Paul Tillich

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Paul Tillich (essay date 1966)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7721

SOURCE: “The Decline and the Validity of the Idea of Progress,” in Ohio University Review, Vol. 8, 1966, pp. 5-22.

[In the following essay, Tillich discusses the notion of progress as concept, symbol, and idea, linking it to his conception of kairoi or “great moments.”]

This lecture was delivered as one in the series of Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Lectures at Ohio University on May 19th, 1964. At the time, Professor Tillich granted The Ohio University Review the right to print the lecture after revision. A tape was made of the lecture and the transcript of it was edited by Professor Stanley Grean of the Philosophy Department of Ohio University. Tillich made some revisions of this but had not completed them at the time of his death. The lecture as it appears here is based on this text as found among his papers and first printed earlier this year in Paul Tillich, The Future of Religions, ed. Jerald C. Brauer (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., New York, 1966). Used by arrangement with the publishers. After the original lecture there was a brief period of questions and answers which was also taped. A transcript of this, as edited by Professor Grean, appears here for the first time by permission of the Executor of the Literary Estate of Paul Tillich.

My subject is the idea of progress, which I will examine from the point of view that it is valid, that it has declined very much in its importance, and that in a new form it might be revived. Therefore, my title is “The Decline and the Validity of the Idea of Progress.”

Let us, first, examine some basic considerations about the concepts involved. This is where my semantic critics are right. Every discussion today in philosophy and theology demands a semantic clearing up of the concepts which are used, because we are living in Babylon after the tower has been destroyed and the languages of man have been disturbed and dispersed all over the world. This is the situation one faces today in reading theological and philosophical books. Therefore, I must guide you through some burdensome logical, semantic, and historical journeys.

Now, first, there is a difference between the concept of progress and the idea of progress. The concept of progress is an abstraction, based on the description of a group of facts, of objects of observation which may well be verified or falsified; but the idea of progress is an interpretation of existence as a whole, which means first of all our own existence. Thus, it is a matter of decision. It is an answer everybody has to give about the meaning of his life. Progress as an idea is a symbol for an attitude toward our existence. As so often in history, a concept open to logical and empirical description and analysis has become a symbol, and in the case of progress this is particularly true—the concept has become a symbol. What is extracted from a special realm of facts has become an expression of a general attitude toward life. Therefore, we must look at progress both as concept and as symbol. Since observation always precedes interpretation, I will give most attention to progress as a concept, because most of the confusions about progress as a symbol come from a limited and wrong analysis of progress as a concept.

Obviously progress is a universal experience which everybody has. The word is derived from gressus which means step, progress means stepping ahead from a less satisfactory situation to a more satisfactory situation. Imagine a lecture like this...

(This entire section contains 7721 words.)

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about progress, yet denying the idea of progress; someone might attempt this. But even such a person in denying the idea of progress works for progress; that is, he wants the less informed of his listeners to be better informed at the end of his lecture. In this sense, even if he speaks against the idea of progress, he accepts the concept of progress. He is implicitly progressivistic. I call this kind of thinking about progress “progressivism,” which is implied in every action. Everybody who acts, acts in order to change a state of things in the direction of a better state of things. He wants to make progress. This is the most simple, the most fundamental, and actually the least contradictory way of understanding progress—the progressivism implied in every action. Nobody can get away from this. Yet this simple sense of progress is far from progress as the universal way of life and as the law of human history. Therefore, we ask how could the idea have arisen that human history and, even preceding it, the history of all life, the history of the universe, has a progressivistic character—is progress from something lower to something higher. How could this idea develop? What are the motives behind it?

Now I must first guide you on the thorny path—especially so for Americans—of historical reminder. I hope it is a reminder because I presume that all of you know what I am referring to, but if not, be patient with me because the historical question gives the basis for the understanding of what today seems natural to us. The idea of this country is that it represents a new beginning in the history of mankind. This is true in many respects. But the new beginning is never fully new. It is always a result of preceding events, and if I may comment on my experience on two continents, I would say that Europe is endangered by its past and by all the curses coming from that past. America, on the other hand, is endangered by going ahead without looking back at the creative forces which have determined the whole of Western culture. So I wish to direct your thoughts in the first part of this paper to the past. You will discover how relevent this is to our present understanding of such an idea as that of progress.

Let us first consider the religious background of the idea of progress. The fundamental factor in this respect is prophetic religion as expressed in the Old Testament and in many forms ever since in the Christian church as well as in Judaism and Islam. It involves the idea that God has elected a nation and, later on in Christianity, people from all over the world, that he has promised something related to the future, and that in spite of all resistance on the part of the people, he will fulfill his promise. There is the vision of progress toward the future in this idea. The belief of the prophets that Yahweh, the God of Israel, will establish his heavenly rule or his kingdom over all the world is the primary basis of an interpretation of history as the place where the divine reveals itself in progress toward an end. Now this idea has always been important in the development of Christianity. There was, for example, a man whose name should be remembered, Joachim De Fiore, an abbot in Southern Italy in the twelfth century, who expressed this idea of progress in the doctrine that there were three stages in history, the stage of the Father in the Old Testament, the stage of the Son (the last thousand years of church history), and the coming or third stage of the Divine Spirit in which there will be no more church since everyone will be taught directly by the spirit. In this last stage, too, there will be equality and there will be no more marriage: history will come to an end.

Now this half-fantastic, half-realistic idea had many consequences for the whole subsequent church history, and also for this country. The idea of the third stage was taken on by the radical evangelicals in the time of the Reformation, which underlies most of this country's religion, and is seen in the idea of a revolutionary or progressivistic realization of the kingdom of God in Calvinism. It became the religious basis deep-rooted in every Western man. If you don't believe it, go to Asia—to India or Japan. I had the privilege of being in Japan for ten weeks talking every day with Buddhist priests and scholars. There is nothing like this. “The religions of the East are of the past,” I was told, “not of the future.” For the religious people of the East, one wants to return to the Eternal from which one came directly, not caring for history, going out of history at some time of one's life into the desert, if possible. If you contrast this with the Western religious feeling of progressive activity, then you see what the difference is.

However, this was only the religious basis for the idea of progress. Now we come to the secular motives, and the secular elaboration of the idea of progress, which, of course, starts with the Renaissance. The man of the Renaissance is something new, not only as compared with the Middle Ages but also as compared with the late ancient world. The most important impact of the ancient world on Renaissance man was made by Stoic philosophy, but it was a transformed Stoicism. It was not the Stoicism of resignation, as it was under the Roman empire in the later Greek world, but it was the Stoicism of action. The Romans—some of the Roman emperors even—were partly mediators in this direction. However, the man of the Renaissance does not feel he is dependent on fate as the Stoics did. Rather, he feels—as expressed in painting—that when the destiny of man is compared with a sailboat, driven by the winds of contingency, man stands at the rudder and directs it. Of course, he knows that destiny gives the winds, but nevertheless, man directs destiny. This conception is unheard of in all Greek culture and is a presupposition of the idea of progress in the modern world. Out of this arose the great Renaissance Utopian writings, that is, the anticipation of a reality—outopos—which “has no place” in history, but which is nevertheless being expected. Such Utopias have been written ever since, into the twentieth century. It was the idea of the third stage of history, the stage of reason in bourgeois society, the stage of the classless society in the working-class movements. It was a secularized idea of the third stage, the religious foundations of which we saw. But it was not only ideas which produced this passion for purpose, it was also the social reality, the activities of bourgeois society at this time, such as the colonial extension of Europe in all directions; space extension, which has remained an element in the idea of progress up to the space exploration we are doing today; and technical extension—continuous progress in controlling nature and putting it into the service of man. All this has been based on the boundary lines of science which we have trespassed year by year since the beginning of the Renaissance up until today.

But there was another element of great importance in the idea of progress, namely the vision of nature as a progressive process from the atom to the molecule, to the cell, to the developed organism, and finally to man. This is evolution, progress in largeness of elements united in one being, with centeredness and, therefore, power being in the individual. And this line, then, was drawn beyond nature through humanity, from primitive to civilized man, to us as the representatives of the age of reason in which the potentialities of creation have come to their fulfillment.

When I tell you this, you yourself can feel how overwhelmingly impressive it is, and how virtually impossible it was to escape this idea as a symbol of faith. Progress became in the nineteenth century not only a conscious doctrine but also an unconscious dogma. When I came to this country in 1933 and spoke with students of theology, and criticized certain ideas of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, of the Church, or of sin or salvation, it didn't touch them very much but when I criticized the idea of progress, they said to me, “In what then can we believe? What do you do with our real faith?” And these were students of theology. It means that all the Christian dogmas had been transformed in the unconscious of these people (which my questions brought out) into a faith in progress. But then something happened! This dogma was shaken in the twentieth century, as foreseen by some prophetic minds in the nineteenth, first in Europe, then in America.

In Europe one of the greatest expressions of the shaking of this faith was Nietzsche's prophecy of—what unfortunately today has become a fashionable phrase—the death of God. This doesn't mean primitive, materialistic atheism; Nietzsche was far from this. But it meant the undercutting of the value-systems, Christian as well as secular, and the view of the human predicament as something in conflict, in destruction, in estrangement from true humanity.

Nietzsche was one of the predecessors of what today is called “existentialist” literature. The trend was further supported by the historical pessimism of men like Spengler, who wrote two important volumes on The Decline of the West in which much historical imagination was connected with much true prophecy. In the year 1916 he prophesied the coming of the period of the dictators, and in the early thirties the Communist and the Fascist dictators were a reality. The first World War and then the rise of what he prophesied of the totalitarian powers—this was the end of the belief in progress as an idea in Europe. In America it started somehow with the great economic crisis in the thirties. In Germany it started with the beginning of the Hitler period and the experience that history can fall back and that a rebarbarization can happen in any moment even in the highest culture. Then came the second World War, the cold war, and the atomic crises. And with all this there came in this country the end of the crusading utopianism of the first third of the century. Instead, opposite Utopias appeared in literature—negative Utopias—like Huxley's Brave New World, or Orwell's 1984. In many other novels and treatises the future is painted in terms of negative utopianism, in terms not of fulfillment but of dehumanization. The same can be seen in the existentialist style in the arts—whether you call it expressionist, cubist, or abstract—wherein the expression of the demonic in the underground of the individual or the group moves away from the figures and faces of human beings toward the abstract elements in the underground of reality. In philosophy there is a withdrawal into a merely formal analysis of the possibility of thinking without going into reality itself with one's thinking. This was the end of a phase in the idea of progress, but the active motive of all our behavior cannot die, nor can the lure of future possibilities.

Today we need a new inquiry into the validity and the limits of the idea of progress. There are symptoms of reconsideration: For instance, in philosophy now there is an attempt finally to use the sharpened instruments of logical analysis to go into the real problems of human existence and in the arts at least an attempt to use the elementary forms discovered in the last fifty years to express in a new way reality as manifestly encountered. There are other elements too: the extension of national independence; the real fight about the racial problem; and the increasing awareness, even among conservative theologians, that our attitude toward the non-Christian religions has to be one of dialogue—even the present Pope used that term. But, of course, these are symptoms and not yet fulfillments, and the threat of a relapse into the predominant pessimism (if you use that word which shouldn't be used by a philosopher) is always a danger.

We must now contribute to this reappraisal by going through a serious and perhaps painstaking analysis of the concept of progress as it appears in the different realms of life. After this somewhat dramatic historical section, I ask you to follow me through an analytic section, through an analysis of all the things one does oneself, especially in academic surroundings.


The tremendous force of the progressivistic idea was rooted, firstly, in observations about particular instances of progress in technical and scientific matters. But this observation was inadequate, and what is needed now is to show the non-progressive elements in reality and culture, and to demonstrate in some way how they are related to the progressive elements. There is a general principle for all this which one can follow through more fully when one thinks about these ideas. The general principle is: Where there is freedom to contradict fulfillment, there the rule of progress is broken. Freedom to contradict one's fulfillment breaks the rule of the law of progress. This freedom is nothing else but another word for the moral act, which we perform every day innumerable times. There is no progress with respect to the moral act because there is no morality without free decisions, without the awareness of the power to turn with one's centered self in the one or the other direction. It means that every individual starts anew and has to make decisions for himself, whether he be on the lowest or highest level of culture or education. The German rebarbarization was looked at with great astonishment by a world which was adhering to the faith in progress. But there it was. In one of the most highly civilized nations, decisions were made by individuals and followed by many which contradicted anything we consider to be human nature and human fulfillment. This was a tremendous shock. And here is the first answer to the whole problem of progress. Every newborn infant has, when it comes to a certain point of self-awareness, the possibility of stopping progress by contradicting fulfillment in man's essential nature.

There is something else in what we usually call progress in the ethical realm, namely, coming to maturity—maturation. The child matures, and in this respect, there is progress. There is as in nature a progression from the seed to the fruit of the tree, or to the fully grown tree, but this element of maturity belongs to the individual first, and he may at any moment break out of it. We know how much this happens even in people whom we consider to be mature, and we know many who never become mature. There is something like maturing also in social groups. It means deeper understanding of man's essential nature in individual and social relations. This is not moral progress but it is cultural progress in the moral realm. It is cultural because it sees better what human nature is, but it doesn't make people better. If we had attained the full idea now of the social interrelation between the races in this country, we would be on a higher, on a more mature level; we would have deeper insight into human nature and into the content of the moral demand, but we would not have better human beings, because the goodness or not-goodness of a human being appears on all levels of culture and insight. So we can say—and this is very important for our whole consideration of this idea and for our whole culture today with respect to the free moral decisions of individuals—there are always new beginnings in the individual and sometimes in the group, but the contents can mature and can grow from one generation to another. This is the difference between civilized ethics and primitive ethics, but do not believe that on the level of primitive ethics people were worse than we are. In the smallest decisions you make in your classes, or in your homes, or wherever it may be, there is the same problem of ethical decision which is found in the crudeness of the cavemen; you are not better than they. You may be better than one of them, but one of them may be better than you. The distinction between moral decision and progress in moral content is fundamental for our judging the whole of past history.

