Paul Tillich Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Tillich introduced a unique and challenging approach to the area of theology.

Early Life

Paul Johannes Tillich was born August 20, 1886, in Starzeddel, in the province of Brandenburg in eastern Germany, an area which later became part of Poland. His father, a Lutheran pastor from eastern Germany, instilled in his son a love for philosophy. Much of Tillich’s later attitude toward traditional authority, however, was a negative reaction to the stern conservativeness of his father. Tillich was deeply fond of his mother, the more influential of his parents. She was from the progressive western part of Germany and encouraged her son to explore new ideas. The family also included two daughters.

Tillich loved the country life, where, although his family was in the upper class, he went to a public school and made most of his close boyhood friends from among the poorer classes. His later leanings toward socialism were begun in these friendships. When his father was called to a new position in Berlin in 1900, the fourteen-year-old Tillich found that he was also strongly attracted to the excitement of Berlin. In addition, he found great relaxation and contemplative value at the shore of the Baltic Sea, where the family vacationed each year.

When Tillich was seventeen, his mother died of melanoma, a painful form of cancer. This tragedy left him psychologically and spiritually destitute. The feeling of abandonment and betrayal, as if he had lost all direction, meaning, and stability, was to color his entire personal and professional life.

With his university work at Breslau, he earned a doctor of philosophy degree in 1910, going on to earn a licentiate of theology from Halle. He identified membership in a Christian student organization called the Wingolf Society as the most influential chapter in his life. This group of seventy men spent late nights in deep theological and philosophical debates, followed by smaller, quieter conversations continuing until nearly dawn. In August of 1912, he followed in his father’s steps, receiving ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

When he was twenty-seven, Tillich married Grethi Wever, a woman much older than he. That same year, with the outbreak of war in Europe, he volunteered for service in the army as chaplain. During the next four years, he earned two Iron Crosses for valor, even though he suffered three nervous breakdowns during his service.

While Tillich was in the army, his wife had an affair with one of his friends and gave birth to a child. A child born earlier to the Tillichs had died in infancy. After a two-year separation, the couple was divorced in 1921.

In the meantime, Tillich became involved in the decadence and excesses that marked German society in the postwar period. Some even suggested that he resign from any further work in theology. It was in that social setting that he met Hannah Werner, who was already engaged to be married. Even so, they maintained a heated romance for a time, then resumed it after she left her new husband to return to Berlin to be with Tillich. She brought with her an infant child, whom she placed in a nursing home. When the child died there, her husband divorced her, and she married Tillich in 1924. A daughter, Erdmuthe, was born to them in 1926, and nine years later, a son, René Stephan.

Tillich was blond and possessed a face that seemed to have been chiseled from marble. He had tremendous personal charm and, as a public speaker, a commanding presence. Throughout his adult life, he took advantage of the fact that women found him very attractive. His second wife claimed that even on their wedding night he had an affair with another woman.

Life’s Work

Tillich began his career as a teacher in 1919, when he accepted a position as instructor at the University of Berlin. Because of the nature of the position, he needed the financial support of others during this time.

His private life was very much in turmoil during those years. In addition to his divorce and remarriage, he suffered the death of his older sister. Yet he was able to establish himself as a competent teacher and remained at Berlin until 1924. His lectures began to receive a somewhat wider audience, and he was able to publish a number of articles.

From Berlin, Tillich left with his wife for Marburg for a position as associate professor of theology at the university there. During this time, his first real success came with the publication of his book The Religious Situation (1925). Yet the Tillichs were unhappy in the smaller community of Marburg, and after three semesters, in 1925, they moved to the Dresden Institute of Technology, where he had full professorship. Over the next four years, he continued to publish and gain recognition as a speaker. He also took a position as adjunct professor of systematic theology at the University of Leipzig. In 1929, Tillich accepted a full professorship at the University of Frankfurt. There, he lectured on religion, culture, the social situation, and...

(The entire section is 2099 words.)