Paul Tillich Introduction - Essay


Paul Tillich 1886-1965

German-born American philosopher, writer, essayist, and Protestant theologian.

The following entry presents an overview of Tillich's career through 1991.

Tillich was a renowned American Protestant theologian. As a self-proclaimed philosophical theologian, Tillich saw the very nature of Christian faith expressed in religious symbols that demanded constant reinterpretation. Tillich sought to blend traditional Christianity with current modes of thinking regarding science, sociology, and ethics in order to illuminate Christianity as meaningful in modern life. He felt it necessary to create a unified Christian realism in order to meet the needs of religious people adrift in the scientific and technological universe of the 1950s. Tillich concerned himself with the lonely and alienated “contemporary” man and his pseudo-philosophical cloak “existentialism,” which Tillich sought to integrate with the religious basis of human life, seeing religion as a “unifying center” for existence.

Biographical Information

Tillich was born in Prussia and was the son of a Lutheran pastor. He studied theology at the Universities of Berlin, Tuebingen, and Halle, and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Breslau and the Licentiate in Theology from Halle. Tillich was ordained a minister of Germany's Evangelical Lutheran Church in 1912, and during World War I, served as a chaplain with German ground forces. Bitterly opposed to the war, it was “the dirt, the horrors and the ugliness” he found in the trenches that inspired him “systematically to study the history of art and to collect as many as possible of the cheap reproductions available.” It was also the declaration of war by Germany that signaled the end of the nineteenth century for Tillich: “This moment was for my whole generation a real kairos [great moment]—a tremendous kairos. And during the war, not immediately but gradually, slowly, we began to see the world differently.” Tillich's own emerging philosophy/theology was also profoundly affected by the war: “In one night all my friends were brought to me either already dead or dying; this was the moment in which something … broke down forever…. That was the second kairos in which the first came to fulfilment. Then a process of maturity started in which I slowly developed the basic ideas of my own thinking.” During the 1920s Tillich became one of Germany's most influential philosopher/theologians, publishing many seminal works reflecting religion as the paramount concern in all human endeavor. Teaching at various German universities, Tillich was eventually ousted by the Nazis in 1933 because of his tolerant, humanistic views. “I had the great honor and luck to be about the first non-Jewish professor dismissed from a German university,” he said of his forced emigration. Tillich immigrated to the United States and served as a faculty member of the Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1933 to 1954. He also lectured throughout the United States and abroad, including engagements in Germany, where after World War II his writings became popular. In 1954 he joined the Divinity School of Harvard University and the University of Chicago in 1962. Tillich died in 1965.

Major Works

Tillich's writings are not only concerned with theology and philosophy, but with politics, the arts, and sociology, often concentrating on the relationship between religion and psychology. The Courage To Be (1952) and Dynamics Of Faith (1956) reached a major public audience not usually concerned with religious issues. His works were welcomed by American Protestants who sought an alternative to fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible. The Shaking of the Foundations (1948) and The Courage to Be, which was considered his most accessible book, reckoned existentialism from a numinous perspective and attempted to amalgamate it with a sacrosanct world view. In the three-volume Systematic Theology (1951-63), considered by many to be his life's work, Tillich took contemporary philosophical and psychological concepts and related them to sociological and scientific theories. Systematic Theology's main thesis held that Protestant theology can “without losing its Christian foundations, incorporate strictly scientific methods, a critical philosophy, a realistic understanding of man and society and powerful ethical principles and motives.” Critic Roger Hazelton held that in Systematic Theology Tillich attained “the power of a synthesizing comprehension which could discover basic, relevant connections where others saw only fragmentation or contradiction.” Tillich did not see theology as separate from philosophy, “for, whatever the relation of God, world, and man may be, it lies in the frame of being; and any interpretation of the meaning and structure of being as being unavoidably such has consequences for the interpretation of God, man and the world in their interrelations.” He believed that for the modern person “the traditional language has become irrelevant,” and that, therefore, the meaning of Christian symbols has been confused. This meaning is the ultimate message of Christianity and must now be interpreted with the language of our own culture, according to Tillich. In much of his writings, Tillich saw the task of philosophy and theology as a seeking out of the shared bond between the questions modern culture asks and the answers found in Christian symbols. Tillich found these questions to be deeply grounded in the universal human situation, and it is with Christian symbols that these eternal questions may be answered. In much of Tillich's work, it was exactly these types of questions that primarily interested him: “My work is with those who ask questions, and for them I am here.” In fact, his theology was built upon “the method of correlation between questions arising out of the human predicament and the answers given in the classical symbols of religion.” As Hazelton said of Systematic Theology, “[Tillich's] is therefore an answering theology, which is also to say a listening theology.” Tillich saw American culture as quite distant from past cultures which revered God, which he defined as “the answer to the question implied in man's finitude; He is the name for that which concerns man ultimately.” To Tillich, modern culture promotes self-reliance, without any manifestation of religious transcendence. He found all cultural forms to be expressions of “ultimate concern.” Tillich termed this cultural lack of spirituality as autonomous—finding law in itself, and as opposed to being heteronomous—deriving law from the sublime. He proposed instead that one should become theonomous—finding law in “ultimate concern, the divine.” Like Jung's collective unconscious or Emerson's oversoul, Tillich founded his personal philosophy on a grand unifying principle: “the most intimate motions within the depths of our souls are not completely our own. For they belong also to our friends, to mankind, to the universe, and to the Ground of being, the aim of our life. Nothing can be hidden ultimately. It is always reflected in the mirror in which nothing can be concealed.”

Critical Reception

Critics see many of Tillich's books, such as The Shaking of the Foundation and The Courage to Be, as an integration of existentialism with the religious, “unifying center” of human life. He was praised for believing in a reconciling, “New Being,” which is democratically available to all who seek it. Critics have found the manifestation of this “being” in Tillich's writings to be the symbol of Christ. According to Roger Hazelton, the meaning of this universal symbol “is that human existence everywhere and always can be renewed through ecstatic participation in being-itself, which is Tillich's word for God.” According to John K. Roth, “Tillich explored the uncertainties of human existence and, in spite of those conditions, helped people to discern the God who provides the courage to be.” Tillich is regarded as an extremely influential figure in American religious and social life. “[Tillich] displayed to the American communities of learning and culture, the wholeness of religious philosophy and of the political and social dimensions of human existence,” said colleague Reinhold Niebuhr. Many critics have found in Tillich a definite sense of the transcendent. “In short, … justifying faith is the transcendental condition for the possibility of the courage to be in the midst of total despair,” said George Lindbeck. Most critics agree that Tillich found his ontological answer in “Being-itself” and “ultimate concern,” which are synonymous with God. Tillich strove for a philosophical theology of unity that could be known through symbols he called “the most revealing creations of the human mind” and the “results of a creative encounter with reality.” As Iris M. Yob noted, “[Tillich's] cosmological understanding of the world is that ‘the knower and that which is known is united,’ since everything is ultimately derived from the unity he calls ‘Being-itself.’”