When we look at education, we arrive at the same result. Education leads to higher cultural levels, to progress and maturity, to a production of habits of good behavior. As a consequence, education can be a kind of second nature in each of you, useful for society, but, when it comes to moral freedom, you are still able to become rebarbarized, even if not openly as it was in Germany, in your personal relation to another person, to your children, your husband, your wife, or your friends. You can again start on a level which is that of freedom to contradict what you ought to be. When we add to the ordinary educational process, as we have it in a college or university, when we add to it education in psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, counselling, and all these things which are so important, what can they do? They can heal you from disturbances, they can help you to become free, but when you have been set free, let us say by successful analysis, you still have to decide. This is not moral progress; it is progress in healing, but the moral decision remains free, and now has become really free by medical or psychoanalytical help.

Besides moral freedom, the freedom of contradicting every possible instance of progress, there is a second element where there is no progress, namely, the freedom of spiritual creativity—creation in culture.

Let us look at the different cultural functions. There are the arts. Is there progress in the arts? There is progress in the technical use of materials, in the better mixing of colors, and in things like that, but is there progress in the arts? Has Homer ever been surpassed by anyone? Has Shakespeare ever been surpassed by anyone? Is an early Greek frieze worse than a classical sculpture, or is a classical worse than a modern expressionist? No. There is maturity of styles; there are good and bad representatives of style, but you cannot compare artistic styles in terms of progress. A style starts, often very modestly and preliminarily. It grows, it becomes mature, it produces its greatest expressions, then it decays. But there is no progress from one style to another. There is no progress from the Gothic to the Classical style. (And this needs to be said against our Gothic church buildings—we shouldn't pretend that we can go back to the Gothic style, after our modern stylistic feelings and developmental possibilities have become so different.) So, creativity in the arts admits of maturity, admits of “great moments”—kairoi—right times, decisive times, turning points, all this, but it does not admit progress from one style to another.

The same is true in the realm of knowledge. If you look at philosophy, you see an analytic element in our great philosophers as well as a visionary element. Take Aristotle, for example, who unites both of them so clearly. In every kind of knowledge a philosophical element is present. You can also speak of a logical and empirical element in knowledge which is detached and necessary, and an existentialist and inspirational element which is involved. Both are there, and the very fact that in all great philosophers there was this visionary, involved, inspirational element makes it impossible to speak about progress in the history of philosophy except in those elements which are connected with a sharpened logical analysis or a tremendous increase in empirical knowledge. I have never found a philosopher who I could say progressed over Parmenides the Eleatic of the sixth century B.C. Of course, there is much more empirical knowledge, there is much more refined analysis, but the vision of this man, and of Heraclitus, his polar friend and opposite, cannot be surpassed. There is no qualitative progress from Heraclitus to Whitehead.

And there is no progress in humanity, that is, in the formation of the individual person. I was struck by this once when I saw a photograph of an old Sumerian sculpture, perhaps of a priestess, and looking at it said to myself, “Look at the sculptures and paintings of great representatives of humanity in the following history of three or four thousand years.” I found no progress at all. I found differences, but I didn't find progress. This means that even justice as well as humanity are not matters of progress except in technical elements. If I think, for instance, of democracy there is progress in largeness of the number of people involved, and progress in maturity in some respects, but there was justice in the state of Athens, justice in old Israel, in Rome, in the Middle Ages, and there is justice in modern democracy. The progress is quantitative, but the quality of the ideas of humanity and justice has not progressed.

Now I come to the most difficult problem—progress in religion. Of course, it is simple if you follow the conservative or fundamentalist idea that there is one true religion and many false ones. Then, needless to say, there is no progress. But even if you hold this view, you have a difficulty, namely, the Old Testament—what about that? Isn't there something then like progress—progressive revelation? So the problem appears even in Christianity. There is development, there is progress. Even in church history there is supposed to be progress according to the Gospel of John where Jesus is reported to have said that the Spirit will introduce you into all truth. This is progress. Furthermore, there are Christian theologies which expect new revelations even beyond Jesus the Christ. This, of course, would be post-Christian religion. Now if we look at this, we encounter great difficulties. On the one hand, Christianity claims that there is no possible progress beyond what is given in Jesus the Christ; on the other hand, there is great progress in world history in many respects—in knowledge as well as in other areas. How shall we deal with this problem?

Here is where religion might provide the standpoint from which we might understand the whole problem better. I would say that we must replace the idea of progress by two other concepts: the concept of maturing, and the concept of “the decisive moment.” What we need is an understanding of history in which there are two things, rather than a single, continuous line of progress. (I hope that what I have said about all the other realms—the ethical, the cultural, the artistic, the scientific, the philosophical, the religious—showed this clearly.) “Great moments” or, if you want to accept the term I like very much, taken from the New Testament or from classical Greek, the term kairos, the right time, fulfilled time, time in which something decisive happens, is not the same as chronos, chronological time, which is watch time, but it means the qualitative time in which “something happens.” I would say, therefore, that in history we have two processes, not progress as a universal event, but the maturing of potentialities, the maturing of a style, for instance, or the maturing in the education of a human being. It is not progress beyond this human being. He or she may give something to their children, but children must decide again on their own. There is no progress; they must start anew. Two things then we can see in history. One is the process of maturing in terms of potentialities; the other is the great moments, the kairoi, in history in which something new happens. However, that new thing which happens is not in a progressivistic line with the other new things before and after it. This is only true in the technical and scientific realm so far as the logical elements are implied, but it is not so in the realm of spiritual creativity and of the moral act.

My description and analysis of progress has been more careful than is usual, but I believe that the service an academic lecturer can give is to show his listeners where the problems lie, and to steer them away from the popular talk about such weighty problems. This I have tried to do, and now perhaps we will have some of the fruits of this. When progress is elevated into a symbol or an idea, as I said in the beginning, then it can take on two forms. The one is the idea of endless progress, without a limit, in which one moves further and further along, and things get better and better. The other is the Utopian form, which is historically much more important; namely, that at some point in time man's essential nature will be fulfilled. What is possible for man will then exist. Now, what happens with these two? In the first type, progress runs ahead without aim, unless progress itself is taken to be the aim, but there is no goal at the end of the progression. Thus, it is simply a matter of going ahead, and of course, if my analysis before was right, this is possible to a certain extent in the technical and scientific realms. But it is not possible in the realms where vision and inspiration play a role. The other type, the Utopian, has produced all the tremendous passions in history, for it is the principle of revolution. However, after the revolution is successful, the great disappointment follows, and this disappointment produces cynicism and sometimes complete withdrawal from history. We have it in some forms of Christianity—we have it strongly in Lutheranism and in the Greek Orthodox Church; we have it less in Calvinism and Evangelical radicalism, which underlies this country; and we have it in an anti-Christian way as a result of the terrible experiences of suffering in Asiatic religions, especially in Buddhism with its withdrawal from history.

Now the question is, is there a way of avoiding the Utopianism which sees the fulfillment of history around the corner; which says, only one step more and we will be in the classless society; only one step more and we will be an educated nation; only one step more and all our youngsters will reach full humanity, or all our social groups will stand for true justice. If only all men of good will—that means we—stand together, everything will be all right. All this is Utopianism. In contrast, I want to save you, by my criticism of the idea of progress, from the cynical consequences of disappointed Utopianism. In my long life I have experienced the breakdown of the Utopianism of the Western intelligentsia both in Europe and America and the tremendous cynicism and despair which followed it and, finally, the emptiness of not being ultimately concerned about anything. Therefore, I think that we must put something else in place of these two types of progressivism. Endless progress may be symbolized by running ahead indefinitely into an empty space. We will do that, but it is not the meaning of life; nor are better and better gadgets the meaning of life. What is the meaning of life then? Perhaps it is something else. Perhaps there are great moments in history. There is in these great moments not total fulfillment, but there is the victory over a particular power of destruction, a victory over a demonic power which was creative and now has become destructive. This is a possibility, but don't expect that it must happen. It might not happen; that is a continuous threat hanging over development in history. But there may be a kairos.

After the first World War in Germany, we believed, just because of the defeat of Germany, that there was a kairos, a great moment, in which something new could be created. In this sense we were progressive, but we did not believe that it was necessary that this would happen. Inevitable progress should not be sought by us, for there is no such thing. Of course, what we hoped for then was completely destroyed by the Hitler movement. Out of these experiences we came to see that there is a possibility of victory over a particular demonic power—a particular force of destruction—or to put it simply, there is a possibility of solving a particular problem, as for instance, the race problem in our time. But even if this does happen, it doesn't mean inevitable progress. We must fight for it, and we may be defeated, but even if not, new demonic powers will arise.

There is a wonderful symbolism in the last book of the Bible, in the idea of the thousand years' rule of Christ in history. In these thousand years, which is a symbolic number, of course, the demonic forces will be banned—put into chains in the underworld. This is all symbolism. But they are not annihilated and they may come to the surface again, as they will in the final struggle. When we thought about our problems after the first World War, we used this symbol—not in its literal sense, of course—as expressing the awareness that you can ban a particular demonic force. Hitler was banned, but the powers behind Hitler, the demonic forces in mankind and in every individual, are not definitely annihilated; they are banned for a moment and they may return again. So instead of a progressivistic, Utopian, or empty vision of history, let us think of the great moments for which we must keep ourselves open, and in which the struggle of the divine and the demonic in history may be decided for one moment for the divine against the demonic, though there is no guarantee that this will happen. On the contrary, in the view of the Bible, especially the book of Revelation, the growth of the divine powers in history is contradicted by a growth of the demonic powers.

So in every moment the fight is going on and the only thing we can say is this: If there is a new beginning, let us mature in it; if there is a new beginning in world history as we have it now in this country and beyond this country, let us follow it and develop it to its maturity. But let us not look at history in the sense of progress which will be going on and finally come to an end which is wonderful and fulfilling. There is no such thing in history, because man is free, free to contradict his own essential nature and his own fulfillment. As a Christian theologian I would say that fulfillment is going on in every moment here and now beyond history, not some time in the future, but here and now above ourselves. When I have to apply this to a meeting like this, then I would say it might well be that in such a meeting in the inner movements of some of us, something might happen which is elevated out of time into eternity. This then is a non-Utopian and a true fulfillment of the meaning of history and of our own individual life.


[Question 1:] Does the nature of the society before the “great moment” or kairos affect the quality, character, or nature of the “great moment”?

[Paul Tillich:] This is a question of the dialectics of history, of how the “new” comes into existence in the historical process. This is a very fundamental question. If we look at history both with the eyes of the sociologist and the dialectician (which we must), then we can say with certainty that nothing can happen in a situation in the present moment which was not made possible by the situation in the preceding moment. (I am using the word “situation” here in the sense in which Whitehead often used it.) But between the preceding moment and the present moment there is that category which is the category of all history—namely, the “new”—and this category of the “new” is clearly expressed in the nature of historical time. Historical time is never reversed; it never goes back. It always goes ahead towards something, and therefore, we have to say that in the preceding stage of society the tensions are prepared out of which the new stage is born.

Let me give you an example of the wrong way of using this dialectical method, and also an example of what I believe to be the right way. The wrong way was that employed by the German Social Democrats in the years before Hitler came to power. They used the dialectical method, saying, “This is the stage in industrial development which belongs to the working classes with all its associated characteristics, so we can sit looking out of the window and watch the classless society come.” But it didn't come; instead, Hitler came and destroyed them all. What this means is that you cannot derive the next stage in history from the preceding stage with any kind of absolute certainty. In my interpretation of history I distinguish between “chance” and “trends.” When, in Europe after the first World War, we envisaged a new society, we took account only of the element of chance. We saw a kairos, a great turning point, and we were ecstatic at the thought of fulfilling the task given to us at this great moment, but we failed to see the underground trends, and it was these underground trends that led directly to Hitler and fascism. So the picture is a complicated one. This “within-each-otherness” of chance and trend characterizes history. You can say rightly that the trends come from what is given, from the preceding stage of society. But there is also the chance of something “new”—a new person or a new vision—a factor from the outside which changes the trend and makes possible something new. These two elements of chance and trend mean that the dialectic of the historical process cannot be developed mechanistically leaving out the factors of contingency, of chance, and of freedom.

[Question 2:] Hasn't there been progress in medicine?

[Paul Tillich:] Yes, there is probably no place in which there is more progress than in medicine. This progress falls partly under the principle of scientific progress and partly under the principle of technical progress, both of which I mentioned. And these two forms of progress can not be denied at all. The idea of progress today is largely derived from the fact of technical progress.

But there is a problem left—the problem of the visionary element in the healing relation between the subject and object of healing. I would say that despite this tremendous increase in scientific knowledge, in technical ability, in skill in the process (for which I myself am especially thankful), this progress has not yet found expression in the relationship of the healer and the healed. I often have the feeling that our hospitals have regressed from the time of the simple family doctor in the past. When on the first day in a hospital I am treated by twenty different nurses, by half a dozen internes, and two main doctors, I don't feel that the personal relationship of healing which is essential for the healing process is fulfilled. So I would say that technical progress has not been fully balanced on the human, existential and inspirational side of the healing relationship. But, of course, on the scientific and technical side we have doubled the age-expectancy of mankind; that is certainly progress, tremendous progress. But we must look for progress in the context of all human relationships, and that is where a question sometimes rises.

[Question 3:] Is there not progress in art and literature in the sense that we learn more about what man is and what he can do?

[Paul Tillich:] In so far as art and literature give us objectifiable insights which you can extract and say, “Here is better psychology or better sociology in this novel or in this painting,” then you are right; then they are communicators of progress in knowledge, but that's not what they aim to be. Every vision of man is not only a progressive enlargement of what we can say about man, but it is also a definite forgetting of what other generations have said about man. Artistic visions are not simply accumulative. Accumulation is not the decisive characteristic of vision. Accumulation can be used for this and that, but it always obscures some fundamentals if it is not put into a context in which it can be used.

Indirectly I would even agree with you. I would say that everything which is produced by art, philosophy, or religion also has an indirect effect on those things in which progress is possible. And so they contribute to progress, but that is their indirect function which, moreover, has a very ambiguous character, for it can produce a nonunderstanding of what is really meant in their creation. Let me give you an example. You in the Western World have my most beloved of all dramatic creations—Shakespeare's Hamlet—which is also the most existentialist. Now what can I learn in a progressivistic way from it? I could dissolve the whole vision and say that here we learn that men must make quick decisions and not hesitate too long—or such things as that. But this becomes banal. However, if you see it as a total human situation, then you can enter into it; you can, as I did in the sixteenth and seventeenth years of my life, become Hamlet and live it all through—live in it. This affected my experience of maturing; it was even a great kairos for me when I first encountered Hamlet. However, if you extract from it some psychological insights, then every psychologist would say, “But that we know anyway”; yet they couldn't write Hamlet, and that's quite a difference!

