Thursday, February 28, 2013

Paul Tillich




“It is for me,” wrote Karl Barth to Paul Tillich, “a very special phenomenon that we understand one another so well and cordially at the human level but materially, … we can only contradict and oppose one another from the very foundation up!”[1]  Barth and Tillich enjoyed one another’s company, but theologically they were poles apart.  The cordial relations did not stop Barth writing to a wife of a former student, congratulating her husband that he had made “the necessary attack on Tillich’s abominable theology.”[2]  Barth, I think far more than Tillich, found this tension made their relationship difficult.  I will make a few references to Barth as I try to assess Tillich’s work, but it should be clear that in hearing about Paul Tillich we are entering a very different world to that which the curate spoke about last week.

Paul Tillich was born in Starzeddel in Germany on 20th August, 1883.  He was a son of the Vicarage, and his father was a conservative Lutheran pastor.  His life, like those of many of his contemporaries, suffered two great turning points relating to the two world wars.  After theological studies, Tillich was ordained and served, fairly conventionally, as an assistant pastor. Then came the First World War, during which Tillich served as a military chaplain.  Four years of this carnage, serving with working-class men changed him.  By the end of the war, his biographers suggest, “the traditional monarchist had become a religious socialist, the Christian believer a cultural pessimist, and the repressed puritanical boy a ‘wild man.’”[3]  For Tillich, the First World War was a catastrophe, ending a period of optimism and throwing up a completely different context for theology and faith.  As the war ended, he resumed his academic career at the University of Berlin, albeit in a rather precarious way. Tillich, living in Berlin, threw himself into the melting pot of cultural and political ideas, from expressionist art to socialist politics. 

In 1919, Tillich published a lecture, ‘On the Idea of a Theology of Culture.’[4]  This sets out the problem of the new context and a way for faith to re-engage with the culture around it.  In many ways, it set the agenda for the remainder of Tillich’s life and work.  In the lecture, Tillich sets out his understanding that there is not special religious way of understanding culture.  The apparent conflicts between religion and science are solved by allowing that science is absolutely free of religious control.  This could leave religion marginalized, as a sphere of cultural activity competing for a place amongst other sphere’s of cultural activity.  But this, for Tillich, would be to return to the older and discredited way of understanding religion.  Rather he suggests, “Religion is the experience of the unconditioned, and this means the experience of absolute reality founded on the experience of absolute nothingness.”[5]  That is to say, religion stands beneath everything, it is the basic experience of meaning arising from nothingness.  This gives new drive to the task of the theologian.  “Theology, which for almost 200 years has been in the unhappy but necessary situation of defending a position that finally is indefensible … must once more take the offensive,”[6] and this offensive is not against culture, but against the emptying of the culture that resulted in the war and the devastation that came from it.  For Tillich, theology had become a matter of discerning the meaning that lies beneath all expressions of culture, for that is where we can learn about God.

The second great turning point for Tillich came in 1933.  By this time, Tillich was working at the University of Frankfurt.  He had just written a book, The Socialist Decision, which was critical of conservative politics and especially of National Socialism politics.  For Tillich, “The proclaimers of an unqualified nationalism fall into the category of ‘false prophets.’”[7]  As a result, in April 1933 Tillich became the first Protestant pastor to be expelled from a teaching job by the Nazi regime.  Tillich went to America, teaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  At the age of 47 he was teaching in a place, a culture and a language which were all unfamiliar to him. But it was here that Tillich would make his mark on the theological world.  In 1948, he published a small volume of sermons preached in the Union chapel called the Shaking of the Foundations.  It became a bestseller.  Let me quote from the sermon that lends its title to the collection. 

In the language of the prophets, it is the Lord who shakes the mountains and melts the rocks.  This is a language that modern man cannot understand. And so God, who is not bound to any special language, not even to that of the prophets, spoke to the men of today through the mouths of our greatest scientists, and this is what he said: You yourselves can bring about the end upon yourselves. I give you the power to shake the foundations of your earth into your hands. You can use this power for creation or destruction. How will you use it?[8]

There are a few things worth noticing in this short quotation.  First, we can notice how Tillich is working in the way that his earlier lecture set out.  He is allowing science to set its own terms, and seeing beneath this the way in which God speaks.  Second, he moves very quickly from ‘the language of the prophets’ to the language of ‘modern man’.  Finally, it is worth noticing that the language Tillich uses, the very language with which he is trying to engage, is itself rather dated and alien to our ears.  To speak of ‘modern man’ is a bit clunky when we hear it today.



It was his sermons, then, that made Tillich’s name.  Three years after the publication of his first volume of sermons, he published the first volume of his Systematic Theology, which cemented his reputation as one of the foremost theologians of the twentieth century.  When he retired from Union in 1955, he became a visiting Professor at Harvard.  The final two volumes of his Systematic Theology were published in retirement, the final one only two years before he died. When he died, in 1965, he was probably the most widely known theologian in American history.

