3] Theology of Culture, 54

[4] Here Tillich and Deleuze are at odds. Where for Deleuze immanence is immanent only to itself, for Tillich Being is a transcendent ground from which the immanent is alienated and to which it must always be defined.

[5] Ibid., 58

[6] Ibid., 66

[7] See n. 2

[8] I am here following thinkers such as Caputo and Derrida, for whom the name of God could be substituted in this direct a way for concrete hopes such as these.

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