[Question 4:] Is the protest against the idea of progress, itself progress? Is it a kairos? Is it a sign of maturity?

[Paul Tillich:] Now, this is a very good dialectical question, and I would like to escape it. But let me try to answer it. First, it certainly was a kairos. This we all experienced who came from the nineteenth century—I started with one leg or at least big toe still in the nineteenth century. I was fourteen years old when the twentieth came, so I can still breathe the air of the nineteenth century—smell it in memory. The end was the first of August 1914; then the nineteenth century came to an end, and not before—not on some first of January. But the declaration of war against Russia by Germany on the first of August 1914 (or second of August, but I call it first of August symbolically) was really the end of the nineteenth century, and, therefore, I would say that this moment was for my whole generation a real kairos—a tremendous kairos. And during the war, not immediately but gradually, slowly, we began to see the world differently. I can give you a particular moment in the battle of the Champagne which was the worst at least in my experience—probably the worst in the whole war. My division was in the midst of it, and I was Chaplain there. In one night all my friends were brought to me either already dead or dying; this was the moment in which something which has to do with progressivism broke down forever, namely a kind of idealism which I had interpreted in terms of classical German philosophy and liberal Christianity—this simply broke down. 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. So at least for me I would say the breakdown of the idea of progress was a kairos and was a beginning of maturity. It was not the end—I would emphasize this very strongly; a kairosis not the kairos.

[Question 5:] You say that freedom to contradict one's fulfilment breaks the law of progress, but if we were not allowed our freedom of decision how could we have a free and democratic society?

[Paul Tillich:] If we didn't have the freedom to contradict our own essential natures—former generations of Christians called it “sin”—if we didn't have the freedom to sin, how could we experience freedom as in a democratic situation? We couldn't. Yet freedom is at the same time both the basis of human dignity and of human tragedy. But freedom should be defended. God preferred to have sinners rather than saints without freedom—though they would not have really been saints, they would simply have been natural phenomena. Freedom is decisive, but freedom has in itself something which makes the law of the continuing progress of humanity impossible. However, this is not a criticism of freedom but a description of the implication of the greatness of man—his ability to contradict himself.

[Question 6:] What do you say to those who deny that there is any freedom to act?

[Paul Tillich:] I ask them whether they have asked me this question in freedom or not. If they have not asked it in freedom, then it's irrelevant; it's like a formation of their nose for which they are not responsible. If they have asked it in freedom, so that it is more than a product of the particular structure of their brain, then we can discuss it. And I also am free to discuss it; otherwise they could say I only argue as I do because this morning I had tea and not coffee for breakfast. Now this kind of discussion is impossible. When I use the word “freedom,” I don't mean the obsolete term “freedom of the will.” We shouldn't use that anymore; but I mean the total reaction of the centered self—this is freedom, and not the compulsory reaction of a part of us, which is a subject for the psychoanalyst.

Roger Hazelton (review date 5-12 August 1967)

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SOURCE: “Tillich's Questions and Answers,” in The New Republic, Vol. 157, August 5-12, 1967, pp. 36-38.

[In the following review, Hazelton favorably treats Systematic Theology as a summing up of Tillich’s reflections on the significance of modern culture and the Christian faith.]

Those who knew Paul Tillich even slightly were quick to recognize in him a seldom encountered intellectual greatness. His mind had a style of its own: gravely lucid, wide-ranging, refreshingly different from the ingrown dogmatism of so many of his theological contemporaries. At two points especially he seemed to stand above them. He was able to penetrate with remarkable agility and accuracy into viewpoints and issues taking shape within the general culture, whether in politics, psychotherapy or in the plastic arts. And to this gift he added another—the power of a synthesizing comprehension which could discover basic, relevant connections where others saw only fragmentation or contradiction.

Tillich's exceptional intellectual qualities found their most ample outlet in his Systematic Theology, now published as a whole and containing the three volumes brought out at seven-year intervals between 1951 and 1963. Tillich was determined to get his Systematics finished despite an exhausting schedule of other writing, changes in academic appointment (he “retired” at least three times), travel and engagements of many sorts, not to mention his continual participation in conferences and his promotion of worthy social causes.

In Tillich the Herr Professor took on a new, Americanized dimension. By no means a recondite or withdrawn scholar (he loved the world too much for that), he greatly enhanced the prestige of his profession by demonstrating that ardent rationality and critical responsibility belong together. One of his favorite teaching words was “tension,” and he knew its meaning intimately. He was a far more dialectical thinker than most of the theologians who claimed to be so; and although he preferred the word “systematic” to characterize his own work, the thought that went into it was very far from being as much of a monologue or package as this term suggests.

Systematic Theology makes Tillich's life work available in the form in which he himself envisaged it, a summing up of his reflections on the significance of modern culture and the Christian faith for one another. It is a quite uneven work, undeniably great in its conception but redundant or inconclusive at some crucial points, which Tillich himself would probably have been the first to grant.

What gives the Systematic Theology its decisive signature and texture? More than anything else, it is what Tillich called the question-answer correlation. Once toward the very end of his career he said to some students at Santa Barbara: “I presuppose in my theological thinking the entire history of Christian thought up until now, and I consider the attitude of those people who are in doubt or estrangement or opposition to everything ecclesiastical and religious, including Christianity. And I have to speak to them. My work is with those who ask questions, and for them I am here.” That remark explains why topics like Ambiguity, Anxiety and Estrangement figure as prominently in the common index as Faith, Kingdom and Spirit. What gave body and drive to Tillich's monumental effort was his unshakable conviction that cultural questions could be met and satisfied by Christian answers. His is therefore an answering theology, which is also to say a listening theology. In the Systematics there are several variations of this question- answer scheme: situation and message, world and church, “existential” and “essential” being, among others. His confidence that theology can establish meaningful correlations between these polarities is fundamental to his entire enterprise; it is a working a priori which cannot itself be questioned if the questions dealt with in the system are to find theological answers.

Still another sort of confidence that shines through the pages of this epochal work, particularly in its new format, is closely related to what Tillich called his “ontology.” Almost alone among the significant theological minds of his time, Tillich never despaired of knowing Being. In this respect he belonged to the classical Christian past rather than to its troubled present. By “ontology,” to be sure, he meant something quite unlike traditional conceptions stemming from neo-Platonic or idealistic sources; and he tried to overcome the conflicts between rationalists and pragmatists, absolutists and positivists, in his own thought. Yet he did not waver in his view that human thinking lies open to and is based upon “that which is”; indeed, radical skepticism was to him strictly unthinkable. This confidence kept him from setting philosophy and theology against each other, as was the current fashion; it also kept the lines between them fluctuating and indistinct, especially when he came to discuss the central Christian matter of “Jesus as the Christ.”

The dominant tone is always affirmative. The text is made up mainly of declarative sentences, generally of quite simple construction, with a noticeable absence of interrogations and imperatives. The lingering Germanism of his writing style shows itself chiefly in his preference for large, loose-jointed abstract nouns, and an almost total avoidance of concrete illustrations. Tillich is very sparing in his use of neologisms, although he can burnish familiar terms until they shine with unexpected brilliance. The density of his thought consists in its very abstractness, which imparts the sense of “depth” he prized so greatly and wanted to communicate. In Tillich's writing, just as in his speaking, the concept remains in control, even when he is referring to such symbols for God as “Lord” and “Father,” for example.

What does Tillich teach? The system consists of five parts, each divided into two sections, one expressing the human situation or question, the other setting forth the theological answer. There is a rhythm of thought which yields not so much an argument in the classical sense as a theme with variations.

Man, says Tillich, experiences his present situation chiefly “in terms of disruption, conflict, self-destruction, meaninglessness and despair in all realms of life.” This may be documented by looking at his arts, philosophy (particularly existentialism), political and social tensions, and attempts to analyze and treat the lesions of the unconscious. The question that emerges is whether there is a reality in which our self-estrangement can be overcome, through rapport with which man can discover for himself a reconciling, reuniting “New Being.” Tillich believed with all his mind and heart that such a reality is accessible and available to every man in his need, and that this assurance is the crux of the Christian message.

If we ask where this New Being is disclosed, the theological answer is “in Jesus as the Christ.” For Tillich this is not a claim to be defended against other religious options, but a confession to be given with “ultimate concern” for everything that makes man human. The symbol of Christ, concrete, historic, and traditional as it is, is nevertheless also a universally valid one. Its meaning is that human existence everywhere and always can be renewed through ecstatic participation in being-itself, which is Tillich's word for God.

This involves of course considering the place and worth of Bible and Church in addressing the human situation with the Christian message—a task which Tillich accomplishes with rare learning and critical insight. Every theologian finds it necessary to reinterpret the handed-down images and formulations of his faith in order to show that they mean more than they seem to say, or can be made to say what they really mean. Tillich is no exception. In the reinterpreting process as he carries it on, some traditional concepts and symbols come off rather badly, and those who are still wedded to them naturally take offense. But the remarkable thing is that, given Tillich's unwavering allegiance to the question-answer scheme, so much of the tradition can be retrieved and enhanced.

Just how well Tillich commends and conveys the Christian message in this or that respect is a matter which has already been widely, earnestly discussed. But there is abundant evidence of general and continued admiration for the spaciousness, vitality, and rich elaboration of Tillich's vision, in which truth and faith are fused with incomparable appeal and power.

John C. Cooper (review date 16 October 1968)

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SOURCE: “Master Teacher,” in The Christian Century, Vol. LXXXV, No. 42, October 16, 1968, pp. 1305-06.

[In the following review, Cooper recommends A History of Christian Thought to readers both familiar with and new to Tillich, stating that the book introduces Tillich's main theological interests.]

This is the second posthumous work of Paul Tillich to be edited by his former student, Carl E. Braaten of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Its substance was originally given as lectures during Tillich's tenure at Union Theological Seminary, but he had neither the time nor the inclination to put those lectures into book form. The “first edition” of Tillich's lectures on the history of Christian thought was produced in 1953 by Peter H. John, who stenographically recorded, transcribed and mimeographed them. Braaten's text is based on John's “second edition,” produced in 1956.

Like Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology, Braaten's first effort at editing Tillich's lectures, A History of Christian Thought is a vital contribution to the present generation of theological students and teachers. In a sense it constitutes the first part of the great story of the Christian intellectual tradition as interpreted by Tillich, the latter part having been presented in Perspectives.

The over-all schema of Tillich's History of Christian Thought is straightforward and clear. He begins with a general introduction to “The Concept of Dogma,” in which he deals with the element of thought in human religious experience. Next he discusses “The Preparation for Christianity,” stressing the concept of kairos and the importance of the Roman Empire, Hellenistic philosophy and the mystery religions as well as developments within Judaism. Next Tillich describes “Theological Developments in the Ancient Church,” discussing in his characteristic manner the importance of philosophy for the development of the Christian creedal formulas. Tillich's favorites, Origen and Pseudo-Dionysius, receive special attention here.

Tillich further develops the history of Christian thought by recounting “Trends in the Middle Ages,” which he identifies as “scholasticism, mysticism, and Biblicism,” a trinity of interests which often occurred together. Tillich buffs will enjoy his discussion of “Pantheism and Church Doctrine” and his accounts of Joachim of Floris and the meaning of German mysticism. All of Tillich's pet interests receive thorough treatment: mysticism, the Holy Spirit, philosophy, the conquest of demonic anxiety.

Tillich is helpful, as always, in his examination of “Roman Catholicism from Trent to the Present” (Section IV) and “The Theology of the Protestant Reformers” (Section V). Reading Tillich's relatively lengthy discussions of Martin Luther and John Calvin should be instructive to those who may wonder why Tillich often declared himself to be a “Lutheran” theologian. Section VI, “The Development of Protestant Theology,” covers Protestant Orthodoxy, the phenomenon of pietism and the coming and development of the Enlightenment. For further interpretation of the Enlightenment the reader should turn to Perspectives on 19th and 20th Century Protestant Theology, which begins approximately where A History of Christian Thought ends.

For those who know their Tillich, reading this book will be a refreshing experience—like the memory of a happy event now forever past. For those who are new to Tillich's thought, it is a good place to begin, for in the history of Christian thought Tillich was a master teacher—and in its dialectic of Catholic substance and Protestant principle he lived and moved and had his being.

George Lindbeck (essay date October 1983)

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SOURCE: “An Assesment Reassessed: Paul Tillich on the Reformation,” in Journal of Religion, Vol. 63, No. 4, October, 1983, pp. 376-393.

[In the essay below, Lindbeck discusses Tillich's conception of the Reformation and how it applies to modern theories of thought such as existentialism and psychology.]

Forty-six years ago Paul Tillich wrote an article for the American Journal of Sociology on the question of whether the Reformation has a future.1 It was later republished in The Protestant Era,2 where generations of theology students have since encountered it. Together with various other of Tillich's writings, it will serve well as a starting point for reflections on the Reformation in this celebratory decade of the 1980s which began with the 450th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession and now continues with the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's birth.

One reason for using Tillich as a stimulus for thinking about the future of the Reformation is that his view of the human prospect is by no means wholly outdated. What he foresaw in 1937 on the eve of the Second World War, in the midst of the depression, and at the height of Nazism and Stalinism was no less grim than our present projections, and not altogether dissimilar in outline. We shall say more about this later. In the second place, some of his attempts to interpret Reformation insights in contemporary terms have probably been more influential than any other similar efforts, especially in North America. They have become standard fare in academic theology, not to mention pastoral counseling or CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) courses where his name may never be mentioned. In our present context, however, the most important consideration is that the Reformation of which Tillich approved was structurally very much like that proposed by the Confessio Augustana. His assessment of the Reformation is from a perspective strikingly similar to that of the Confession.

This may seem surprising. Tillich was Lutheran in background, but he was anything but a confessionalist. I have found only one specific reference to the Confessions in his writings. That happens to be a passing, though favorable, mention of the Augustana which I shall note in due course, but it provides no grounds for postulating any special affinity. Tillich thought of himself as close to Luther, not Melanchthon. Yet Tillich's Luther is clearly the Luther who approved of the Augsburg Confession. I shall, as a matter of fact, often be thinking of this Luther—the Luther who provides background and support for the Confession—when I refer in what follows to Augsburg and the Reformation as defined by Augsburg.