Tillich’s mature theology, found in his Systematic Theology, is based upon what he called a ‘method of correlation’, which “makes an analysis of the human situation out of which existential questions arise, and it demonstrates that the symbols used in the Christian message area the answers to these questions.”[9]  Tillich sees that underlying the human condition, and all human culture, there is an ‘ultimate concern about the ground and meaning of our being’.[10]  This is something to which everyone can relate.  No special religious language is needed to talk about our ‘ultimate concern’ or the ‘ground of our being’.  Tillich is deliberately trying to open up the conversation about the depth of our being, about God and what is of ultimate meaning, to all people.

In a nutshell, that is Paul Tillich’s life and thought.  Before we finish, however, I want to ask three questions of Tillich and then to suggest three things that we can learn from him.  First, the questions.  The first question begins from noticing how quickly Tillich’s sermon moves from God speaking through the Biblical text to God speaking through scientists.  My question is whether the Bible might not have things to say to us that resist this quick and easy move.  Might there be difficult and uncomfortable things about life and death, how we should live and so on that need to be heard?

My second question is about Tillich’s method of correlation.  For Tillich, the Christian message contains the answers to the questions of human existence.  Human experience sets the agenda, the Christian message and all that goes with it follows this agenda, answering its questions.  But I want to ask whether the Christian message might not want to ask some questions to human existence as well.  Might God, and the Christian tradition also contribute to setting the agenda?

Finally, I want to ask about the adequacy of human existence itself.  What is missing from Tillich’s work is an account of why human life and that of the wider world is not always good.  Traditional Christian theology talks about ‘salvation’, which is more than just helping us answer questions and knowing more about the nature of human existence.  What do human beings need that comes from the ground of our being, from what is beyond or beneath us?

These are serious and very challenging questions to Tillich, at least in my mind.  But there are things to learn from him.  First of all, we learn with Tillich to listen to the culture and the people around us; to the questions they are actually asking and not to those that we think they should be asking.  Here Tillich is certainly to be listened to, rather than Karl Barth who was once asked whether he knew anything about other religions that led him to conclude that they had nothing to teach Christianity.  Barth gestured grandly and said that he knew this a priori, from first principles.  On this front, at least, I prefer Tillich’s approach of listening.

The second we can learn from Tillich is about apologetics. Tillich’s work, from his 1919 lecture onwards, offer us a Christian apologetics.  That is to say that he is trying to enable the Christian faith to be understood by those who find it hard or even irrelevant.  One might say that Tillich is trying to offer the resources for evangelism.  Here he is in direct contrast to Karl Barth, who eschewed apologetics entirely.  Tillich (and here again he surely scores over Barth) wants to make Christianity available for his contemporaries, scarred by the experience of war and social division, excited by the possibilities of science and human culture, feeling their way through the mists of a new cultural situation.  It is all very well having an intricate and beautiful theological system, unfinished in a shelf-full of bound volumes.  But if no one is interested in reading it, then what difference does it make?  Tillich’s approach certainly has difficulties, and I have tried to spell out a few of them.  But how do we speak about God to a world where the language of God is state at best and more often meaningless?  This is a real and live question for us as Christians and as a Christian community.  Tillich at least opens up the question for us.

Finally, there is a confidence to Tillich’s work that is infectious.  Tillich, like Barth, is positive and confident that Christian faith has something to offer to the contemporary world.  For Tillich, this included an engagement with art, music, architecture and the like.  The confidence and the breadth of this engagement should give us confidence and enlarge our thought that Christian faith can contribute to all aspects of human life.  Above all in Tillich we have a Christian thinker who trusts that the Christian faith is equal to anything that the present day can throw at it, and is concerned to make that faith available to others. 

Listening to the world, speaking with and to it, and doing so in a confident and broad way.  We can learn all of this from Tillich. But let Tillich himself have the last word:

There is always a genuine decision against the Gospel for those for whom it is a stumbling block.  But this decision would not be dependent on the wrong stumbling block, namely, the wrong way of communication of the Gospel – our inability to communicate.  What we have to do is to overcome the wrong stumbling block in order to bring people face to face with the right stumbling block and enable them to make a genuine decision.  Will the Christian churches be able to remove the wrong stumbling blocks in their attempts to communicate the Gospel?[11]



Given as part of a series 'A History of Christianity in 30 Characters' at Derby Cathedral.  24.2.13.


[1] Karl Barth, Letters 1961-1968. Ed. Jürgen Fangmeier and Hinrich Stoevesandt. Trans and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1981), p. 144.
[2] Barth, Letters 1961-1968, p. 123.
[3] Wilhelm and Marion Pauk, Paul Tillich: His life and thought (Chicago, 1956), Volume 1, p. 41.
[4] Published in Victor Nuovo, Visionary Science: A Translation of Tillich's "On the Idea of a Theology of Culture," with an Interpretive Essay (Wayne State University Press, 1987).
[5] Nuovo p. 24.
[6] Nuovo p. 39.
[7] Paul Tillich, The Socialist Decision, Trans. Franklin Sherman.  (New York:  Harper & Row, 1977), p. 174.
[8] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (London: SCM, 1949), pp. 13-14.
[9] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology. Volume 1. (Welwyn: James Nisbet, 1953), p. 70.
[10] Tillich, Systematic Theology 1, p, 47.
[11] Paul Tillich, Theology of Culture, (London and New Your: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 213.

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