Ultimate Concerns

Everybody has them. Do we have the right ones?

Events in the news drew me back to a religious studies course I took a number of years ago in which I read Paul Tillich who defined religion as “one’s ultimate concerns.” In Tillich’s definition, the ultimate concern of religion should be something transcendent, holy and numinous. But I now see that it can also be applied to things that are not holy or numinous. One’s ultimate concerns can be pleasure, or power, or money, or sex. One’s ultimate concern can be focused on a person, or even on the cult of personality, as it was with so many Germans who blindly followed Hitler. One’s ultimate concerns can be focused on one’s obsessions, as it was with Captain Ahab in Moby Dick. One’s ultimate concerns are those things which predominantly occupy one’s mind, determine one’s actions, and shape one’s desires.

At its heart, our ultimate concerns define our core values. Let’s take the example of a politician whose only desire is to get reelected. If that is the politician’s ultimate concern, that politician’s principles will change color like a chameleon who only wants to blend into the current political environment. Just consider how many politicians who once advocated fiscal responsibly have quickly voted in support of enormous deficits. Core values are thus subject to the times.

Many previous presidents displayed strong and admirable core values, despite their very human failures and flaws. We saw these strong values in Teddy Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Raegan, and Jimmy Carter. Despite his many sexual indiscretions, we even saw them in John Kennedy, especially during the Cuban missile crisis.  

Service to a higher cause, one that comes out of virtue and character, should be the ultimate concern of us all, but especially to the Christian. A person does not need to be a Christian to be a person of character. The ultimate concern of the Christian should be advancing the Kingdom of God, as proclaimed by Jesus, and worshipping and serving its King, the reigning Christ. This ultimate concern is holy and transcendent. And, in worship, it can be numinous.

When this is the Christian’s ultimate concerns, the Christian’s core values are shaped and formed by loving God and loving neighbor. Love should thus be the visible evidence of our ultimate concern. Unfortunately, too few Christians really understand that only through discipleship can their core values be changed. Too many live lives dedicated to pleasure, to comfort, to worldly politics, and to temporal as opposed to eternal values.

Only through the work of the Holy Spirit is one’s ultimate concerns transferred from the dark domain of this world into the Kingdom of God.

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