The major similarity between Tillich and Augsburg is on the structural interrelationship of the reformatory principle—justification by faith—and the catholic heritage. For both Tillich and Augsburg, these two elements are interdependent. The message of justification needs what Tillich calls Catholic substance as its source of energy and effectiveness, while the Catholic substance, in turn, needs the message in order to keep it or make it a source of justifying faith. The relation could be compared to that of a pruning knife and a fruit tree, especially if one stresses that those who wield the pruning knife are themselves nourished by the fruit of the tree. As we shall see, Tillich and Augsburg differ in their descriptions of justification and catholicity, but on the structure of the interaction they are in agreement.

Thus, in the case of Augsburg, justification by faith—that is, trust in God alone for salvation—operates as a rule in terms of which abuses in church teaching, worship, discipline, and governance are to be corrected (articles 22-28). The elimination of abuses, however, is not meant to abolish use. The basic doctrines, liturgy, church discipline, and ecclesiastical structures of the past are to be retained, except that they are now to be employed to console consciences rather than terrify them, and to promote the new obedience (article 6) which is the offshoot of faith rather than the vain works by which human beings seek to save or justify themselves. The contention of Augsburg is that it is a catholic document. It proposes to purify the catholic heritage rather than to jettison it. Its claim, one might say, is that it does not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

If one asks why Catholic substance is so important, the fundamental theological (as contrasted with practical or political) argument is that it serves as means of grace. It is through the sacraments properly administered and the Word purely preached in accordance with the ancient trinitarian and christological creeds that God gives his Spirit and evokes the response of faith. Usages which promote faith are to be retained even when they are post-biblical developments. This is the major argument for the continuation of private confession on which both Augsburg (article 25) and Luther laid much stress. Similarly, the historic ministerial and episcopal polity should be maintained (articles 5, 14, 28) because they are needed for the sake of preaching, sacraments, church discipline, and unity. The only condition, expressed in the vivid language of the times, is that the bishops stop raging against the gospel. If they do this, their authority must be affirmed, because that authority can be used to promote the trust in God and new obedience for whose sake authority should be reshaped. Thus the reciprocity between Catholic substance and justification by faith is everywhere in evidence.

Tillich, no less than Augsburg, thinks of Catholic substance as means of grace, although he does not use that terminology. He does not speak in sixteenth-century Aristotelian fashion of the sacraments, for example, as tools or instrumental causes (article 5). Instead his concepts are derived from nineteenth-century existentialism. Thus for him the phrase “Catholic substance” refers to a total milieu rich in symbolism, mystery, sacraments, and liturgical celebration with a strong sense of tradition and of the wider church community and its authority. It is not to be narrowly identified with Roman Catholicism, although it is certainly to be found there.3 He suggests that it is present in a less authoritarian and therefore potentially more available form in Eastern Orthodoxy, and to a smaller extent in Anglicanism.4 Nor, for that matter, is it totally lacking in older Lutheran and other Protestant traditions, and in Protestant liberalism.5 It is easier in such settings for human beings to become aware of the depth dimension of human existence in both its sacral and demonic power. The conscious and unconscious levels interact. It becomes possible to be more open to transcendent reality or, as he prefers to say, the ground of being. Vitalities inaccessible to conscious control flow upward through the Catholic substance and transform the person for good or for ill. As the reference to “ill” indicates, the substance in itself is ambiguous or ambivalent. It is for this reason that the Protestant principle, the message of justification by faith, is critically important. Its purpose is to make sure that the catholic heritage is rightly used rather than abused.

Tillich's name for the corruption of Catholic substance is heteronomy.6 Instead of being theonomous—that is, porous or transparent to the divine ground—the substance can become hardened and opaque. It ceases to be a means, and becomes an end in itself. The ecclesiastical system becomes tyrannical, the source of alienating and oppressive laws. The sacraments become automatic guarantees operating with magical power rather than tangible promises through which God awakens and communicates faith. Relative goods are absolutized, and conditional truths are treated as unconditional. Thus, idolatry proliferates: finite things are made into objects of trust and used for self-justification. The catholic heritage, in short, can become a substitute for and obstacle to God rather than the medium through which comes grace, freedom, and faith.

Such corruptions, it should be noted, can be the source either of false anxiety or of false security. Terror results when the false gods fail, or when their demands are impossible or alienating. This very fear, however, may be used to enforce dependence on the ecclesiastical system. When capitulation is complete, peace of mind may be the reward, but at the cost of personal development and creativity. Tillich is at times exceedingly harsh in his criticisms of authoritarian Catholicism.

Against these corruptions, the Protestant principle proclaims the priority of justifying faith, of basic confidence. This confidence is grounded in the God beyond all gods and therefore does not rely unconditionally on anything finite no matter how good, true, precious, or powerful it may be. It is double-edged. It opposes false absolutes, on the one hand, and confers true assurance, on the other. It is the source of the prophetic critique of all idolatry, self-salvation, and injustice, but also the source of the consoling word of the gospel, the promise of unconditional forgiveness and acceptance. Prophetic iconoclasm destroys false security, while gospel promises confer true assurance. The prophet frees from fear of idols until the only fear remaining is the fear of God, while the gospel preacher makes clear that God's mercy is greater than his wrath.

Thus prophetic criticism and gospel comfort spring from and serve the same justifying faith. They are in their unity generally referred to by Tillich as the Protestant principle, while, like Augsburg, he tends to reserve “justification by faith” for the consolatory aspect, for the proclamation that God accepts the unacceptable. But the Protestant principle itself combines, one might say, this Lutheran stress on the consolation of consciences with the more typically Calvinistic abhorrence of idols.7

The conceptualization is different, but the conclusion is the same as Augsburg's. Tillich agrees that Protestant principle and Catholic substance depend on each other. Both hold that the substance has more independence than the principle. The absolutization and rigidification of the tradition at its idolatrous worst cannot prevent a few droplets of grace from seeping through, while a Protestantism emptied of the heritage cannot transmit anything at all. No saving confidence is generated by prophetically destroying the false securities of the past and then failing to use the words, sacraments, and symbols which mediate the presence of the Unconditionally Reliable. That is rather like driving out one demon and leaving the souls of men and women open to seven devils worse than the first (Luke 11:24-27). This is why the papal church, even if ruled by the Antichrist, was not condemned by Augsburg as was the systematic anticatholicism of the left-wing Reformation. Rome, at least, was not swept and garnished, but retained the substance.8 For comparable reasons, Tillich, with all his dislike for the authoritarianism of pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, expresses much more respect for its staying power and social and religious significance than for traditionless, up-to-date, middle-class Protestant liberalism. In short, to use a contrast Tillich once employs, the Protestant principle is corrective rather than constitutive of the church.9 To make it constitutive leads ultimately to the evisceration of Protestantism.

The story of later Protestantism from this perspective is that of protracted and progressive disaster. Because of the schism, the continuing polemic with Rome, and internal divisions, the Protestant principle has become constitutive rather than corrective. Gradually the Catholic substance has drained away.

Yet, as Tillich emphasizes, the achievements of Protestantism during the centuries when it still retained much of the heritage were enormous. Protestants were stripped of external security, unsure of themselves, burdened with an immense sense of guilt, and yet because what confidence they had was grounded in the Ultimate, they were capable, as Luther paradigmatically illustrates, of great courage, energy, and creativity. We have here a historically unique combination of self-abasement and self-affirmation. As has been said of the Puritans, they groveled in the dust before God and trod on the neck of kings. Thus Protestants were often to a remarkable degree critical without being nihilists, iconoclastic without being anarchists, and individualistic without being socially irresponsible. They forged new and powerful types of personality, culture, political and social organization, and theology and philosophy.

Not only liberal democracy, but also movements as diverse as Enlightenment humanism, Marxism, existentialism, and depth psychology are, according to Tillich, largely secular outworkings of the Protestant principle in its critical aspect. In its anti-ideological thrust, for example, Marxism carries out the eminently Protestant task of unmasking the gods of tradition,10 and Freudianism struggles against the illusory gods of the psyche. Each of these movements, to be sure, has its own tendency toward self-absolutization and stands in constant need of the Protestant critique. Thus, in conclusion, Protestantism has deeply influenced modern Western culture which, with all its strengths and weaknesses, has produced the closest thing to a universal civilization the world has ever seen.

Yet it must be remembered that aberrant interpretations of justifying faith developed even during the period when Protestantism was at the height of its power. Tillich criticizes two developments in particular. One of these—starting with Melanchthon, according to Tillich—intellectualized faith.11 The element of trust, of fiducia, was shortchanged in favor of assensus, of assent or belief in correct doctrine. This led to the blight of Protestant orthodoxy which lives on in fundamentalistic biblicism. Nothing has done more to alienate modern men and women from religion. To make justification by faith inseparable from correct beliefs is to require the sacrifice of the critical faculties on the altar of an absolutized bible or doctrinal system. But the prophetic element in Protestantism has resisted such idolatry. One manifestation of this prophetic resistance is the flourishing of biblical criticism on Protestant soil. Biblical criticism, Tillich claims, is the most daringly and creatively self-critical enterprise which any religion has ever had the courage to undertake.12 And yet there were losses as well as gains. The fight against absolutizing belief was admirable because it was inspired by faith, but this same battle also contributed to the loss of the understanding of justification by faith.

This loss is no less apparent in another development which opposed the orthodox absolutizing of intellectual beliefs by emphasizing, not critical intelligence, but religious experience. Here again the proper understanding of faith was impaired. Pietism, revivalism, and experience-centered liberalism all tended, though in different ways, to confuse faith with conversion experiences, or pious feelings, or decisions for Christ. Faith, however, is none of these things, but may or may not be accompanied by them. When faith is thought of as a higher or better state of feeling or consciousness, it is likely to be made into a self-induced human act which, so to speak, merits salvation. Tillich warns against this danger in his Systematic Theology. We must always, he says, remember that justification is “by grace through faith” (italics added).13 The sola gratia (as, of course, Augsburg also insists) is necessary to the sola fide. The emphasis on grace makes clear that God is the cause of faith. Faith is receptivity. It accepts God's acceptance of us and is thus independent of any particular experience. To suppose otherwise is for both Augsburg and Tillich to fall into the Schwärmerei, the enthusiasm, of the left-wing Reformation, which was then revived in new forms by pietism, revivalism, and experience-centered liberalism.

Given these distortions, it is not surprising that Protestantism has lost its creative power. The distortions in the understanding of faith have, as we have already noted, been accompanied by the progressive dissipation of the traditional heritage. “The loss of spiritual substance,” to quote Tillich, “has been tremendous…. Few are the springs of life which are left…. The springs of the past are almost exhausted—the substance has almost wasted away.”14 The historic Protestant churches can no doubt maintain their organizational existence for an indefinitely extended time, but their pallid religiosity is no longer a potent force in the lives of their members or in the wider society. If Tillich were writing now, forty years later, he would probably add that what power remains is largely found in the dangerously uncatholic and unprotestant—that is uncritical and idolatrous—Protestant folk piety exploited by the so-called conservative and electronic churches. Even a half century ago he concluded that the Protestant era had come to an end.

In this post-Protestant age, he goes on to say, the doctrine of justification has become unintelligible “even to Protestant people in the churches; indeed, as I [i.e., Tillich] have over and over again had the opportunity to learn, it is so strange to the modern man that there is scarcely any way of making it intelligible to him. And yet this doctrine … has torn asunder Europe … has made innumerable martyrs; has kindled the bloodiest and most terrible wars of the past; and has deeply affected European history and with it the history of humanity. This whole complex of ideas which for more than a century—not so very long ago—was discussed in every household and workshop, in every market and country inn … is now scarcely understandable even to our most intelligent scholars. We have here a breaking down of tradition which has few parallels.”15

Tillich believed that even in the absence of traditional substance, justification by faith could at least in part be made intelligible to the modern mind. His efforts to do so, however, for the first time move him and us beyond the perspectives of the Confessio Augustana. Up until now his opponents have been the Confession's opponents, and his friends, its friends. Even his attack on orthodox and biblicist distortions of faith can, in the version I have presented, be construed as consistent with the Reformers' denunciations of the dead intellectualism of the scholastics. His language, to be sure, is often alien to Melanchthon, but this by itself is no indication of disagreement. The imagery which Luther freely borrowed from the German mystics, for example, is at least as luxuriantly non-Melanchthonian (nonbiblical, nonhumanistic, and nonscholastic) as Tillich's idealistic, romantic and existentialist conceptuality. What counts in these matters is use, and Tillich's usage in the form so far expounded can, like Luther's, be considered as well within the Augsburg guidelines. Doubts arise, however, when we turn to his translation of justification by faith into a modern idiom.

He does this by extending the meanings of the concepts of sin and of faith in order to make them intelligible in our day. This is the most widely known part of his analysis. All of us are to some extent familiar with it, even if not under Tillich's name. The Reformation understanding of sin, he claims, includes insights which have been more fully developed in modern existentialism; or, to put it the other way around, philosophical existentialism gives us a picture of the human being which is a secularized version of the Reformation understanding of man as sinner. In the one citation of the Augsburg Confession which I earlier mentioned, Tillich approvingly notes that its definition of original sin, in contrast to traditional ones, incorporates the notion of unbelief, that is, anxiety or lack of trust.16 Anxiety, however, is what existentialism sees as fundamental to human existence. The centrality of anxiety, in turn, implies a whole anthropology. Human beings are precarious centers of finite freedom who, just because they are both finite and free, are permeated to the very core of their beings by the anxious search for security. This search takes three forms: the quest for ontic assurance against threat of death, for spiritual assurance against the threat of meaninglessness or emptiness, and for moral assurance against the threat of sinful guilt and condemnation.17

In the light of this analysis, the great difference between the Reformation and the present is that the anxiety of sin then predominated, whereas now the anxiety of meaninglessness reigns supreme. It is because of this that the Reformers do not speak to our situation. They address the problem of sin, not of meaninglessness. But modern men and women both inside and outside the church no longer ask Luther's question, “How do I get a gracious God?” They are not troubled by the divine demand for righteousness nor consumed by the search for a merciful God. They do not live in apprehension of the Last Judgment, purgatorial fires, or the horrors of hell. They may be burdened by what we generally call “guilt feelings” or a sense of worthlessness, but these are quite different from fear and trembling before God's wrath. It thus makes no sense to tell them—to tell us—that God forgives unconditionally. That is not our problem.

Our problem is meaninglessness. The pluralism of the modern world and the relativization of all religious, moral, political, and even scientific absolutes (which has in part resulted from the Protestant critique) has produced a state of pervasive uncertainty and doubt. Most people feel that they do not really believe or know anything, not even their own identity, although they may make vigorous protestations to the contrary. When they are forced to be honest with themselves, the underlying meaninglessness breaks through, and they are plunged into a despair and hopelessness similar to Luther's Anfechtungen.

Luther countered his despair with the thought that limitless self-accusation—the experience of being absolutely unforgivable—can itself be a sign of grace. He affirms, in effect, that the courage honestly to confront our total sinfulness is possible only if we are sustained at a deeper level of our being by basic confidence or justifying faith in God's goodness.

Tillich translates this teaching into the statement that illusionless and nonescapist acknowledgment of despair, whether over sin or meaninglessness, presupposes meaning or forgiveness.18 This goes beyond the Reformers in three ways. It includes, as we would expect, the anxiety of meaninglessness, and not only of sin, in the despair which is unto life rather than death. Second, however, Tillich argues from hopelessness to prior grace as to a logically necessary presupposition, while for Luther the connection is contingent, that is, dependent on God's free decision. God is under no necessity to save the despairing. We know that utter despair can be a work of God's grace only because that is the kind of God the Bible tells us about. A third difference is that for Tillich justifying faith or basic confidence need not involve any conscious recognition of God or his mercy. Considered in itself, faith is preconceptual and may exist without any conscious object. It is what Tillich calls “absolute faith” which exists “without the safety of words and concepts … without a name, a church, a cult, a theology. But it is moving in the depth of all of them.”19 In short, to use technical philosophical language, justifying faith is the transcendental condition for the possibility of the courage to be in the midst of total despair, of total meaninglessness.

On this third point, the difference from the Reformers is most striking. They never thought of faith as preconceptual—except, perhaps, in the case of infants. For them it includes some kind of conscious reference to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ. To sum up, the message of justification sola fide is not an argument that despair presupposes faith, but is rather the good news that God forgives the unforgivable for Christ's sake.

Yet, despite these radical differences, it is not self-evident that Tillich's reformulation contradicts the Reformers. They never envisioned anything like his proposal and therefore never directly said either “yea” or “nay.” Further, the question of contradiction or compatibility involves at least three distinct issues. One may ask whether the conclusion is true, whether the argument is valid or, third, whether the reformulation as a whole effectively communicates, and the answer might be different in each case. Thus on the issue of truth, it would be possible to conclude with Tillich that justifying faith is present in the authentically despairing who, like infants, know nothing of God's existence or mercy, yet, on the issue of validity, reject his argument for this conclusion. One might instead try to adduce biblical grounds. One might say, for example, that the God of Scripture works also through and in the midst of despair, and given the unboundedness of his love, we cannot limit his gift of faith, of basic confidence, to those who explicitly acknowledge his existence and grace. It is not clear that Luther would have condemned such an argument, and the Augsburg Confession never had occasion to do so. Further, Luther and the Confession might have been neutral on the question of the validity or invalidity of the philosophical argument that despair presupposes faith, just as they were on the arguments of reason for the existence of God. Their major problem, one suspects, would be that Tillich's reformulation could not effectively communicate the message of justification in a fully secularized situation (not to mention other contexts).

This doubt, interestingly enough, can be supported from Tillich's own work. On his own account, the communicative power of his reformulation seems to depend on a situation in which “the effects of the [church's] previous power are latently present”20 under the secularized surface of Western culture. He makes his case by appealing to philosophical existentialisms whose insights are anticipated by the Reformation understanding of the human condition.21 These insights, however, cannot be expected to have much persuasiveness for those uninfluenced by historically Christian cultures. Non-Christians or largely de-christianized westerners are not likely to see their own experience reflected in existentialist descriptions of meaninglessness;22 and, even if they do, they will be likely to interpret this experience of meaninglessness in psychological or sociological terms rather than existentially.

In the second place, the message, meaninglessness presupposes meaning, is not particularly helpful even if accepted. There is little or no transforming power in the recognition that authentic self-acceptance depends on accepting one's unconditional acceptance by something or somebody, one knows not what. In order for God's acceptance to be effective, as we recall from the discussion of Catholic substance, it must be concretely mediated through something or somebody. Where religious symbols have lost their force, however, it is difficult to specify what this might be.

At this point Tillich draws on depth psychology in what is perhaps the best-known of all his proposals. The self-acceptance which a person learns in psychoanalysis on the basis of the acceptance which he receives from the therapist is both an analogue and a possible occasion for the more fundamental self-acceptance which is rooted in the Ground of Being.23 Under the impulse of this Tillichian suggestion, it is now commonplace to say that God's grace can be mediated wherever one person genuinely accepts another. If Erik Erikson is right, the most fundamental instance of this takes place in earliest infancy through the acceptance which the child receives from its mother. It is this which is the first and deepest source of the basic confidence necessary to healthy human development. In short, interpersonal relations of the right kind are a means of justifying grace.

As we all know, this psychotherapeutic analogue of Reformation doctrine has become the major theological rationale for much contemporary pastoral counseling and CPE work. It has even resulted in some church circles in the use of a book like I'm O.K., You're O.K.24 as an exposition of the contemporary meaning of justification by faith.

It would seem, however, that from Tillich's perspective—not to mention others—such a book is a complete vulgarization of the doctrine. Those who have experienced the reality of justification in their lives do not say, “I'm O.K.,” but rather, “I am not O.K.” They accuse themselves. They rightly recognize that they are not acceptable. The unconditional acceptance which justifies is not uncritical acceptance. Rather it includes the element of judgment, as Tillich's treatment of the Protestant principle makes evident. The self-acceptance which basic confidence makes possible is not a matter of feeling good about oneself, but rather is strong enough to embrace the realistic recognition of guilt and meaninglessness. Only the neurotic varieties are excluded, and so also is complacency.

In view of the neglect of this judgmental element in much contemporary psychotherapy, it is doubtful that the popularity of depth psychology has made the Reformation view of justification more easily intelligible. Perhaps, indeed, it has done the opposite. According to its critics, it fosters a self-acceptance which discourages self-condemnation and encourages a kind of adjustment to society which has little room for the prophetic protest against idolatry and injustice. In so far as Tillich's discussion of the relation of psychoanalysis to justification by faith has failed to guard against these distortions, so it could be argued, it has contributed to the bastardization rather than the revitalization of the Reformation teaching.

Actually Tillich's analysis would lead one to expect this to happen. In an autonomous culture unredeemed by theonomy and unthreatened by heteronomy, the self is both absolutized and empty. Like Christopher Lasch's infantile narcissistic self,25 the absolutized autonomous self demands uncritical approval from others. Permissiveness becomes a fundamental human right. Such a self is concerned with human relations only as a means to self-satisfaction or self-realization, and seeks to fill its emptiness with whatever gives it pleasure or peace of mind whether this be material goods or higher states of consciousness. In a society dominated by such attitudes justification by faith is inevitably misinterpreted. Quite another context is needed in order to understand it rightly.

That other context, we recall, has already been described by Tillich. In the light of what we have earlier heard him say about Catholic substance, it would seem that reinterpretations of justification by faith in an autonomous secularized culture can never be more than stopgap measures. No reformulations of the doctrine are likely to have major impact apart from the symbols, rites, and disciplines transmitted by concrete religious communities. Such means of grace are necessary if the message of justification is to help significantly in transforming individuals, groups, or cultures.

Even if one grants this point, however, it does not mean for Tillich that the Reformation principles have no future. In the essay which I first cited,26 he argues that the modern Western world which finds them unintelligible is itself coming to an end. It cannot indefinitely survive the disappearance of its substrata of Christian ideals and values. Without the support which these provide, the autonomous individualism of Western modernity degenerates into atomistic anarchy. New collectivism will inevitably arise in which something like the sacred worlds of the past will be necessary for social integration. All the pressures in such a situation would be toward the re-catholicizing of the church.

The collectivist part of this forecast has become more rather than less plausible in the intervening years. New and by now familiar arguments have been added. A futurist such as Robert Heilbronner in his An Inquiry into the Human Prospect,27 for example, thinks that the threat of atomic destruction and the crises provoked by the environmental limits on growth will force great changes for the sake of human survival (which, as we are all aware, has become vastly more problematic in the last four decades). The typically modern Western attitudes which have developed during centuries of accelerated and uncontrolled growth will have to be reversed, and respect for restraint, stability, and tradition reestablished. Re-catholicization would seem to be part of this package. The church will have to regain the religious substance of the heritage in order to be relevant. Even if Christians are everywhere a small minority amid non-Christian majorities, the more catholic portions of the Christian movement may well have a competitive advantage just as they did in the first centuries under the pagan Roman empire.

If the revival of Catholic substance is to be healthy, however, it will need the pruning knife of the Protestant principle. This, obviously, is a self-evident or analytic conclusion from Tillich's premises. The question, however, is the form which the Protestant principle will take. Will it, in fact, have much continuity with the formulation which it received in the Reformation era?

Tillich never discussed this question in detail, but we can make some projections on the basis of his principles. First, we must note that the culturally dominant form of anxiety may well be very different. It will not be anxiety over individual sin or guilt, as in the sixteenth century, nor over personal meaninglessness, as in the twentieth. Rather, fear of collective death, over the extinction of the human race, will predominate. Unless this anxiety drives us to develop radically different social and cultural patterns, Homo sapiens has very little chance of surviving the next thousand years. A change in the culturally dominant form of anxiety, however, is equivalent to a transformation in the experience of sin or evil. Sin and evil will be experienced, so to speak, as outer rather than inner. The new patterns will be closer in some respects to those of the New Testament than to those of the Reformation period. Collectivist regimentation, to be sure, is not the same as the demons and implacable fate which bedeviled late classical antiquity, but it is equally external and equally oppressive. In short, so one could argue, evil will be experienced once again as basically captivity to forces outside the self, to the principalities and powers of which Saint Paul speaks, rather than as inward corruption or meaningless. This would amount to a radical weakening of what Krister Stendahl has called the “Introspective Conscience of the West.”28 That conscience, according to Stendahl, has developed over the course of over 1,500 years. It was articulated by Saint Augustine, deepened by medieval penitentialism, reformed by Luther, and secularized by Freud, but despite the appeals which have been made to Saint Paul on its behalf, it is not a necessary or inevitable part of the biblical message. The fallenness of the human condition can also be experienced and understood, as it largely was in New Testament days, not as inborn or original sin within the individual, but as communal or cosmic entrapment in the old age.

If such a transformation were to take place in the experience of evil, a corresponding shift in the message of salvation could be expected. Something like the futuristic and cosmic eschatology of biblical times would presumably become central. If so, the vivifying message which communicates justifying faith would center on the communal vision of God's coming kingdom rather than on individualistic concern with unconditional forgiveness or on the meaning presupposed by authentic despair.

The critical function of the Protestant principle, furthermore, could be expected to operate in favor of Catholic substance as in the first centuries, rather than against it as in most later periods. In the first centuries it was the more catholic part of the professedly Christian movement which was the chief bearer of the protest against Gnostic absolutization of the spiritual realm over against the material, on the one hand, and the apocalyptic and millennialist reifications of eschatological hope, on the other. Above all it was the catholic center which most effectively struggled against the major idolatry of the time, that of the empire and of emperor worship. It was the Catholics not the Gnostics who produced the martyrs who refused to place a pinch of incense on the emperor's altar. Parallels to all these struggles would seem inevitable in a regimented and collectivist future. The Gnostic spiritualizers who view the world as irremediably evil and therefore withdraw from it into higher states of consciousness are already with us, and so also are the apocalyptic millennialists who set dates for the end of the age. As far as the imperial assumption of divine honors is concerned, this will be a major temptation of any political and cultural order strong enough to rescue humanity from self-destruction. In order to do its job effectively, it will almost be obligated to represent itself as sacrosanct. Thus something like the catholicism of the first centuries would be needed in this hypothetical future as the bearer of both prophetic protest and gospel consolation.

Would this not be, however, the end of the Reformation? A futuristic analogue of early catholicism is not what most Protestants have thought of as a continuation of Luther's work or that of the Confessio Augustana. Justification by faith in the sense of confidence in God's forgiving mercy pro me would no longer be primary. The chief task of the church would not be seen as that of consoling the terrified consciences of individuals. It would not even be the proclamation of a modern form of this teaching (e.g., despair presupposes meaning). It could perhaps still be described as the message of the acceptance of the unacceptable, but this message would now take a new shape. In the context of a communal and cosmic eschatology, it is entire peoples and humanity as a whole, not primarily individuals considered one by one, which are the locus of unacceptability, and the acceptance of God's acceptance of the self, while by no means abolished, is subsumed under hope for the coming kingdom.

Oddly enough, the sixteenth-century Reformers might have found it easier than Tillich to think of this transformation as a continuation of their work. It would have been easier for them because—as is particularly clear in the case of Luther—it was Christ as the one to which we should cling rather than the particular form of the clinging which was of decisive importance. The essence of the sola fide, in other words, is the solus Christus or the propter Christum solum.29 As long as salvation is through Christ alone, it is of secondary importance whether he is trusted for personal forgiveness or relied upon as the coming Messiah.30 When the problem is that of Heilsgewissheit, of assurance of salvation, the answer is in terms of faith in forgiveness for Christ's sake alone, but if the question is, for example, that of the future of humankind, it is hope which responds, but once again, propter Christum solum.31 In the latter case, as long as Christians hope for a future stamped with the lineaments of the crucified and risen one, and not someone else, they are in agreement with the chief article of the Augsburg Confession quite apart from their use or nonuse of the specifically Reformation understandings of sin, faith, and forgiveness pro me.

Tillich sometimes seems to affirm something very near to the solus Christus. He says, for example, that the message of Christ is “the ultimate expression of the divine,”32 and protests against all attempts to dissolve that message into a complex of religious experiences, ethical requirements, and philosophical teachings. The message of Christ combines concrete universality with absolute validity because it can embrace every religious possibility and yet, as we see in Jesus' cry of God-forsakenness on the cross, it also prophetically negates every religious reality including itself. Thus, only where the New Being as expressed in the biblical picture of Jesus the Christ is both the center and circumference of life can religious substance and Protestant principle be fully united.

Yet this solus Christus, unlike that of the Reformation, is relative to faith rather than independent of it. Christ is “sole” in the sense that only the message of Christ is the absolute symbol of absolute faith. This would appear to mean, however, that one can talk in religiously significant ways about Christ only as a function of the faith which he symbolizes, whereas the logic of the Reformers' position allows them to talk of Christ as savior independently of the faith which he inspires or represents. It would seem, therefore, that Tillich has relativized Jesus Christ and instead made absolute that pattern of human responsiveness implied in justification by faith. He has formulated an anthropological theory—a picture of human existence—suggested by Luther's emphasis on despair as the way to faith, and made this central. This enables him to abstract the “being accepted even though unacceptable” from any explicit reference to Jesus Christ or even to God. It makes it possible for him to speak of justifying (or absolute) faith as operative among all religions and among all peoples whether religious or irreligious. It warrants the formulation of a version of justification by faith which is meaningful to secularists, who are alienated from traditional religious substance or symbolism.

This is, from one point of view, a notable achievement. It constitutes a great increase in the range of the Reformation teaching. On the other hand, however, it is a limitation of that teaching. It would seem that where the introspective conscience of the West disappears, where the human problem is experienced neither as terror over sin nor as existentialist angst, there the Tillichian version of justification by faith is no longer relevant. The Reformation version, in contrast, can survive, although in transmuted form, because the solus Christus, rather than a particular form of the experience of the sola fide, is crucial.

It would thus seem, in conclusion, that Tillich's reinterpretation of the Reformation is at least at this point at odds with the Reformers' own theology. From their point of view, his mistake is to make a pattern of human existence which was correlated with the proclamation of the solus Christus in the late medieval setting into a general norm for that proclamation (as well as for Christianity and for religion as a whole). For him, the Reformers came closer than had ever been done before to describing the essential features of human authenticity, and that is why their message is enduringly valid. Thus anthropology is the constant, and religious symbols the variable for Tillich, as for most contemporary philosophers of religion. For the Reformers, in contrast, the particular religious symbolism represented by the Christian story was the constant, and anthropologies could—at least in principle—vary from one time and place to another. As they put it in their sixteenth-century language, it is not the verbum internum, but the verbum externum of the gospel which is normative (Augsburg Confession, article 5). It is for this reason that one can relativize their experiences, even their experience of justification by faith, without abandoning allegiance to their doctrine, to the doctrine of Augsburg Confession. It is for this reason also that for Augsburg a re-catholicized Christianity somewhat analogous to that of the first centuries might very well be the triumph, not the end, of the Reformation.


  1. Paul Tillich, “Protestantism in the Present World Situation,” American Journal of Sociology 43, no. 2 (1937): 236- 48.

  2. Paul Tillich, The Protestant Era, trans, and ed. James Luther Adams (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).

  3. See esp. Paul Tillich, “The Permanent Significance of the Catholic Church for Protestantism,” Protestant Digest 3, no. 10 (1941): 23-31. Reprinted in German translation in Gesammelte Werke, 14 vols. (Stuttgart: Evangelisches Verlagswerk, 1959-75), 7:124-32 (henceforth cited in the form: GW, vol. no., p. no.).

  4. E.g., PE, p. 248.

  5. “Protestantism also has a strong line of thought in which the reality of participation is expressed, from the mystical elements of the early Luther on, to the doctrine of the unio mystica in Protestant Orthodoxy, to Pietism, Schleiermacher, Rudolph Otto and the liturgical reform movements. In these cases ‘Catholic substance’ reappeared under the control of the ‘Protestant principle.’” From an “Afterword” by Paul Tillich in Paul Tillich in Catholic Thought, ed. T.F. O'Meara and D.M. Weisser (New York: Doubleday & Co., Image Book ed., 1969), p. 372.

  6. PE, p. xvi, and “Religionsphilosophic,” in GW, 1.

  7. This double aspect of the Protestant principle is well presented in Tillich's untranslated article, “Der Protestantismus als kritisches und gestaltendes Prinzip,” in GW, 7: 29-53, and is summarized by James Luther Adams, “Paul Tillich on Luther,” in Interpreters of Luther: Essays in Honor of Wilhelm Pauck, ed. J. Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), esp. pp. 309-15.

  8. This was also Luther's position, as is indicated with particular vividness in his Concerning Rebaptism of 1528: “The Christendom which now is under the papacy is truly the body of Christ and a member of it. If it is his body, then it has the true spirit, gospel, faith, baptism, sacrament, keys, the office of the ministry, prayer, holy scripture, and everything that pertains to Christendom. So we are all still under the papacy and therefrom have received our Christian treasures” (Luther's Works, American edition, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann [St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958], 40:232).

  9. Paul Tillich, “The End of the Protestant Era,” Student World 30 (1937): 49-51, esp. 57, and, in a more accessible form, GW, 7:157.

  10. “Religiöser Sozialismus I,” GW, 2:156, 164.

  11. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957), 2:178.

  12. PE, p. xliii.

  13. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:179. Tillich comments that “the abbreviated form of ‘justification by faith’ … is extremely misleading” (2:179).

  14. PE, p. 194.

  15. Ibid., p. 196.

  16. Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:47.

  17. Here I follow Tillich's analysis in The Courage to Be (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 32-63.

  18. PE, pp. xiv-xv; but see esp. Paul Tillich, “Rechtfertigung und Zweifel,” Vorträge der theologischen Konferenz zu Giessen, ser. 39 (Giessen: Alfred Töpelmann, 1924), pp. 19-32.

  19. Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 189.

  20. Tillich, Systematic Theology (1963), 3:246.

  21. Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 170.

  22. There are, to be sure, exceptions, such as the interest some Japanese Buddhists have in the thought of Heidegger.

  23. Tillich, The Courage to Be, pp. 164 ff.

  24. Thomas A. Harris, I'm O.K., You're O.K. (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).

  25. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (New York: Warner Books, 1979).

  26. See n. 1 above.

  27. Robert Heilbronner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1974).

  28. Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” reprinted in Paul among Gentiles and Jews (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), pp. 78-96.

  29. Often cited as evidence of these assertions are the Smalcald Articles, pt. 2, article 1, and Luther's explanation of the second article of the creed in the Small Catechism. The texts are in T.G. Tappart, ed., The Book of Concord (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), pp. 292, 345.

  30. As Philip Melanchthon puts it in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession (article 4:312) faith and hope “cannot be divided as they are in the idle scholastic speculations” (See Tappert, ed., p. 155).

  31. This view that justification by faith is the “chief article” only in correlation to a particular type of threat to the gospel is now increasingly widespread even in Lutheran circles. E.g., the report of the international Lutheran/Roman Catholicism Joint Study Commission on “The Gospel and the Church” (commonly called the “Malta Report”) says: “As the message of justification is the foundation of Christian freedom in opposition to legalistic conditions for the reception of salvation, it must be articulated ever anew as an important interpretation of the center of the gospel. But … the event of salvation to which the gospel testifies can also be expressed comprehensively in other representations derived from the New Testament, such as reconciliation, freedom, redemption, new life and new creation” (See “Das Evangelium und die Kirche, 1967-1971,” Evangelium—Well—Kirche: Schlussbericht und Referate der römisch-katholisch/evangelisch-lutherischen Studien-kommission, ed. H. Meyer [Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Otto Lembeck, 1975], p. 41).

  32. GW, 7:137 (my translation).

John K. Roth (review date 22 November 1987)

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SOURCE: “A Review of The Essential Tillich: An Anthology of the Writings of Paul Tillich,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 22, 1987, p. 4.

[In the brief review below, Roth asserts that The Essential Tillich's “judicious selections allow Tillich to explain, interpret, and amplify his own themes.”]

Opposed to Nazism, Paul Tillich (1886-1965) left his native Germany for the United States in 1933. His philosophical theology decisively influenced mainline American Protestantism during its heyday in the middle third of this century.

“God,” wrote Tillich, “is the answer to the question implied in man's finitude; He is the name for that which concerns man ultimately.” 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.

This book's editor, F. Forrester Church, senior minister at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City correctly observes that “the religious situation has changed dramatically” since Tillich's death. Impatience with ambiguity and skepticism pushed his approach “into the shadows,” but therefore, Church argues, Tillich's insights are needed more than ever “to liberate us from the tyrannies of our times.”

Finding Tillich essential, Church offers the essential Tillich. The anthology's eight chapters draw from his sermons as well as from his major books. Its judicious selections allow Tillich to explain, interpret, and amplify his own themes.

In the book's forward, Tillich's daughter, Mutie Tillich Farris, provides an apt evaluation when she commends Church for making her father's thought newly accessible to “any serious reader who has ever asked an existential question.”

Iris M. Yob (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “The Arts as Ways of Understanding: Reflections on the Ideas of Paul Tillich,” in Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 25, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 5-20.

[In the following essay, Yob presents Tillich's conception of aesthetic symbols as the most revealing, genuine, and powerful creations of the human mind, and explains how they relate to the visual and aural arts.]

One may wonder how it is that the German-American Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), theologian primarily and philosopher by training, comes to be included in a discussion of research and teaching for music educators. The wonder may be exacerbated when one also discovers that music is an aesthetic endeavor to which he gave little or no attention. He seldom mentions it, or dance and drama, in his voluminous writings and innumerable papers, and often when he does, they appear in parentheses as though he sensed they somehow belonged to the arts but did not quite know what to do with them once they were admitted for consideration.

His father was an amateur performer and composer, but the son's artistic desires drew him first to literature and then to painting, sculpture, and architecture which, under the disapproving eye of his minister-parent, became a constant source of inspiration and reflection throughout his long professional career. Even then, he laid claim to being “neither an artist, an art historian, an art critic, nor even a philosopher whose special subject is art”—but simply to being “a philosophical theologian.”1

However, I believe that Tillich warrants our attention because he struggled with many of the same issues, confronted the same challenges, and sensed many of the same possibilities in the study of the visual arts as those who are engaged in the study of the aural arts. He reflected, among other things, on the kinds of understandings paintings, sculptures, and architecture could impart as distinct from those of science and mathematics. And he analyzed the elements of artworks to discover how they function to produce their own distinct understandings. A study of Tillich, therefore, may lead music educators effectively into a search for answers to their own similar questions: Can music be regarded as a way of understanding? If so, how do the elements of music function to impart understandings?

In pursuing his version of these questions, Tillich alerts us to promising ways of thinking about the arts, although his answers are limited by the assumptions of German idealism and the predominance of expressionistic artworks in his analysis. Our critique will build on and offer alternative perspectives to his original contribution.


As a young man, Tillich served as a German army chaplain during the First World War. It was, he declares, “the dirt, the horrors and the ugliness” he experienced in the trenches more than anything else that induced him “systematically to study the history of art and to collect as many as possible of the cheap reproductions available” to him on the battlefield. On furlough, he visited a Berlin museum where he discovered Botticelli's Madonna and Child with Singing Angels, an experience for which he reports he had no better name than “revelatory ecstasy.”2

To describe the experience as one of ecstasy indicates that it was an intensely emotional one, still memorable over thirty years later and a whole continent removed. But the qualifier “revelatory” suggests its significance had to do with more than feelings, powerful as these may have been. It suggests he also learned something from the experience, and in fact he indicates that in this “one moment of beauty,” as he later called it,3 he gained a new understanding, a decisive insight, which remained with him from that time. It gave him, he declares, “the keys for the interpretation of human existence” and along with “vital joy” brought him “spiritual truth.”4

From his analysis of the human situation, Tillich identifies certain inescapables: awareness of our own finitude and the anxiety and fear that this produces. He describes anxiety as “the state in which a being is aware of its possible nonbeing” or “the existential awareness of nonbeing.”5 The threat of nonbeing may have been sharpened by the trauma of some of his early experiences, but on continuing reflection he came to understand it not only as the anxiety of having to die, but also, in a preliminary way, as any experience of meaninglessness, guilt, or condemnation in our daily lives.6 And when being is threatened with nonbeing, he reasons, human beings are driven to ask “the ontological question,” “the question of being.” This, he claims, is the universal question—the central question of philosophy as well as of myth and the arts.7

Although the question of being arises first in the personal experience of existential anxiety, Tillich argues that it is pursued through a number of levels, including inquiry into the nature of being as a part of everything that human beings encounter, evolving eventually into a search for what he calls “the ground of being,” “the power of being,” or “Being-itself.”8 Between his first formulation of the question and the last lies a vast distance, moving as it does from personal experience (concern about our own mortality) to philosophy (inquiry into the nature of being) and ultimately to religion (the search for Being-itself), but he regards Being-itself as the ultimate answer to the original question of our being. The search for this answer he describes as “ultimate concern,”9 the driving, shaping, integrating feature of individuals and societies.

It is in this setting that he finds the arts have an indispensable role. They are an active expression of ultimate concern. They explore the nature of being and at some level reveal to us in our existential angst how we may find “the courage to be.”

As a way of understanding these things, art performs three interrelated functions, according to Tillich. First, it expresses. That is, it expresses humankind's fear of the reality it discovers, the finitude, meaninglessness, and isolation in human experience. But in its expression, art transcends both “mere objectivity,” for it gives more than a camera record of reality and also “mere subjectivity,” for it is more than just an “outcry”—it may also express a level of being or reality beyond the immediate.

Art also transforms. It transforms ordinary reality “in order to give it the power of expressing something which is not itself.” That is, art takes givens and makes them into symbols. So the gold ground of Byzantine or early Gothic pictures is not merely decorative but is symbolic of the heavenly spheres beyond, and the landscapes in Dutch paintings are not the landscapes we meet in an ordinary encounter with trees, fields, roads, and wide horizons.

Finally, art anticipates. It anticipates the possibilities that transcend the given in both its portrayal of perfection and also of distortion. It is able to find a kind of harmony in the disharmonious or, in effect, courage in the experience of anxiety, finitude, meaninglessness, and estrangement. In other words, art anticipates salvation.10

When science examines something, he explains, it discovers the thing's structure and appearance but, he indicates, this does not show what the thing means for itself. The tree registered and explained by Linnaeus does not give us the kind of knowledge that a Van Gogh painting of the same tree would give. In art, he says, we experience “the dynamic power of being which is effective in the life and struggle of the tree.” We can “discover its inner meaning, the way in which it expresses the power of being which is present in everything that is.”

Of course, he recognizes the arts and the sciences have much in common. They both transform elements of the perceived world around us into images so they may become objects for our reception. Both art and science are rightly labelled theoria. But, he adds, in its “cognitive” or scientific capacity, theoria gives an analysis of what things are in their relation to each other; in its “aesthetic” capacity, theoria gives the vision of what things are in their very being.

He continues, the kind of knowledge that science gives depends on a degree of distance and detachment from the object, but art unites us with and relates us to its objects. Consequently, “intuitive participation in works of art liberates us from the loneliness of our separated existence in a much more radical way than cognitive participation can.”11 That is, art can do what science cannot. By means of scientific transformation and reception, we can learn nothing more about an object, a tree, an animal, or whatever, than “its calculable internal and external relations”;12 but art “uses pieces of the ordinarily encountered reality in order to show a meaning which is mediated by the given object but transcends it.”13

Apparently Tillich recognizes that the arts no less than the sciences contribute to what we know of the world we live in and who we are, and yet they contribute different kinds of knowledge. While he reserves the expression “cognitive function” for the activity of the sciences and related disciplines and “aesthetic awareness” for the arts, he nevertheless prefers to call the products of both “knowledge.”14 Art, like science, he proposes, “discovers reality. It is theoretical in the genuine sense of theoria but it is not cognitive.”15

It produces knowledge, it brings awareness, it is theoretical, but it is not cognitive. What is Tillich saying here? We inhabit a world we have constructed largely on scientific assumptions, by means of scientific method, and according to scientific findings. Science has criticized and often over-turned the old myths about who we are and what we know-thankfully, irreversibly. But Tillich is reminding us here that all that can be known is not the result of scientific activity alone. He is reclaiming “knowledge” from the exclusive use of science and sharing it among all the activities of searching, thinking, theorizing, expressing, meaning-making human beings. He is reminding us that all we can know is mediated not only by the scientific enterprise but also by aesthetic, philosophical, and religious endeavors.

It seems that Tillich has the same problem with the term “cognition” that he believes others may have with the term “knowledge,” although neither “knowledge” nor “cognition” need exclude “aesthetic awareness.” We may prefer, however, to regard music as a “way of understanding” or a “form of thought.”16 But whatever music may be called, the important point is that some knowledge may not be propositional in character—it may be “awareness” (to adopt Tillich's term) that is mediated by means of the intuited, the expressive, the allusive, the imaginative, the emotional, or the spiritual.

While we may applaud Tillich's pointing us in the direction of regarding the arts as serious makers of meaning, we may not be satisfied with his description of the meaning that they make. His moment of “revelatory ecstasy” in contemplation of Madonna and Child with Singing Angels may have found best expression for him in an exploration of the themes of finitude, being, and the ground of being, themes that he could pursue with vigor in theology and philosophy. However, in his enthusiasm for these ideas, he sometimes lost clarity. Being-itself is said to “embrace” not only being but also nonbeing.17 It is the “ground,” “power,” and “structure of being” and “the really real,” but is not a thing.18 It is something we are at once separated from yet participate in. It is God and it is beyond God and secularized. It is our ultimate concern, but it is nonpersonal and amoral. Ontologically speaking, it is “Being-itself,” psychologically speaking, it is “ultimate concern,” theologically speaking, it is “God,” but this blurring of distinctions gives rise to many questions.

Leaving aside the difficulties raised by the notions of being, nonbeing and Being-itself, the significant feature of aesthetic productions, according to Tillich, is that the realities they refer to have to do with who we are, what we fear, and wherein we may find hope and courage. That is, they provide cognitive access to fundamental issues lying at the heart of human experience, some of which, it is possible, cannot be empirically explored.

Scientific knowledge too is frequently of transcendent realities, if by “transcendent” we mean outside the reach of observation, measurement, and other means of experimental verification, for science deals with putative entities such as black holes, electrical charges, quanta, and subatomic structures. However, art has always had a particular affinity with religion because it is often the most adequate means, if not the only means, of representing or expressing the transcendent realities that religion is attentive to.

Whatever it may be that art productions reveal, it is, Tillich proposes, something that without art otherwise “would be covered forever.” This suggests that the arts are both indispensable and irreplaceable in the sum total of human knowledge and also that they are irreducible. Their revelations are not always accessible by any other means and cannot be expressed in any other medium without loss. This does not mean that talk about the meanings of artworks is impossible or pointless, but simply that, for great art at least, such talk is not exhaustive for something will always be lost in the translation. Tillich's work testifies to this fact when one peruses the voluminous works in which he continues to explore the insight he gained originally from the Botticelli. Maybe the most adequate and meaningful response to art is more art.

Although he has collapsed together existential, ontological, aesthetic, and religious notions, and although his own argument is sometimes more bewildering than enlightening, Tillich is at least attempting to indicate that aesthetic productions have meaning that is arguably important in our understanding of ourselves, of the world, and of the transcendent. This meaning is, he suggests, not accessible to other ways of understanding. Others agree and on these grounds, a substantial body of literature proposes that the arts are an essential part of a well-rounded liberal education.19 As an irreplaceable, indispensable, irreducible way of understanding, they belong in the curriculum. The task of teachers and their students is to discover the revelations and insights of particular art productions and communicate these discoveries in ways that faithfully reflect the medium that embodies them. And this leads us into our next consideration.


That which sets human beings apart from the nonhuman, Tillich maintains, is their capacity for language. In encountering a particular tree, he explains, we experience more than just the tree—we experience at the same time “treehood, the universal, that which makes a tree a tree.” And, through language, we give this universal a name, liberating ourselves from the particular. But language, he notes, is not bound to the spoken word. It may be written or read. And more than that, “It is present in silence as well as in talk. It is effective in the visual arts, in the creative as well as the receptive act.” As he observes, “Only that being which can speak can also paint.” In a painting, he proposes, meaning is expressed through the choice of colors, grades of light and darkness, forms of balance, and structural features20—all of which may be symbolic elements.

Tillich heartily welcomed the renewed philosophical interest in symbols, believing that only with more profound understandings of symbolic functioning can we comprehend without distortion the meaning of alternative “languages” (that is, verbal and nonverbal symbol systems). He is particularly anxious to avoid the derogative “Only a symbol!” For him, it is instead a matter of “Not less than a symbol!” because he regards symbols as “the most revealing creations of the human mind.”21 While his approach to symbols can only loosely be called a theory, he nevertheless identifies with those who recognize that different kinds of understandings “demand different approaches and different languages.”22 As an introduction to the specific languages of religion in which he was primarily interested, he variously specifies six characteristic of symbols in general23 which he believes are foundational for any understanding of symbolic languages.

First, he indicates that symbols point beyond themselves to something else. The implication is that not the symbol itself but that to which it points is the focus of interest. In this way, he proposes, symbols are like signs: just as the sign of the red traffic light does not point to itself but “to the necessity of stopping,”24 so we employ some “symbolic material” to point to something else. This “material” need not be verbal, he notes, but can be pictorial, dramatic, concrete, or abstract. And just as colors, shapes, shades, and balance may be visual symbols, so, this suggests, rhythm, pitch, tone, volume, and the other elements of musical works are potentially aural symbols. Whatever the symbolic material may be, Tillich has identified here a basic “pointing” function of symbols—a symbol is something that stands for, refers to, points to, denotes, or represents.

In elaborating this first characteristic, Tillich goes on to indicate to what a symbol may refer: a symbol is anything which refers to the transcendent, extraordinary, and ultimate. That is, a symbol “points to something which cannot be directly grasped but must be expressed indirectly”—to that which transcends empirical reality or to “a dimension of reality which is not open to an ordinary encounter” or to “ultimate reality.”25

The second characteristic of symbols he identifies is that while many things may “point,” symbols are able to point or refer because they “participate in the reality and power” and “the meaning” of that to which they point. Nonsymbolic pointers are such things as mathematical signs; the letters of the alphabet because they do not participate in the sound to which they point; a word such as “desk” because the desk itself has essentially nothing to do with the four letters d-e-s-k; and the red light which summons the driver to stop but which bears no intrinsic relationship to stopping.

In contrast, he identifies as symbols the representatives of a person or institution because they “participate in the honor of those they are called on to represent”; liturgical and poetical languages because they have built up over time “connotations in situations in which they appear so that they cannot be replaced”; and the flag because it “participates in the power of the king or nation for which it stands.”26 Because they participate in what they symbolize, he adds, symbols have a certain irreplaceableness and an “organic connection” with that to which they point. Nonsymbolic pointers, on the other hand, are arbitrarily chosen, merely conventional, and readily replaced if ever it is expedient to do so.27

Participation, developed within idealist and romantic traditions, has been a rather indeterminate notion.28 In one respect it is too narrow, in another too broad, to explain clearly how symbols work. It is too limited in that it depends on metaphysical considerations and assumptions that are inherently problematic. Primarily, it assumes that if there is a symbol, then there is something which is symbolized and in which it participates. As Peter Fingesten points out, however, this is particularly open to question when one recalls the symbols of prehistoric and forgotten religious art. The Egyptian term Ka and its bird symbol, for instance, are no guarantee that the shadow soul which they symbolized actually existed. “One can make a symbol of anything,” he warns, “but only at the expense of its objective reality or by inventing a symbol like the Ka which may have no reality at all.”29

Further, since Tillich regards participation in ontological terms, he implies that a symbol participates in several realities, each dependent on what it is a symbol of. But what is the real nature of a rising crescendo if in various musical pieces it may symbolize power, triumph, mounting excitement, deepening agony, or simply a change of intensity in whatever mood is being portrayed? If it participates in the being of all the realities it points to, how are these various beings interrelated within the ontological structure of the symbol itself? These troublesome questions can be eliminated only if participation is redescribed in terms that avoid narrowly defined ontological claims, as we shall see.

In another sense, the notion of participation fails as an explanation of how symbols work because it claims more than it can deliver. Primarily, it does not distinguish symbols from nonsymbols. As William Rowe rightly points out,30 our response to a ringing fire alarm, which in Tillich's analysis is not a symbol, is the same fear and flight that would accompany our response to an actual fire. As he enumerates other instances, the distinction between nonsymbol and symbol on the grounds that nonsymbols are conventional, arbitrary, and replaceable begins to break down, for these signs also come to be inextricably related to what they signify.

Moreover, some things Tillich identifies as symbols, Rowe points out, are not as organically connected with their referent as he may suggest. A nation's flag is such a symbol—it is accepted through a process that typically begins with a number of artists' designs, which are deliberated over and evaluated at many levels, until eventual agreement and final approval is reached by vote or general consensus. Such a selection process would be unnecessary if in its very being the symbol “radiated the power of being and meaning of that for which it stands,”31 as Tillich claims.

And yet, to describe symbols as participating in another reality does seem at times to coincide with our experience of them: we treat sacramental wine and bread differently from other wine and bread, the flag differently form other pieces of fabric, a king's representatives differently from other people. We tend to regard these things with the same reverence, care, and even awe that would apply to what they symbolize; we develop elaborate procedures for properly handling them; and should we ever see one of our highly regarded symbols being treated without proper respect, we would become duly upset, as Tillich indicates.32 Similarly, the symbolic elements of a musical performance may induce in us an imaginative experience of hope, fear, the joy of victory, grief, awe, or relief that rivals the actual experience of such moments. If the relationship between a symbol and its referent cannot be adequately explained as ontological participation, how can it be explained?

I suggest a fruitful line of exploration is to attend to the observable rather than the supposed differences in modus operandi of the things Tillich identifies as symbols and nonsymbols. That is, if we look at how the symbols actually work, we may avoid problematic metaphysical assumptions and implications, and we may find a way of describing the relationship between symbol and symbolized that does not depend on speculation about covert symbol properties. Clearly, red stoplights, the letters of the alphabet, words used in what he calls their “ordinary” sense, and mathematical notation function differently as pointers from the way the flag, the king's designate, and a great deal of poetic, liturgical, artistic, and musical languages do. The former, or what Tillich regards as nonsymbols, are nothing more than labels or indicators to be read literally. They simply name, indicate, predicate, or describe, and once learned, they involve no cognitive strain or insight but are taken as referring in a direct, straightforward, and uncomplicated way.

The latter, or what he calls “symbols,” make different cognitive demands. They refer indirectly and require some imaginative effort on the part of the symbol maker and symbol user because they employ figurative processes. For example, when a symphony expresses feelings of tragic loss, it does not literally have those feelings, nor are the feelings expressed literally those of the composer, the performers, or the listeners. Rather, they are feelings perceived to be present in the work itself, and since a work does not literally possess feelings, they must be present figuratively.

In Death Set to Music, Paul Minear examines how four masterworks express various meanings of death in human experience. As he takes each of the works apart movement by movement, it is apparent that the message of the music depends significantly on nonliteral symbols. To illustrate, we can look at his discussion of the statement in the second movement of Brahms's A German Requiem:

the grass withers and the flower falls
the word of the Lord abides forever.

Central in this statement is what he calls “one of the most decisive ‘buts’ in all music.” From the mournful words of the first phrase there is an abrupt change to the positive affirmation of the second phrase, a transition that is expressed equally in the musical qualities as in the words. The first phrase is sung as a dirge—slowly, in the lower voices—but at the “but” there is a marked acceleration in tempo and a brighter mood. He attributes the “brightness” of mood to the more animated and exuberant voices of the higher ranges taking over from the somber tones of the voices in the lower pitches, by the coming into play of the whole orchestra, and by the interplay of musical lines in a fugue. The combined effect of words and music in this context is the sober recognition of the transience of life even in the course of one summer's wait for “the latter rains” contrasted with the endless patience and permanence of God.33

Seen in this light, participation is less dependent on a symbol's literal embodiment of what is symbolized than on figurative embodiment. When a musical symbol expresses a feeling, an idea, or a state of affairs, it points to what it expresses through the characteristics it possesses, characteristics that are understood metaphorically. In the context of Brahms's Requiem, we hear the slow rhythm and low voices of the first line as mournful and the interplay of exuberant, high, accelerated voices in the second line as bright because we have learned how to interpret the figurative qualities of the music. In both lines, the music directs our thought to particular notions and emotions because it metaphorically embodies them.

In recasting the idea of participation this way, however, we are not countering some of Tillich's valuable insights. He has rightly recognized that not all “languages” can be reduced to the equivalent of literal labels or pointers,34 but may in fact “participate” in the meanings they refer to, if not in what they are, then at least in how they represent and express. That is, aesthetic symbols must be evaluated by standards different from those of literal pointers—they must be seen appropriately to embody that which they symbolize for those who have learned the “language.” Because aesthetic symbols figuratively incorporate or embody what they express, their interpretation requires attention to their nuances, their possible overlays of meanings, their subtlety, in general, their suggestiveness.

The third characteristic of symbols he identifies is that they open up levels of reality that otherwise are closed to us. Artistic symbols, he suggests, are particularly apt in this function—an artwork “expresses a level of reality to which only the artistic creation has an approach”;35 a painting “mediates” something that “cannot be expressed in any other way than through the painting itself.”36 In fact, the “ecstatic,” “expressionistic,” and “spiritual” elements are the very features that enable art most effectively to refer to the ultimate, the transcendent, or the extraordinary37 which are otherwise beyond the descriptive capacity of ordinary, literal, direct language. In referring to the transcendent, the symbols of art and music are most effective pointers simply because they suggest without delineating and describe without circumscribing.

Again, he believes this mediation is made possible by the participation of the symbols in that which they symbolize. Here too, however, the participation need not be literal; it can be nonliteral, providing aural figures to point beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary. Reference is none the less powerful for being nonliteral, for the capacity of musical symbolic language to be as sad, triumphal, excited, fearful, militant, and so on, at the figurative level as its referents are at the literal level makes it an especially appropriate accompaniment to patriotic occasions, celebrations of various kinds, funerals, and religious ceremonies.

The third characteristic of symbols is intimately tied to the fourth; namely, symbols also open up dimensions and elements of our soul that correspond to the dimensions and elements of reality. At the least, in their cognitive capacity symbols are not always employed detachedly or neutrally. They have an impact on the symbol maker and symbol user, either by way of cognitive surprise or affective response. More than this, in making symbols we make ourselves, for our reality is that meaning which through our symbol systems we have imposed on the world around us.

Of course, Tillich intends more than this when he speaks of a correspondence between our soul and the dimensions and elements of reality. His 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.”38 One does not have to go as far as this, however, to appreciate that the central symbols of our various discourses make our self-understanding and in so doing touch us profoundly and determine us personally. This is as true of aesthetic symbolisms as of scientific symbolism.

The fifth characteristic of symbols in Tillich's summary is that they cannot be invented—rather, they grow out of the collective unconscious and function only when they are accepted by the unconscious dimension of our being. The term “collective unconscious” is borrowed from Jungian psychology, but Tillich uses it somewhat hesitantly. He qualifies it by admitting, “I would say out of the womb which is usually called today the ‘group unconscious’ or ‘collective unconscious,’ or whatever you want to call it—out of a group which acknowledges, in this thing, this word, this flag, or whatever it may be, its own thing.”39

This implies that symbols are not a private matter but are socially rooted and socially accepted. They are not a matter of individual preference but arise in a community of users. Although he also expects they are best understood within that community, it should be noted that their meanings should not be regarded as forever exclusively accessible only to the group in which they originated even if others reject those meanings. In dialogue, a wider public may be persuaded by or can bring pertinent critique to the discourse of a particular group.

Tillich leaves open the question of how, if symbols are not invented, they might grow out of the collective unconscious. Artists, scientists, philosophers, religious thinkers, and other symbol makers are certainly embedded in a cultural milieu by which they are influenced, but against which they must sometimes react if they hold a place at the cutting edge of thought or artistic expression. But whether they are reflecting or rejecting current cultural understandings, there is no reason to insist that they do not invent any new symbols. Tillich shows some confusion on this very point when he speaks of symbols as the “results of a creative encounter with reality.”40 What is “creative” about the encounter, as he puts it, if nothing is created?

Anybody, it seems, could invent a symbol, but as Tillich explains,41 invention does not guarantee general acceptance. The artist at work, although a responsive member of a larger community, creates or invents the symbols of an artwork, but these may or may not be accepted by the public at large. Here the “collective unconscious” makes a determination,42 if by that we mean the group decides on the work's appropriateness, insightfulness, usefulness, or simply its “goodness of fit.”

As the sixth and final characteristic, Tillich proposes that symbols, like human beings, pass through a life cycle of birth, growth, and death. In their development, they are dependent on their environment—they grow “when the situation is ripe for them and they die when the situation changes.” Their existence depends on their ability to “produce a response” in the group where they originally find expression.43 He holds that symbols cannot be destroyed by criticism, but they will cease to be effective as symbols only if the relationship between the group and the symbol significantly changes. “In the moment in which this inner situation of the human group to a symbol has ceased to exist, then the symbol dies. The symbol does not ‘say’ anything any more.”44

It is not clear, however, what he means when he speaks of an “inner situation.” If it refers to an emotional commitment to a symbol, he could be noting the psychological attachment people may have which maintains the symbol even after good reasons for its continuation have ceased. Many Australians, for instance, are loyal to their flag with its Union Jack, although the country's increasing independence from Britain was signalled by Federation at the turn of the century. But emotional attachment to a symbol does not insulate the symbol from historical, scientific, aesthetic, or philosophical criticism. And sooner or later, such criticism can affect what is considered acceptable as a symbol or schema. Again, Tillich has tended to fall back on an obscure notion like the “death” of a symbol and one's “inner situation,” and to speculate about covert processes and situations. Alternatively, and more straightforwardly, it could be said that at times accepted symbols prove to be inappropriate, and favored explanations no longer “fit” changing situations. At that point, they fall into disuse, without there being anything particularly occult about it. But certainly he is right in noting that new times abandon old symbols in favor of new ones, and in fact, new times are ushered in by new symbols.

Tillich's theory of symbols depends on a number of indeterminate or unclarified terms such as “participation,” “organic connection,” “mediation,” “levels of reality,” “opening up the soul,” “inner situation,” and “collective unconscious.” Many of his claims about symbols and symbolic functioning are based on assumptions that, rather than clarifying the nature of symbols, raise a number of new questions. Nevertheless, he describes well our existential involvement with significant symbols when he illuminates their role, tenacity, and influence in social groups. His theory of symbols is also more convincing when it recognizes the complexity of symbols, especially in figurative modes and changing interpretations to meet changes in context. And he alerts modern thinkers to the challenge of dealing with symbols that no longer vitalize and energize us.

By way of practical application, he advises that the role of educators in respect of symbols is threefold: conceptualization, explanation, and criticism.45 That is to say, their task involves the presentation and exploration of symbols as symbols; the interpretation and exegesis of them; and in understanding how symbols relate to each other and to that which they symbolize, the discovery of adequate symbols and the rejection of inadequate ones. In consequence, he believes symbols will be protected from profanation and valued for their capacity to disclose at some level the mystery of life and the meaning of human experience.


From our conversation with the ideas of Tillich, a number of questions and implications emerge for music educators. In the interests of simplicity, I would like to suggest two sets of questions, one revolving around the concept of musical understanding and the other around the related notion of musical symbolic language.

Is music legitimately regarded as a way of understanding? If it is not, then music may be nothing more than the enjoyable experience of sound, a disembodied and ungrounded emotional event, or a display of technical skill with an instrument—in which case it no more belongs in the liberal arts curriculum than eating ice cream, recreational napping, or mowing lawns.

If it is a way of understanding, then the experience of its sounds, its emotional events, and the technical skills that produce it combine to provide cognitive access to notions, ideas, structures, and relationships that may not be accessible in other ways; in giving form, it may also give meaning to the emotional and spiritual moments in our experience; and it may contribute to our perception of ourselves, our society, and possibly something beyond.

If music is a way of understanding, then educators may seriously consider their role in the “conceptualization, explanation and criticism” of music. At the least, the study of music will involve them and the learner in an experience of music as music, symbolic element as symbolic—an immersion in the musical sounds, forms, nuances, moods, voices, and shapes of a musical work. It will also involve them in an analysis of that musical experience, an interpretation that articulates in words or re-expresses in related aesthetic forms its insights in search of its distinctive and multilayered meanings. And to complete the learning, it will involve them in an assessment and evaluation of those expressions and meanings for their existential relevance and veracity. Beyond these minimal considerations, it may also encourage students of music to look for and even contribute to musical meaning making on the growing edge of our cultural understandings.

Is the nature of music properly understood as a symbolic language? If not, then one may overlook the relationships among its elements and neglect the coherence within an individual work and its interdependence with other aesthetic products. If music is not a symbolic “language,” then it may very well not have a “message” or be a way of understanding.

If music is regarded as a “language,” we have a schematic organization for approaching the phenomenon of music which can be insightful and productive in a number of ways. The term “language” brings with it a particularly rich network of associated notions such as “words,” “sentences,” “grammar,” “figures of speech,” “punctuation,” “mood,” “tone,” “idioms,” and so on, which in turn suggest two possible lines of study in music: semantics and syntax. Where the “semantics” of music refers to what meanings or understandings music may afford, “syntax” refers to how music makes its meanings. Students who are “fluent” in music will have a working knowledge of both.

If music is a symbolic language, its syntactical structure may be analyzed and learned. The question is, How does music function as a symbol system? Our discussion of Tillich's ideas suggests that music may express meaning because its combined elements are figurative embodiments of the notions and emotions it refers to. This kind of expression may very well be a significant syntactical feature of musical functioning, but other possibilities should not be overlooked. If sounds and sound qualities are to musical language what words are to verbal language, and if words and combinations of words may function in a variety of ways, both literal and nonliteral, music may also exhibit a similar variety of syntactical forms and functions. In fact, Peter Kivy has recognized various degrees of literal depiction in what he identifies as musical pictures or musical representations: the simulation of the cuckoo call in Beethoven's Sixth Symphony, the clash and whir of machinery in Mossolov's Iron Foundry, the chugging of the train engine in Honegger's Pacific 231, and the buzz of flies in Handel's Israel in Egypt.46 An exploration of possible, even simultaneous, literal and figurative levels of expression may contribute to our understanding of how music makes its meanings.

Tillich may have speculated on how aesthetic symbols achieve results in ways that prove problematic, but there may be something the music teacher will find worth exploring in his claim that these symbols are the “most revealing creations of the human mind, the most genuine ones, the most powerful ones.”47


  1. From an address given at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1952. Entitled “Art and Society,” this three-part address now appears in the collection edited by John Dillenberger and Jane Dillenberger, Paul Tillich: On Art and Architecture (New York: Crossroad, 1987), pp. 11-41.

  2. Ibid., p. 12.

  3. Tillich, “One Moment of Beauty,” in On Art and Architecture, pp. 234-35.

  4. Ibid., p. 235.

  5. Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1952), pp. 35, 36.

  6. Ibid., p. 41.

  7. Tillich, Biblical Religion and the Search for Ultimate Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 9.

  8. Ibid., pp. 6-13.

  9. Tillich, Systematic Theology, three volumes in one (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), vol. 1, p. 14.

  10. Tillich, “Art and Society,” pp. 18-21.

  11. Ibid., pp. 15, 16.

  12. Ibid., p. 27.

  13. Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 71.

  14. Tillich, “Art and Society,” p. 26.

  15. Ibid., p. 27.

  16. Nelson Goodman and Catherine Elgin, Reconstructions in Philosophy and Other Arts and Sciences (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1988), pp. 3-5, propose “understanding,” suggesting that it comprehends cognition in all of its modes: perception, depiction, and emotion as well as description and that it can be imparted in verbal and nonverbal, literal and metaphorical, descriptive and normative systems of understandings. Israel Scheffler, Reason and Teaching (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963), p. 37, adopts the expression “forms of thought” because it may involve, among other things, inferring, categorizing, perceiving, evaluating, deciding, attitude forming, and expecting.

  17. Tillich, The Courage to Be, p. 34.

  18. Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 189.

  19. For instance, Paul H. Hirst, Knowledge and the Curriculum: A Collection of Philosophical Papers, International Library of the Philosophy of Education, gen. ed. R. S. Peters (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974); Elliot Eisner, ed. Learning and Teaching the Ways of Knowing, Eighty-fourth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

  20. Tillich, “Art and Society” p. 23.

  21. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” Christian Scholar 38 (September 1955): 193.

  22. Ibid., p. 189.

  23. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), pp. 41-43; “The Meaning and Justification of Religious Symbols,” in Religious Experience and Truth, ed. Sidney Hook (New York: New York University Press, 1961), pp. 3-5; “Theology and Symbolism,” in Religious Symbolism, ed. F.E. Johnson (New York: Institute for Religion and Social Studies, 1955), pp. 75-77, 108-16; “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” pp. 189-92; “The Religious Symbol,” Journal of Liberal Religion 11 (1940): 13-15; “Art and Society,” pp. 36-37.

  24. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 189.

  25. Tillich, “Meaning and Justification of Religious Symbols,” p. 4.

  26. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 190.

  27. Tillich, “Theology and Symbolism,” pp. 108, 109.

  28. Plato, adopting the term from the Pythagoreans, first applies participation to the relationship between ideal forms and their instances, suggesting it has to do with cause, essence, and naming. (Phaedo, 100d.ff., Jowett translation.) S. T. Coleridge uses the notion of participation to distinguish symbols from other forms of figurative representation. Where other figures are merely translations of abstract notions into picture language, he sees symbols being characteristically “translucent”: by participating in the reality to which it points, a symbol “abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative.” (The Statesman's Manual [New York: Harper & Row, 1853], pp. 437-38.)

  29. Peter Fingesten, The Eclipse of Symbolism (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970), pp. 126, 127.

  30. William L. Rowe, Religious Symbols and God: A Philosophical Study of Paul Tillich's Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 108-26.

  31. Tillich, “Meaning and Justification of Religious Symbols,” p. 4.

  32. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, p. 42.

  33. Paul S. Minear, Death Set to Music (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1987), pp. 70-71.

  34. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 190.

  35. Tillich, “Theology and Symbolism,” p. 109.

  36. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 191.

  37. Tillich, “Art and Ultimate Reality,” in Art, Creativity and the Sacred, ed. Diane Apostolos-Cappadona (New York: Crossroads, 1986), pp. 217-35.

  38. Tillich, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 94.

  39. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 192.

  40. Tillich, “Theology and Symbolism,” p. 109.

  41. Tillich, “The Religious Symbol,” p. 14.

  42. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 192.

  43. Tillich, Dynamics of Faith, p. 43.

  44. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 192.

  45. Tillich, “Theology and Symbolism,” pp. 111-13.

  46. Peter Kivy, Sound and Semblance: Reflections on Musical Representation (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 59.

  47. Tillich, “Religious Symbols and Our Knowledge of God,” p. 193.


Principal Works


Further Reading